Punctuate Life

Pause Breathe Relax


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The Rise of Heart

Had enough of the negativity and the ugliness that is popping up everywhere? Do you believe that the world is on the brink of an apocalypse? Do you really think that all the good is gone and only dark days lie ahead of us? Then this one is for you.

In the midst of death, despair and devastating loss, I’ve seen ordinary people do extraordinary things. Now it’s easy to open your heart and show kindness to less fortunate folks when everything is going plum good in your life. However, it takes a different kind of heart to shift your focus from your suffering to the plight of another.

A friend’s friend, who is recovering from a serious illness with prolonged complications, is constantly in pain and sometimes unable to perform day-to-day activities. In the midst of her health crisis, she managed to rescue two injured cats and even opened her home to a dog recovering from surgery. Mind you, she already takes care of five cats and an ailing relative. She truly has a big heart and is a blessing to all the animals she cares for.

When my parents returned from Sweden after visiting my brother, their house help quit due to ill-health. Luckily, my mom encountered this lady who used to work for my grandma and later for her before relocating to another state. She couldn’t afford the rent in Chennai and her step-son asked her to vacate under the pretext of renovation. Being a widow, she is entitled to the widows pension granted by the state government and visits Chennai every month to collect it. Now when word got out that she was not residing in Chennai anymore, the authorities refused to pay her. To make ends meet she decided to work for my mom. She found a temporary place to stay and was provided two meals a day. My mom packed breakfast for her in the morning and also gave her a cup of tea and snacks in the evening.

All was well until the landlady started acting up after a couple of months. She made it abundantly clear that she wanted our house help to leave. Poor lady had no where to go. My parents decided to let her stay with them. In her retirement years instead of living a quiet life with a roof over her head and enough dough to sustain her, here she was homeless and forced to earn her living.

Recently another lady who worked for us and is now unemployed showed up and my mom took her  in as well. She now cooks for my parents. They really don’t need two people to help out around the house but they couldn’t turn her away because she has to support her family.

I think everywhere everyone’s heart has opened just a little more. I was surprised when my mother-in-law offered to feed our kitten – the one we had to leave behind. We raised it as an outdoor cat although we fed it a few times a day. She knew how to hunt for lizards and mice so we resigned ourselves to the fact that she could survive without us. But the fact that we may never see her again after we left for the U.S. broke our hearts. Seeing how distraught the kids were, their grandma decided to do the least she could do to make the kitten stay.

Then there are some brave souls who are in a vortex of adversity and still look out for others. A friend of mine suffered a loss, was sick and had to fend for herself. She had endless paperwork that had to be followed up and submitted and had to deal with uncooperative staff. She still found time to call and check on me and give me hope during what was a very dark year for me. Her dad’s friend’s sister was in the hospital and she offered to cook and provide meals for them to the extent of neglecting her very own health.

So is there still hope for this world? I’d say YES! It may not be obvious and it may not be breaking news but in small ways, small people with big hearts are showing us that love and kindness are alive and well in the world.


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My Big Secret – Part 2

I think I left you hanging long enough. So here is my second big secret. If you have been following my blog for the past year, you know of my big move to India and all the trials and travails that followed. It wasn’t as easy move after spending 13 years of my married life in the U.S. And my husband being unemployed did not help matters either. Add to that the education system which came as a complete shock to my kids and me. The fact that I did not have my own space or freedom made matters worse. So after much deliberation (mostly on my part) we decided to move back to the U.S.

In a week I will be moving with my family. You could say I am escaping, running away because I am too weak to face the challenges life has thrown at me. But I am just returning. Returning to a familiar place that I have come to call home. Where I have the freedom to be the person I want to be and not feel guilty about it or be ostracized for it. For those who think I am weak, let me tell you that I faced these challenges for a year using all my strength, faith and all the support I could garner. But at some point I had to admit to myself that things are not working out as planned and that I would never be truly happy here. And that somewhere along the way I ceased to belong to this place. Since this is my big reveal, I won’t go into the challenges I faced in Chennai in detail. That is material for a whole new post.

We have been moving every year since 2014 and this time I intend to put down roots, put my foot down and cement myself in North Carolina. For the next several years my kids need the stability of attending one school and growing up with friends they care about. As for me, I am tired of packing and giving away stuff and moving like a freaking nomad.

For the record, I lived in the same city for 23 years of my life, attended the same school from kindergarten to 12th grade. I attended college and university in the same city and had friends I knew from the cradle! I think my kids deserve a little bit of that too.

If you are reading this, please know that it isn’t as easy as it looks – hauling your family half way across the globe and then back in a year. We don’t have jobs waiting for us. We have to buy everything from furniture to vehicles and insurance. It is scary, but less scary than having to live in Chennai for another year without jobs. America isn’t called the land of opportunity for nothing! So I beseech you to keep us in your prayers as we make this move and settle down. Thank you and wishing you a lot of success if you are making big changes in your life. I will leave you with this quote I saw on Facebook yesterday that really resonated with me – If you don’t like where you are, move. You are not a tree. (Jim Rohn)


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Womanly Woes

I caught a glimpse of a serial on television the other day. This was the scene – a blind wife throws herself at the husband’s feet begging to be allowed to stay with him. Her disability is seen as a major hindrance that prevents her from doing her wifely duties and chores. Well-wishers urge the husband to dump her at an ashram and find a new wife to take care of the house and his child. With tears streaming down her face she begs this stone-faced man who scolds her and tells her to make her way to the ashram.

She painted such a pathetic picture of herself, wailing uncontrollably, helpless and totally at the mercy of her husband that it stirred something in me. This was no modern day soap but inklings of such desperate behavior do show up in pretty much every television offering. Forget television, in the back drop called real life a lot was going on. The triple talaq debate for one. Raping an unconscious woman gets a Stanford student a light sentence to protect his future. And in another part of the world a woman gets on the wrong side of law for reporting sexual assault. A Bollywood star (I’d rather call him scum) compares the rigors of shooting his film to being raped and if history is to be believed he will get away with it thanks to his celebrity status and blind fans who will back him up unashamedly.

Where is the justice? I wanted to reach into the screen and shake up that waling woman and tell her she was better off without that jerk of a husband and to stop treating him like some Greek God that needed to be appeased. Known for people pleasing, we women take it to another level when it comes to men. We deny ourselves in order to please our men. Oh he doesn’t like me wearing make-up. Oh he likes my hair short. Oh he doesn’t want me to work. What the hell do you like woman? Does he honor that as well? I hope so or he is so not worth it. Some women deny their own needs to the extent of living in loveless or abusive relationships. You deserve to be loved and honored for what you are. You deserve to be treated with respect and kindness. It is sad that so many economically impoverished and uneducated women are left high and dry by men who use and abuse them. It is sadder that many educated, highly capable women suffer in silence instead of walking away from abusive or adulterous husbands.

The excuses are many. Kids. Society. Financial dependence. But when a man does the same thing no one questions him. He can wash his hands off his kids and get away without paying child support or alimony. But women? Oh no! Walk away from an abusive relationship and you have ruined your child’s future, marital prospects, psychologically damaged them and what not. And guess what? It’s always the woman’s fault!

If educated women can’t stand up against these atrocities then what hope does a poor housewife who can’t read or write have? Her fate is sealed and she can be cast out on a whim or just by uttering a word three times. Or worse held hostage and made to do the housework while the husband carries on with other women. Victims of aggression and insatiable lust, these women suffer unspeakable horrors. Some pay the price for standing up. They are burnt alive or marred for life by acid attacks. When will this end I keep asking myself. Sometime soon I really hope and then even the media will reflect that change with empowered women who hold their own without a man hovering in the background.


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Uncertainty and Surrender

For a couple of years now we have been grappling with uncertainty. That strange feeling of not being in control and not knowing where you are headed. It started the year we left Florida. We were supposed to come back to India but somehow ended up in Washington. There again I knew we wouldn’t be staying for long. Every decision and interaction was colored by that knowledge. We all pulled on with bated breaths not knowing what to expect.

That was nothing compared to the state of flux we find ourselves in now. Everything seems to be up in the air, in space, nebulous as I stand gaping open mouthed for it to fall into my outstretched arms. Every day I wait and I return empty handed. The shapes dance and swim out of my vision – mocking me and enticing me with promising futures.

I lie in bed thinking of the world I left behind and the irony of it all is that I had wanted to leave – not when I had but many moons ago. I wanted to come back to something familiar, something certain. Something solid to build our lives on. Not a shifting and shaking earth. I have finally come back but that old familiar feeling has long gone. Gone are my cousins, brother, grandma, friends and so many places and people that made Chennai special. Made Chennai home. Home is a stable and secure place where we can be our best possible selves. But here I find myself flailing in my new surroundings trying to find my sea legs in this tremulous place. I’m not on solid ground. No terra firma here. Just undulating waves of uncertainty that wash you to uninhabited shores. So what does one do?

Uncertainty is part of life you say and I agree. Life wouldn’t be interesting if there weren’t some twists and turns every  now and then. But when uncertainty decides to make your life its primary dwelling place then things can get really sticky. After a point every waking moment is tinged in uncertainty that you simply cannot push it to some corner of your brain. It becomes every breath, every thought. Every instant you struggle with that hollow feeling deep inside and very soon the uncertainty turns into fear. Fear of the future and fear of failure.

Finally when my over wrought nerves could take it no more I sought refuge in God. I pleaded, I begged, I prayed but the uncertainty lingered on. It became bigger and bigger and harder to ignore. At long last when none of the old tricks worked I decided to stop fighting life and to simply surrender. There was no use straining, the shackles only became painfully tighter. No use swimming against the current to attain the unattainable. Let the waves lash, let the emotions smother you and let every damn security you invested in come crashing down. When you lie there stripped of everything, cold and trembling with your head held low in an act of complete and utter surrender, an outstretched hand appears to lift you up and out of the raging waters and soothes your troubled soul. To wipe the tears of frustration and show you hope. Hold on to that hand and never let go for it will take you to where you belong – home.


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Revisiting the Past

Many a time we find ourselves in uncomfortable situations over and over again. Try as we might to deal with the past and bury it, some patterns keep repeating. At some point I came across an explanation for this phenomenon. Until you make peace with something or deal with it appropriately it refuses to go away and keeps showing up like a petulant child craving candy. Sometimes locking up the candy or saying there isn’t any works. And sometimes ignoring the child works. But not always. We keep revisiting botched up pieces of our past to make amends. To maybe deal with it using our wiser (than in the past) selves. And I’m pretty sure I dealt with some bad decisions I made and moved on. In the end there are no good or bad decisions – only lessons. The good news is we have free will. We are never stuck with someone or something just because we made a bad choice. We are just afraid of admitting our mistake lest we fall from the pedestal of perfection we are standing on. Some think it is a sign of weakness and some are afraid of making a wrong decision. Or even worse, we think we might hurt our loved ones. And we remain miserable and put on a brave front unaware that our unhappiness is quite apparent.

In my quest to be perfect I couldn’t forgive myself for making a wrong decision when I went to study Ecology. I quit after 6 months and went into a shell. Beat myself up for being a failure. Some part of me is still holding on to that experience because here I am again beating myself up for making the wrong decision and this time around the repercussions are bigger and affect more than me and my insignificant life. Kids, husband, parents are all  bearing the brunt at some level.

This time around I’m willing to admit that I made a wrong decision. I just don’t know how long it will take to clean up my act. The city is not for me and it doesn’t help me do what I do best – write. When Ruskin Bond was asked if he ever regretted giving up the city for the hills, he said, ” I chose the hills for the purpose of living rather than a congenial place for writing. The mountains make a man realize how insignificant he is. At the same time, they allow one to remain an individual instead of being swallowed up in the crowd…”

Lucky Bond, he could write anywhere, but for me writing comes when I am relaxed and able to tap into my creativity. When the pace of life is not frenetic and I have few demands on my time. I am not the person I like to be when I live here in the city. I have time only to meet my selfish needs. My urge to reach out and connect with others is stifled by the sheer exhaustion of living each day and the countless challenges thrown my way. Laugh at me if you will and call me a softie but if being strong and successful means fighting and winning day after day, I’d rather spare myself the torture.

My blog is an extension of my urge to connect with others and it’s been over a month since I posted anything. Nobody missed it or so I thought when R who has been supporting my writing ever since I started way back in 2012 sent me a video – a disabled life coach’s 18 minute talk about just going for your dreams. I promised her I would write today and as the kids played at the park, I made notes on my phone. Maybe I don’t need to run away to the hills to write. Maybe the park will work for now. But make no mistake – the seeds have been sown and very soon I will be off to another place far from this madding crowd.


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The Restless City and Me

February 9th came and went but I hardly noticed. Nope I didn’t forget my own birthday or anyone’s for that matter. Nor was it my wedding anniversary. It was simply 4 years since I started this blog. No biggie right? Wrong! The pause breathe and relax lady is totally swept by the city and that aint good news for anyone.

It’s funny how she grows on you and makes you a part of her, no matter how hard you resist. A victim of chaos swirling in the air which grabs you in a vice-like grip and slowly but surely saps everything within until you join the hollow-faced endless crowd of humanity. Their listless eyes looking to the horizon, dragging their weary feet they go on but they don’t know where they are headed.

Her fangs pierce deeply through your skin and softly and insidiously suck the joy and peace out of you. Unwittingly you get consumed by a flurry of busyness and complexity. Complexity that serves no purpose and sits atop sagging shoulders with monstrous burdens. Deep rooted in her habits she has little or no patience for those who don’t conform. She sniggers at simplicity and directness. Why those are for fools and inept village bumpkins! For they lie dormant on the fringes of her skirts wondering why they weren’t swept by the tide. They don’t see the gift of stillness in a ever moving and ever doing world where to rest or pause is frowned upon by efficiency guards. Hut! Hut! Hut! On your feet at 5.00 a.m. they bark.  Don’t rest till your chores are done. Don’t nap or sit idle or you’ll miss doing something really important. Keep on your feet from dawn to dusk or guilt will keep gnawing at you while you try to sleep.

The important things slip away from you and you spend day after day doing prosaic burdensome tasks. You kill the creative spark in you. Your inner child breathes her last. Laughter and fun seem like a privilege meant for a few who have the luxury of time. Time ticks by and so does your life. Endless days spent in meaningless toil lead you to believe that this is life and you enter the maze of dim-eyed, dim-witted souls leading a procession to no where and nothing.

To break away from this trance is a super human task. Like the squelchy muck in a peat bog she has you at her mercy and the more you struggle, the more you get stuck. Many have emerged but get labelled as rejects because being stuck is mistaken for being rooted. Doing takes precedence over being and getting over giving. Programmed to do and get, there is never enough and the tortuous race must go on indefinitely. Everyone grabbing what they can and hoarding what they must lest they end up with an empty fist.

I see myself following them with a yoke around my neck. My strength failing me and my thoughts seemingly alien and pathetically helpless. Sometimes all it takes to shake off a bad dream is to wake up. I think I have woken up but the bad dream refuses to go away…


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The Spirit of Chennai

As I wait for the city to limp back to life between power cuts, internet troubles and cell phones with no signal, I feel like I have been stripped down to the bare minimum. No more escaping reality by drowning oneself in technology. Suddenly there is too much free time and too many people around for comfort. You are forced to interact, to make conversation. And in those forced conversations you realize how far removed you are from the life that is unfolding right in front of you. How alienated you are from the very people you share your roof with or the folks who live on your street. And it did not happen overnight. It happened over careless days, months and years skyping with folks thousands of miles away or sending messages to someone you met online, while you remain oblivious to the ones that really matter.

Disasters truly test your character. Your best or worst comes out when you are pushed to the edge. You may rant and rave about being positive or advise others regarding their behavior in certain situations. But will you do the same? No one knows till you face the same reality.

Storms reveal the seas deepest, most hidden treasures. In Florida the rough seas cough up buckets of shells in the aftermath of a storm. In Chennai heaps of rubbish were thrown back to the beach. Treasure or trash? Only the storms in your life will reveal your true nature. What you put out there comes back to you multiplied. So what are you putting out there?

I for one felt helpless and cut off from the rest of the world. The only thing I could do was pray for the rain to stop and pray for those affected. So many people I know helped out in myriad ways, by providing food and sending people out to check on family not accounted for. In places as far away as Sweden, people prayed for Chennai.

When I came back to this city I found it changed and unrecognizable. I yearned for the city I grew up in with people who genuinely cared for one another and where everyone lived in harmony. The very spirit of the city which I thought was dead and buried, emerged from nowhere. Strangers risking their lives for others. People working round the clock to provide relief and rescue people. These stories warmed my heart and brought back my faith in a city that I was about to give up on. Chennai has revealed its treasures in the midst of one of the worst storms in a century. Its treasures are its people – pure, selfless, loving and generous.


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The Escape Artist

Avoid. Delay. Procrastinate. Distract. Quit. Run. This is what I do when things don’t go my way. It’s always easier than confronting the problems. Or so I thought till I learned it the hard way. I ran away to Pondicherry to do my M.S. thinking that my problems would stay behind in Chennai. But they followed me like dark shadows, haunting me and threatening to suck all the joy out of me. Soon all these emotions got transferred to Pondicherry and it became equally unbearable for me. I wanted to quit. I wanted to go home. I ran back into the arms of my family. For a while things were ok but soon the same issues raised their ugly heads again and mocked me.

This time there was no where to run and no place to hide. I withdrew and my thoughts began to consume me. As my thoughts grew darker it blotted out all the light and I pushed away all the people I used to care about. I also had nothing to do. It was mid-year and I had to wait another six months before I could enroll in any college or university. The only way to escape the pain and misery was to quit this life. As though another better one would be offered to me on a silver platter the moment I exited! If I had waited it out I would have realized that all was not over and that I would indeed go on to do my Masters and get married to a good man.

With wedding bells came another chance to get out of Chennai and go to the U.S. Life out there is hard especially if you don’t know anyone and don’t have a career to drown yourself in. So the urge to escape back to India and to the life I knew grew stronger in me. But the thought of whisking away my kids from the comforts of the U.S. kept me from acting on it. Also my husband was not ready to move back – yet. So I gritted my teeth and went on.

But old habits have a way of resurfacing and soon I wanted to escape the cold in Boston and go to a warmer place. Like say Florida. But again in Florida things were not exactly as I wanted them to be. My obsession with having a perfect life kept me unhappy no matter where I was or what the circumstances were. It was only in Seattle that I finally made peace with the fact that nobody has it perfect (even though they appear to be so).

Life in Chennai is very challenging given that we lived a pretty easy life in the U.S. Yes, there were no maids but I had appliances to do everything. The house never got this dusty or messy. The weather was good as opposed to the blistering heat here. Some days I want to run away to the U.S. like the escape artist that I am, but I can’t. Because deep inside I know that it is not the outside environment that matters but the one inside. Easier said than done especially if you are living in Chennai!

If there is one thing about the U.S. that I really admire, it is the never-say-die attitude of the people. They don’t quit very easily no matter how tough things get. They don’t ignore problems but actively seek solutions. So I feebly hold on to those lofty ideals.

It’s tempting to run away and be rid of mosquitoes, ants and heat waves. Seems like Chennai will be the ultimate test for me. Will I stay or will I escape? Only time can tell…


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Who Stole my Childhood?

 

Running carefree with naked feet,

Reaching for mangoes up in the trees,

Endless summer days of fun,

Spent in the lap of the sun.

 

Hours spent in glee with friends both imaginary and real,

Board games, hopscotch, badminton and dolls,

Trips to the beach on moonlit nights,

And ice cream treats to beat the heat.

 

Walks in the evening with pleasant friends,

Vacation at grandma’s comes to an end,

Back to school and back to the grind,

Churning homework day and night.

 

Weekends come and weekends go,

But the churning never ceases,

Cooped up indoors under a light,

Write, write, write, write!

 

Then come the tests that are pointless,

And activities that are no fun,

Slowly they suck out the vital force,

Falling ill is no excuse, the homework must be done still.

 

Summers pass by without a trace,

Holiday homework takes its place,

No where to go and nothing to do,

But homework through and through.

 

Chugging along school and college,

Silencing the child inside,

Work, responsibility, commute, stress,

Replace school work and projects.

 

Working hard, working long,

Surely has taken its toll,

Popping pills and skimping on sleep,

Need to make sure you never skip a beat.

 

Bigger, bigger, better, better,

That’s the mantra of a go-getter,

Going where and getting what?

We all end up in a six-foot plot.

 

 


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Slow Down, Chennai!

Almost a month has passed since I moved back to Chennai. It hardly feels like the city I grew up in. Madras as I knew it was a laid back metro, unimpressed by the hustle and bustle and night life of Mumbai and other cities. The city went to sleep at 10.00 p.m. like all its residents. No one stressed about traffic and commute and people were quite happy with their filter coffee and idli-sambar.

Over the past decade, fast food and instant coffee has replaced so many iconic landmarks. I remember eating crispy dosa and vanilla ice cream at Dasaprakash and going to Woodlands Drive-in Restaurant. Or browsing at Landmark bookstore, my favorite haunt. All gone without a trace.

The whole city has a different pulse. A hurried pulse if you will. Everybody is in a hurry. On the road, everyone wants to push past you and get to God knows where. They are going to show up late, anyways. So why bother! Three times this week my kids reported that their bus was hit by another vehicle. Every other day we see an accident on the road and know that it could have been prevented. Moms pick up their kids from school, grab a snack from a convenience store and rush them off to tuition classes. Nobody has time for anyone else.

Everyday is a battle to get to work, clock in nine or more hours, rush home, cook, eat, sleep and repeat. Ladies who opt to stay home have their hands full with temperamental maids (who are also in a big rush!), then tackling kids and their mountains of homework and incessant tests. Kids don’t have time to go outside and play.

Recently, while speaking to a recruiter, we complained about the long commute. The recruiter brushed it off saying that it is normal! A study conducted on commuting stress in Quebec says that a commute lasting more than 20 minutes can lead to burnout. Working 14 plus hours is also deemed normal here. Everyone does it, right? The number of youngsters suffering from blood pressure, heart attacks and diabetes is alarming. And yet life goes on. People pop pills and continue abusing their minds and bodies.

If you think I’ve gone soft after staying away from the motherland, think again. I spent 23 years of my life here in Chennai and things were way different then. Some say we don’t have a choice and have to conform to “the way things are”. I want to challenge the status quo and refuse to conform.

So how do we slow down and change the frenetic pace of things? On the road, remember you are not a bull dozer. Slow down, allow people to cross and don’t be in a mad rush to overtake every other vehicle on the road. Don’t cut in front of people waiting in line (if there is no line – form one). Smile and say thank you to people who serve you or hold the door open for you. Work smart so you have time for your family and for relaxation and exercise. Find time to cook simple meals at home. You health and savings account will flourish. Get enough sleep and set aside some time to be by yourself in a quiet space. The noises of the city can drown out that quiet voice of wisdom within you.

When you feel stressed, even if you are at work, go outside for a walk if possible or go to a clean restroom and take deep calming breaths. Stress is something that creeps up on you and builds up till you’re bursting at the seams. It happened to me last week and I found myself yelling at the kids. I had to consciously make a choice to calm down, close my eyes and breathe. This week I’m not waiting for the stress to build up. I am taking time to relax, breathe and center myself. Seems to be working so far. A few days ago the school bus was late but I did not have a panic attack. Life happens and sometimes a good dose of humor helps. Laugh away your cares and move on.

If you want Chennai to slow down, you need to slow down first. Don’t rush through your day. Find time for people and things that matter. You have more than enough time to accomplish everything. So take your time and do the best job you possibly can.