Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Utter failure of the Zen approach to air travel

After waking up at 8a.m. and 10 hours later, catching a 6p.m. flight, I settled back into the very uncomfortable airplane seat, determined to smile through my eight hour journey to Dubai, eight hour layover in Dubai and subsequent 3 hour journey to Mumbai. I focussed on my breathing, felt myself float on silky smooth clouds etc. Yes I was going to do it. I was going to Zen this trip. Somehow.

I was pleasantly surprised at the ever cheerful stewards and stewardesses. (I’ve generally noticed their difference in tone, especially when I’m seated near a white person. Split second body language and voice changes occur, and I’ve half a mind to say – “I’m not daft just because I’m brown-skinned.”) So here I was, delighted to find that I wasn’t being treated any differently and feeling goodwill in the air etc.

I ordered water and orange juice, two glasses each. My neighbour on the flight ordered whisky. She happened to be presenting some sort of sociology paper at a conference and so the first hour was spent (quite fruitfully) listening to her understanding of the evolution of the unique individual.

But after she’d ordered her third whisky and puffed on several inhalers and swallowed a handful of variously shaped and coloured pills, I firmly put on my headphones. There comes a point when a person’s alcohol ridden blood directly interferes with intelligent conversation; especially when the listener has mere orange juice pumping through her veins, as I did. Something doesn’t quite match.

Sternly reminding myself to buy a neck pillow before my next long flight, I flipped through comedy channels, made a couple of trips to the loo, then guzzled more water and orange juice. On one of the trips to the loo, I waited patiently in line, behind a dad and his baby daughter. We smiled at each other, all three of us, in that sleepy, dazed sort of way. We politely looked away as time passed, wondering what on earth was happening in the loo. Why does it take so long?

After what seemed like ages, the door opened, and out popped an Indian girl, in her early twenties. You know the metro upper middle class girl of India – five foot something, colour streaked hair tumbling to the waist, strange looking top in stranger material that fits snugly on several love handles, tight jeans, heavy mascara, strong perfume, dangling earrings, and a big glittery bag. The most striking feature of this species of woman is the haunting look in her eyes. It is a strange dark mix of high school temptress and demure Indian girl. (I involuntarily shudder as I see it in my mind’s eye.)

I turned my head away instinctively, literally shivering in my boots, my body signalling: ‘for god’s sake, I’m a woman – don’t look at me like you want to seduce me. I’m not interested.’

But then again, these women look at everything – men, women and lamp posts - with the same vampire-ish gleam so I suppose I shouldn’t feel offended. I think they believe the consistent Madhubala-meets-Paris-Hilton gaze adds to their appeal. Ewww! (I’m not a prude, I just prefer an honest, straightforward look to this slanting, i’m-so-beautiful-i-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-myself, slithery, sleazy glance!)

I smiled at the dad and his daughter, gesturing for them to use the empty loo before me. He graciously thanked me, then immediately collided with a second woman who walked out the same loo. The dad, the daughter and I all started with as much surprise as we could muster up in our dazed brains.

We looked at her with vacant eyes, wondering if we were mistaken because she was a clone of the first woman. They were obviously sisters. I don’t know whether it’s the sister-thing – I don’t have a sister. I don’t understand WHY women have to “go to the loo” together, “go to the water cooler” together, or do so much stuff “together” all the freaking time.

I cannot imagine how the sisters fit in that airplane loo together, with two big bags and what they managed to accomplish in that space. One sees the strangest things on flights. Especially long ones.

The bloody airplane made excellent time and landed an hour early in Dubai. I was now contemplating killing myself because my eight hour layover in Dubai airport had just been pushed to 9 hours thanks to the exuberance of a couple of pilots.

For the first time in my life, I despised sunlight. It streamed into every corner of the airport while I struggled to fall asleep on a very uncomfortable recliner. I hugged my bag on the left. Then I hugged it on the right. I took out my laptop to write some. Much good that did after a sleepless 24 hours and way too much orange juice fizzing in my bloodstream.

My resolutions to calmly float through this journey across continents came to nought. When I finally made it to Mumbai, I looked like I needed to get to rehab – and fast. My speech was slurred. My hair was a tangled mess. I did not offer to help anyone else retrieve their bags (which I usually do.) I even picked the wrong suitcase off the luggage belt. To add insult to injury, my bag was the very last one off the plane.

I looked at the Customs people warily. I considered bolting for the exit if they tried to get me into a queue. Or, collapsing in nervous shock (something I wouldn’t need to fake.) I think they intelligently sensed I’d had a bad day and let me go.

Needless to say, I’m not keen to get back on a long flight any time soon.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

An A grade student who became a teacher salutes 3 idiots.

Mmmhmm. Yep. I am going to wax eloquent about Aamir's message in the movie. So be forewarned.

As an A grade student who didn't choose engineering, business or medicine, I salute 3 idiots.

I hold no grudge against lovers of science, math and marketing. What I wish to know is why artists and lovers of the humanities are sidelined and relegated to living on the edge. This is the attitude I encountered, when at the end of the nineties, fresh out of high school, I chose the Liberal Arts: If I have a "brain" I must only use it for the sciences or I will be wasting the great evolutionary gift of DNA that happens to have resolved itself into "me." Me - a mere pawn of society, progeny of my parents and extended family, member of the Great Tribe of India.

This attitude, irked me severely. Did this mean that the Liberal Arts required no use of the brain? Did this mean that the vast population that did choose the Liberal Arts was ticked off as useless to the advancement of society?

As a teenager I found myself having to justify to my teachers and friends, the reason I had chosen the Arts. How could I explain the claustrophobia, the suffocation I felt when listening to a Chemistry lecture? How could they feel the physical pain that shot through my head when I contemplated a life embedded in numerical figures despite being the daughter of a banker and a potential nuclear physicist? How could I convince them that pure grit and determination to scrape some sense of self worth together in a world where I knew I was marginalised already, had pushed me through high school? How could I explain to them that I respected them and connected with them as "persons" and "fellow human beings" - not as "teachers or students of science?"

What music would they groove to if Shankar Mahadevan had decided to join NASA? What lyrics would transport them to romantic heights if Gulzar had chosen the medical profession? Were these icons brainless?

That brought me to my next question. Why did I have to be an icon in order to be prove that choosing the Arts was worthwhile? Why couldn't I just do my Art, live a simple life and yet not be grudged that I'd wasted my potential?

Which brought me to the next level of understanding. Our Indian tribe's concept of success is a farce. A passionate school teacher in Ladakh is a failure in the eyes of the Ramalingams, the NRIs with the big US brand company name attached to their first names. But in truth, the passionate school teacher in general is a failure. Its one thing to praise the nobility of the profession to a teacher who is not related to you. But if your own child were to say she wants to teach, I would look at your reaction and then know what you truly think of as "success."

I know this because I am a passionate school teacher and witness the constant look of pity from people who've known me all my life. "Such a waste of earning potential!" is the unsaid, unspoken comment.

The waste of earning potential is not my failure. It is the failure of the country to understand the value of my services to society. How many more passionate teachers we would have if teaching were considered a respected profession, monetarily compensated adequately and not waved away as a "timepass before you find a suitable husband" in Indian parlance.

Artists scramble to pay the rent at the end of the month, not because their work is useless but because our society fails to recognise the importance of beauty as nourishment. All the edifices that science builds will have no soul if they are not infused with the perception and love that comes so naturally to the artist with an open heart.

But technology is money. And money is our god. Our big IT corporates, born and bred on Indian soil claim to be injecting integrity and values into the corporate jungle. As a junior school teacher, I ask: what worth is integrity in the corporation when as children we are taught to disregard our inner calling from grade 5 onwards? We lie to our souls, violate the voice of our hearts and then are taught to follow ancient Indian ideals and be "integral."

Unless integrity begins with your soul, you cannot be integral.

Surely everyone's soul cannot be pushing them to set up corporations, mass produce cars, develop software and research genetic engineering. For those who's soulsong is one of these, I stand at the forefront cheering you on. Go, find your success. You deserve it and will do much for the country on a huge scale with it.

But if I find a whiff of parental pressure to turn a child who lives for art into a doctor, I will mourn the daylight murder of yet another youngling of India.

This obsession that we Indians have with Ivy League universities, big phones, big cars, big houses with tiny gardens is exactly what our ancient Indian values spoke of as Maya. We place infinite importance on the objects of success rather than the feeling of contentment within. If we were truly content, not having the next best phone wouldn't make us break out into a cold sweat. Not having our kids get into Cornell or Stanford wouldn't destroy our honour.

Artha, or wealth is essential. I have nothing against it. I love Artha. But according to the ancient tenets, before Artha, comes Dharma. Following YOUR Dharma. Not the Tribe's decision as to which career will get them the most honour.

If there was one message that stood out clear in 3 idiots - it was to be true to yourself. Integrity to yourself. Aligning yourself with your soul's purpose. Is that level of integrity even possible when you belong to the Great Indian Tribe?

As a teacher, I predict that the Great Indian Tribe will be forced to face the challenges of the new kids. Watch out India. Many of today's children will refuse to sing the Great Tribal Song. We will hear countless individual melodies of exquisite beauty. We will see many disappointed parents. We will see far more young adults unable to disregard the call of their souls, flying the nest and finding their own sky.

For all those children, even if I stand all alone, I am and will always be a voice of support, an encouraging friend, a believer in their potential. For them, my hands are forever risen in salute.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Pink, coffee and girl talk.


Pink pajamas, soft cushions, iced coffee and the tangy smell of Mumbai. (Tangy to me because it tickles my nose and throat with its carbon content. It must behave far more aggressively with the inner recesses of my respiratory tract.) A strong breeze gusts through the living room balcony doors, bringing the caws of crows, the barking of dogs and the whirring of automotive engines in with it.

My girlfriend and I are perched on opposite ends of a black leather couch. Our feet curled beneath us. I make a half-hearted attempt to go the whole hog with the ‘girl-thing’ by filing my nails as we chat. I give up. There is much gesturing of the sweeping kind with my animated speech and the file and the nails never quite meet.

For thirteen years – through high school, college, work and different cities we have savoured such once-in-a-year mornings.
What a perfect universe we live in. It orchestrates the crossing of paths and the meeting of minds, waltzing easily with variables like time, space and life experience. Neha and I are at the same place mentally, the same understanding spiritually, speak the same language each time we meet. And each time we meet, we have grown leaps and bounds ahead of the last time we did.
On the human journey where we are forced to walk alone, the merciful Universe sends us angels. They are kindred souls, siblings from our Spirit-groups, men and women who know our core, because somewhere we share the same core and are assisting each other bound over the next hill, slide down the approaching waterfall and dive into the ocean of our own power, reclaiming it for ourselves, again and again.

The only thing girlie about these sessions is the pink pajama dress code. Everything else is surrealistically fantastic. We surf through mysteries of the Emerald Tablet of Thoth, The Secret and Abraham-Hicks, through past life memories, to Atlantis and goddess symbols, remind each other about loving ourselves, believing in our potential, facing our creative demons, testing our boundaries and trusting the Universe.

We could be Lemurian high priestesses in green silks or robed Native American shamans – those garbs and roles would blend in better with the conversation content. The juxtaposition of the pink pajamas and the iced coffee with deep talk is a little ridiculous...

But nevertheless... a quirk of our times. One I find endearing and am enjoying more and more.


Through lives, I suspect Neha and I have shared the same girl-talk. By the Pyramids of Giza and the Incan temples. This time its on leather couches, with pink pajamas and coffee. Ah! To be able to love pink and coffee and still live in our truth...these are truly magical times we live in!