Root Menu

Melanie

A Self-Portrait

Photo of hand-written poem: 'The Chase'

Hitting middle age is bound to change one’s priorities and this has certainly been my case. You come face to face with the fact that you are not immortal, however much you might have fooled yourself about this when you were younger! The realisation that one has limited time has resulted in an interest in the spiritual side of life – not that this was not a part of my growing up years. I come from a family where spirituality, philosophy and death did come up in day-to-day conversations but there is nothing quite like the ticking of the chronological clock to compel one to look at life differently. To compound this is the fact of seeing the greying of the generation ahead of you and the passing away of many loved ones from old age, disease, pain and suffering. And what immediately comes to mind is the story of Prince Siddhartha who is unable to handle the sight of a sick man, an old man and a dead body, and leaves his life of princely luxury and his family in quest of Nirvana (salvation), which he ultimately finds and becomes known as the Buddha or the Enlightened One.

Fears and insecurities dog human existence and vary with age but I have not really measured mine in terms of intensity. Of course, the dreads of frailties that accompany old age, ill health, the loss of loved ones and the knowledge that, as the years go on, I may have to confront many more such losses, do, at times, bring on feelings of isolation and loneliness. I try to snap out of it by making a drastic shift in my thought processes, listening to music and talking to family or friends.

Undoubtedly, the use of spiritual aids is the best antidote and this may range from sitting down to meditate, reading uplifting matter or telling myself that I should live in the present and count my blessings. The practice of Reiki teaches you to make many positive affirmations whilst Vipassana speaks of observing your thoughts, happy or sad, and letting them go, without attaching yourself to either. The practice makes you aware that one’s whole life is governed by feelings of either desire (attachment) or aversion, and the technique shows you how these sensations start from the physical body in the form of bio-chemical reactions. One is told that constant practice will result in being able to face everything in life with equanimity, but I think that I have a long way to go.

I mostly feel favoured by my background – that of having educated parents who provided my siblings and myself the best in education. I have many memories of my years with my parents. The happiest days with my father have been the inspiring discussions on life, death, religion and philosophy, laughing at his wacky jokes and being encouraged by him to crack an anagram or a crossword clue. Papa took an avid interest in what I read, guided me in my reading habits and opened up the magical world of books. I think I owe my love of the English language, its literature and an appreciation of the written word to my father.

My very literary father is also responsible for giving me a name, which is not at all a common one for a non-Christian Indian family. He drew his inspiration from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and her character’s traits of charm and devotion. This is what he wrote in his letter to the British Council in Kolkatta – my place of birth – when he wanted to trace the meaning of the name and also drew a parallel to the Indian ring to it…the name is akin to the Indian names Malini and Nalini and I am so used to being called either of these two names by those who cannot get the pronunciation right! My name has also helped me realise that the Bard might have been mistaken when he wrote, “What’s in a name?” In India, people do give you a label on the basis of your name and having a Christian name has had many people taking guesses (Indians are naturally interested in others and often quite curious, which might be mistaken for an intrusion of one’s privacy in another culture) about my religion, whether I have had an inter-caste marriage, etc. It is fun to watch the questioner’s expression change when I mention my religion or sometimes give the background to my name! It is refreshing to think that one is hard to label!

With my mother, it was joint prayer, singing and storytelling sessions that are memorable. My mother was an avid film buff and took me along with her, many a time when she had no other company, with the understanding that I should not disturb her with my doubts in the midst of a film but keep all my questions for when we returned home. Needless to say, I broke the rule on many an occasion and was quelled by a sharp look (hard to see in a dark theatre but easy to guess!). There was also an unspoken agreement that if I could not accompany her, she would have to reel out the story to me in complete detail. I remember sitting by her in the kitchen, as she prepared a meal and narrated the story of the film to me. Storytelling came effortlessly to her, and my siblings and I enjoyed listening to many tales of her childhood and growing up years. She was a great singer too, as was my father, and I think that I have been lucky to inherit my sense of music and rhythm, a singing voice and an interest in the performing arts, from both of them. I think that both fed my creative imagination in their own unique ways.

I have shared a wonderful relationship with my siblings as well, and we are close. It is fun to get together and say, “Do you remember when we did that?” and recreate those moments for the next generation. I think the children find it amusing to watch their elders lapse into a fit of giggles as they recall childhood pranks and anecdotes.

And yet not everything was idyllic in my growing up years. But I would prefer to skip talking about the bad times, as nostalgia prevents me from being able to make an accurate assessment of how bad they really were, and also because I feel that these years might actually have helped in my growth and in understanding people. I would also like to believe that I have transcended, with regard to the hard times. Sometimes, if sad thoughts find their way (as do pleasant memories of good times), I am able to get the better of them by telling myself that all experiences have contributed to making me the person that I am today.

Shirley MacLaine, the Hollywood actress, has an interesting theory about life’s experiences. Shirley developed an interest in Indian spirituality long years ago and has written many books on her quest for the truth. A believer in Karma and past lives, her writings and views have fascinated me. Hinduism is based on the law of Karma, which can be compared to the Biblical “as you sow, so shall you reap”. It could also be explained in the manner of the Newtonian law that says, “Every action has a reaction, equal and opposite.” The only problem with the law of Karma is that you might reap in one birth what you have sown in another. This is hard to reconcile because even if one accepts that one is reborn, you are obviously not the same person, so paying for what you did in another birth seems a little unfair, especially because you do not know what you might have done and also are not sure why something very bad should happen to you. The strangest thing about the Karmic theory is the absence of any God doling out honours and punishments, but more like setting something in motion through one’s actions. I find MacLaine’s theory interesting because it appears to vest responsibility on the individual. Her belief is that both our positive and negative experiences are our choices from previous births, to resolve relationships that were left hanging.

If anything still comes back to haunt me, it is the pain of the final good-byes; seeing the person that held your hand and taught you so much, disappear in a ball of fire in an electric crematorium, and following this up by going back to collect the ashes and the bones for immersion in a holy river. It is the hardest thing ever and a forced lesson on the transience of life.

Today, I find myself most passionate about my writing. It is like a meditation because I forget everything else when I am involved in my creative outpourings. My practice of Transcendental Meditation, Reiki and Vipassana meditations have offered me intimations to spirituality and unblocked my creativity – experiences that the rational mind may find hard to accept.

I have to concede that I joined up for the Reiki and Vipassana courses with a healthy mix of curiosity and scepticism, which changed to belief. The practice of Reiki involves the teacher unblocking your channels and hooking you up to what are believed to be the great Masters (saints from all religions) who have chosen to link up with the world of matter to help mankind. After the initiation, the student is told to continue with the Reiki exercises (they involve placing your hands on different parts of your body where the Chakras are located…this is hard to explain to the uninitiated but those who are interested can use the search engines for clarification or write to me via the Muse). In that one month of practice, I could feel my body being charged with energy and heat coursing through my system though I am told that the reaction varies from person to person. I also had physical manifestations of discomfort like body pain and slight fever. When I called up the teacher, she told me that this was nothing to worry about. The most interesting development after Reiki was that I who had craved to write fiction from my childhood (all my writing had till then been of a factual nature) finally penned my first short story (nothing great when I look at it now). I have written several more after that of which a few have been published in the local newspapers. I cannot help feeling that the unblocking of the Reiki Chakras had something to do with this development.

Vipassana is a tough and intense form of meditation where you are isolated from your family and placed in a meditative environment for ten days. You are also denied access to any form of communication (TV, radio, books and writing) and asked to take the vow of silence with regard to not speaking to your fellow students (though you are allowed to talk to the facilitators). The meditation has to be done, squatting on the floor, for long stretches, with breaks in between, for meals and rest. It is entirely on the lines of the practice adopted by the Buddha to gain Nirvana and is tailored to help the student follow the five Shilas (precepts of Buddhism; one of which abjures falsehood and hence the vow of silence) or practices that will facilitate the meditation process. Different people make different kinds of progress in their meditation practice and there is a fear that the comparing of notes can result in some “white lies”!

The actual practice involves learning to observe one’s breath and its points of entry and exit (an amazing discovery) and then moves on to observing one’s body, via one’s mind, from top to toe (again hard to explain). One is warned of physical sensations of discomfort and pleasure as one starts focusing inwards and also advised not to attach oneself to either of these sensations. At times the body becomes heavy, almost leaden, and the physical symptoms of pain almost unbearable. The strangest discovery is to find everyone around you experiencing discomfort, changing postures and feeling the transformation. What is good about Vipassana is that it teaches you that only you can guide your sensations and gain mastery over yourself. There is no question of blaming anyone except yourself for anything that might have gone wrong in your life. What was very noticeable at the Vipassana camp was the demeanour of the advanced practitioners and teachers. They appear to carry an enviable aura of serenity and seem at total peace with themselves and the world at large. Who would not want to aspire to this state?

I cannot really recall conversations in the sense of them being “decisive”. Enjoyable are the ones that flow in frankness, honesty where there are no pretensions, and there is the sense of a soulful connection. Difficult conversations are diametrically opposite to the enjoyable ones. I have realised to my dismay that a large number of “conversations” that people have, revolve around deriding others. I have noticed this happening in different kinds of circles and it has always troubled me. I was very happy to hear the actress, Goldie Hawn, speak on a television show about an organisation that she has started that encourages people to speak well of others and how she encourages this amongst her family members.

Recently, I was surprised to hear a renowned Kannada (the language of my state of Karnataka in India) writer vouching for “gossiping”, as necessary to social interactions and also as a valuable source for writing! Indeed, if there is a purpose to gossiping, a strong line must be drawn between sharing information about a person and slandering that person. In Hindi, one of the Indian languages, there is a proverb that speaks of a lie becoming a truth when repeated a hundred times. Slandering could turn out to be disastrous for the person who has been spoken about and could well result in him/her resorting to desperate measures. Chris, the Muse egroup moderator, wanted to know whether not being spoken about was a great deal worse than being spoken about. If given a choice, I truly think that I would plump for the state of anonymity and hide under a pseudonym, this self-portrait notwithstanding!

Love…the one word with a powerful imagery and the ability to evoke the most wonderful emotions in a human being, is also perhaps the most used and abused word in the English language. But it cannot be denied that love is an unconditional characteristic of the human soul and exists as a force to link us to every strand of creation, if we are ready to open our hearts and give of ourselves. Love in relationships is often thought of in terms of attachment, but what is more important, is that it is the most sublime of human experiences and can be absolutely liberating, if offered unconditionally and closest to spirituality when it is selfless.

I would say that I have had the good fortune of experiencing the many different facets of love in my life. Like the German psychologist, Erich Fromm, I am inclined to believe that love for mankind cannot be separated from love for one individual. The “us two against the world” form of love is superficial and shallow according to Fromm. He says, “While it may be said that love for man differs from motherly love inasmuch as the child is helpless and our fellow men are not, it may also be said that even this difference exists only in relative terms. All men are in need of help and depend on one another. Human solidarity is the necessary condition for the unfolding of any one individual.” Man is lonely by birth and always troubled with the duality of existence. Love is the one emotion that helps to transcend this feeling of separateness to create a feeling of oneness and unity. But this feeling need not necessarily be an offshoot of romantic love though I do agree that this is the form of love that is felt most intensely and perhaps nature did intend it to be so.

My tastes have evolved with the passing of years but I am not aware of any drastic shift. It has been more like a natural state of progression. I believe that all of us have a sixth sense but some become aware of it from an early age. I have felt myself to be intuitive from my childhood and have often been able to anticipate how a set of events will unfold…sometimes I have even wondered if I have actually made them happen! This sixth sense seems to have heightened over the years though it is hard for me to say whether this is a result of my spiritual endeavours. Telepathy is the sixth sense that I am most aware of and it works for me in a myriad ways so much that I have almost begun to take its functioning for granted! Often it happens that I think of a friend or a relative who might be miles away and that person will end up calling or emailing the same day. I have had my husband say, “How did you know or guess?” when I have anticipated his remarks and in turn I have a daughter who is so well attuned to me that she often says, “I knew that you were going to say that!”

Gender imbalance is a matter of great concern to me. Patriarchy is a deep-rooted malaise in India and scientific developments have made things easier for those who want to ensure that they give birth to male offspring. Couples have no qualms about the mother-to-be undergoing a sex-determination test to find out whether she is carrying a male foetus and opting to abort, in case the sex is determined to be that of a female. This practice is termed as female foeticide and is a punishable offence, both for the parents and the doctor, and yet people find ways and means of circumventing the law. What is frightening is that the practice cuts across different strata of society, though it is less prevalent in urban areas where the women are educated.

Besides this injustice to the unborn girl, there are many other injustices against women that are practised in a patriarchal Indian culture. Admittedly, these deep-rooted prejudices have sociological underpinnings but hopefully they will go sometime in the distant future. Educated, urban women have achieved a lot but the attitude of male superiority still prevails. I know that it will take a long while to disappear and the only hope is the education of the girl child. In this respect, I consider myself twice lucky…to have been born in a family where there was no discrimination and to be married to someone who believes in equality in every sense of the term.

Power and money have never been driving forces in my life, though I do believe that one should have enough in one’s purse to be comfortable. There was a time when I earned a lot of money and was horrified to sense a feeling of arrogance in me on account of this, an emotion that made me very uncomfortable with myself. I opted out of the 9-to-9 rat-race (Chris sought a clarification on whether this is the schedule in India and the sad story is that with globalisation, the corporations are really pushing their employees beyond the specified working hours…it is playing havoc with young people who are over-stressed and burning out early) to pursue a career in freelance writing (I have to express my gratitude to my spouse for the encouragement and support). In this respect I am very much inspired by the Indian writer in English called Ruskin Bond who said, “I think I have been able to pass through life without being any man’s slave or tyrant.” There are many occasions when I have written for the sheer love of writing (in the early days, there was the thrill of the responses but that doesn’t seem to matter so much now) but I am doing it less and less as paying avenues have opened up.

There is a black and white Hindi film of my parents’ time called Pyaasa (meaning thirst) in which the Director/Hero, Guru Dutt, explains his disillusionment with a materialistic and greedy world in a background song, which says, Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye to kya hai. It loosely translates as “How does it matter whether you gain the world or not?” Respect and recognition are welcome feelings but the experience of the years teaches you that you cannot get it “from all the people all of the time” and therefore I don’t think that at this stage, I would fall over myself in chasing this chimera.

I have admiration for those who earn money and pass it on, “spread the wealth”, as my very dear husband puts it. What I would really like to do is give back to society and benefit humanity in any little way to make a difference. It could be through my writings or through activism – I really don’t know – but I do dream of leaving the world a slightly better place for my having lived in it. As somebody said, “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” In my case, this would mean working for peace, inter-faith harmony, gender equality, human rights and the environment to start with.

I do not have any clear-cut domains with regard to leading and following. If another person’s grasp of a situation is better than my own, I am happy to follow. If I have a better grasp, I would naturally expect to be followed! A formal crown can well turn out to be a crown of thorns in many cases. Sometimes, it can be an “uneasy head” because of the responsibility of the position and sometimes it could well be because of the hostility of the people who resent your being at the helm of affairs. I have had occasion to be at the receiving end of such resentment and have definitely felt that I could gladly have done without these positions, which were thrust on me.

It has also troubled me to see what power does to people. I was at a place called Auroville, near Pondicherry, where a group of French people have set up a commune (open to people of all nations). What made this place very interesting was that it does not believe in the traditional sense of a leader. The whole place is run by consensus, which sounded extremely idyllic to me. But, as one of the inmates explained, decisions might take ages, because there are many levels of opinions to be considered. I know that this sounds naïve but it would be so much nicer if the important decisions of the world could be taken by consensus rather than the most powerful nations having the largest say. Surely, this would make for a more equitable distribution of the world’s resources and result in a more peaceful world. I know that the League of Nations and subsequently the United Nations was started with consensus in mind but something seems to have gone terribly wrong along the way.

Once at a job interview, the Managing Director asked me to state my greatest achievements with regard to the work that I have done. I had never thought about it in that manner earlier. When made to think about it, I was surprised to find myself say that the work that had given me the greatest satisfaction was what I had not got paid for. Thinking about it, I feel that all human beings are wired towards altruism…this may vary with regard to intensity and one may not be aware of it (as happened with me) but I do feel that this is the feeling that must have driven people down the ages and brought out the best in society and communities. I am inclined to think that this feeling of altruism may have something to do with the spiritual side of human beings. I have done honorary work for my resident community, the PTA in my daughter’s school, a woman’s organisation and also worked with the visually impaired (reading lessons and writing exams for them) and have found all these jobs very fulfilling.

My entire education has been in the social sciences and I wish that I had been exposed a little more to the physical sciences only from the point of view of having a wider perspective on life. Learning is a joy and I don’t know whether I have disliked finding out about the unpleasant aspects of life. Perhaps, I would have been a happier person if life’s seamier sides had remained unknown. I would then have been free of existential questions most important of them all being that if there is a God, why is there so much suffering in the world? Hindus say that the world is nothing but Maya or illusion but how can one accept this when one reads about tortures, child abuse, rape or any other form of human rights’ violations and is it possible to console these victims by telling them that their sufferings are illusory?

I was forcibly made aware of people working against me in certain environments and it came as a shocker. I learnt the hard way about the motivations and compulsions of such actions but presently I do not have to deal with such situations on a regular basis. I tend not to view people as my enemies but rather as people who have different outlooks. I try to bridge the distance with dialogue. I consider all those who interact with me to be my allies in the journey called life. I must confess, though, that people who backbite are a source of discomfort and I unconsciously tend to back off from them. I think I am fairly courageous but I am not confrontational and will sometimes stay silent just to keep the peace. If I am troubled by certain behaviour, I recall the statement, “The most consistent thing about human nature is its inconsistency” and remind myself that I have also been guilty of inconsistencies.

As a writer, I sometimes have starting trouble and baulk at sitting at my computer on the pretext that I am lacking in inspiration. And this despite a literary essay in college being imprinted in my head stating that you should not waste time waiting for the Muse to come but rather offer an environment conducive for her to make an appearance.

I feel that I could do much more for others and wish that I could cultivate limitless compassion. I know that this is possible only with spiritual practice, as our five senses pull us towards material pursuits, which almost always border on self-interest. Also, in a country like India, one tends to become complacent about certain things like poverty because you see it around all you all the time. I am ashamed of myself when I find myself in this state of apathy, often unconsciously.

I view my origins of being born outside my home state and living in several others as a huge advantage. This has made me multilingual (a great blessing in a diverse country like India) and also appreciative of India’s multiculturalism, which I believe is our strength. The fact of being a Pan-Indian has exposed me to a variety of cultures, practices, attitudes and languages so I have never had problems with relating to people. Some of my jobs have involved interactions with foreigners and I have enjoyed these opportunities. One such encounter was with a Japanese gentleman who told me that I reminded him of his sister, corresponded with me for a while and sent me pictures of his family. I have never lived or travelled abroad, so I think that this is one opportunity that I look forward to. Meeting diverse people, speaking their tongues, learning about their history and beliefs, adds to your fund of knowledge. When you are well informed, you can share what you know with others. This makes for interesting conversation.

Within reasonable limits, I am fine with differences but I find it hard to handle right-wing fundamentalism (in any religion), racism, America’s foreign policy, nuclear proliferation, gender-discrimination, the arms race between India and Pakistan – to name a few of my pet peeves. It bothers me that the Western countries, whilst preaching peace in the sub-continent, are practising something else by selling weapons to countries at conflict, like India and Pakistan. The money that is going on weaponry would be utilised better in development projects to help the poor in both these countries.

I am not a consummate spender though I might occasionally binge whilst on a holiday, which would include buying gifts. I do enjoy giving gifts and seeing the happiness and surprise on a person’s face. But I am very certain that money cannot buy the simple pleasures of the world, like watching a sunrise or a sunset; seeing the full moon rise; holding a baby close to your chest and feeling its soft breath on your face; inhaling the fragrance of the rain-drenched earth; or watching your flowering plants bud and then bloom. Nor can it buy the love and laughter in your family, the shared camaraderie between friends or the sudden smile exchanged with a stranger. I consider myself lucky to possess the faculties that enable me to enjoy the best things in life that money cannot buy.

I am thrilled with the friends that I have but I am not averse to making more. I would like friends whom I can learn from. Warmth and affection, companionship, inspiration and a kind ear to share your thoughts with, are what I look forward to in a friendship and so far I have not been disappointed.

Being a parent, to me, is one of the happiest things in the world. You re-live your childhood and get the opportunity to shape a life, mould a character that you hope will be of use to society and make a difference in the world. I share a loving relationship with my daughter and we are a close-knit family. I do regret, however, that I deprived her of a playmate by having just one child. I had great times with my siblings and I feel that I have done her an injustice, though I did not realise it when we took the decision. I also sometimes wonder whether I was not too strict with her in my desire not to spoil an only child.

I opted out of the 9-to-9 grind, because I wanted to give more time to my daughter in her adolescent years and carve out a writing career for myself. I feel enriched and fulfilled by this decision. I have grown spiritually and creatively, since I signed out of a full-time job. Life is full of choices and I have been a bit of an adventurer in this regard, so I feel totally confident of my being able to make another choice if circumstances so demand.

Living in the moment, thinking less about the future, reaching out to others, working on my spiritual side, cultivating more compassion and writing plenty more…perhaps publishing a book or a couple of them, is my present agenda. In his memoirs, Death Be Not Proud, John Gunther speaks of his 17 year-old son, John, who battles a brain tumour and eventually succumbs to it. In the same book, there is a short chapter by John’s mother, Frances, who says that she wished that they had loved the boy more when he was alive. She elucidates her observation thus: “To me, it means loving life more, being more aware of life, of one’s fellow human beings, of the earth.”

Mahatma Gandhi is someone whom I would have loved to meet. The Dalai Lama is another choice. I am interested in people who have cultivated their spiritual natures and benefited humanity. I might like to live in the hills or by a river to feel close to Mother Nature.

Every thing that I have done has been a form of learning so I would not look upon my choices as time wasted. Even if a day goes by without my being able to stick to my goals, I don’t lose sleep over it and just look forward to the next one to make up. W. H. Davies speaks in his poem, “Leisure”, about this life “full of care”. Sometimes, I am scared by the frenetic pace of life that has become a given of the 21st century and I make it a point to ensure that I find at least a little time to “stand and stare”.

I would view my limitations as stepping-stones to growth, as what is a life without any challenges? As the poet said, “Ah, that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a Heaven for?”

March-May 2005