Maria had got accustomed to solo living. The wounds of a broken marriage were still raw. She and Akhil weren’t divorced yet, but the separation was the first move.
She missed her home of 20 years, her garden, the outdoors in the hills and those therapeutic walks into nature. She missed those lazy afternoons on the sprawling lawn with the sun warming an otherwise cold, callous life. She missed being the anchor of that home – now she wondered how Akhil managed his daily routine without her in the big house with 3 servants, how the garden looked – her head was crowded with a barrage of thoughts. But it was her decision to move out and she would stick with it. The children had grown and moved on, and this was her turn to move on. Now sitting in her mother’s tiny apartment on the 5th floor with the sound of traffic screeching below, she plunged into occasional bouts of loneliness. She needed time to heal, to sort her feelings and move on.
The Kochi Biennale would be a good distraction, Maria thought. She had never been to one, and this was the perfect opportunity to stop wallowing in her overthinking. Maria had never been solo anywhere, which made this plan a bit daunting. Those family holidays with Akhil and the kids were always whirls of activities and planning. Akhil was the planner, always the controller. Those trips were fun on the one hand and claustrophobic on the other. Maria winced at remembering those times. There was no going back. She had to do things alone now, or not do them at all. Kochi was just a two hour train ride away. Maria took the plunge.
Fort Kochi was buzzing with activity. There were galleries and installations everywhere. Some beautiful and eclectic, some over the top, but definitely a vibe that transported Maria to a feeling of being alive.
Her hotel room overlooked the fishing nets and the Arabian sea. Maria would get out in the mornings to watch the fishermen lowering the giant Chinese contraptions. Being solo wasn’t so bad after all and the anonymity was healing, she concluded. She would wander into galleries and walk the quaint streets. The entire area was alive with art and visitors and tourists. A couple of days in this setting would definitely do Maria good.
Her favourite breakfast cafe was at Pepper House. An old heritage building, Pepper House had a cafe that opened into a large green courtyard. Time was hers and hers alone. She sat there stirring her coffee, sipping it, savouring a new free world which was alien to her but then, not so uncomfortable, she thought. She could read her book undisturbed, she could sit anywhere and do her writing without a million distractions that she had at home. The coffee smelt fresh and invigorating.
Maria noticed a handsome arty looking man sitting across her. He looked European and he had the softest, kindest face. His hair fell in light brown curls to frame his chiselled face. She found herself staring at him and quickly looked at the book she was reading. There was a strange discomfort of being aware of him sitting across her. It was a good discomfort though- the one she wouldn’t want to end. So she ordered another coffee. When she looked up he caught her eye and smiled. Maria gave a half smile back and for the first time in years she felt her heart racing. She was embarrassed, he didn’t seem to be. He had a confidence that was ever so attractive.
He paid his bill, gathered his stuff and walked past Maria with that smile that left her melted. What are the chances of seeing him again? Would he come back here for breakfast tomorrow? Why was she feeling like this? She was here to enjoy the buzz of the Biennale, to embrace her freedom and solitude. She took out the map to distract her thoughts and decided where to go and what to see that day.
Walking down those meandering, crowded streets was therapeutic. And the art was soul healing, especially the women centric ones. Maria realised how oppressive it was for women world over. She immersed herself in everything, like clinging onto the short lived preoccupation of her restless mind. She grabbed a lunch somewhere, a coffee, and finally ended up at David Hall. It wasn’t as crowded and there was ample cross ventilation so Maria spent time looking at those large canvases and also marvelling at the audience that had traveled from all over the world to be a part if this spectacle.
While gazing at a strange painting she was distracted by a sudden discomfort. As if someone was watching her. She looked around and there was that same curly mop of a guy smiling at her as if he knew her from a long time ago. A naughty boyish smile. Maria smiled back. He came and stood next to her and they both stared at the large bizarre painting together – in muted silence. She was embarrassed to walk away or maybe she didn’t want to. She fixed her eyes on the colourful distraction and waited for him to move, for her heart to stop racing.
Shall we grab a coffee? – the voice had a distinct French accent. He waited for her response. Yeah, ok, she nodded and walked towards the Cafe at the back of David Hall. He followed her. The moment they sat down she felt as dizzy as a young girl having her first crush.
So did you enjoy your day? Oh yes, very much, Maria replied barely making eye contact.
With sips of coffee and bits of conversation a comfort sank in between them. They exchanged notes on what they saw, what they enjoyed the most. He was Julien. Sitting across, they were from two entirely different worlds. Maria was 50, he seemed around 45 or maybe 42. She learnt that he was from Paris. He was a graphic designer and this was his first trip to South India. He told her that he liked her eyes because they were big, black, curious & happy. It was exhilarating to be with someone who noticed her eyes, made her blush, someone with whom there was that instant comfort. Maybe this was serendipity – something she’d always wondered about.
It was getting late and Maria said she should carry on. He asked her if she would walk with him along the fishing nets before going their separate ways, and she instantly said yes. The spontaneity from both sides was unexpected and fresh. They walked along the nets occasionally jostled by the other walkers. There was a lightness in the air, and oppressive heat didn’t feel oppressive. Maria told Julien about herself, told him she was married and about her kids. She told him this was her first solo holiday.
You mean you never go anywhere alone? He quipped in his French accent, quite bemused. Maria told him that marriage was like that – at least in India, mostly – we never left our kids and husbands, except for a few vacations with our girlfriends. Maria didn’t have the inclination to tell him that she had just separated, still raw from the wounds of a volatile marriage. She wanted to seem as ‘normal’ normal was.
And you are happily married? he prodded. Maria didn’t look up at him. She stared at the sea and beyond. For a moment she wanted to tell him the truth of how her marriage had been – choked, stifled, like a bird in a gilded cage with clipped wings, from where she crawled out. But oh, she wasn’t going to paint a sorry picture, especially when he’d told her she had curious happy eyes. So she told him she was happy, yeah, the only happiness she knew. He smiled. Maria asked him if he had a family – Julien told her that he had always been single and was never one to settle down to marriage. Had a few girlfriends but he was mostly single and loved it.
They were done for the day. Maria felt guilty walking around with this unknown handsome Frenchman younger than her. She was also exhausted from the excitement of a chance encounter and all her untapped emotions that suddenly overwhelmed her.
So breakfast at Pepper House tomorrow? He suggested with a naughty endearing smile. Was he being persistent or was this how cool people were, she wondered. Maria hadn’t known cool people in a long while. She could’ve said no, that she’s busy or going elsewhere… But instead she said ,Yes, let’s. Her gut gave her signals that overruled her head.
How about 9 then? She smiled and nodded.
Bye, see you tomorrow, and they parted ways.
They walked in different directions. Maria had a smile on my face. She felt happy, appreciated, sensual. For the first time in ages she was noticed for being ‘just her’. Julien knew nothing about her, didn’t care either. He just wanted to be with her, live moments. Maria hadn’t felt this alive in years.
Ever since she got married twenty years ago, Maria had slowly disappeared into a vacuum, barely noticed for anything but for her presence as a housewife, mother, wife, daughter in law, daughter. She’d shown up every single day for everyone, unnoticed, unappreciated, undervalued. No one told Maria her eyes were beautiful, and no one watched her smile even on an ordinary day, least of all her husband. He was quick to pick on something that was not done, not done well – the cauliflower pieces in in the bake should have been cut smaller, the book shelves were not dusted properly, the kids needed better haircuts.
Maria had to check herself – why was she thinking of the past and the bitterness, when this was her chance at a tiny slice of harmless happiness. After all life was about moments, especially short lived happy ones. She may never get to do this spell again.
A relaxing swim in the pool at the hotel and some me-time was just what she needed to wind down and step out of her thoughts.
Maria felt like a young girl going on a date the next morning. She made sure her eyes looked bright, her hair just that casual and messy, everything as happy and alive as her heart felt.
She walked into Pepper House and Julien was there, reading his book. Maria stood at the entrance and watched him – his tousled brown curly hair, droopy eyelids, full lips and a stubble. His skin had a lovely tan. He looked up and saw her standing there with her eyes on him – he smiled. Maria was a little embarrassed having been caught unawares, so she shuffled her way and sat opposite him.
Helloooo – he was just so natural, unabashed and full of life.
They chatted, They laughed, drank that lovely coffee and decided to go around the Biennale together. It felt like she’d known him all her life, two kindred souls who’d found each other in a giant art exhibition. And yet he was unknown – he could be a player, smooth talking his way to a light hearted fling on his holiday. But did she care.
If she was to be optimistic, Maria would have to grab every moment of happiness. At fifty she felt her life was almost over, mostly dead after her 20 long years in a toxic relationship – so why not indulge in some heady flirtation.
They wandered in and out of some beautiful exhibitions, sat in the most pretty cafes and got lost in a happy whirl of colours and images and a fresh new friendship. Often their hands brushed against each other – not intentionally but purely due to their proximity. Each time electric, never acknowledged.
Maria wished the day wouldn’t end. She didn’t know what Julien wished. He just talked and laughed like they were soul mates meant to meet in a colourful setting. Maria was the listener and she loved his French accent. He spoke English rather fluently. She loved the way he spoke, the way his lips moved, loved the honey coloured pupils in his eyes that lit up like twinkling lights.
At the end of the day they watched the sunset along the fishing nets, mostly in silence. Maria knew it was time to go their separate ways. She also knew there was a possibility of a little more time together, moments to carry into a lifetime although they’d never meet again. Her heart wanted to drift into possibilities that her head refuted, warning her that they were short lived, only to end by breaking her already fragile heart. Maria wasn’t ready for even a tiny streak of light to enter her broken soul. And yet there was a longing to be held, to be touched, kissed, to feel beautiful and loved, even if it was for that one night. Her fluttering heart and her head fought reasons as she stood there watching the sun fade away.
It’s late, I should go now, she said. It’s been a long day.
Stay, said Julien, staring beyond the sunset at the twinkling lights . Come with me.
He tugged at her hand gently and waited. She took time to decide, while his fingers were wrapped around hers. The sultry breeze from the Arabian sea drifted between them and Maria felt dizzy in the moment. Julien didn’t let go. She took that giant leap of her heart and said Okay .
They walked to his hotel where everything and everyone was buzzing with fervour and colour – artists, designers , travellers, and some like Maria, searching for momentary happiness. It was out of the ordinary. There was a band and people were dancing while some got drunk at the open air bar. Julien and Maria found a little corner to sit with their wine – Mostly silent, exchanging glances at each other and smiles. Julien asked her to dance and she did – throwing all her inhibitions into the Arabian sea, letting go of all the thoughts that held her hostage in a lonely life.
The night was hers – wild and free. Maria let go – and they spent the rest of the evening baring their souls and their bodies, entangled, barely speaking, listening to their gentle breaths as the night took over. A single temple flower in a vase on the bedside and white sheets tossed around them. His brown curls wrapped around her fingers, as she held on to those stolen moments. He caressed her cheeks as if to tell her that it was more than a one night affair. Maria felt that too, but who could perceive what lay ahead – they were two different planets that collided briefly.
Thoughts raced through her head as he kissed her forehead after moments of heady passion – gentle, pure. Maria was certain that she wouldn’t ask questions or search for answers in that quiet, happy, precious space. Doubts would kill the magic of the moment. She’d go back to her temporary apartment carrying this little memory in a deep crevice of her heart, reliving it a thousand times. She would go back, the pretty bird with a vacant life. And he would go back to his designer life and Paris – where lust lurks in every romantic corner – under the Eiffel tower lit up at night, on the banks of the Seine and on the sprawling open lawns of the city of love. They would forget each other. Or maybe they’d text each other occasionally for Christmas.
Life would go on. But that was how it’s meant to be. Good things never last more than moments and we let them go in order to learn to love ourselves more than we did, through someone’s touch, someone’s honey coloured soulful eyes, their tousled hair wrapped around our fingers in ringlets and that gentle tug of the hand that changes the way we see ourselves.
A little more self love, a new meaning to life.
The November rain lashed down. Angry, aggressive.
Maria hated the retreating monsoons – they made her feel like she was drowning deeper into the lonely ocean of despair. Icy, cold, struggling to keep afloat with waves choking her as she gasped to find her way up.
But she saw no way. No direction to manoeuvre out of the sinking world she lived in. 20 years of marriage and she went deeper into hopelessness. She tried to think how it had gotten to this stage, but her mind was a mess.
Over the years it had become a living nightmare that spiralled without even much consciousness. Her husband Akhil had turned from that gentle soul into an angry, abusive man. To everyone else he was the finest, gentlest soul. But in the privacy of their home he morphed into volatile, manipulative monster. If Maria conformed and took his verbal abuses and insults there was a bit of calm. But if she tried to voice her opinion or even utter a word, the storm would erupt, throwing her deeper into the abyss. The water had become dirty, smelly like sewage.
Choked with the oppressive air weighing down on her, Maria sat in silence, watching the slanting rain lash against the window. Tears streaming down her face. The rain drops against the window blurred through her tears. She didn’t even know why she was sobbing, but it was a release from the tightness in her chest.
Akhil wandered into the verandah. He saw Maria sitting in the dark all alone.
Now what’s wrong with you?
Nothing, she said, trying to stop her tears.
Then why are you crying again? Maria could sense his temper flare.
What do you “want”? Akhil asked, angry, yet helpless and pleading. He could never understand why she felt this way. He saw no reason for her misery.
They had grown apart – once lovers, best friends – now two strangers living under one roof. One a circus trainer and the other a docile animal who winced every time the trainer raised the whip. It was all about masculine control. Maria’s head was crowded with a thousand answers as to what she “wanted” – she wanted her breath back, she wanted peace, happiness, gentleness, soft words, patience, appreciation, love, intimacy, sex – God knew her void which was gaping open with a raw gash that only she could see. She let the tears flow down her cheeks as Akhil watched her in rage – a rage that mortified her.
A narcissist never acknowledges his behaviour. He would never understand his victim. He was helpless in his rage, yet he would always use victimhood and manipulation to make her feel as if she was the cause of this toxic situation, simply to gain power over her. It was always her fault – in any situation. Maria had broken down completely. Her self esteem, her self worth, her desire to laugh, her innate aliveness. She was so scared of his unpredictable anger that she had to watch her facial expressions, her posture, her tone whenever she spoke. If they were not docile, Akhil would burst into irrepressible rage and torment.
The emotional abuse, the taunts, the constant denial of his behaviour after an outburst, the lies – Maria was done with it, exhausted from overthinking, fear and often crying herself into the pillow night after night.
I want out, she said softly through the tears.
I want out. I want to leave.
Akhil was silent. The rain beat down even more, as if to intensify the tension between them. Maria waited for his response but there was none.
If he said a loud ‘yes’ would she feel the weight lift off her chest? Would it free her from being his victim? Would she have the courage to leave and start a new life all over again? Would she, for the first time in many years, breathe and rise to the surface of the water again.
That Sunset Hour
I chase sunsets all the time. I’ve been chasing them for years.
Mountain sunsets are dramatic, a different spectacle each evening.
It never really occurred to me until now that some spectacles are real life people who imprint on our hearts before they’re gone forever. And when they leave us they’re like dramatic sunsets, taking over our entire horizon, tinting our hearts with grief and love.
A parent’s death is one of those life changing sunsets, leaving us gutted, lost and bereft. Leaving us softer yet stronger, braver, brighter.
My mother’s numbered days made me realise how much it would change me and how dramatically this sunset would alter my outlook towards life.
My mother was a spectacle and she was beautiful. She was a storm that stirred up the sky and splashed a palette of vibrant colours across my vision. And when the world got tired of her exuberance, it strapped her to a bed where she couldn’t move. But that didn’t dull her shine. She beamed out her light even in her confines and painted pretty pictures with her dazzling mind, vivid as they were. Her laughter was the breeze that lifted me up, floated me on bobbing clouds.
Now in her last days, I watch the fading sun with a sadness that leaves a pit inside me. I will never see her drama again. Never will the sky spin me around with those colours as vibrant as hers. And yet I find strength in it – that this very sunset is what will see me through my darkest days, long after she’s gone. And never will the night sky be meaningless, for I know she will perch herself there on the brightest star and shine her light on me.
I sit on a grassy patch alone every evening, at the top of a hill. I watch the sky turn pink to purple, sometimes pink to ochre . The sunset hour consumes me and I feel whole again.
Pausing to grab some purple!
Hope, a flower & me
I drive through the canopies of purple, down the winding hillsides.
I stop to watch the Jacaranda blooms sway in the breeze, some dropping gently on the road in front of me.
I wish that a solitary flower would randomly land on my windscreen, as if hoping for a message, a sign.
It’s weird how we long for wishes to come true – placing that hope on a random bloom that flutters on the spring breeze – for moments out of reach, for a friend to heal from an illness, a piece of good news, a phone call, a message, a hug, for love that’s hanging midair!
Believing that what’s meant to be will always drift in the breeze and find its way towards me…
Hope, a flower and me!
Lessons from the Jacaranda
In February each year, the Jacaranda trees get noticed. Not for their beauty, but for their shedding of leaves everywhere.
The dead leaves take over my lawn, my driveway, and everything looks a mess. The trees start to look bare and ugly.
Early March we see tiny purple buds struggling to appear on the bare branches, almost like a painful metamorphosis to come into their own.
Come April, and the Jacaranda trees are bursting with flowers. They stand there like stars in an otherwise dull pageant, stealing every bit of limelight. They throw up a riot of purple all over the hills.
Their time in the sun is short, but they outshine every tree in the Nilgiris during this season. The blooms fall from the branches like a merry dance in the light April breeze., turning the ground into a purple carpet. It’s one of the most spectacular sights each year.
As we tread into May, these beauties are done with their magical spell, having let go of their blooms, turning bare once again. They recede into the background and painfully grow back their leaves over the next couple of months – their time on the centre stage is over – a reminder that nothing lasts forever, neither the season of bloom nor the difficult period of being stripped bare.
I love sitting under my Jacarandas, surrounded by purple. It allows me to still my restless mind. A time to surrender to the universe, learning to let things take their course.
The pain of stripping ourselves, shedding our leaves. The patience to go through a period of pain before bursting into bloom. The optimism in believing that nothing lasts forever, not even the baring of our souls. For with the effort of growing those buds and nourishing them comes the immense pleasure of taking over a landscape and even the skyline. It makes me believe that its worth the downtimes, worth the wait, worth the heartbreaks and often tears when we emerge into our vibrant selves.
Acceptance comes to us in strange ways. For me it comes when I sit on my carpet of purple, in the stillness of a quiet corner of my garden.
The benefits of nature walks for our minds
We live in an age where almost everyone around us is anxious and stressed, be it adults or teenagers or children. The pressure to achieve and outperform, the need to fulfil the endless desires that we have, the numerous distractions around us, the addiction to gadgets and the constant need for validation from social media – all these lead us to overthink and shut down our positive emotions. Little wonder that depression is on a rapid rise and stress has become a global epidemic. Most of us live with anxiety on a regular basis.
Wandering into a forest or the woods in order to slow down and tune into our emotions is a great way of healing ourselves from stress, anxiety and mental disorders. ‘Ecotherapy’, the idea of connecting with nature to focus on our well-being is popular in many parts of the world. The Japanese prescribe “Forest bathing’ or “shinrin-yoku” – taking in the forest through our senses. It is a way of opening our senses to the natural world. Immersing ourselves in nature elevates our mood and even boosts the immune system, according to research. More and more people are resorting to the healing power of nature.
The sounds in the forest, the textures on the forest floor, the fallen leaves, the gentle breeze and rustling of branches, the brushing of leaves against our skin, the chirping of birds and the occasional sound of a rippling stream … all these are therapeutic. They help us slow down our over-thinking minds and help us connect with our roots.
Sit for a while under a tree – breathe, be mindful… and notice the ease with which we can change a stressful emotion to a more positive, self compassionate one.
Try it. Renew yourself!