Finding God

Value-added moment

A scene comes to mind. A face, an unlikely location. You are the protagonist but everything else appears to be a dream. You have another home, another husband, another life. You do not recognise yourself. This cannot be you. Those are not your words, your thoughts. You aren’t like this.

You aren’t like this any more. You changed, and the scene changed too. Or maybe the scene changed and you changed along with it. Who knows what comes first, the chicken or the egg.

Sometimes, looking into the past is like looking into the future or into a parallel universe. It all appears to be a vision, a hallucination brought on by an idle mind. Then your children walk past and there’s the answer in flesh and blood — they are yours, the dream was reality once. However unbelievable it seems, it was reality once. You take heart in knowing you survived. You give thanks in knowing you are in a better place now. You make a tiny wish for the future, and send up a prayer of forgiveness and closure for the past. There is life beyond life.

—–

I was crabby a few days ago, sullen about the fact that I had to cook dinner when I’d rather be writing something. “I wish we had domestic help,” I grumbled to the kids, “I wish I could be doing something of more value than housework.”

“But what you are doing is of value, mom. Change your perspective,” the elder one cheekily said, walking away, leaving me fuming in the kitchen.

In a few moments, I was caught up by the feel of cottage cheese between my fingers, the smell of pepper in the air, the state of quiet that only cooking can bring. What is value, I mused. Is it the alert ping of the phone when a cheque is deposited in my account? Is it the accomplishment of a writing project well done? Is it a work meeting that went fabulously? Or can it be something else entirely?

Can it be the sizzle of the paneer tikka on the pan as well? The hungry, drooling face Ronnie makes as he looks on, standing just outside the kitchen since he’s not allowed in? The daughter happily filling up her plate? The empty dishes in the sink? The sense of family, and of home? The knowledge of shared history and linked destinies? The experience of being a mother, a wife, a creature of warmth, comfort and an infinite reservoir of hugs?

Could there be value there too?

Could there be value in love?

I thought of all the homemakers in the world — my own mother included, whose contribution to my life cannot be calculated in numbers or words. They don’t bring home the money but they contribute something of perhaps greater value to their homes and families. They contribute themselves.

When I’m at the end of my life, the bank account will end with me. The newspaper articles I write will float, forgotten, in cyberspace. The kids will forget these moments, the dogs will move on to doggy heaven and forget all of us. But I will smile, for I will know I lived life the way Life wanted me to, I loved no holds barred, I dared to dream, and I made paneer tikka when my daughter asked me for it.

Big things create value, no doubt. It’s the little things that are invaluable.

Finding God

God at home

She was turning into her own mother. Every day, chore by chore, her life began to resemble her mother’s at the same age.

Brought up in the deserts of Dubai before the dunes of sand were processed into towers of glass, she’d watched her mother slave it out in the home, scrubbing dishes, vacuuming the carpets, doing the beds, baking goodies for the kids, smiling brightly at the weekend soirees with other Indians, taking comfort in a short, stolen cup of tea or a single bowl of rice tucked away from everyone else, sacrificing, always sacrificing, putting everyone else’s needs above her own, despite the back pain, despite the ache that must have lingered in her heart, the loss of her dreams.

As a know-it-all adult, she often listened to her mother say, “I do not regret being a housewife. I like being home and being there for the people in my life. My family was my career and I am proud of my contribution to their lives,” and assumed these were her mother’s rationalizations for a life that had been thrust on her, justification for her lack of ambition. Sheryl Sandberg would not have approved.

Then, after all those defiant years, her own world inverted on its head. She was home, with no domestic help, no office to go to, and a demanding family made up of six living beings, two of whom were desperately ill. Life became an unending cycle of dishes, laundry, cooking, cleaning, ensuring supplies, waking early morning to feed the dogs, walking them by herself late at night, dishes, laundry, cooking, cleaning…

There was the occasional outburst, a once-in-a-while snapping of patience. But on the whole, her mind teetered on the edge of the irritability precipice, aware of how easily it could topple over into negativity, holding on to the firmer land of awareness as if it was her saviour. The word ‘sacrifice’ loomed menacingly; it became the Kurukshetra of an internal Mahabharat she fought with herself every moment. She did not like the word; it had all the trappings of a victimized existence. She would not succumb.

In a weak moment, though, she slipped into the garb of victimhood, of ‘sacrifice’. Her mother was wrong. Who valued her work? Who would remember her labours in the home? Who cared if she wiped the kitchen counter clean? This was not a career; this was a dead end. There was no value in this. She’d rather be reading a book; writing on her blog; reporting a new, exciting trend; interviewing someone famous; running a magazine.

Then, suddenly, lying in bed one night just before sleep took over, she spoke out loud to the husband: “The dogs don’t know how much effort it is for me to wake up each morning, cook their food, feed them and wash their dishes. They don’t know; it is not their nature to know. They will eat if I feed them, but they will not thank me for it; they will go hungry if I don’t, but they will not blame me for it. They will pee in the park if I take them out; they will pee in the home if I don’t. They are in a state of acceptance, of doing what they have to. There is no sense of right or wrong, of responsibility or obligation. That is all only in human heads.”

And then it hit her. “I am not making this effort because they want me to. I am doing it because I want to. I don’t want hungry, unhealthy dogs. I don’t want dog poop in the home. They do what they must. I do what I must.”

The realization shed a new light on everything else — the family, the housework, the chores, the labour — turning the word sacrifice into a shameful shadow of itself. It wasn’t even about choice, or making a career out of being a homemaker, or any of those glamorous debates. It was simply about doing what she must. In sunlight, we wear sunglasses. At night, we turn on the lights. When it rains, we look about for an umbrella. Circumstances change and we adapt. There is nothing to sacrifice, nothing to choose, there’s no option but to do what we must.

After her soul’s light had thus been switched on, she sneezed. And suddenly, she had an urge to give gratitude for all her failings and problems. Her allergies, she suspected, ensured she was slightly more immune to the viral fevers going around, and was available for being everyone’s primary caregiver. Her work-from-home position ensured she didn’t have to be torn between office and family. Her childhood watching a hard-working mother ensured she was able to rough it out with the same stoicism. The hours of manual labour ensured she had enough time to introspect about life; about questions of identity and choice; about the pull and push of love and family. Everything had its part. Nothing was random, superfluous, a quirk of chance.

Her mother’s assertions came back to her, and this time she was less quick to judge. We play our parts, our cards. When life deals us a home, we run it; when destiny decrees us a passion, we follow it. Sometimes, we have the luxury of making a choice but, mostly, our choices are already made for us. Our happiness lies in our acceptance of who we are; our freedom lies in going with the flow.

She could already see God in the dishes. It didn’t feel like a chore any more.

Seeking God

Woodwork and self-work

I spent the better part of my weekend morning sweating it out either at home or in crowded furniture markets in the blazing heat. We’re still not completely settled in — there’s some furniture we need to buy and some fixing up in the kitchen that’s awaiting an expert touch. And so, I’ve been rather busy, as my absence from this blog can testify.

So anyway, this weekend, I got back hot and weary, only to see my beloved family sprawled over the sofas under the air-conditioner, all of them busy on their respective smartphones. I sat down to take a breath, and began thinking out aloud: “Did I make the right decision with the double shade leather-finish? Should I have ordered the scratch-proof teak instead?” No one responded. After trying to get some attention for another few moments, I lost my temper and blew up in my typical tantrumy way. “No one cares… I’m the one doing all the work… You’re not interested… I do all the donkey-work here… You have no contribution to this home… I have so much pressure…” Screech screech. Blah blah.

To a trained psycho-babble expert though, it would have sounded like: “I’m the martyr, I’m the victim, look at me, listen to me, poor me, poor me, poor me.” 

Luckily, due to a short session with an Osho-sanyasi last week, I suddenly remembered something in the midst of my drama. “All negative behaviours and subconscious reaction patterns are an investment. We expect something back every time we indulge in those behaviours. They reward us with something,” he’d said.

In my case, my martyr syndrome was a typical attention-seeking tactic. I made everyone else look like a villain having a ball at my expense because I felt overworked, wronged, pressurised to perform at a superhuman level. But that was my own perception, of course. No one had ordered me to go buy furniture or get the car’s license plate fixed. I wanted applaud for doing something unasked for. I wanted ‘going-beyond-the-call-of-duty’ recognition for work that I’d have done anyway.

I don’t take on the world’s workload because it asks me to. I do it because it defines who I am. It is in my nature to give, to do, to be there for, to delve into the details. I cannot hold it against others if I am simply being true to nature.

The other thing he’d said was: “Let go of old subconscious negative behaviour patterns. You may have needed them at some time in your early childhood but you don’t need them any more. Become aware when you’re falling into the default pattern, and let it go.”

So I did.

I recognised a behaviour pattern for what it was, and I realised I didn’t need it any more. I didn’t need attention, because I’d given myself a good dose of it. I didn’t need applaud because I could pat myself on my own back. I didn’t need appreciation because I knew how valued my work was to everyone in my life, most certainly myself. Most certainly to my God.

The next morning, I called the furniture maker to say that I’d changed my mind about the look of the new bookshelf I’d ordered: I wanted the scratch-proof teak after all. And I am going to enjoy it more than anyone else.

Finding God

Home and heart

Fitting into a new house is like settling into a new marriage.

You adjust to certain ways of the house. The house changes itself for you in others.

The bedroom door that doesn’t close properly — you learn to pull it in just the right way so as to solve your purpose with the least noise. Like dealing with tempers at the end of a long day.

The leaking geyser pipe — you throw it away and get another one. Because some things aren’t worth holding on to. Like egos and old habits.

The uncomfortable commode seat — you move it around, fix a few screws, till it’s just right. Like coming out open about one’s personal preferences.

The gas cylinder in the middle of the kitchen — you learn to move around it. Like touchy-feely issues with your better half.

The tonnes of boxes in your living room — you make peace with their presence, while dealing with them one at a time. Like understanding each other’s food habits, waking and sleep patterns.

The lack of space and cramped shoe drawers — you wriggle about and get used to it. Like sharing your daily routine with someone else’s, not even complaining when they make you late for work.

The house shines bright new, full of promise and affection, stubbornly holding on to some things and lovingly offering you the moon in others. It is a delicate, lovely phase. And there’s God, peeking out from the tulsi plant in the balcony, the one that Ronnie has already chewed up.

The process is the purpose. Settling in is itself the reward for the effort of settling in. I savour the ride.

Seeking God

Cups of tea and fancy showers

These days, I am very much caught up in the maya of day-to-day existence. But a few oases of awareness do manage to surface, mostly inadvertently through discussions with my family.

1. Cup of tea?

Belonging to a digitized generation, being brought up under the tutelage of a ‘modern’ Indian mother, and going to progressive schools has turned my daughters into young ladies who consider themselves equally if not more valuable to the planet than their male friends and cousins. Unlike the vast and unfortunate majority of Indian girls their age, they do not consider their gender to be inferior in any way. They feel privileged and entitled to their own choices and demands.

An interesting off-shoot of this point of view is that they look down upon ‘subservient’ Indian woman who serve their husbands tea when they come home from work. And so, two nights ago, my elder one raised her eyebrows in scorn when I offered my partner a cup of tea and went into the kitchen to make it, despite being bone-tired and ready to hit the sack. “Don’t turn into one of those women, mom,” she warned me, which is when I first noticed her prejudice.

“This is not being servile,” I said, heating the water. “This is a gesture of respect and love. He would do the same for me if I asked him to.” She was silent as she absorbed this subtle nuance that lay between inequality and equality of the sexes.

There were two lessons for both of us in that short conversation: (a) There is a difference in serving out of capitulation and serving out of love. It is the difference between compulsion versus choice. As Indian women perched on the edge between emancipation and insensitivity, we need to know what is acceptable to us and where we draw the line – between subservience and affection, between sacrifice and self-assertion. (b) A loving relationship of any kind or between any two people will definitely require some kind of investment. Even the dogs need to be pampered, fed and walked if we want to nurture a bond with them. Making tea or serving breakfast is a small price to pay in the long term, whether I do it or he does (I made a mental note to ask him to make more such domestic gestures for the kids’ sake, to show them that men too would do this for women in an equal relationship – a startling concept perhaps for Indians). We are never diminished in service. As long as the intention is respect, love and equality – and as long as we give and claim service with equal dignity and grace – we only forge our connection further.

2. Fancy showers

I’ve been house-hunting for the past month and have seen almost 25 apartments. None of them, however, worked out. Either there was some little bitty factor that we didn’t want or like (no parking, perhaps, or no place to walk the dogs, or no security, or smaller rooms), or the owner wanted a kind of lease we couldn’t give, or some other reason beyond our control. Finally, when all options fell through, we decided to ‘settle’ for the last option we had, which was a three-bedroom in our own apartment block. However, here too, we didn’t like the old-fashioned doors and bathrooms, and the owners refused to refurbish them for us. It was, for us, definitely a matter of having to compromise on our true dream house, and making do with the only option we had. This led me to a couple of very sleepless nights; I was just not looking forward to moving there. I wanted fancy showers.

I had also not been able to share my dilemma with my father – who is often the most sane voice in such situations – because he and my mom are still sore with me for adopting two dogs, besides other recent choices of mine that they do not approve of. So it took me some amount of courage to pick up the phone and call him for advice.

“I don’t like this house much, but we are still caught up in the momentum of meeting the owner and all that, and I am worried that we will seal the deal and I will be stuck with something I don’t like simply because there is no other choice,” I confessed to him.

“There is always a choice. In this case, you can stay put in your current homes until you find the perfect home of your choice,” he said.

“But we cannot stay in two homes forever,” I argued. “We will be married soon, and how odd will it be to live in two homes?”

“But you don’t have to ‘settle’ for a place you don’t like just because of that,” he said. “What is the hurry? It’s nice to have two homes sometimes. What is wrong with that? Reduce the stress factor. One project at a time is enough, don’t mix up so many things.”

With all the noise of my day-to-day life and tornadoes of doubt in my head, his voice on the phone came like a soothing balm, sweeping away all the sounds and mess. In essence, he had advised me to choose my battles – with plenty of pressure at work and the kids’ final exams coming up, followed by a visit from my partner’s family, followed by possibly our wedding, I already do have a lot on my plate. I don’t need to add a house hunt to it. That can happen later.

And besides, hasn’t nature (read: God) taught me never to ‘settle’? To keep my expectations high and have patience until they are fulfilled? Haven’t I always got the jobs, homes, dogs, relationships of my dreams, and more?

So I took a deep breath, called off the deal, continued our current residence contract, said ‘no thank you’ to all the agents who’d been showing us homes, and generally felt much better about life.

Then, about three hours after this phone conversation, I got this email from The Universe:

Do you ever sometimes wonder, Aekta, if you shouldn’t just come down to earth and settle for a bit less?
Right! Earth’s an illusion, and so are all your dreams of doing, being, and having! So settle for less of what, smoke and mirrors?! 
You’re really on lately,
    The Universe

Yup, that said it all. No ‘compromise’.

Here goes then, my dream home: (a) Three large rooms, a study and three bathrooms (b) Large balconies (c) Enough parking (d) Close to a park for dogs (e) New fittings, fancy showers (f) Safety, security (g) Within my budget and other legal, financial constraints (h) Sense of community, good neighbors (i) Close to our current neighborhood.

And as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, I will find myself such a space exactly when it is convenient for me to move there.

So be it.