Travel is a metaphor for life in so many ways. Are we travelling for travel’s sake, or are we travelling to a destination? What is more important, the journey or the destination? And is there one destination? In real life, few don’t travel at all, and hardly any journey is done with the one destination. And yet, if we hold travel as a metaphor for life, we are told to look at relationships as if it is the one destination that we are all supposed to arrive, one way or another.
If one is single, everywhere one goes, parents, grandparents and every other relative one could meet in everything from a baby’s naming ceremony to a funeral asks the big relationship questions: Why so late? Do you need introductions? Is a relationship the one destination that we are all supposed to head towards?
Even in travel, it is not as if we celebrate the one traveller who travels from point A to point B and never ever travels again. Nor do we celebrate someone who never travels, or the traveller who is incessantly travelling, so much that there is no saying where they were or will be.
We travel as we want to, stay for as long as we like and leave as we will. The travellers we really celebrate are those that have a story to tell. They may have never ever travelled, or barely, or lots – none of that matters as much as how their travel adventure was, how much they experienced in it and how deep they could relate to their experiences.
What if we treated relationships the same way? Do we really need to treat relationships as if they were a destination to arrive at and never leave again, like the Hotel California from the Eagles song? Instead of chasing being in a relationship as if it were some mythical giver of bliss and everlasting happiness, what if we simply saw it for what it is: Just one other possible part of one’s own life journey?
In our mythologies, we celebrate the celibate as much as we celebrate the once-married and those with 16,000 partners. The celebration of such deified lives is not because of whether and how many they were in a relationship with, but because of the lives they led, the values they upheld and the heroics of living as themselves in the face of many odds.
A relationship can be a witness for a life well-lived, but it is not the golden ticket to a meaningful life – there is none. Our life is meaningful because we give it meaning by how we live it, how we strive for what we value despite the odds, and what we make if it - not necessarily whether we were in a relationship, many relationships or none. Life is the journey, and the destination
As published in The New Indian Express
What makes a home a home?
The popular saying is home is where the heart is, or that while a house is made of bricks and cement, a home is made of love. The romanticism aside, home is really about belonging - both to the place one calls home and the people with whom one shares this home.
Making a home for yourself and those you love is no easy task, even when the people living together in it are very similar. As people, there are so many ways that we are different - any and every thing from what we eat, when we eat, our daily routines, the demands of our work, our studies, our hobbies and interests etc can set us apart. For any of us who grew up with siblings, we know how even when we are flesh and blood, it is not easy at all. Interests vary, friendships vary and lifestyles vary even with identical twins. When we are so different from people that we are born to and grow up with, can we really expect to be very similar to someone we fall in love with and try and make a home with?
Even with the greatest of loves, moving in together and starting to make a home together is a risky affair. You might expect that for couples from the same cultural background, it might be easy, but it is often not. So many conversations around household chores are fraught with danger, and even the most innocuous stuff like clearing the garbage or doing the laundry, could set off conflicts, and many start innocently enough with the seemingly simple words, “In my home, we used to …”
This is a home you are building with this new person in your life and yet so many conversations start off with these few words that separate you from this partner, put you firmly back in the family you came from and this partner is now the outsider. The partner then quite predictably replies with experiences from their family, and the conversation gets more and more distant - two people talking about the homes they came from rather than the home they are trying to build together. The 'We’ and 'Our Home’ become forgotten in the rush to claim older homes and separates the couple into individuals loyal to their own respective families.
It takes a lot of presence of mind to be able to remember that the new home need not be anything like either of the old ones. The pressure to replicate and comply with the rules and regulations of where we grew up is high, but doing so at the cost of the other person's own vision of their home will end up in either or both feeling alienated and not feeling like they belong.
Making a home is a lot of work and the work starts with the awareness and acknowledgement that this is hard work. Everything is up for grabs, nothing is given as granted and each thing has to be negotiated between the people making this home together.
As published in The New Indian Express
The fairy tales we grow up on had so much enchantment built into them.
One of the tropes was that of a happy family that for almost no fault of their own, fall into the bad books of an evil magician, who curses them with all sorts of bad things, and life would have been hell. Just in time, as the curse is starting to have effect, a benevolent fairy god-parent sneaks in just after the cursing evil magician is gone and gives a small gift that keeps the cursed royalty in an enchanted state of stasis for years, if not decades till finally the enchantment wears off with a magical kiss and all is well again. That is typically how the story goes.
What does that have to do with love and relationships? Think of it this way: We might be happily going about our every day life, when suddenly something awful happens. Something quite unexpected and for hardly any fault of out own, and it throws our lives out of whack. It might be something like an old long-forgotten ex- coming back into life like the evil, cackling magician in the fairy tales, dropping a bomb on the new life with some story or a debt that wasn’t serviced, or in true Bollywood style, a child that people didn’t know existed till them. It could be anything really – maybe a change of job, a posting abroad, someone falling critically ill, loss of wealth from a stock market crash, not necessarily involving an active, malevolent person, but something that changes our lives altogether.
These times when our relationship goes through some serious strife, it can come to a breaking point, and one wishes there was a fairy god-parent who could somehow magically freeze the relationship, give it time and space to suffer through that period, and maybe, just maybe, there will be that magical kiss at the end of it to heal the relationship.
We don’t have too many fairies floating around in real life, and we are forced to find substitutes for them. It might be a kind parent, a good friend, a therapist, a colleague – anybody could be that person in real life. We just need someone who can hold the trauma, to have time to process what just happened and allow for our shaken lives to stabilise again. Sometimes, it is a gentle holding, and at other times, it is a scolding from a good friend like in the 1980s hit Hindi movie Masoom, where the idyllic life of the couple gets shattered with the arrival of an unexpected child, and there is a lot of emotional distress, till finally the character played by Shabana Azmi gets one nice little lecture on how life could throw up unexpected surprises and yet, there are blessings there if only we can get over ourselves – and we got ourselves a sweet little ending for that movie.
In our lives, we do have these fairy godparents around us in abundance. It is just up to us to make use of them.
As published in The New Indian Express
Have you seen your relationship through a major period of illness? It might have involved hospitalisation or not, but the kind of time we are talking about here is the one that has weeks if not months of at-home care, where the person who is unwell needs assistance with their body. Perhaps they are unable to walk, or get off their bed on their own, need assistance dressing, eating or in any other way need help.
How much do you stay with them and take care of their physical needs? How comfortable were you staying with them and working through the mess that is our body with all its random fluids, smells, textures and everything else? Were you able to do all the small things that a person needs in such a situation with a smile on your face and able to still make the ill person feel valued, and even desired? Or, did you go through that period as a temporary annoyance that just needs to be borne with as much fortitude as possible, but not really a period to be cherished in any way?
Conversely, think about the times you might have been the one in need and how your loved one was with you in those times.
The way we are with each other in times of sickness tells more about how we love and how deeply we love, much more than the times of good health and circumstances. It is something we understand in theory, and when we look at it through the lenses of our lived experiences, we find that there are so many nuances. It is a tricky situation because we have different conflicting needs acting up. On one hand, there is a self-assertion, a desire to be as independent as possible. On another, a fear of being needy, along with a strong need to feel related and reassured. One wants to do as much for oneself, and yet also want to be cared for.
We sometimes are able to overlook a loved one’s freezing in times of medical need, excusing them as being squeamish, sensitive or immature. We may look at an over-functioning carer as being over-bearing, self-sacrificing, taking away your agency, your freedom and really be angry with them, or just annoyed and irritated. If we are the ones providing care, we might feel ourselves overcome with compassion and be in tears along with the one suffering, or on the other extreme, be very annoyed – judging them for their difficulty in managing this much pain when you have gone through much more.
Finding that balance between two people on how much care is welcome, how much space is needed – that could be the journey of a lifetime. If these lessons aren’t learned well, you could be those bickering old couples who can’t stand each other in their old age. Or, you could be that picture book version of the old couple sitting on a bench together – one reading, and the other resting, quietly confident in their care for each other.
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
Check in on your WhatsApp conversation with your loved one. How much of it is “What are you up to?” “Busy?” “Just checking in to see if you are free!” and messages like that?
It is one thing if these check-ins are at times of stress such as when there is something going on at work, or at home, someone is ill, either is travelling out or some key errands need to be done. It is quite another, if a lot of it is just about such quick check-ins even when there is really no pressing need for checking. If your WhatsApp history is full of such check-ins, take a moment to think about it –what did you really want when you were asking these questions? Were you stressed and seeking a bit or relief from your partner? Were you missing each other and wanted to get a bit of affection that will let your oxytocin flow? Was it to keep a tab on the other’s day so you feel you are in-touch with what’s going on? Or were you just bored?
If the answer is more of the “Just like that” variety, you might want to rein in that a little. The constant check-ins on each other, wanting to know every detail and stay connected throughout the day, almost as if one cannot really go through the ten or so hours without actually being around each other – all of it can be painted with an aura of Being Romantic, as acts of caring, of being thoughtful. Granted, sometimes it is just that – a sweet, romantic act, and even then, these can quickly cross the line into needy, entitled, demanding, sulky annoyances. You can see it again in the WhatsApp history, when the responses shift from equally endearing “XOXO, Sweetheart! Can’t wait to see you in the evening! What are you doing?” and “Yes, darling! Stuck in office meeting and thinking of you!” to curter, sharper “What is it?” “Yes, busy” or just plain blue ticks with nothing offered in return.
When that happens, it is time to recognize that the constant checking in is getting a bit too much and one needs to back off. Often though, instead of backing off, there is a greater questioning: “Why aren’t you answering?” “I am just MISSING you SO MUCH! And you don’t even care!” “Are you even in love with me anymore?” and while the first few times might get the loved one to squeeze out some attention, it is like trying to get more water out of a starved borewell in peak summer – it gets muddier and muddier, till that well of love is just coughing up ugly, dirty filth. Like our borewells, we often need to be left to recharge without being constantly drained out. We need our own rainwater harvesting, so to say – time and space for one’s own joys to fill up one’s life
Then, there can again be interesting and interested replies to those WhatsApp queries of “What u doing?’
As written for and published by the New Indian Express
If you are a gardener, you know that gardens do best when they are properly cared for – they flourish when there is appropriate watering, enough sun, protection from the pests, weeds are cleared, plants pruned and so on. You also know the one basic truth: you could plant all the seeds you want, but you cannot really force them to germinate. We expect with the appropriate conditions that they do germinate, but it doesn’t always happen. We could plant a hundred seeds, and maybe all will germinate or only a few – it is hard to predict. The one thing we can predict though is that the seed we plant will grow only into itself – a tomato seed won’t become a basil plant, an eggplant seed won’t suddenly start bearing okra.
If you planted tomatoes and suddenly find basil sprouting up, it doesn’t mean that there was some miraculous transformation – it only means that this new plant came up from seeds that were there already in the first place. What does that have to do with love or relationships, you ask?
Think of it: You go about doing small things for the person you love. A bit of shopping here, a bit of dusting there, some conversations, maybe a little cooking. You plant lots of seeds like that all around, and you expect that they germinate into a nice little garden of love. It typically does, when you have the best environment for it. Occasionally though, a small action from your side which you expected to have a certain kind of result, ends up bringing something else altogether. A volunteer plant, so to say, that grows up alongside what you planted.
For example, you might have surprised your loved one with a small box of macaroons. Just for the heck of it. You expected smiles of joy, maybe a hug and a kiss. What if you get a bout of tears instead? You did something nice, and you expected something nice to come out of it, but something else happened. Was it your action that caused this reaction? The short answer is No. Your action triggered something else to express itself – a different seed possibly come there by accident, from somewhere in the past, has germinated and is making itself heard.
Now, in the gardening example, would you get offended that a different plant has voluntarily sprung up when you planted tomatoes? You would likely not. You might observe the volunteer plant to see if it is valuable, like say, basil – and keep it if it is, and if it some random weed, you might discard it. It isn’t personal.
Can you do the same when there is an unexpected reaction for something in a relationship? Can you see that these may not be about you at all? That they are random seeds germinating – perhaps an old memory, a story handed down by parents, something religion or tradition has planted. Can you then see if this is valuable or not and act accordingly, instead of blaming?
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
Have you ever found yourself in an argument with a loved one where you are starting to talk about how upset you are, and in a very short time, find both of you getting caught up in ascertaining what were the “exact” facts of the matter? It could be about saying who said what, when and in what tone, what happened and where it happened. Sometimes, the search for facts can get you into loops of memory – you might be saying, “It was Tuesday evening, we were just outside Corner House on 12th Main in Indiranagar,” and your partner might interrupt saying, “That is clearly not correct. Corner House shifted from there months ago!’
The argument then gets side-tracked into which ice-cream place, where and what, and nothing productive emerges from the discussion. The fight was in all likelihood about feeling let down or hurt in some way, and wanting to let that come out – nothing to do with where this ice-cream place is or was, when it was visited, what was had there.
We see it so often when someone is bereaved – people coming in to offer their respects often ask the bereaved for the facts: when did it happen, how, who was there at that time, which hospital, what had been tried to resuscitate the person and so on and so forth to the point where sometimes the grieving persons get angry and tell them off. Are the facts so important? Could the person offering condolences just focus on being of some comfort, pay their respects and be off?
We get facts and truth quite mixed up. They are really not the same at all. Truth is there is something that needs to be acknowledged and addressed. The attempt is to get some sense of comfort and companionship over that – not cross all the ‘t’s and dot all the ‘I’s. It might be important in a court of law to get the facts all lined up, but in real life relationships, truth is a far more important matter.
So, what makes us dig up all these facts and figures when we just want to say, “You were rude to me. I got hurt, and I wish you’d help me feel better?”
I might have had the banana-split or maybe some gelato, and it might have been Milano and not Corner House at all – the facts of it are not as important, as the truth that I was miffed that you took 3 big spoons out of mine, and when I reached out into your sundae, you turned away and that made me upset. I just want to say that I want fair sharing – that’s all.
To listen to that truth, one needs to be able to actually hold interest in the other’s experience and drop the defensiveness for a little while, to know we might hurt even without intending. If we can do that, we might be able to say, “Hey, Sorry!” and go on to further sundaes without much incident.
As written for and published in The New Indian Express
The heat is on. Quite literally, Bangalore’s heat-traps are sending temperatures soaring in the mini-climate zones around the city with some amateur meteorologists already taking to Instagram with 40 degree C readings on their car’s thermometer. As the summer starts its build-up, we in Bangalore wait eagerly for our famous April showers for welcome relief but we have all of March to go through before we can expect those blessed storms. In the meantime, we tolerate the dry heat as best as we can. It is not just the streets that are seeing temperatures rise, but even at home – in relationships, that is.
As temperatures rise beyond comfortable levels, our moods too get a bit frayed. We are more irritable, a lot more easily exhausted and generally stressed out with the heat. Now, put two such people together, both looking for a way to get comfortable and chill a little, chances are that even the small requests like for a glass of cold water, or an errand such as getting out to photocopy a PAN card for some official purpose can get one really snappy. “The fridge is just a few feet from you. Go get yourself the cold water,” might be the reply for the first, and “Couldn’t you do it when you were out in the morning? Or tell me when I had gone to buy veggies in the morning? I am not going anywhere before 6pm!” and that can leave both quite upset and fuming, yet wondering what just happened.
Fights seem to break out for no reason and they seem to stay in the air like the bleak summer haze shimmering over the black tar of our city’s roads. They may not be long arguments over serious matters. In fact, they are quite likely to be about the most mundane matters, very short and very vicious tongue-lashings, as if neither has the energy to really rake up issues and argue logically or appeal to emotions. These summer fights are like the sudden gusts of hot, dusty wind and the dust-devils they stir up which dissipate as quickly as they start. They only seem to accentuate the weather and the general irritability rather than actually be about anything really personal.
With the heat being what it is, all one wants is to cool off and most of the time, that seems like a solitary activity – not something one necessarily wants to do in close proximity with others.
On the flip side, any ability to actually present a cool, comfortable place for someone you care about is met with serious gratitude. A cool home, ice in the fridge, fresh water chilling, water melons and other cold snacks, light salads – any and all of these just make one go “Aaah!” and feel the heat dissipate. Nothing like that welcome coolness to make one grateful, and heart grow fonder. The appreciation is bound to show, just as much as the irritability.
So, are you going to let summer get to you, or can you be cool?
As written for and published in the New Indian Express
The coming of summer in Bangalore always seems so very sudden. Even up to the first week of February, everyone still has their quilts out and the ceiling fans are quite still through the night. We don’t need heating, but certainly don’t need any cooling either. Then quite suddenly, within a couple of weeks, it gets so very dry and so very hot. The winter just passed has had so many Bangaloreans connecting back to how Bangalore used to be, the long, pleasant weather causing reminiscences about winters past and how wonderful it is to have a taste of that old Bangalore weather yet again.
Now, even though it is not even March, places in the city where all the trees are gone and it is just another steel and concrete mess, temperatures are already above 35 degrees. People around Bangalore are likely making the transition from quilts to summer blankets very quickly this week. The ceiling fans are getting dusted off and conversations are starting about whether this will be the summer when Bangalore will finally lose its “A/C City” tag to become yet another city full of droning air-conditioners, like in much of mainland India.
Relationships are quite often like that in how the mood of it changes rapidly.
Let’s say the beautiful Bangalore winter is like the honeymoon period of any relationship. It is pleasant, comfortable and there is a lot of space to just chill and be with each other. When it gets over, life moves on into some kind of general routine, and there are times of connectedness and others when it is not so much. Then, quite unexpectedly, we sometimes get a longish second honeymoon – like our longer and more pleasant winter that just passed. After many, many years, there comes again a time when there is a strong sense of that connectedness, there is joy in being together, love in the air, fond smiles and affection overflowing – and then, in a manner of weeks, it dissipates and we are back to humdrum relating, as if the cool winter is over and the harsh summer has set upon us already with barely any springtime in between. It is so rapid, as if to shake the whole thing off, that it was unbelievable in the first place that the ease and chillness of it was ever warranted at all.
Either we are like Bangalore where things get dry and dreary, or we are like Leh-Ladakh where we get far too cold and distant after brief summers of joy, or we plod along in the sweat and steaminess of Chennai with just that little Margazhi season of fun and happiness. Can relationships be in a state of forever pleasantness like, maybe, Hawaii? Can the honeymoon last forever?
It is the rare relationship that can sustain pleasantness right through.
For the vast majority of us, we need to learn to appreciate the subtler joys of the changes in how we relate in our lives – like how we look forward to mangoes in this summer heat.
As written for and published by The New Indian Express
This Valentine’s Day in India was a horrible day for the CRPF jawans killed in their trucks by a suicide bomber. As the jawans trundled down those mountainous paths in the rickety old buses, crowding against each other, one wonders if there had been Valentine’s Day plans for all those young people and their loved ones back at their homes. Did some have internet video calls with their sweethearts earlier that day, or were planning to talk later in the day? Did others long to have a sweetheart or were just starting?
They certainly wouldn’t have anticipated that a 22-year old would ram an explosive-laden car into their convoy, killing all of them. Whether it be through such horribly violent terrorist attacks, or like earlier in the month by the crash of a test flight of an upgraded Mirage flight that killed squadron leaders Samir Abrol and Siddhartha Negi in HAL, Bangalore, and hundreds more over the years, both in times of war and in times of relative peace, love can and does come to an abrupt end for so many of our people in the armed forces. Just in the last five years, we have seen many pilots lose their lives to aircraft crashes, ambushed CRPF jawans massacred in the heartland, terrorist attacks in multiple pockets on our borders, even one of our air bases.
What does one do if their loved one is so suddenly, violently and cruelly snatched away? For those losing a loved one in the armed forces, seeing their loved one come back draped in the national flag and knowing the violent end they met, how does one even begin to deal with it?
Loss is hard enough, and harder still when one is left loving someone who has so suddenly disappeared, and so violently at that. Loving someone is also learning to live with the fear of loss, especially in lines of service that are so exposed to mortality.
On this Valentine’s Day, the preciousness of this love, the awareness of its fragility and the pervasiveness of the fear of losing it gets driven home to not just those immediately connected with the jawans who lost their lives, but also for everyone else. We all take that hit for a second, and feel the pain of losing someone we love. We empathize with their families and loved ones, because we all share that fear of losing someone we love. We know how dreadful it is to even imagine such loss, and how we go through our loved lives imagining ourselves far from such tragedy and yet it strikes so close to home, and so often.
The beauty of such love is not so much in its eternal life, as much as it is in loving anyway despite the fear of loss, despite its fragility. We love even more knowing that it is precious and maybe we will ask more from those we can hold responsible to keep this love safe for Valentine’s Day and all the other days.
As written for and published in the New Indian Express
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.