The Art of Stillness

I enjoy reading Pico Iyer. The other day while trying to sail through the madness of the newsroom and stiff deadlines, I took a little break and ordered online a copy of  Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness. I decided to give my favourite Amazon a miss and chose another site (No, not Flipkart). Well, I chose this site  because it was offering me a price which was Rs 22 (when you convert, it’s far far lower than one dollar) less than the offer given by Amazon. The lure of saving money.

 

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This was my first purchase from this site. My heart says it will be last too. Little did I know that this site took the title of my book  very literally. They true to the title of the book decided to be STILL for many days and weeks. They taught me to practice The Art of Stillness in real life. I waits and waited.

The stillness turned into movement when I received the book two days back after I had forgotten about it completely.

The slim book is a pleasure to read. I m not rushing through it.

Like slow cooked mutton biryani, I m savoring it.

Slowly. And slowly.

20 years : The story still unfolds

It’s a special day for me. Today I celebrate 20 years of being in the world’s second oldest profession i.e journalism. I came into this exciting, ever-evolving world by my sheer love for news, a desire to tell a story. And after 20 years, I am still madly in love with the art of telling a story. Today, I look back and ruminate about the lessons I have picked up from this journey :

Life is uncertain and that is why it’s so seductive, so intoxicating. Everyday, we journalists come to work without having an idea about how the day will evolve in the end. What will be the big story at the end of the day? I remember one mild November evening in 1996. Our editor-in-chief was telling about it being a very dull day (news wise) and we were all discussing what would be the next day newspaper’s headline. And exactly after 30 minutes, we got a panic call in the news room. And then came the horrible news of the mid-air collision at Chakhri Dadri which killed 351 people on board. We all stayed at the office till the wee hours. And for quite some weeks, the editor-in-chief did not even utter the word ‘boring day.’

Life lies in details. A wonderfully written story will lose its charm even if there’s a ‘small’ spelling mistake. Some years back, I did an interview with a leading theatre personality and director. My editor praised me for a ‘well-written interview’ and I went home happy that night. The next day, I woke up to horror. The reason: the desk person did not pay attention while doing a spell-check in the copy I had written. And the theatre personality’s name Rita Mafei was published as Rita MAFIA. And to top it all, she was an Italian (So ‘Mafia’ became more deadly in this case)  I wanted to go underground that day. However, Rita was gracious enough to say ‘Even prominent international newspapers have done similar mistakes.’ And she had a hearty laugh too.

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There’s no greater virtue than compassion.  You can’t be a good journalist if you are not compassionate. If somebody will ask me about that one quality of mine which I am proud of as a journalist, I would say: I can talk about anything to anybody with dignity and compassion. So, whether it’s a riot victim, a cancer survivor or somebody who lost her entire family to the killer Gujarat earthquake of 2001, people have opened their hearts and shared their story with me. They did so because I was just listening to their story with compassion. Not judging them.

What you have is yours. Having less is fine but hold on to your ethics. When I started my career in 1995, it was a meager salary. Money wise, it has never been a luxurious journey. But the thrill of chasing a story, meeting deadlines, coming up with new ideas, conversations with new people almost everyday is so fulfilling that the lure of making big money doesn’t really look appealing. Living in big cities, working for premier publications bring in lot of temptations but to stand there with your head held high and not falling prey to temptations gives you a high. I have never ever had a free meal in a restaurant in the last 20 years and I am happy that way.

Cut the excess.  I am passionate about editing. My friends tease me by telling that I can even edit dry cleaning bills. Editing has taught me the art of ‘saying more using less.’ It has also taught me to look beyond a life of excess. Less can be more. There’s an elegance in telling a story in a concise way. Most importantly, it has taught me to be dispassionate. Whether it’s my story, my favourite colleague’s story or my husband’s travel article, the craft of editing rules over love, affection. Emotions are relegated to the background. The ‘scissor’ is the ultimate winner.

Be in sync with change: When I first started my career, we had no idea that one day the internet will be so overwhelming in its presence. It has changed the way we read, write or gather news. The times have changed. Today, we look at both print and web stories as part of our profession. So, as life unfolds, always be open to embrace change.

Look beyond the tag: I often remember that ‘nameless’ person (from a small place in Haryana) who made a phone call to PTI office in New Delhi  to tell us about the mid-air collision. He kept on saying, “saab maine dekha…maine dekha (I saw it, I saw it).” For a journalist, every source is sacred. Don’t dismiss a person just because he/she can’t speak English or wear branded clothes. Be open to embrace stories from anybody and everybody. The same goes for in life. Don’t live in your cocooned world. Take a step forward and ‘feel’ people.

Knowledge is power: The world might say anything but knowledge is powerful. Senior colleagues of mine read five to seven newspapers in a day. Everyday they add something to their knowledge. There is no limit to knowledge. I talk a lot to my younger colleagues about music, tech trends, college campuses, cafes and dating. That keeps me clued in. So, when somebody plays ‘It’s yellow’, I know it’s Coldplay.  Well, on a lighter vein,  that makes me ‘thanda thanda cool cool’.

Jaipur Literature Festival : A collage

Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) is a collage of different voices, conversations, colours, moods and happiness too. This collage follows from that essentially. I was there as a participant not as a journalist. Yet on many occasions in life, I see the world through the eyes of a journalist (thought not consciously). Here goes a collage of images that have stayed with me.

Listening to Naipaul:  I skipped my lunch to listen to V S Naipaul. But I must say, I was very sad at the end of the session.. Even though he said talks of sunsets now make him sad, listening to him made me sad. Looking at him sitting on a wheel chair on the stage, I couldn’t help thinking about life, the cruelty of age and of course sunsets. The questions put to Naipaul by Farrukh Dhondy were anything but interesting. Naipaul every now and then kept on telling, “Is that enough, Farrukh?” At some point in life, life somehow steals our flamboyance, arrogance. And then you just turn around and see a setting sun on the horizon.

Of rains, chairs and bees:  Rains forced me to continue to sit at one session as I had the most prized possession in JLF — a chair. So, like a true risk-averse middle-class person of 70s India, I decided to cling to my safety net (read chair). Sometimes, safety can give you a pleasant surprise too. The session i attended was on bumble bees. It was an eye-opener for me to get a glimpse of how  this large beautiful universe operates and how much we need to be in sync with nature. Mindless development and urbanization are going to cause huge harm to us and our environment as it causes bee loss on a large scale. Eventually, it will disrupt beautiful harmony of life and nature. I felt like a student in an exciting classroom.

Mythology matters: India seems to be in a mood to revel in its wonderful world of mythology. So, the sessions by Devdutt Pattanaik and Amish Tripathi were jam-packed. The best part is that you can actually connect myth to contemporary life. As Devdutt said, “Myth is subjective truth, it is transmitted from generation to generation.  Is your truth fact or fiction?  What’s the truth? Who decides what’s truth? Objective truth is singular. Subjective truth is plural. Science is about measurement. But you can never measure infinity. It’s a concept. It’s the Indian thought.”  We indians have always worshipped trees, rocks, rivers, mountains. We have happily embraced different streams of thought. We are becoming intolerant as a society now because we are now obsessed with objectivity.  I can’t agree with him more.

Bollywood rocks: There is no running away from Bollywood whether it’s cricket, politics or literature. The sessions by Bollywood personalities like Javed Akhtar (I fail to understand if so many people enjoy listening to poets like him, why poetry books are struggling to sell in India… or is it all about his B-Town connection), Naseeruddin Shah and Prasoon Joshi were all packed to the T. Talk of being star-obsessed.

Of overcoats, boots and stoles: Most of them look like clones of each other. Or to better to put in the market language, “assembly-line production.” So, you can see scores of women flaunting overcoats, boots and stoles. Not to miss over-sized rings on their fingers. Age seems to have stopped somewhere in this whirpool of clones. Liberalization has robbed India of its diversity even in wardrobes. Sad, indeed.

A journey and more: During the four days I spent there, I met a number of people who have travelled all the way from Seattle, Tel Aviv, Cape Town, London. And in India, people came from Bengaluru, Kochi and Kolkata just to listen to their favourite authors.

A chef called Vikas Khanna:  When some of my young colleagues drooled over Vikas Khanna and fought with each other to interview him, I didn’t take it seriously. A friend’s daughter kept on pestering me to share his mobile number with her (she was ecstatic when she came to know that I have his mobile number). But seeing young girls, women in their 40s and 50s literally falling over him was a sight in itself. It’s liberating to see women lusting after a chef instead (or I should say in addition to) of cricketers, film stars and singers. Vikas had a real tough time to find his way through the never-ending maze of his fans. When he said on a lighter vein, “I will take questions only from boys,” there was collective sighs and ‘oh nos’ from the fairer sex. He is one sizzling hot chef, I must say.

Basic instinct: Nothing wins like basic instinct. Novelist Hanif Kureishi deserves a standing ovation for his deadpan wit. He feels there’s too much of sex happening everywhere. He said, “We are living in generalized perversion.” So the challenge lies not in writing about pornography but in writing about happy marriages where two people are still happy to be together even after being together for years. When American writer Nicholson Baker talked about how he got his first lessons on how babies happen (like there’s male chicken and there’s a female one (if I remember correctly his mom explained it to him)),  Hanif said, “That’s why you love KFC.”  And when there was a question about how pornography is becoming mainstream in the light of Fifty Shades of Grey now being made into a movie, Hanif said with a straight face, “Yes, it will be released on Valentine’s Day.”

Chai pe charcha: It wouldn’t be fair to say that Modi has made chai more popular. Judging by the long queues at the Pushkari chai (pic included here) stalls, our humble chai can give the Bollywood stars a run for their money. At Rs 30, the steaming chai in a kullad gave an earthy, warm feeling on a cold day. The colas will be always there but there’s something intimate about that little kullad chai. I have always maintained that Modi is a master strategist. And I would be happy if he  fails me in future. Even if that meant spending Rs 30 or more for chai.

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Of sweet Baklava and sadness : I am not a great fan of baklava. But that day in JLF, I just felt like having one. When I went to the counter to pick up the sweet (after paying Rs 40), I got a baklava which was smaller than (now unavailable) 25 paisa coin. Size can sometimes really make you sad (even though sexologists across the world now vigorously maintain that pleasure has nothing to do with size).

Low-cost happiness

When I booked my Bangkok ticket for Rs 48,000 in October 2014, my friends got into a collective mourning phase. So, for almost two weeks, they kept on telling me , “Oh, for this amount (and a little more), you could have gone to Istanbul, London, Paris…” Their never-ending list covered almost all parts of the globe other than Antarctica (that was really generous). And in typical Indian way, they never forgot to add, “This money is too much for Bangkok. You got a really bad deal.” Well, the Bangkok trip was done only to make my very close friend happy as she wanted to spend her birthday with me in a third destination. I am an old soul who doesn’t believe in always calculating, adding and subtracting in life.

But my friends’ constant talk of my Bangkok ticket did something to my psyche. So one of my bucket lists for 2015 was to experience joy, happiness at low cost. So, I chose to go to Jaipur to be a part of the much-talked about literature festival. And I decided to make it a low cost one. The natural choice was to go by the Indian Railways. I am challenged in many spheres of life (the list will be longer than UPA government’s scam lists).  With great difficulty, I opened an IRCTC account but I could never log in as it kept on telling wrong password (The password was a combination of my name and my ex love’s name. May be the Indian Railways found that it’s not ‘ethical’ for a married woman to have such a password).

But then there are always somebody or the other to come to my rescue. So, by the grace of the universe,  one of my colleagues offered to book my ticket from his account.  When he asked, “A two-tier AC ticket?” I said “No, no…book it in three-tier AC (I wanted to go slow on every penny).” The hotel in Jaipur where I stayed was definitely a drool-worthy deal. It’s a nice small heritage property (however, In Jaipur/ Udaipur, it’s very difficult to find a non-heritage property (every hotel’s name ends with ‘palace’ and this was no different). The highly involved owners of the ‘palace’ hotel make sure that it’s well-maintained. The only drawback is that they don’t serve non-vegetarian food. So, I missed having an omelette in the breakfast. But it was a small price to pay for a wonderful deal.

The organisers of Jaipur Literature Festival definitely deserve a toast for keeping it free. So, for four days I got to listen to writers/thinkers/philosophers/scientists from across the world on a variety of subjects without spending a penny. There can be no greater happiness than reveling in knowledge.

When you are in the Pink City, it’s natural to indulge in some shopping. I have a put an embargo on buying clothes. So, I bought a beautiful bed-cover, bangles for myself and my cook and ear-rings for my cook’s daughter who also works at my home. The shopping sojourn deserves another post which will give a slice of life in India.

I came back to Ahmedabad as a much happier person with loads of stories from the lanes and bylanes of the Pink City and of course from Diggi Palace (the venue of the Litfest). And all this did not cost me much. Who says happiness needs to have a big price tag?

Jaipur Literature Festival: A collage (On Day I)

Salman Rushdie finally didn’t come. Literature lovers across the country are feeling betrayed. But then that’s politics at it best, I would say. Who cares about liberal voices in this country?  As somebody who loves the world of word immensely, I am here at the Jaipur Literature Festival, 2012. The first thing I noticed was the security and all the checking one had to go through for getting an entry (it happened for the first time here, I have been here before). I am just putting a collage of images that stayed in my mind. For serious literature, I will write when I am back at my desk at home.

PRISON DIARIES AND CHOCOLATE CAKE:  Iftikhar Gilani, Anjum Zamarud Habib, Sahil Maqbool (all from Kashmir) were there at Jaipur Literature Festival talking about their experiences of being termed as a terrorist/traitor and subsequently arrested and put in the jail. Even as they were recounting their gut-wrenching experiences,  there was this woman in the audience who was seen relishing her chocolate cake. It did seem a little bit ironical as you really don’t put prison horrors and chocolates together. But then as they say chocolate is nothing but just pure sin.

CROWD AND MORE CROWD: There’s a saying in Odia (a language spoken in the Eastern Indian state called Odisha) “sorisha pakai baku bhi jagga na thila.” which means “the place was so crowded that you couldn’t even put mustard seeds.” The moment I saw the venue, this saying came to my mind. Crowd and more crowd everywhere. There’s was no running away from people. When I was here to attend the literary festival in 2010, one could sit, relax and  indulge in a drink in the evening and strike a conversation with a friend or a stranger. But this year, to run from one venue to another after a session gets over, one has to push one’s way through a sea of people. For everything, there’s queue— from grabbing a cup of coffee, sandwich to drinking water. Needless to say, I had to do a forced Anna Hazare act on the first day (without any food).

STYLE: JLF has become a place to be in, to be seen and to generally sashay in style. So, there were ladies and ladies in their perfectly co-ordinated long overcoats, boots (meant for New York in winters), LVs, Pradas and colourful expensive shawls and stoles. If you have it, flaunt it— never mind even if it’s a literature festival. I heard three women discussing a younger woman’s ear-ring in such detail that I thought they can give competition to Rohington Mistry for his brilliantly vivid novel ‘A fine Balance.’ My humble question: Style, can you name a place which you have not invaded?

CLICK, CLICK: Can somebody please tell me who thought of bringing this nuisance in this world called ‘mobile phone with camera’. Today, it’s all about capturing the moment through the lens. Nobody is in a mood to listen to an author or a musician singing a soulful song. All that people want is to look through the lens. Imagine hundred of cameras all around you in active mode all through the day, when all you want is words, solitude and a calming thought process. Well, in the age of 24X7 news, Facebook, twitter, probably this is too much to expect.

NET GAIN: From conversations, I overheard I could make it out that, everybody is a writer now. Either somebody is writing about a book he/she read or she’s penned a story/poem. But lots of people are writing and the internet, I must say is a great leveler. Long live the power of expression or the right to express yourself.