The Rich Vegetarian

An Examined Life

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A couple of years ago, my husband and I visited the United Kingdom for a weeklong vacation. We stopped at London to meet P’s aunt and cousin. I also had the chance to meet a dear friend whom I hadn’t met in well over a decade. We walked around the city, taking all manner of public transport to get around. It was a lovely day, and we ate, walked, and talked a lot.

Two days later, we headed to Scotland where I proceeded to fall in love with everything.

I must explain what led us to Scotland, and Isle of Skye, specifically. I am a huge fan of Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. I love almost everything the man writes. His “La’s Orchestra Saves the World” feels a bit like the story of my life; it is likely my all-time favorite book. McCall Smith has created a bunch of memorable characters, and one of my favorites is Isabel Dalhousie. She is a mother, wife, philosopher, editor and a lifelong do-gooder. Isabel labors long and hard over the moral implications of everything she does, and yes, I mean EVERYTHING. She ponders over the ethical implications of overfishing (“do we owe fish to future generations?”); she broods over the fact that she is a wealthy woman who can afford a full-time housekeeper.

Isabel is incapable of letting even a single act of injustice, however minor, pass unnoticed; she cannot but do something to right it, anything. And ever so often, her well-intentioned acts land her in messy/unpleasant situations. But that does not deter Isabel. Her heart bleeds for every individual suffering on the planet, and she feels “moral proximity” with everyone who crosses her path, including a wild fox who haunts her garden and plucks out flower bulbs. Sincere to the core, Isabel is half-American, a gentle mother and loving wife, a lifelong devotee of philosophy and classical music and cryptic crosswords… what’s not to love about her? I must confess, though… sometimes I lose patience with her. I find myself getting exasperated with her benefactor tendencies. Back off, Isabel. It isn’t always your business.

Isabel lives in Merchiston Crescent, Edinburgh, and one of the cases takes her to the Isle of Skye… And that explains why we visited Scotland. Plus, I love the name “Skye.”

We spent a day in sunny gorgeous Edinburgh, the boarded a tour bus to Skye. It was a three-day tour where driver Nick doubled up as a tour guide. And he was one helluva excellent fantastic tour guide. He brought Scotland to life for a bus of tourists, all visiting from places as far as India, Korea, Canada, China and United States. I think we collectively fell in love with Nick, and Skye, and Scotland.

Nick told us stories of clan rivalries, massacres (“No hawkers or Campbells”), Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites, William “Braveheart” Wallace, and more. He told us why he didn’t wear kilts often (truth: you don’t wear underwear with a kilt), and that he wasn’t such a big fan of haggis (the vegetarian version is fairly decent too). Nick had a special Skye playlist that he played all through the trip, and it featured Gaelic music that touched my heart in a secret, lonely way. I just couldn’t get over the pipes and their melancholy, and they provided a fitting soundtrack to our trip driving through the brooding Scottish landscape with its countless hidden lochs and lilac bracken-laden lunar landscapes. Scotland is a dreamy, magical place that appealed to my inner romantic in a strangely pensive way.

Scattered like gold, from Dunkeld to Aberfeldy
The seasons unfold, that’s the things we love
Walk through the field, in the frost of a winter morning
Nature revealed, that’s the things we love

No, don’t ask us to take what we can give her
She lives inside us and we know her well
There’s no right reason to fear or to forgive her.

Standing alone, on top of the Ben-A-Caly
Great rocking stone, that’s the things we love
Catching the eye, of the owl in the early morning
Great buzzards cry, that’s the things we love

No, don’t ask us to take what we can give her
She lives inside us and we know her well
There’s no right reason to fear or to forgive her
It’s so easy, it’s just the things we love

(From Dougie Maclean’s “Perthshire Amber – Fourth Movement”)

The tour ended and we were back in lovely Edinburgh for a day before we had to head back to London. We spent the morning clambering up Arthur’s Seat, a hill rising above Edinburgh to a height of 822 ft. As we rested a bit drinking in the fabulous views, a British group came up a winding, narrow path. A gentleman in a pink jacket seemed to be the troupe leader, and he exclaimed, “Where is Arthur? Surely he should have been here, welcoming us with a drink.” We also spent a few joyful hours at the National Scottish Gallery gawking at beautiful art.

We took the train to London the following morning. Spent a day with family, and then it was time to fly back home to Atlanta, sigh.

My heart felt full yet heavy. In a matter of days, I had developed a connection with Scotland and I felt sad leaving. Language and landscapes, music and melodies and memories of a glorious past, castles and cliffs and rocky shores and faerie lakes — I’d miss all of them. I’d miss Nick and his good cheer, his “yes, my dear?” and “Huzzah and Hurrah” so bad. Had I been younger, I’d have happily and miserably fallen in love with Nick/Scotland (definitely conflating the two) and cried my eyes out all the way across the Atlantic. Thankfully, none of that happened. I hope Nick is happy in Edinburgh, and I am certainly happy here in Atlanta.

As I savor the sublime pleasure of a gorgeous Fall afternoon here in the South, watching the sun illuminate my home and the fruit trees in our backyard, I cannot help but dream of Scotland, and plot when I can go back next.

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A Navaratri Story

Navaratri, Divine Feminine, Beauty, Grace, Power

Navaratri is a lovely time of the year. The nine-day festival is a celebration of the Divine Feminine in all her resplendent forms — mother, daughter, artiste, warrior, musician, danseuse, princess, and others.

Navaratri arrives in the Oct-Nov time frame, as autumn descends on India and temperatures start falling. Not entirely so, because summer is a tenacious season, and October heat is a real, tangible beast. But Navaratri nights were/are always cool. And this is so important, because Navaratri nights are all about dancing. This is not the slow, sedate kind of dancing but more the spirited, energetic type.

People gather every evening, form a circle (or some kind of elongated circular-oval formation), and dance. The circle moves quick and smooth, and you have to keep pace with your fellow dancers. The hand clapping is basic, but the footwork is often sweeping and elaborate. The music used to comprise of traditional melodies and simple rhythms, but today you can find a melange of movie song remixes, disco beats, electronica and funky new tunes during Navaratri. All music that is even remotely hummable is packaged into a Navaratri-friendly format, which means you can dance to it, all night long.

Navaratri is also about gorgeous Indian clothing and jewelry (not shoes, because most people kick them off before dancing), which means that you get to see women beautifully dressed in shimmering chaniya-cholis and lehengas, jewelry swinging from ears, necks, waists and wrists. Guys wear colorful kurtas and kurtis, dupattas/stoles carelessly slung around the shoulders, looking every bit as dashing and attractive as their female partners.

Each apartment/building complex typically hosts its own Navaratri dance celebration, small or large, depending on the space at hand. Some larger event venues stage mega Navaratri events featuring circles within circles with hundreds of dancers. The innermost circles are where you’d see the most experimental performers, their moves grand and spectacularly elaborate. These dancers are the prizewinning types, and if you are unable to keep pace with their whirling energies, you are better off moving to one of the outer circles where the dance steps are simpler and everyone moves slower.

In my building complex, the dances took place right beneath my apartment balcony, and I could hear them all night long. I could see older aunties moving gracefully at a steady rhythm, enthusiastic young men and women doing their fancy moves, older uncles keeping pace in their own slow way, and lots of little kids playing/dancing along. And everyone would be all aglow, smiling and laughing and chatting and dancing. The music would wind down at a reasonable hour, and the adventurous folks would head to another venue, dance for hours, rinse and repeat, all night long until dawn. Make your way home at the end of a night of dancing, catch some sleep, go to work (or not), then do it all over again… For nine straight nights.

It was a magnificent spectacle, one that I watched from afar for years, through my childhood and youth. I seriously ached to join in the dancing and merriment but I never did, not even a single time.

You see, I was a shy kid. Not that you’d ever know because I was so good at playing the role of an extrovert. I’d regularly speak up in class, and raise my hand at every question the teacher asked. I had a comment or opinion on everything, and I wasn’t shy about opening my mouth and sharing it either. But I had no friends to speak of. I spent all my years in school feeling like a misfit, an awkward outsider. I am still befuddled to this day how I projected such a confident exterior, even as I hungered for friendship and connection with my peers.

I think it all began in my kiddie days. I was painfully sensitive as a child. Our apartment building was inhabited mostly by Gujarati families, and most kids spoke Gujarati among themselves. My family hails from Kerala, and Malayalam is our native tongue. I spoke no Gujarati, and I was too shy to go introduce myself to the other kids. So I stayed home. And no one came looking for me. I spent my childhood immersed in books and reading, fantasizing about friends and fun times. I played little, preferring to spend time with books, dance, music, films, and so on. I had no friends at home or at school.

It felt like I lacked a basic gene or something equally fundamental that prevented me from connecting with others my age, and this seemed to follow me everywhere.

I have felt like a misfit, many times in life… and not just at school. And I have been regarded as a snob, an uppity kind of personality. Again, this befuddles me, but it seems that this is not an uncommon experience, after all.

Anyway, this isn’t a pathetic story about a lonesome childhood. It is an honest attempt to describe a childhood, and it may not be all that unique an experience.

A child’s life isn’t always simple. It isn’t about friends, play, or fun all the time. A child has a complex inner world, and the pain and nervousness is real. There is genuine confusion, and fear of judgment, and awkwardness, and all of that. There is internal conflict about self and the other, about fitting in and standing out.

And some of us experience this more acutely than the others, yes.

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