Why love feels bittersweet 

The human body feels. It’s because of the tiny blue-green nerves that connect every single cell in the body. These nerves pass on ‘feel’ messages to the brain. A head ache, for instance, is one or many of the nerves telling the brain of some pressure. The brain, then, interprets this as pain. The same goes for smell, touch, sight, taste and sound. 
And then there’s the feeling inside your gut. Where you feel sorrow, happiness, nostalgia, anger, jealousy, fear, and yes, love. 
Love is that potent feeling that makes all your nerve endings exposed to the elements. Imagine every single nerve in your body screaming to your brain. It can be overwhelming. The feeling–the pain from the sheer excess–is at once both internal and external. 
And only the person you feel the love for can be the thin layer of balm to sooth the frayed nerve endings. 
Yet, this layer is thin, almost to the point of being a transparent layer. You want to wear your lover like skin. Very few lucky people actually do. 
But even then, the thinness of the layer reminds you of the danger lurking around. One tiny tear, one loss of layer, and your very soul can be in a world of pain. Your life can turn upside down. 
And you know there’s no medicine, no cure. Only the passage of time can dull your tired nerve endings. Only dull it, mind you. It never really goes away completely. Unless, you learn to wear a thick layer of defense that no one can smash through. 
But what suffocated survival can it be? 
Oh, what painful life loving would be? 

A Legend in 4 hours

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You know you’ve read a good book if you would rather think about it for the 10 hours left in the day than pick up a new one. And that’s what happened to me—still is happening to me—after ending ‘The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad’.

It started as an innocuous read to satisfy my curiosity regarding the author’s popularity. But it ended up with the sensation of… let me explain it better with an analogy.

You know that feeling when you are hungry, and then eat a delicious meal—simple, home-made, down-to-earth but wholesome. That feeling when it seems like your entire being starting with heart—and not just your stomach—is full and ‘complete’. That’s the feeling I relished after finishing the book. So much that I ‘had’ to put down my thoughts in the form of words. Mind you, I’ve never given reviews about books—especially in the form of a blog post.

About the book

For reasons unclear to me, what I felt about the book comes across as a string of jagged adjectives and words. If I attempt to weave sentences out of them, they seem to lose their value and meaning. It’s like they refuse to let go of their individual characteristics amidst the other words forming the sentence. So here we go:

  • Subtle
  • Empathetic
  • Realistic
  • Whacky
  • Feminist
  • Flawed characters but perfect in a sense
  • Real India
  • Diverse—you had people from different backgrounds, upbringing, castes, and religions
  • Rich in culture
  • Observant
  • Wise
  • Ordinary yet extraordinary
  • Heartening
  • Heartfelt

Some of my favourite sentences and paragraphs:

(Note: Potential spoilers ahead if you haven’t read this book yet)

  • Till the day it wasn’t and a sunken-eyed Sukriti, her skin stretched like paper over each protruding rib, returned home, holding the gifts her in-laws had given her in return – burns on her back, from boiling water and hot pans.
  • The thoughts that had been locked inside her, and had probably been rattling in her subconscious mind for years, had finally been set free. Words falling, tripping, stumbling over each, till she finally ran out of air.
  • It is an old song, passed down through generations and the women singing are unaware that the song is not about Goddess Lakshmi who resides in the heaves above, but alludes to a gangly girl who once walked among the mango groves. (Can even be considered to the other gods and myths we worship. Especially if you connect it to another character in another story who speaks about how the lemon and chilly is a superstition based in science)
  • By the time the W had been reported missing by Mrs Mastan, who had been sitting right next to Binni, she had lost all interest in embroidery and was looking at Noni Appa across the table, signaling her that it was time to leave.
  • ‘I feel good, Binni, my muscles feel all pulled and stretched, like a ball of dough smoothened out into a nice flat chapatti’.
  • Hai Allah, the mind is also a strange thing, the minute someone asks you to keep the slate clean, squiggly lines of white chalk begin to appear, one line running into another in chaotic whirls.
  • For Anand ji, sitting by himself in the bedroom with a game of solitaire spread over the printed bed sheet, headphones plugged into his Walkman that invariably played Indian classical music as he hummed along, seemed the only way he could find refuge in his own home.
  • Why do people have to define relationships, underline each word till the paper gives way beneath, she wondered.
  • Elisa decided to leave yesterday where she felt it belonged, a hundred kilometres behind her.

Story 1: The Legend of Lakshmi Prasad

At once realistic, believable but with a tint of fable, the story revolves around Lakshmi Prasad (duh, as the name duly suggests). What’s remarkable about the story is the writing—the mini observations about day-to-day lives, human behavior (a sister’s jealousy about friends and how she tries to prove that she is the ‘closest’), how thoughts germinate, and how strength of character is often in subtle and small actions. More importantly, the writing is so rich that it paints the backdrop of the story easily. Reading it is like starting an old-school projector in your mind and resting back to watch the story unfold.

Story 2: Salaam, Noni Appa

This was by far my favourite in the whole lot.

Two widowed sisters, well in their sixties, and yet living a life full of unique idiosyncrasies and whacky behavior. Some of my key learnings from the story are this:

  • Life does not end in your 60s.
  • There have been ‘modern, broad-minded’ people well before the current generation—way back when Fiats, Walkmans and Cassettes were in fashion. And this includes women who chose not to marry, even in their 40s.
  • Just because two people are a study in contrast does not mean they can’t live together with love filling their hearts and understanding ruling their daily activities.
  • You come across all kinds of love—even the common ground variety of love in the form of a romantic relationship can be unique and different.
  • Just because you love someone does not mean you need to tolerate all their behavior. It’s ok to switch off your hearing aid once in a while.
  • Just because you love someone today does not mean you stopped loving the person you were with yesterday. And it’s ok. You can love more than one person at the same time.

Story 3: If the Weather permits

An eccentric character, whose whole life is one continuous search—one for a life partner, and the other, an escape from her parents’ pressures. And the search continues until death gives her the much-needed opportunity to escape. Who says life has to be perfect or make sense. And more importantly, who says parents do everything right? They are flawed humans too who bow to societal pressure and their own idiosyncrasies.

My favourite line? So so so many, but I will take with me the epitaph my entire life. “Here lies Elisa, she briefly belonged to many, but truly to herself.”

Story 4: The Sanitary Man from a Sacred Land

Wow. While story spoke about ‘what happened’, I could not often go beyond what the characters ‘thought’ or ‘felt’. It’s a story that completely does justice to the real-life character that Twinkle Khanna borrowed from. In fact, it is a dutiful homage to that courageous individual full of his quirks and innocence, and at the end of the day—a flawed imperfect human! Wow.

(To be updated pretty soon)

What’s your Life word? 

It all started when I read a book review. Or rather, it reached a culmination. 

The review talked about this new book called ‘Grief is a Thing with Feathers’ by Max Porter. A description in it set off my musings. Or more specifically, a word did. 

Distill. 

I learnt this word in school in Science class. Distillation, the teacher and textbooks explained, was a process of letting water evaporate so that it leaves behind its impurities. Back then, the impurity in question was Salt. 

Funny how I did not know back then that it would become a dominating theme of my life. My life with Words. Yes, with the capital W. A proper noun. 

The review spoke about how the book “distilled a grieving family’s expression of loss”. Immediately, it painted a picture of a white bowl full of non-abstract grief (gaseous liquid. Something like JK Rowling’s Pensieve). Slowly over time, the bowl gets distilled to leave behind a few words in the bowl (think cereal or Kelloggs). 

It sounds stupid when you describe the imagination, but I realized this: Quite well, the brain does this every waking moment of the day. Of course, it does this in reverse order. The brain takes words, actions and other stimuli, and distills the meaning to leave behind feelings and emotions. 

Think about your favorite song or book or movie—it must evoke some feeling in you, touch some raw nerve. So much that the first thing your brain recollects is the emotion being evoked. Then and only then does the brain put together other information—like a Lego tower slowly being built with detail pieces. 

This also sounds similar to that Masterchef episode I watched a long time back. The three four contestants had to create this intricate dish (as always!), the centrepiece of which was a clear broth. 

It fascinated me to no end. The ability to take in all the flavors of the ingredients and distill it into water, whose quantity was probably just 10% of the quantity of all the raw ingredients put together. Like this:

I find this incredible! 

This reminds me of the part in Eat. Pray. Love. Julia Roberts’ character (I watched  the movie, didn’t read the book) came across this concept in Italy about ‘A Single Word or Phrase’ that describes the person’s life. It essentially ‘distills’ the whole life story. 

As a writer, especially one taught to appreciate and follow Brevity, this caught my attention. Immediately, I started thinking: what would my Word be? 

Many fiction stories too deal with this concept. They call it the ‘True Name’, which can give a person power over that individual. It sounds different, and yet (to me) quite similar too. 

Anyway, I wrecked my mind. I thought and thought and thought. What would my Word or Phrase be? 

The saga continued until two conversations with my colleagues. (Side note : these are people I look up to, who I’ve identified as teachers and mentors). 

The conversations were about Ambition. My whole life, I’ve been conscious about ‘not getting stagnant’. (Not always consciously, though). So it scared me when I was faced with the possibility that between ‘ambition’ and ‘comfortable work-life balance’, I’d choose the latter. The implication was that I wouldn’t grow; that I’d become stagnant. 

Long story short, my colleague made me realise that ambition can be many things. It’s not one-dimensional about being the first in your career or field of work. 

The more interesting part about this conversation, my key takeaway from it was this: I love dance. I love studying. I love food. I love traveling. I love math and science. But the one thing that trumps it all—the live wire of my existence—is writing. It’s Words.  

That moment, I realized, if my perspective were to be reconstructed on a Matrix screen, everything would be built by words. The foundation of the entire world in my head is a combination of Words. 

That was just the first step of my self-realisation. The last leg of the journey happened yesterday. 

I was retelling my travel experience in Turkey. At the end, moved by my description, my colleague commented: “What are you doing with your life?! You should be in Travel. You should be a Travel writer. You have a way of painting pictures with your words.”

Initially, I felt flattered and genuinely considered the possibility. 

Later, though, I realized that I can do the same, that I light up and become animated about other subjects too. Things that I love or that which fascinate me. 
No, the thing drawing the connections is different. 

That’s when my brain finally connected the dots. 

If I had to distill myself, ‘Words’ would be my choice of description. 

Yep. I search for Words everywhere. I breathe Words. I write and speak Words. More importantly, I attach Words to abstract things in life. Body language, experiences, meaning, emotions—anything and everything. 

My favorite pass-time is to take synonyms; play and feel the texture of the Words; dissect them, and find the difference between the Words. 

Words even leave a taste and feel in my mouth, as if they are a morsel of food I’m tasting. They’re that real for me. 

I’m pretty sure that when I die,  you’d see invisible words evaporating from my body and soul. Much like the Kingfisher bird in the movie, ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’. 

What about you? 

Too many cooks spoil the broth; too many words spoil the line

I love the sound of literature. I absolutely love how it feels when words roll off your tongue, the music it makes. I read for this sake. The stories only come second. I need my language to be mellifluous—as per my tastes. When too many big, hard-to-understand words are used in copious amounts, it sounds like a fish market in my head. Absolutely jarring!

Have you ever attended a music concert? Or even any band or musician playing, for that matter?

You may have noticed that of the multiple instruments playing, some have higher volumes while some have lower. In some cases it could be the guitar, while some other cases the base instrument. The vocals almost always have the highest volumes.

You see, every song needs the perfect symphony. It is not just about the lyrics and tune, but also how they are mixed—the proportions. It is like cooking too—you absolutely need to get the proportions right.

It is exactly the same with literature too, I believe.

There are many who advocate the use of simple language in literature. And then there are those who use copious amounts of ‘big’ words. They need these to enjoy literature. It is a personal choice, after all.

I belong to the former clan. There was a time when I loved the use of complex words. I still do, but I like them to be used minimally.

You see, I love the sound of literature. I absolutely love how it feels when words roll off your tongue, the music it makes. I read for this sake. The stories only come second. I need my language to be mellifluous—as per my tastes.

So using the analogy, I can say that literature is like music; the story or plot is akin to the song’s lyrics, while the writing is the tune. Every part of the sentence structures are equivalent to different aspects of the tune. The verbs could be the base; the subject could be the vocals; the prepositions or punctuation could be the drum beats, so on and so forth. The simplicity or complexity of the words could be equivalent to the emphasis given to the different parts of the song. Or maybe the pitch. Every time a complex word or clause is used, the pitch rises suddenly.

Now imagine if I use a complex word for all aspects of the sentence, then every instrument used would suddenly start playing at a higher pitch and volume. To me, it sounds jarring. To another, it may sound lovely. Like the distinction between classical and heavy metal music—music to one, noise to another.

At the end of the day, though, I only like to listen to the kind of music I want. Similarly, I only want to read the kind of literature I like. And that happens to be simple writing, its music quaint and lyrical.

Bah, that’s just life!

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On a dark cloudy day,
We stepped towards the mountain peak,
With each step, the clouds neared,
Threatening us with a downpour.
But she was adamant,
Punny nature! bend to her, it will.
And so with cheeks, red and animated,
She inched towards her goal.
For what, I knew now,
I only accompanied for curiosity’s sake.
For she was beauty personified,
Not in terms of figure, face or skin,
But something in her air, something beyond words,
And her eyes! Boy, with untold secrets,
Did they shine and dance.
No, curiosity bade me, “Go with her”
“I need to know,” it said.
She smiled at me, as if she knew,
But on she went, in tormenting silence.
To the mountain we reached,
panting, sighing, ooh-and-aahing.
I then looked at her curiously,
to find answers to her mystery.
She laughed at the sky,
Joy and mirth filling her high.
Confused, “Why,” I asked.
“Why ever not,” she said.
“Rain, risk and dark,” I said.
“Bah, that’s but life,” she quipped,
And after the clouds, merrily ran,
While I looked on, stunned.

Jungle of emotions

It was the time when dusk turns into twilight. That moment when the sky is a brilliant, but diminishing, hue of colours. The day was still young.

That was when I met him. Me walking slowly along. Him, riding by on his bike.

It was the bike that attracted me, although it was nothing unusual. It was not even a trendy-looking sports bike. Just a usual one, like him. Yet, it attracted me for the stories that I knew it would help me learn. After all, walking through every nook and corner in search of stories is tedious. Quite so.

So, when he stopped and offered a lift, I jumped at the opportunity. Even at the cost of giving up my freedom. Even at the cost of agreeing to be swept under his wings.

I can only guess what he thought of me, or what he expected when he took me aboard. Actually, I can only think I can guess. In reality, the truth may be far away from my guess. Who knows, really!

I, though, wanted to get swept by the current that was life. I was learning to let go of my inhibitions and living the moment. That, I believed, would allow me to experience and learn far more than the safety of peaceful shores would ever allow. I wanted to ride the raging waves.

So, on I went with him on his bike, marvelling at the way the wind tussled my locks. It felt like freedom. Wild, dirty and yet fulfilling. Soon, I forgot I was actually letting go off freedom.

Boy, was it an enriching experience. We did exactly what I wanted to do — roam aimlessly across nameless and faceless streets and roads. Stopped wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. My face was constantly shrouded in merriment, wonder and a huge grin that spread from ear to ear. It really did, I kid you not. Those memories still shine like they were made from gilt.

Soon, we crossed a border into a new territory. It was confusing to say the least. Yet, we went on, confident from our previous escapades that we would win this strange land too.

And that’s when the jungle started. Our bike gave up in defeat to the wildness in the jungle. We had to walk. I could handle walking better than he, so used-to he was his bike.

Imagine how harsh his first lesson in walking was. There were no paved roads, but uneven treacherous land. There were mosquitoes swarming over our heads unlike civilised lands. Not to mention the prickly bushes and branches that we had to sweep away with only our hands. I should have realised we were in waters way over our heads. We should have stopped and turned back.

But that’s the folly of the youth. We think we know our strengths. We scoff at limits. Yet, life is full of limits. Respect them and you will escape with minor scratches.

You know what is the other folly? Denial. He never budged from his stubborn denial. I humoured him. After all, I was under HIS wings, not vice versa. He was leading the way, not I.

I had heard of the jungle, but never understood why it was so scary. I thought every thing in this world had a logic. If one could only get a hang of it, the road would be easier to travel.
I was quite wrong. That is not the universal truth. The real truth is that everything has an exception. And the jungle was the exception to the rule that I thought applied. The jungle had no logic. Emotions have no logic. It is just a big mess. The antithesis to logic. It is chaos. Utter chaos. And we were in the middle of it.
My friend, the lead, finally had the sense to show me a separate path, one that could lead me out of the jungle and back to the roads I knew. He, though, was injured. The jungle had already played its game. He was stuck in the illusion of a quagmire. One that was slowly sucking him in.

I was being played by the illusion of a fog in the jungle. It hid away my vision from me. I was blindly stumbling along, with only my muted gut feeling to guide me. So, I agreed with every word he said, ignoring the rising wariness in my gut.

That’s when he told me he could see a way out. He told me to get help. He told me he will have to stay. It was his game, you see. Bless his soul. All he wanted was to get me back to safety, even at the cost of his own life.

I considered for a while. Standing there was hopeless, he said. It would do no good. My logic agreed.

So, I ran. Away from him. For his sake. And for mine too, if I were honest. I was tired of the jungle. I was getting tired of following him blindly. My gut feeling was getting exhausted by my constant, conscious ignorance.

I stopped for a while and turned to look at him. I needed one last glimpse of those twinkling eyes, those dimpled cheeks, the familiar contours of his face, and the steady strength in his tall figure. I memorised the glance until it was etched in my memory. It still is.

I continued to run after that stopping for nothing. I ran even as I heard something break behind me. One. Two. Three. I counted as I ran. I was afraid to look back and see what was breaking. I ran with greater urgency. As if my running could stop the breaks.

He was right. It did lead me out of the jungle. As the vegetation became sparse, I could see my beloved road. But it was empty. I didn’t know which way to go. Surprisingly, it was still twilight. It was not night. The day was still young.

Inertia is the reason why people can’t accept change. You hold on to the past. I held on to the idea of him. The idea of our friendship. The bike. Those memories. Yet, only silence remained. A silence that spoke of the end.

I looked back at the jungle. Smoke rose from a distance. It was him. As I stood collecting my thoughts and my breath, I knew he was done. His chapter in my life was over.

I turned and started walking the way that took my fancy. I often looked back, wondering about the jungle. His thoughts were my steady companion. I tried to quell the questions. What if…

But there is one thing I do best. I move on.

And on I walked, away from the jungle of emotions. Away from him. With my lessons learnt.

On a starry, still night

In the stillness that is the call of the night, the lights reflect on the dark black irises that inhabit my face, embedded deep under layers of natural protection as God had fashioned. A tiny mist forms every time the human me inhales and exhales for oxygen. Somewhere a cricket sounds out to its brethren, what for, only it knows. That is all the action happening in the dead night. Miniscule movements – which would go unnoticed in the history of time, but universal enough to be as true as the starry sky.

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The pale lights twinkle, unaffected by their failure to lighten the dark sky. They simply go on, shining, blinking, and twinkling in their own right. Simple not bothered, embracing the stillness of the canvas.

In the stillness that is the call of the night, the lights reflect on the dark black irises that inhabit my face, embedded deep under layers of natural protection as God had fashioned. A tiny mist forms every time the human me inhales and exhales for oxygen. Somewhere a cricket sounds out to its brethren, what for, only it knows. That is all the action happening in the dead night. Miniscule movements – which would go unnoticed in the history of time, but universal enough to be as true as the starry sky.

Yet, the stillness is only a perception. Just like my lack of movement fails to reflect the inner restlessness that is waiting to burst free. No, not the action that keeps my heart beating, my blood flowing, and my organs alive. The restlessness keeps my consciousness alive, constantly aware of the lack of poignancy in the meaning of our existence. It is the teacher that subsequently pushes us to drive up to new heights, and then once there, humbles us to accept our smallness in the universe.

I see the mountain peak, white with snow and shining as the stars reflect off its surface. It is there, waiting to teach me my lesson. Yet, here I lie in the grass, surrounded by stillness and nature. Already learning the lesson of the universe. Does that make the mountain useless? Does it realise that I will never climb the peak to learn the lesson? That it was only a means to an already ended ‘end’? Does it suffer from the realisation that it is not indispensable?

I call out for an answer.

“No,” a voice like rumbling rocks grumbled. “I am not here to be the means to your end.”

“Then?” I ask, demand, beg for an answer.

“I don’t have the answer. It’s within you.”

Silence. The restlessness builds within again, waiting for an exit in the form of a scream. It builds, slowly and powerfully, like a tsunami waiting to ravish the landmass ahead. At the tip of the tongue, though, the mind exerts control. The tsunami inside abates, unfulfilled and unsatisfied, but by no means destroyed. After all, there cannot be a body without some darkness within. Light is always accompanied with shadows.

“Maybe there was more to be learnt over the course of the journey,” a meek voice sounded. Lost in the restlessness, I looked for the voice. Where did it come from?

“It was not just the mountain, but also the grass plains, the rocky plateaus and the vicarious mountain slopes that were to play a role.”

The voice seemed far away, but was steadily drawing nearer.

“Not just in shaping your lesson, but learning their own lessons too.”

“What lesson?”

“The same lesson you were to learn, and thought you learnt in the stillness of the starry sky.”

“Thought? I did learn the lesson. I am inconsequential. My presence or absence won’t cause any ripples in the universe.”

“Why?”

“What have I done that would have an impact? Nothing.”

“Haven’t you?”

“Look around, what do you see? Nothing. Who would remember me after I am gone? No one. Nothing I have done is out of the ordinary. Nothing that would last.”

“Do all ripples last forever in time?”

Silence.

I could see a shadow moving closer. Its clothes were billowing, even though there was no wind. A soft shine was emanating, stopping me from making out its details. It finally arrived and stopped in front of me.

The dark black sunken eyes, the squarish straight eyebrows, the dimpled chin looked familiar to me. Vaguely so. Its beauty was distracting, stopping my mind from making the connection. Caught in that moment, the restlessness within lost all impulse.

And in that moment of clarity, brief as it was, the beautiful shadow opened its mouth and spoke.

The voice came from inside me. “You just ‘are’. That’s all. Nothing else matters.”