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Journalist, Author, Columnist. My Twitter handle: @seemagoswami

Friday, November 11, 2016

Mid-life crisis?

No, it’s not that bad; but this may be the time to ring in some changes

There is something to be said about multiculturalism. For one thing, it allows me to celebrate New Year thrice every year. There’s the regular New Year on the 1st of January, when I party along with the rest of the world. There’s the Baisakhi New Year in April that I get to enjoy because I was born into a Punjabi family. And now, there’s also Diwali, which is celebrated as New Year by Gujaratis, a community I belong to by marriage.

This Diwali, though, as I did my puja, praying to Ma Lakshmi for prosperity, I realized with a start that I have more New Years behind me than I have New Years to look forward to. Without even realizing it, I have tipped beyond the halfway point in my life. And from now on, I’m going to be counting down rather than adding up.

Yes, like Bill Clinton said so memorably at the Democratic National Convention, I too have more yesterdays than tomorrows.

But while I am not in the throes of a mid-life crisis quite yet (well, I think so; my friends and family may well disagree), I have come to the realization that time is not on my side. In fact, it is the enemy, racing past even as I struggle to play catch up.

So, from this year on, my motto is that immortal line that has stayed with me since my days as a student of English literature: ‘Carpe diem’. Seize the day. Make the most of every moment because it will be over before you know it.

As is my wont at such times, I began by making a list of all the things I should and should not do to get the most out of the days, weeks, months and New Years I have left. Here is a small sampling:

·       No more revisiting of favourite destinations. I’ve been there and done that. There is an entire world out there to explore. And I should do it while I can still explore – as in walk on my own two feet without the aid of a Zimmer frame. London and New York will still be there when I am old and decrepit. But I may not be able to do justice to the mountains of Switzerland and the beaches of Croatia when I need to stop and catch my breath every 10 minutes.
·       Sit right down on my desk and write that book. No more procrastinating. No more endless revision of chapters that I have written already. No more displacement activity masquerading as ‘research’. No more endless trawling of the Internet. No more excuses about lack of time or mind-space. It is time to sprint to the finish line. And when I’m done with the book I’m currently working on, it will be time to pick right up where I left off the novel I abandoned three quarters of the way through.
·       Prune that reading list. Reluctantly, I have come to the conclusion that I no longer have the time to waste on airport bestsellers and other junk reads. From now on, I will only invest time in authors whom I love and books that show potential. And no more feeling like a failure because I can’t finish a book – if that is a failing, then it is the author’s, not mine. (Also, if I intend to re-read the classics that I last studied in college – just to see if they speak differently to me – then I need to get on with it. Middlemarch awaits…)
·       No to endless socializing with people I don’t even particularly care for. No to large parties where no conversation is possible (mostly because you have nothing to say to fellow guests). Yes to small dinner parties with friends and prospective friends, where we can actually hear ourselves talk and listen to those speaking to us.
·       Declutter my life: not just of things that no longer bring me joy but also of people who only bring me down. A ruthless cull is in order, so that I can both simplify and sanitize my life. By the end, I hope to be left with a pared-down existence that allows me to appreciate what I have rather than bemoan what I don’t.
·       No more taking health and fitness for granted. From now on, sadly, it will be a slippery slope downhill. And the only way to make a controlled glide down is to invest time and energy in eating well and exercising right.
·       Ah no, you misunderstand. That doesn’t mean I am going to survive on salads and soups and turn away from dessert. Life is too short to eat rabbit food. Or to drink water rather than wine. But it will get shorter if I forget that magic word: moderation. So, I’m going to keep repeating it to myself in the hope that it sticks even when that pesky memory loss kicks in.

So, that is my magic formula for getting through the rest of my days. Read, write, travel, play. And yes, eat, drink and be merry…Well, you know how that one goes.

And a belated (or early) Happy New Year to you all, whichever one you choose to celebrate.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Eat, Pray, Love

Let's mark Diwali as a Festival of Lights, not a Celebration of Excess

My childhood memories of Diwali revolve around (no, not shopping, crackers or mithai) cleaning. Yes, you read that right: cleaning. As a child I rapidly came to recognize that the first sign that the Festival of Lights was around the corner was that industrial-scale cleaning would commence in the Goswami household.

Entire rooms would be cleared out so that they could be washed and swabbed and swept until the floor was clean enough to eat off. The 'special crockery' that lived in the cupboard all year long, and was never used for fear of breakage, would be brought out ceremonially to be given a good scrubbing before it went right back on the shelves. The silver would be polished, the bronze given a good seeing-to. And all the Gods and Goddesses that presided over the Puja room would be ritually bathed and clad in brand-new clothes.

All of this was, of course, a communal activity, with the entire household pitching in to do their bit. Even the kids who were too young to be of much help would be handed a dusting cloth and sent forth to do their best.

I know it doesn't sound like it, but it was enormous fun. So much so that even now, when the weather starts to change and the air begins to hint at Diwali, my thoughts go back to my childhood home in Calcutta and our annual Diwali clean-out. I flash back to the vision of all the household furniture piled up high in the verandah to be given a little lick and polish, while the rooms were flushed of the dust accumulated in corners over the year. Which perhaps explains why to this day, to me, nothing says Diwali like the smell of soap-suds and bleach.

Growing up, it was made abundantly clear to me that it was only after the house was squeaky clean -- and sparkling enough to pass inspection by Ma Lakshmi -- that the task of celebrating Diwali could begin.

Of course, it was a different Diwali in those days. For one thing, communities were more integrated, and not only did we know the names of all our neighbors, we also thought nothing of dropping in on them unannounced. In fact, we weren't just in and out of each other's houses, anybody who was around at mealtimes would be asked to tuck in as well (and even expected to help clear up!).

Not surprisingly, Diwali also used to be a more communal (in the positive sense) affair. Kids would pool their resources to buy crackers and then get together in the evening to set them off while the entire neighborhood watched. Card games were more laid-back, with low stakes so that nobody could lose a fortune no matter how hard they tried. And it was enough to take a box of mithai to the neighbors to wish them Happy Diwali; you didn't need to put together an extravagant hamper full of luxury chocolates, wine, whiskey or cheese.

But as you may have noticed, things are very different these days. Instead of a home-style festival focused on family, friends and feasting, Diwali has been turned into a celebration of conspicuous consumption.

On Dhanteras it is not enough to buy something useful for the kitchen. No, the ads tell us that it is imperative to splash out on some gold. It is not enough to just buy one new outfit for the Diwali day itself. No, you must invest in a whole new wardrobe so that you never repeat a dress as you make the rounds of the endless 'card parties' that precede Diwali. It is not enough to just light up the house with diyas on the day of Diwali. No, you must get garish lights hung on the facade of your house for weeks on end to properly get into the 'festive spirit'.

Well, even though I have made my peace with the modern, more mercenary Diwali, sending out and receiving hampers with the best of them (keeping up with the Junejas, as I like to call it) there are times when I find myself longing to go back to a simpler time. A time when Diwali was truly a Festival of Lights not a Celebration of Excess. A time when we worshipped the Goddess of wealth instead of just spreading our wealth around.

So this year round, I made a resolution. I would try my best to recreate the spirit of the Diwalis of my childhood and teenage years. Here's a tiny little sampler of how I went about it.

* No to electric lights. Yes to earthen oil-filled diyas with homemade cotton wicks. (If that seems much too fiddly to you, go with beeswax candles.)

* No to heavy-duty hampers that take in everything from macaroons to Darjeeling tea to premium champagne. Yes to eco-friendly gifts like potted plants which will flourish and grow rather than be consumed and forgotten.

* No to splurging on household goods that I don't need (and scarcely have the space for). Yes to taking a collection of goodies and presents to the local orphanage and seeing the kids' eyes light up.

And, on the cheerful note, here's wishing all of you a very Happy Diwali. Stay blessed.