Checking in

It’s been going well, I wanted to tell you. Freelancing is a ride. Since I changed gears in October 2012, I have travelled to Thailand twice, Cambodia, Laos, Lucknow, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jaisalmer, Velas, Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Kashmir, Bangalore, Mahabaleshwar, Goa, Delhi and Jamshedpur. I just got back from New Zealand. I am writing from Pune.

The reason why I celebrate even a trip to Mahableshwar and Velas is because they felt eventful. I didn’t have this for a long time and I am grateful for every bus ride out of the city.

I feel most supported in this endeavour. Friends put me up in their homes, give me keys to their satellite homes, editors recommend me to competing publications, colleagues push assignments, PR people take a chance on me, work flows in thick and fast. It’s as if everyone wants me to succeed but me.

When I get an especially juicy assignment, I feel like I don’t deserve it. Because, doesn’t everyone want to be a travel writer? What makes me more deserving than them? Surely something is wrong. Someone is going to realise that and fix it.

Another side effect is that I am extremely chatty. Deprived of colleagues, I make small talk with strangers. God help you if you sit near me in a restaurant I love. I will commend you for choosing nachos for breakfast. If you ask me about my order, I will insist you taste it. If you ask for a recommendation, I will explain the chef’s culinary ethos to you. Run. Come back later.

It’s all still scary and chaotic. When asked what my beat is, I have to think. Mainly, I follow my curiosity. I don’t know where my career is going and I still question this move every day (three times, after meals). I only have an intuition that a future is approaching. I do not know its shape, but I sense it will be deeply familiar and made in my image.

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Life-list no 2: Do a dog training course. NAILED.

Those, ladies and gents, are nip marks by [Hurricane] Bella, who is really enthusiastic about running. In all, I have a dozen of these and they only get angrier. Bella expresses excitement by reaching for you with her teeth. The thing to note is that she does not do this out of anger. Dogs! You’re in trouble if they are big and playful.

One of the best things I like about setting out to formally study at this age is the chance to employ hindsight. You can 1. Choose what to study 2. With whom 3. Actually learn because a. There is no pressure b. You know what to do.

Getting number 2 right has enriched the process. Too many people turn teachers to a. Be the tallest person in the room. b. To be able to insist they are right. I am not of the school that you can demand respect because you beat the race to conception. I didn’t even get admission forms for the one that said teachers are always right.

I knew I wanted to learn understanding and manipulating dog behavior from Shirin Merchant. I am inspired by her professional conduct, agree with her training methods and respect her knowledge base. Plus, her kids are really well behaved, so that’s a big hint. When I interact with her for work, I always fix appointments at her home, in the middle of her teaching sessions, so that I can be run over by dogs. I may have sat down on the floor and rolled about in them a couple of times. These are my longest assignments and she has never called me out, yet.

Okay now, toss me your dogs.

Mighty List Update

While cleaning up around here, I realized that my Mighty List is pretty repetitive and needs to be updated.

Cook a meal for my friends

One of the joys of work is that I sit next to Jaison, whom I have known since 1993 when I moved to India. We talk about food, we compare lunches, we walk to Crawford to procure ingredients and sometimes cook together. While I still haven’t cooked a grand meal for my favorite people, I have made a few memorable dishes.

Set foot in every continent
Feburary 2010. Crossed the Sinai to Africa. Approaching a continent by road makes more of an impact than air, I think. The endless Sinai peninsula especially, stark, dry and imposing brings you to your knees. Three hours into the mini bus ride, I started picking whom we would eat first in case of breakdown.

Taste avacado

Crawford market. Guacamole. So-so.

Feel strong and fit
One of the wisest investments we made last year were in our healths. With Tushar in hospital twice at the end of 2009, laziness would no longer make us her bitch. We swam in summer, doing a kilometer every day by the time we quit. A yoga guru comes home twice a week and we’ve rarely cancelled a session in the past 10 months. Though I haven’t lost any weight, the improvement in strength and stamina is noticeable. I plan to keep at it till I can touch my forehead to my knees, do a backbend and a headstand. That is the level of fitness I would like to maintain for the rest of my life.

Be a good mentor

I work best alone and am especially undesirable in positions of authority. It’s an effort to be patient, nurturing and supportive. I don’t think I’m on top of my dismissiveness, but a colleague messaged me on Teacher’s Day thanking me for helping her write better. And all I did was bully her.

Roadtrip with Boo and TB
2008. Konkan-Mahabaleshwar. Don’t drink the water in Mahabaleshwar. Boo slipped into the lake for a swim.

Parasail over a valley
2007. Himachal Pradesh. Jaison, merlin and me. That was a good trip.

Give a dance recital as an adult
I joined Flamenco classes last year which culminated in a stage show. This reminded me how horrific stage make-up is, how hard my heart thumps before I go on stage (I collapse into a coughing fit after I get off) and how important it is to surrender to your teacher. Doing this as an adult gave me the chance to channelize some hard-earned wisdom. Less talk, more practise. Pee when you get the chance.

Meet Devdutt Pattanaik for coffee
When I was writing this list, I imagined myself daydreaming at a cafe while a cup of coffee steamed on the table. Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik, sitting at a table nearby, is captivated by my face. Able to hold it no longer, he comes over and introduces himself and we have a long, insightful chat.
Doing what I do for a living, I realized this could be more easily arranged. He was coming out with a new book, I suggested we interview him and now I have his email and phone number and shamelessly call up whenever I am researching something. Someday, I’ll meet him for coffee.
He is much more articulate in person and I’m looking for an excuse to listen to him for longer.
What I learned most from my interaction with him that my ambition is not to be a writer, or travel journalist, or dog-trainer, or world famous thrift shopper. What I want most is to be able to make a me-shaped place in the universe.

Be rid of financial insecurity
My financial strategy, like my weight loss strategy, primarily involved high investment, low interest worrying. Instead of investment dumps at the end of the financial year, I have engineered small and large investment strategies through the year. I would largely file it away as the ‘NO, YOU HAVE NO MONEY’ approach.

a. 10 per cent of my raise goes into monthly investment scheme for gold. I started the Tanishq Anuttara scheme just before Diwali so that I can buy something nice on Dhanteras.

b We bought a car last year and put away Rs 500 to pay for its annual insurance.

c Life insurance, medical insurance and postal savings, which I have been making since I started working. But instead of waiting every five years for the recurring postal deposit to mature, I plan to start a new account every year with 10 per cent of my annual raise. In a few years, I’ll have a lump-sum every year to put into more tax saving funds.

d All money from guest writing, garage sales, personal shopping and the Etsy store goes into the travel fund. This is put away into a fixed deposit which I can dig into for buying stocks, covering unexpected expenses and making health investments like an annual swimming membership.

e I no longer have any credit card debt.

f All five rupee coins go into a piggy bank.

g Annual TVP goes into Tax saving funds.

h With a pension, provident fund and gratuity, I think I will do okay if machines take over my job.

Live on a kibbutz
Hello! Haven’t you heard? Achieving a dream when you are cowering at the bottom of the well in the waters of cynicism and self-loathing is like carrying a rare gem in your pocket. You feel its shape in a meaningless meeting, sense its weight on a long commute, take it out to marvel at its colour when you have the time, and smile to yourself. There is this perfect gem. No Koh-I-Noor. Not priceless or coveted. But it is yours. It is hope.

Be self-employed

Do you remember that scene in Om Shanti Om when OK turns over a new leaf and approaches his work with professionalism? He’s shooting for a movie and insists on a re-take because he feels he can do the scene better. Sitting on a wheelchair, with non-functioning limbs, he grabs a flower with his mouth and spits it out at his beloved who is taking the pheras.
Sometimes work is like that.
But sometimes we have these glorious moments. Everybody is racist, we crack political incorrect jokes, you get to do that one story, we stamp out innocence to make the world a better place and it’s a beautiful day.
I love being a journalist. I love getting to experience all kinds of lives and meet all sorts of people. I’m addicted to the 8 pm adrenalin rush. I love being recognized. I love talking about my job. I love it that people are impressed when I tell them what I do. I love that no two days are alike. I love the firsthand celebrity gossip. I love that sometimes I do make a difference and for most part, I work for a very activist paper.
But there is more to do and being here is giving me the visibility to branch out on my own. It’s still work in progress but with personal shopping, I’m pointed in the right direction.

Win!

They tried to talk me out of it, but I was a woman with a dream. High on the launch of the SaM store, I marched ahead. I had achieved a cherished dream and stepped into a magical decade. Nothing could stop me. After all, wasn’t I the one who had given this paper one of its most iconic headlines?
The story was about how to tone your gluteal muscles. The headline:

Kadak Bun Pa-o

I’ll bow to every small victory.
Once, I used to sneak in song titles and literary references. How lame was that?

And a special mention to Vycus for the exceptionally ghatiya picture.

On my 30th birthday

The bartender is busy buying a drink and chatting up the Swedish volunteer. Your weapon is pointed politeness. “Sean, if you have the time, may I have a glass of water please?”. He is 18 but looks 23 and starts speaking to you in Hebrew to rile you. “Mala fakta ek glass paani havai. Ekach glass. Nantar tula havi tevdhi teechi gaand mar,” you say with an eager smile. This goes on till he relents.
One of your friends tries to get the bar to sing happy birthday. They start off and try to identify the person they are singing for and it dies off. At 18, this would have crushed you and sent you to the bottom of the arak bottle. At 30, you laugh your head off.
Suitably buzzed, you walk slowly back home, glad for your warm coat. You stop to stare at the flickering lights of distant kibbutzims and Druze villages. You pass the scarlet poppies that make your heart leap and consider doing what you feel like each time you pass them by.
Your coat is warm, the members are asleep and your impulsive buy is keeping you warm. The closed one at your right shoulder does not mind; the taller one on your left is looking the other way.
The universe did not align all its complexities so that you would pass a patch of poppies and not lie among them.

Because I promised myself I would write today

One of my favourite parts of this trip is making use of gifts from friends. Jaison’s loan of a suitcase with wheels; merlin’s backpack from 2005; the surprise moleskine from Faye last year; Ketaki’s hurried parcel of warm things and premature birthday goodies; gloves from Kiran. Little items of faith that say, “Quit whining and go do something. We’ve got your back. We’ll bridge the gap. We will facilitate.”
Ketaki once said to me when I was moping about not having money to travel, “But you have friends!”
Indeed. If you guys ever need a kidney, I will personally cut merlin up.

One way hai yeh zindagi ki gaali, ek hi chance hai

If you could see me now, I’m at my desk facing the fogged window, through which I can see the shape of a hill and some pine trees. Leonard’s setting the mood; on my desk are chocolates from Mrs Udyawar, next to the moleskine from Faye. One my right is a small white closet with extremely appropriate birthday cards. And I’m trying to write. Instead, as always, I’m exchanging cheap witticisms with my self in Dilli.
I’ve been meaning to write. I WANT to write. But when can I write when I’m living life as if I were terminally ill?

Did I miss the bus?

I read this on Broom’s blog and thought it was a great way to measure how far I’ve come. So…

2000: I was in the final year of college. There were six students of English Literature in the final year and were a close-knit bunch. We brought in the year at Romel’s new home and I was terrified that I didn’t know what to do with my life. Everyone else had their careers marked and if I wanted to study further, I’d have to finance it myself. I needed to start earning soon and I had a portfolio clicked. I did one assignment for Frazer and Haws, made twice the money I invested in the portfolio and never tried it again. I was in a long-distance, long-term relationship with a boy. I was content but unstimulated. We broke up by the end of the year because his parents refused to pay his med college fees if he continued to date a non-Sindhi. I started freelancing for a local newspaper by the middle of the year and by November got a job as a copy-editor with a computer gaming magazine. I also got my first column, met a bunch of geeks who opened my mind with a crowbar; and worked in what seemed then like a concentration camp, but in hindsight, was the best journalism school I could go to. I learned to use computers and the boys are among my favourite people today.

2001: I turned 21 at my first job and have celebrated every birthday at work since. Met merlin. Blown away by his talent. Magazine discontinued in August. Devastated. Fell irreversibly and irreparably in love with a drunk and drugged poet. Broke my heart in eight months. Hear of new snooty boy at work whose MSN nick is Scrotum. Start working at architectural magazine. Travel from Panvel to Bandra every day and cry at night for the poet.

2002: Decide to get a Masters. Move out of home with college-mate into our own row-house. Series of rebound mistakes follow. Roomie pines for Malabar Hill artist, I for poet. Ally McBeal soundtrack tape is worn down. Get a job with technology magazine in old office. Brother moves to America, I move back home. Almost marry Wrong Guy because I’m lonely and heartbroken. Seek counselling.
Learn Scrotum’s name. Offers money to see me in a skirt. Insult him at office Diwali party. Briefly date Married Man with Child while simultaneously dating Scrotum. Leave when I see turds in toilet bowl. He isn’t particular about flushing because he lives alone.

2003: Feel strangely young and mostly happy. Start blogging. Dissatisfied at work. Pine for poet. Go to Sikkim with best-friend from college.

2004: Scrotum asks me to marry him. Say no. Say yes. Say no. Say okay. Go back to poet. Come back to Scrotum. Get engaged. Quit tech magazine. Join Animal Rights organization. So happy about what I do, even if it means travelling from Panvel to Juhu every day. Go to Pondicherry with two girlfriends.

2005: Become Mrs Scrotum. Boo comes home. Get fired from Animal Rights Organization by insecure boss AFTER she calls my husband for tech advice. Spend three months at home, swimming free-style in anger.

2006: Join newspaper. Resentful. Directionless. Worked to the bone. Start three blogs to kill time. Start investing in tools of trade. Buy Macbook, nice camera and tripod.

2007: Swasta Ani Masta becomes a newspaper column. Consider switching to writing from editing. News to features. Join dance classes.

2008: Apply to volunteer on a kibbutz. Put Cassie to down. Lose grandmother. Start writing more, editing less. Put Boo in car and go around Kokan.

2009: Lose Cookie, Rusty and Dumpy. Tushar taken to ICU. Loses gall stone two weeks later. Tushar’s grandmother hospitalized for one-and-a-half months. Comes home, leaves earthly abode two weeks later. Spend first NYE in seven years away from Tushar.

ps: I didn’t know the Married Man was married. Neither did anyone else. His family was in his hometown and he’d been pretending to be a bachelor in Mumbai for 6-7 years.

Reporting

There’s so much I want to write about my life here, but I didn’t know where to start. Let’s start with Lulu.

Lulu of Ba'ram

She belongs to a member but hangs out with the volunteers because we have Sven — the Alpha Male Swede. Life is pleasantly simple on a kibbutz. We all work in whatever fields are needed for community living and share the profits.
Ba’ram’s main avenues of income are fruit orchards and a plastic factory that makes the tiny toggle that moderates the fluids that pass through the drip. El Com occupies 40 per cent of the world’s market for this apparatus and probably made the ones used on Tushar during his recent hospitalizations.
And now I have to clean their toilets to say thank you.
Yeah, I clean toilets, and floors, and dustbins, and changing rooms. I polish windows, take out the laundry, check the refills. If this was my only job, I would be festering with angst and desperation. Since it’s not, it gives me a perspective. And using alcohol and industrial strength detergents to clean is fun.
Our duties rotate and I might work in laundry, apple-packing, dinning, kitchen, gardens or the members’ club soon. Work in the orchards is limited in winter and mostly requires big men to chop and bind and carry little dogs in their jerseys.
Everyone eats together and the laundry is where everyone’s laundry is done. There are only three places on the kibbutz where monetary transactions take place — the Colbo which is the utility store open for three to four hours a day; the fruit market that a farmer sets up twice a week (we have access to all the fruits we grow, if you’re about to get smart); and the boutique (open for two hours a week). It’s rehab for compulsive shoppers.
And my timings? 6.30 am to 2 pm with three breaks — one for an hour and two for 40 minutes. Did I mention a five day week? And two extra holidays a month? I’m switching careers.
Pictures are here, here and here

A dream deferred

A goal that’s not on my Mighty Life list (on the sidebar) is the one I’ve wanted most badly. I couldn’t write it down because I felt foolish voicing it and was afraid of the cynicism it might evoke. And like most treasured wishes, I was afraid if I said it, it wouldn’t come true.
The long and the short of it is that I have been living on a kibbutz in Israel since Monday. It took me 12 years of dreaming and one-and-a-half-years of persuasion and five months of rabid nagging to get here.
I’ve liquidated a big chunk of my savings, and will be celebrating my fifth wedding anniversary and 30th birthday alone here. But there is no better celebration than living your dreams. I am here and this is now.