Deal with life

In the US there is not much to life, but you don’t have to deal with life.
In India, there is so much more to life, but you have to deal with life all the time.

In India…

You have to deal with heat.
You have to deal with traffic.
You have to deal with noise.
You have to deal with cows on the street.
You have to deal with dogs chasing you on your morning jog.
You have to deal with power outages.
You have to deal with trash on the street.
You have to deal with cockroaches on your floor and lizards on your wall.

You have to deal with unpunctuality.
You have to deal with unresponsiveness.
You have to deal with queues that are semi-circles.
You have to deal with multiple follow-ups on pretty much everything.
You have to deal with lack of personal space. Both physically and mentally.

You have to deal with late payments.
You have to deal with bargaining.
You have to deal with bribes.
You have to deal with “yes” that’s usually a “no.”

In the US, for the most part, you don’t depend on anybody. For many of us who lived or live in the US, you do your own laundry, you make your own tea, and you drive yourself to work. That dependency on yourself, that independence from others, gives you a sense of agency.

Without that sense of agency here in India, I feel powerless and sometimes helpless.

Here in India, if you can afford it, you get your food cooked by someone, your house cleaned by someone, your clothes ironed by someone, and your car driven by someone. But since you have to deal with life all the time, you get tired of doing pretty much nothing. You only get tired of dealing with life.

Maybe the real residents of Madras don’t think of all of this as dealing with life. To them, this is life. The only one they know.

Some context may help you understand the trigger behind this blog. Today was an exhausting day. The irony is I was doing pretty much nothing. I was just dealing with life. After a seemingly long day, I had a long hot shower (during a citywide water shortage if I might add), listening to beautiful music on a Bose speaker, standing in a tub inside a bathroom the size of my kitchen back in San Francisco. I should not have any reason to complain.

But.

For a moment, for the first time since we returned home, I missed the calmness of life back home in San Francisco.

I’ll deal with this.

When it rains, it pours

We’ve all heard the phrase “When it rains, it pours.” To experience it is something else. The dark clouds summoned the rains, and the rains obliged with thunder, lightning and serious amounts of water. Safely tucked inside an air-conditioned car, I experienced the joy of a tropical downpour. All these pictures were taken from a moving vehicle, through a glass window, during heavy rains, with an iPhone. So, don’t expect technical excellence in these pictures. I can only hope to share the joy of rain with you through my pictures.

Children and the fumigator

Ten past seven in the evening. Delhi.

We were having chai and biscuits in the living room when I heard children screaming in high pitch voices against the backdrop of a loud motor gradually fading away. My wife dismissed the whole scene as “The fumigator must be here.” The fumigator vehicle drives around the neighborhood block every evening and spews clouds of smoke to repel mosquitoes during the humid season.

And then I don’t know what possessed me. I deserted my chai, jumped out of the sofa and ran outside chasing the fumigator with an iPhone in one hand and my nose in the other.

What I saw was surreal. You can’t see such a scene anywhere else but in India. As I was running the neighborhood blocks chasing the sound of the motor, I was wondering what was so fun that the kids would want to run into a cloud of unhealthy smelly smoke. And then I realized, they are children. They don’t ask questions like we do. They simply go out there and experience life for what it is.

The white smoke was lit yellow by the street lights and red by the stop light across the road. Children were running into what seemed like a ball of fire. For a moment, it felt like a volcano had erupted and everyone was running in fear. Quite the opposite was happening. These cheap thrills and little joys is what makes life.

Life is more alive in India.

[In this little video, you first see the scene as it was. Then, I slowed it down. I picked 10 frames from the footage in 10 frames and replayed them with the same sounds. When you slow things down, you tend to see more. When you see more, you enjoy more of life. So, let’s not be in a hurry to live.]

When you’re in a hurry to live, you don’t live. You’re just in a hurry.

A visit to Jama Masjid

The heat in Delhi was unrelenting but I told myself, if I want to call myself a photographer, I have to get out there, click photographs and collect stories. No pain no gain as they say. And so, my little excursion to visit Jama Masjid began. Jama Masjid is one of India’s largest mosques, built in the seventeenth century, commissioned by Shah Jahan, the same Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal for the love of his life.

Disconnected from the grid, disarmed by a cellphone rendered useless, I had to trust my limited command over Hindi to find my way to Jama Masjid on the day of Friday prayers. I was excited about the possibility of taking pictures of Muslim men performing the Sujud (prostration) in complete synchrony. I dreamed of photographing a young boy with a taquiah on his small head, lit by the afternoon sun. Sounds poetic but street photography doesn’t work that way. You don’t plan. You simply capture what you get, and take what life gives.

I started my little adventure at the Botanical Garden Metro Station. I’m not very good at following simple instructions. Getting the tickets issued was a daunting task. After intense failed negotiations with the ticket vending machine, I asked for help. The response from the ticket counter clerk contained zero words. Just a swift diagonal head movement which seemed to suggest that I walk diagonally across and renegotiate with the vending machine. To confirm my understanding, in the little Hindi I knew, I asked if I should use the vending machine and a different head movement was communicated. This time, his head moved straight along the vertical axis top to bottom, implying a resounding yes. I wanted to believe, I had mastered the language of Indian head gestures by observing two quick movements. Eventually, the tickets worked out and I was on my way.

After an uneventful Metro ride, I successfully located the Jama Masjid. As I climbed the stairs from Gate 2, the mosque slowly came into my view. And when it did, it was majestic, demonstrating triumph of the times. But like everything else in life, things change with time. The once strong tomb is now barely maintained, with visible cracks across its surface. The once strong Mughal empire is now replaced by a democracy led by a Hindu Nationalist party. Atop the tomb, from within the cracks, there was sufficient foliage that undoubtedly proved indifference from the authorities.

The day would be filled with many ups and downs. Just when I would begin to feel awesome about something, the scene would turn instantly ugly. And just when I would begin to feel disappointed with humanity, something incredibly beautiful would happen. This unassuming pattern would repeat.

I would end up witnessing three fights during the day, the first of which was a physical brawl between a young couple in the mosque square. It was an ugly sighting in a place of worship. Fellow worshippers did their best to break the fight but delegated the resolution to the counsel of an elderly woman.

The second fight would be even more physical, right outside the mosque between two young men with a motorbike in the middle of it. The fight was finally broken and so was the motorbike. The third one would be a verbal squabble between a rickshaw driver and a rider about a previously-agreed-upon price.

Why people fight is beyond me.

Boys and men gathered around a square pond for the purpose of Wudu, partial ablution before prayers, a form of ritual purification. The green water reflected men washing their faces, arms, and feet against the backdrop of the brick red mosque. By the pond’s side, worshippers fed grains to seemingly agnostic pigeons that didn’t believe in any religion other than food. There’s something disarming about pigeons in a mosque, conveying romance and freedom, all the same time.

Men, mostly dressed in white cotton, started pouring into the mosque for the Friday afternoon prayers, braving the heat of the midday Delhi Sun. They assembled quietly waiting for the Namaz to begin. The brotherhood of Islam was palpable with complete strangers offering space to each other, greeting one another Salaam Alaikum and Alaikum As Salaam. Somewhere else in a church, Christians greeted each other with a similar spirit, “Peace be with you.”

Religions are inherently the same.

Humans are the ones who make them different.

A young man, no more than twenty years of age, rode a moped improvised to be a mini-truck. He transported floor rugs for worshippers. He slammed on the annoyingly loud horn to get people out of his way, He yelled, “hat jao,” meaning “get out of the way,” at seniors with such unsightly condescension, it was disgusting to witness such aberrant disrespect in a place of worship.

And then, we heard a magical voice, so deep in its soul, descend from the minaret. The early afternoon prayer, Salat al-Zuhr, begins when the Sun crosses the celestial meridian, true noon, exactly halfway between sunrise and sunset. I didn’t understand the language but it didn’t matter. The voice was spiritual, peaceful and calming. Worshippers with their heads covered in taqiyahs, didn’t quite make their prayer movements in complete synchrony as I had imagined, but it was graceful no less.

After the prayers, the Imam delivered the sermon in Hindi. All I heard were three words and a name – Kashmiri, Hindustani, Muslmaan, and Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Everything else in the sermon were words I didn’t need to understand. With such intensity and aggression in tone, I didn’t need to know the language to know that the sermon was filled with hate. This is not a stab on Islam. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say, all religions offer their own version of hate, be it through a sermon or otherwise.

I visited Jama Masjid at a sensitive time.

[To establish some political context, the Indian parliament recently repealed Article 370, which had originally allowed the residents of Jammu and Kashmir to live under a separate set of laws, including those related to citizenship, ownership of property, and fundamental rights, as compared to residents of other Indian states. With the recent repeal, all the provisions of the Indian constitution are now applicable to Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, there are reports of widespread curfews and communication/Internet blackouts. The Muslim majority in J&K does not approve of India’s most recent move. This context is based on my research on the Internet. Feel free to keep me honest.]

The politics of religion often promotes divisiveness in public discourse, which normally wouldn’t exist if not for the blatant instigation by both religious and political leaders.

I did not want to leave Jama Masjid with a hate-filled sermon as my last memory. And so, I continued walking barefoot in scorching heat hoping to capture few more slices of life through my camera. Most visitors seemed far too removed from the political and religious dissonance. They were simply being themselves – posing for photographs, chit-chatting with family, walking across the square and feeding pigeons.

As these scenes unfolded, I was practically melting, slowly dissolving myself in sweat.

First Impressions

After a twenty-one hour uneventful flight, we arrived in New Delhi, India which welcomed us with 30 degree celsius and 80% humidity.

The first thing you notice is the sheer number of people, many of whom play a part in what I believe is unnecessary over-employment. Unnecessary for me, necessary for them. At midnight, there were probably fifty people manning a duty-free shop that could have done with ten. The second thing you notice are the smells. India is a hot country where condoms and deodorants are rarely used. So what has happened is 1.3 billion people with body odor. The Universe has a perverse sense of humor indeed.

By the time we boarded a pre-paid taxi, I was mostly drenched in delicious local sweat, all my own. Air-conditioning inside a moving vehicle suddenly seemed like the greatest human invention ever. While the luggage tags on the suitcases tied to the roof of the car were dancing to the wind, I was enjoying the nice cool air from a machine.

After a night’s sleep, I felt hurried to make India my new home. I wanted to know the name of the Indian Finance minister. I wanted to know the price of 1kg of tomatoes. I wanted to be able to order food on my phone. I wanted to drive without a map. I wanted to be able to recommend restaurants to anyone who was visiting. And then I realized, I’m the one visiting and I can’t be in a hurry to make a home.

Luckily for me, all I have is time. I’ll take my time to find home. Right now, I’m still in transit.

I woke up to the sound of a bicycle hawker selling something in a language I mostly don’t understand. As I waded through the day, everything in India reminded me of my childhood. And anything that reminds you of your childhood can only be a good thing. Right? The crowds, the dirt, the aromas of street food optimally balanced with the odors of open sewage, the persistent honking, sightings of overcrowded bikes and cows retaining their bovine right of way. On the one hand, these sightings, sounds and smells can seem foreign, curious, and even unacceptable. On the other, they can be sentimentally familiar and deeply comforting.

How long does it take for nostalgia to fade? And what does this nostalgia get replaced with?

Memory Full

The day is here

Farewells, drinks and tears
Last goodbyes are over
New hellos to begin

Boxes on a ship
Bags on a plane
Memories are forever carry-ons

Together for twenty years
We lived here
We arrived with two suitcases each
We return with boxes, bags and memories

Two wishes remained for me
See the city fog through my lens
And run five miles

Laziness lost to spirit
So I went
To see city through the fog

Squeezed a quarter mile run
Up the San Francisco hill
Five miles I couldn’t

I was ready to depart
I had to take one last photograph
I clicked
The camera announced
Memory Full

It’s time

After having spent half my life in the US, twenty-two years to be precise, my wife and I have decided to move back to India. 

It’s time to go home.

We missed many birthdays, weddings, Diwalis and funerals in India, but an immigrant’s journey in a home away from home can be incredibly rewarding in other ways. The experiences we enjoyed, the diversity we were exposed to, the friendships we developed, the memories we made, can only be fit for the fortunate. But, all these years, the one question that we could never settle on has been “Where is home?” Home, we later realized, is never just a point on a map. It’s the people, it’s the food, it’s the festivals, it’s family. We hope, that point on a map is somewhere in India. 

My professional journey in the US has been everything everyone else has seen – career transitions, promotions, layoffs, politics, interviews, coworkers who have become lifelong friends, horrible bosses, caring bosses, but most importantly immense personal growth. I wouldn’t be the person I am today, if not for all my mentors and the well-wishers. 8 companies, 20 bosses, 4 different cities, and hundreds of coworkers later, I’m ready for the next chapter of my life. 

Then came the question from everyone we knew – “What are you going to do?” I told myself, the more important question is “What do I want to do?” 

Life is too short to be spent climbing invisible and seemingly never-ending ladders. For the most part, everything in this world is unlimited – money, power, things. Time in itself may be infinite, but our own time is not. I constantly remind myself of potential future regrets. I don’t think I’ll ever regret not making vice president or not owning a Porsche. But I know, I will regret not capturing enough moments through my camera. I will regret not experiencing enough humanity through travels. I will regret not sharing enough untold stories. I will regret not being close enough to aging parents. I will regret not making enough new memories. 

If I’m leaving the familiar, the secure, the comfortable, I should at the very least leave for something that’s personally meaningful. And so, I have decided to pursue my love for photography and writing. I have no idea what that even means, but if I don’t take the plunge now, I’ll most likely regret later that I didn’t try hard enough. In four weeks, I won’t have a job, and will be foolishly pursuing a dream. I would be lying if I said I’m not excited, but would be lying no less if I said I’m not nervous. I often use the phrase “We’ll figure it out.” Well, that’s what I plan to do. Figure it out.

This transition, this next chapter is not going to be easy. I’ll be a foreigner in a country where I was born. I’ll have to unlearn many things that I take for granted now. I’ll have to get used to new ways of living – professionally, socially, and culturally. On the other hand, we are looking forward to reconnecting with old friends, spending more time with family, and looking at everything through a toddler’s eyes, experiencing a sense of newness which many of us lost when we decided to grow up.

Wish us luck. We are going to need it.

Websitewww.arunmuthu.com

Follow me on Instagramhttps://www.instagram.com/arunmuthu_photography/

Follow me on Facebookhttps://www.facebook.com/arunmuthuphoto/

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started