On kindness

The Buddha did not answer questions about the existence of God because these questions are irrelevant to the challenges of day to day life. In the morning, more relevant than the question, “does God exist?” is the question, “which toothbrush is mine?”

Everything that brings you joy will also make you vulnerable. Seasons change. Generations are forgotten. Our place in the world is small and we are insignificant except to the few people for whom we matter. Our personal joys are only a small drop of water rolling on a lotus leaf beside the immense pond of human suffering.

In this ephemeral world, the fleeting conversations and the tiny interactions of kindness matter as much as anything else.

Of all the stories and parables in the life of Buddha that can inspire us– and indeed there are many– there the one I wanted to share with you. Siddhartha had starved himself to the point of death in search of enlightenment. Returning from his bath in the river Niranjana, he collapsed. At that moment, a stranger, Sujata came to him and offered him a bowl of kheer that saved his life.

Who knows, maybe your act of random kindness today will save the next Buddha?

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On why I travel

I have a peculiar relationship with travel. I complain when I am on the road, but I am listless when I am back at home. I daydream about heading out when I’m in one place for too long. The Germans call it wanderlust; others say there is a travel bug. A Bengali proverb mischievously describes someone like me with a rhetorical question- “have you come here with your horse still saddled up?”

I have crisscrossed the planet many times and each time I have felt a sense of restlessness and paradoxically, of peace. Each time I have been away, I have been reminded of why I yearned to be back. Each time I was back, I reminisced about the parts of me I left in places far away. I have lost count of how many flights I have fallen asleep on, and of how many hotel beds I have woken up in- dissolving in the hallucinogenic intervals of lost bags, smudged entry stamps in passports, and midnight chats in taxis flashing by half-built buildings and bright neon hoardings.

Sometimes, being jet-lagged is waking up and not knowing where you are, what time it is, or how long you have slept. In hotel rooms, I have been awakened by the noise of the bathing of strangers in adjacent rooms, their laughter in hallways in the middle of their night, or their quarrels on balconies in languages I do not know. Travel enough and you collect so many of these snap audio tales.

Each trip taken connects me with other people. As Andrew Solomon observes: “you cannot understand the otherness of places you have not encountered.” Paris is not just the Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower: it is the city where Eastern European migrants play classical violin in Metro stations. Oaxaca is that child full of promise coloring pictures of azul mountains on a curbside. Cusco is that blind indigenous old woman with a wizened face selling scarves at San Pedro on Easter Sunday.

I do not travel to simply see places, as I once did. I travel to remind myself of my insignificance, to feel gratitude for the light and the air, to be hypersensitive to the strange and wonderful human race, and to rage and sob softly against indifference and cruelty wherever I see it. So often, it is the case that other people make travel interesting and the places themselves are just stages for their presence. 

Ultimately then, travel is form of disciplined self-negation. When you travel, your own problems do not matter in the face of the pressing need to find food, shelter, or a working internet connection. These are not theoretical abstract concerns. Even when you are lying on a beach staring at the waves or impatiently waiting for a train that will not come, you are waiting for something.

And so, travel is a form of hyperawareness- of finding yourself looking for patterns that are familiar. In strange lands, I search for a warm smile, a kind word, and a shared meal. For ultimately, you do not acutely miss the people you are with, until you are separated from them and forced to wander among strangers.

The great experiment

 

Nearly ten years ago on a whim, I started this blog. At about the same time, I also joined Facebook and Twitter.  For all intents and purposes, this blog has been on life support for years. I’ve also severely restricted my forays on Facebook to infrequent personal updates. What I had been doing almost without fail for nearly a decade was to tweet. After nearly 50,000 tweets, I felt that it was a good time to take a break.

Twitter works mainly because there things are always happening in this hyper-connected on the world- on a political, cultural, and social level-  all waiting to be experienced on a collective basis in real-time. Conceptually, it is brilliant. There are always elections, political speeches, horrendous crimes, blockbuster movies, natural disasters, prejudices, and television shows to drive instant reactions. You will never run out of things to feed the machine.

I’m not above the fray in joining these events- after all people face existential threats such as climate change, bigoted world-leaders, and discrimination on a daily basis. But after a while, it started to become tiresome trying to keep up with a world that was “very much with us” all the time.

A few years ago, I decided that I would not tweet mainly on current affairs, but about emotions, experiences, and new learnings. I would skip the latest gaffe or outrage of the day, and focus on what I exclusively found interesting, regardless of whether anyone else cared or not. There were two exceptions: I did comment on gender issues from a personal perspective; and on the beautiful game- international football, which I found irresistible.

These past few years I tweeted about places, food, science, history, culture, art, and poetry (in four languages). I tweeted about my emotions in sending off my son to school on his first day and of leaving my homeland again on a jet plane. I tweeted about reading Neruda’s poems on Machu Picchu and feeling nostalgia for an unknown world. I tweeted about the creation of the universe, on the formation of black holes, on how to rig elections, on the Panama Canal, on a radioactive disaster in Brazil, and on the fall of Constantinople. I tweeted about eating simple marketplace tamales that brought tears of joy to my eyes.

After a while, the returns on Twitter started to diminish: I found a core group of friends on Twitter whose tweets I was interested in, but those voices were drowned out in the cacophony of mean-spirited, hypocritical, angry, or perpetually inconsolable voices that I was trying to escape from in real-life.  The compulsion to broadcast new experiences and knowledge to a largely unknown audience was disappearing, and often I was simply repeating myself.

Tweeting was becoming something I did- a chore. I was taking photos of meals and trips to the grocery store and sharing them. I was engaging in conversations with an unknown virtual audience instead of the real people surrounding me. I appreciated the company, but at times, it also meant that I was disconnected from the here and the now. “Better to stop and enjoy the cup of coffee and go for a walk leaving the phone at home,” I thought.

So is this a long-winded, self-absorbed rationale for quitting Twitter? Well, not quite.

Do anything for ten years and you’ll meet some good people. There are people who are consistently putting out exceptionally brilliant perspectives on Twitter. There are people who are sharing amazing essays, poetry, travelogues, and art. There are people who know the best places to eat and the things you have to do when you visit their hometowns. These are people who I’ve never met, but who I feel I know on a personal level and who I care about. And if you have a specific question, Twitter is still an amazing place.

Ten years is a long time, but it also passes by quickly. A few days ago, I was browsing through photos from a trip to Hawaii I had taken exactly ten years ago, and reminiscing about all that has happened since then. So much has changed.

Ten years ago, I was more arrogant, angry, and restless than I am today. I am sure of less now, but appreciative of more. My hair has grayed a little bit more, but my eyes are kinder. I am still a work in progress. I have fewer friends and family, but I care for their well-being more. I stop to hold doors for people, I talk in lower volumes, I tread on grass softly, I empty my pockets for the poor, and I am pained when see indifference. I have gained so much in experience, but have lost so much in the process. In ten years through external and internal conversations, I have come to terms with my own privilege and the relatively easy life and path I have had because of my socioeconomic, caste, gender, and educational background. Me now and me ten years ago? We are different people.

And so, a very selfish, narcissistic reason why I won’t be able to retreat completely from social media is that it served to fossilize my thoughts in amber. So many of my consequential and trivial thoughts were splattered all across these platforms. I’ve seen myself change through the lens of social media.

That’s the Great Experiment in my view; that’s the key difference social media makes to each of us. Tweets, blog-posts, and Facebook updates remind us of the journey. They’re mile-markers to tell us where we were on a particular day in a particular time.