Becoming Michelle Obama: Lessons for Life

This artwork is by Yen, my most favorite human illustrator on Instagram. I thank her for letting me feature her work on my blog. The above artwork of a ‘Girl Reading Becoming’ stayed as my source of strength as I struggled to put together this post. Do check out her work @yenmakesart

Prologue

My relationship with Michelle Obama’s Becoming began much before I actually read her book. On a January night, a decade ago in 2009, when I was in high school, I watched the swearing in of Barack Obama on television along with my parents in the drawing hall of my home, about 8500 miles away from Washington. My knowledge of racial history was limited to blacks being discriminated against and a speech of Martin Luther King Jr. Yet I sensed something special, I felt good about what was happening. What happened in Capitol Hill that night (day in the US) meant something to me. I went to bed that night, inspired but not knowing what about exactly. I did not know then that that night will mean more to me later.

A decade later, my understanding of the US had evolved through books, films, news, and my interest. I had read Barack Obama’s both books and watched numerous interviews and speeches of his. He had become a role model of sorts for me, though at a personal level.

I already had a notion of Michelle from what I had read in Barack’s books. Wrote Obama in his book, The Audacity of Hope:

Most people who meet my wife quickly conclude that she is remarkable. They are right about this—she is smart, funny, and thoroughly charming..Often, after hearing her speak at some function or working with her on a project, people will approach me and say something to the effect of “You know I think the world of you, Barack, but your wife…wow!” I nod, knowing that if I ever had to run against her for public office, she would beat me without much difficulty.

This is the context I picked up the book. With a curiosity to know more about Michelle, the Obamas, their values, Barack’s mind, among others.


Getting to Know Michelle Robinson

The book is thoughtfully partitioned into three parts – Becoming Me, Becoming Us, and Becoming More. In the first part, Michelle dissects her growing up years in the second-floor apartment in the South Shore Neighborhood of Chicago, striving at her school, arranging her first kiss, teenage loneliness, her family, listening to jazz, a child’s observation of the world around her, getting into Princeton, conversations with her girlfriends, and questioning herself over a hundred times, ‘Am I good enough?

Within the first few pages, I was in Michelle’s Southside apartment and could hear the tones of her Aunt’s piano. More importantly, in both her story and her writing it is easy to sense the authenticity, her attitude, and her ‘straight-forward no-nonsense’ manner of being. She herself admits to being an in-your-face sort of person.

We understand Michelle’s drive to succeed and prove herself she asks for a do-over on a reading exercise in kindergarten. It is no surprise that she got into Princeton and then into Harvard Law School. While we are treated to her days at Princeton, her days at Harvard Law School is condensed to hundred words.

Her narrative about her father, a man with an immense positive outlook who is also affected by multiple sclerosis, is warm and poignant. Her father’s story is a leitmotif that keeps returning throughout the book. It reaches a peak one night when Michelle is with her father at his hospital bed:

“He would not recover. He was going to miss the whole rest of my life. I sat in a chair next to his bed and watched him laboring to breathe. When I put my hand in his, he gave it a comforting squeeze. We looked at each other silently…What was left was only one truth. We were reaching the end.”



Knowing Barack Better

“Barack was serious without being self-serious.”

Michelle’s book furthered my understanding of Obama. While one gets to know about Barack from his books, we may not get a holistic objective picture. When a person is writing about oneself he tends to take certain aspects of himself for granted and does not throw enough light on it. Another’s perspective helps to complete the picture of a person. When that other perspective comes from someone who has been the closest to Barack, that makes it even more insightful.

Michelle characterizes Barack as someone who is too cerebral for most people to put up with, was more at home with the unruliness of the world, was dialed into the day-to-day demands of his life bet at the same time his thoughts roamed a much wider plane like income inequality, feels comfortable when he overcommits himself, and wanted to be effective far more than he wanted to be rich. I’ve often wondered how one could be bookish, thoughtful, phenomenal idealism, write better than most bestselling writers, and yet wanted to be in politics and even succeeded at it. Well, that can only be a person who had the characteristics that Michelle describes.

And to the pride of all the book lovers, looks like Barack is a book guy himself. Writes Michelle, “He’d also sold his idea for a non-fiction book about race and identity to a New York publisher, which for someone who worshiped books as he did felt like an enormous and humbling boon.”


Michelle vs Barack

As we read, it is evident that Barack and Michelle are people with different personalities and formational experiences. Their career trajectory is an easy giveaway. Michelle liked the approval of people, her choice of going to Princeton and then to law school was driven by it. Barack meanwhile was more rooted in his idealism, he works at a financial research firm for a bit to save some money and then takes a gamble as he plunges himself into community organizing before he applied for law school. Barack was the ever-optimistic risk taker.

Barack loved solitude and could lock himself in a cabin for weeks, while Michelle was more social and needed people around her. She traces the divergent personalities to the years growing up. She writes, “Barack could pour his heart out through a pen. He’d been raised on letters..from his mom in Indonesia. I was brought up on Sunday dinners at Southside’s, where you sometimes had to shout to be heard.”

The difference in their psychological make-up is reflected in their attitudes towards marriage and relationships. Michelle writes, “He saw marriage as the loving alignment of two people who could lead parallel lives but without forgoing any independent dreams or ambitions. For me, marriage was more like a full-on merger, a reconfiguring of two lives into one, with the well-being of the family taking precedence over any one agenda or goal.”

Despite their differences, what kept them united and made them adapt to each other was probably the shared values and the aspirations of being good humans, doing meaningful work, raising good kids, and living a worthwhile life.

Having read the books of both Barack and Michelle, I’d confess that for an ordinary soul Michelle is more relatable. While Barack is a great role model, he just seems a tad sorted out for many of us to identify with. He makes unconventional career choices, works grassroots, has an unwavering vision, sustains deep optimism, and knows where he is going – not a common man. Michelle is the one who has the doubts about herself, seeks approval and social validation, she takes safe career options and then remorses her career that didn’t suit who she was. Many of us could identify with her.


On Finding a Meaningful Career

Just as I said in the previous lines, many us would navigate towards safe career options early in our lives, and quite reasonably so. But down the line, after securing some amount of financial stability and confidence in our aspirations, we might want to look for work that is more meaningful to us. This is what Michelle does and describes how she went about it. This is such a demonstrated practical advice that I’m going to quote in full:

“I felt certain that I had something more to offer to the world. It was time to make a move. Still unsure of where I hope to land, I typed up letters of introduction and sent them to people all over the city of Chicago…Over the course of the spring and summer of 1991, I put myself in front of anyone I thought might be able to give me some advice. The point was less to find a new job than to widen my understanding of what was possible and how others had gone about it. I was realizing that the next phase of my journey would not simply unfold on its own, that my fancy academic degrees weren’t automatically lead me to fulfilling work. Finding a career as opposed to a job wouldn’t just come from perusing the contact pages of an alumni directory; it required deeper thought and effort… And so, again and again, I laid out my professional dilemma for the people I met, quizzing them on what they did and who they knew. I asked earnest questions about what kind of work might be available to a lawyer who didn’t, in fact, want to practice law.”


On Relationship Lessons

Michelle honestly reflects on the challenges of her relationship with Barack. There are so many lessons that could be drawn. First, one has to be open about ones needs to the other. Barack, by his own admission, was not much of a phone guy and he preferred letter writing. But it wouldn’t work for Michelle. Writes Michelle, “I wasn’t going to relegate our love to the creeping pace of the postal service. I informed Barack that if our relationship was going to work, he’d better get comfortable with the phone.”

I found her take on fights among couples particularly insightful:

“Like any newish couple, we were learning how to fight…And for better or worse, I tend to yell when I’m angry..Barack, meanwhile, tends to remain cool and rational, his words coming in an eloquent (and therefore irritating) cascade…Over time, we have figured out how to express and overcome our irritations and occasional rage. When we fight now, it’s far less dramatic, often more efficient, and always with our love for each other, no matter how strained, still in sight.”

And do not shy to opt for couples counseling if need be to save the relationship. Even the Obamas have done it. Michelle says that couples counseling actually worked.

“I couldn’t help but feel a little bit lost by comparison. His sense of purpose seemed like an unwitting challenge to my own.”

The best kind of relationship is one which enables each other towards the path of flourishing. It is when one learns from the other and becomes aware of what is missing in oneself. Writes Michelle, “He steered himself with a certainty I found astounding…For me, coexisting with Barack’s strong sense of purpose – sleeping in the same bed with it, sitting at the breakfast table with it – was something to which I had to adjust, not because he flaunted it, exactly, but because it was so alive.”

But becoming aware of what one wants to be is not enough. One needs immense courage to make that leap. Left to one own self, this never happens, and I can personally vouch for it. You need someone who understands you and can reassure you and nudge you.

“Don’t worry, Barack was saying. You can do this. We’ll figure it out.

She writes, “Barack was a constant and lonely support and probably the push she needed to change careers and do what she really cared about. “His was the lone voice telling me to just go for it, to erase the worries and go toward whatever I thought would make me happy.”

“I was too busy resenting Barack for managing to fit workouts into his schedule, for example, to even begin figuring out how to exercise regularly myself.”

Michelle lays herself open and vulnerable as she confesses on her resentment towards Barack, and how eventually she manages to work herself out of it. She writes, “I began to see that there were ways I could be happier and that they didn’t necessarily need to come from Brack’s quitting politics in order to take some nine-to-six foundation job. It was possible that I was more in charge of my happiness that I was allowing myself to be.”

What stands out is that she shifts perspective, grows out of the frustrations, and puts in new systems to overcome them. She is not grudging it, she is not ignoring it, she takes qualitative steps. It might seem very simple and domestic, but the importance cannot be more emphasized. It could break marriages and families. It happens all the time all around us.

“Barack and I got married on a sunny October Saturday in 1992..”

It was a pleasant discovery for me that the Obamas married eight days before I was to come into this world – in a city in Southern India thousands of miles away from the Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side, where they got married.


On Parenting Well

Parenting is one of the most complex tasks in the world. The tales in the book Michelle’s philosophy on raising her girls is a treasure trove of wisdom. Barack had talked about in his book on the importance of fatherhood and him being there for his girls. But Michelle talks more practical stuff that we could all gain from. She writes:

“We had kids, and kids need room to speak and grow…Barack and I would sit at dinner, hearing tales from the Sidwell playground or listening to the details of Malia’s research project on endangered animals, feeling as if these were the most important things in the world. Because they were. They deserved to be.”

I thought it was parenting gold when she talks about the mentoring programs she ran for girls at the White House:

“My wish for them was the same one I had for Sasha and Malia – that in learning to feel comfortable at the White House, they’d go on to feel comfortable and confident in any room, sitting at any table, raising their voices inside any group.”

There are even more lessons to be drawn from Michelle’s parents, especially her mother. She writes, “My parents talked to us like adults. They didn’t lecture, but rather indulged every question we asked, no matter how juvenile. They never hurried a discussion for the sake of convenience.” A few pages later she eulogizes her mother’s parental mindset, “My mother maintained the sort of parental mindset that I now recognize as brilliant and nearly impossible to emulate – a kind of unflappable Zen neutrality.”


On Learning from Women

I hadn’t read many biographies on women. Reading ‘Becoming’ helped me relate to the much more complex of life in the modern world – professional aspirations, motherhood, spouse’s career, household, and sustaining a marriage. We see Michelle trial through the time when she didn’t have Barack to support her at home, being busy as he was in Illinois Legislature or later, in the US Senate. She is candid about her frustrations on Barrack on occasions.

Yet she managed it all. She charted a career that she found meaningful even as she fights guilt being away from her girls, held the household and raised the girls even as Barack was away, gave all the support she could to Barack’s campaign, and managed to sustain their relationship even if she had to pull Barack to couple’s counseling.

I realized that women were doing much more. Their days were packed, multi-tasking was a given, and hardly found any ‘me’ time. I figured probably there was more one could learn from women – on how they managed to hold their lives together despite several pressures and stakeholders.

In all this, she acknowledges the role sisterhood has played in her life:

A habit that has sustained me for life, keeping a close and high-spirited council of girlfriends – safe harbor of female wisdom.

“I knew we’d help one another out and we’d all be okay,” she writes.


Reflecting on Life

Michelle’s outlook and worldview are life-affirming. She describes her growing up years when she sees families with better cars and friends with fancy toys or who bought their clothes at the mall than sewing them – quite a few of us would recognize this from our own experience, and it does influence us as kids. She writes:

“As a kid, you learn to measure long before you understand the size or value of anything. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you learn that you’re been measuring all wrong.”

A page later, she becomes a philosopher and delivers the divine commandment:

“Life was better, always, when we could measure the warmth.”


Epilogue

There are a hundred interesting details in the book – her faux pas with the British Queen, the daily night briefing books at the White House, the rush of campaigning, and the visits to military hospitals. But the best thing about a book of this kind – one where the author traces the journey of her life and connects her dots – is that it helps the reader in tracing their own journey, and sometimes throws up an insight or two about our own selves.

The book plays the role of a mentor. I can’t think of a book (that I’ve read) that fits this mentor role than Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Among the many reasons to read books, I particularly appreciate those books that become mentors to ourselves, the people in the book become voices in my head and companions that’ll be there and provide wisdom as I go through life. Michelle Obama’s Becoming is one such book. Reading the book felt like having a long conversation deep into the night with a close friend.

If you’re in your teens read it to have a good model to follow, if you’re lost in your twenties read it to find your own ‘becoming’, if you’re in your thirties, read it to tackle your mid-life crisis and relationship strains, if you’re over forty-five with a satisfied life, gift this book to your children or the young people around you.


 

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Twelve Months, Twelve Films: Becoming a Better Human

It is my belief that anyone who watches these twelve films will be a more informed, sensitive, self-assured, empathetic, and a culturally-literate individual. Or to put simply, a better human. 


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For someone who spent most of my childhood and teenage years in general ignorance of films or perceived them as entertainment, I discovered the great potential of films to transform us individuals in my early twenties. Then on, films have been a tool to understand the world around me. They’ve taught me history, took me to far away places, kept me company on lonely nights, helped me rediscover joy, and sensitized me to the ‘other.’ In summary, films can play the following roles in our lives:

  1. Therapeutic
  2. Educate and inform
  3. Extension of experience

It is unfortunate that the potential of films is rarely put to use in schools to build young individuals. Of course, there are some enlightened schools and teachers who are doing it already, but in general, it is an under-utilized tool.

I wondered if I could curate a set of twelve films, one for each month of the year based on a specific theme. While it was easier to decide for some of the months, it was difficult to attribute a theme to some of the other months and zero in on the film. Overall, it took an agonizing three weeks to put together a list that was representative, holistic and took account of what was important to us and our world. The result of that endeavor is what this blog is about.

These are also my favorite films that I want to watch every year. They have the timeless quality to keep nourishing us. These films cover a wide range – some teach us history, some build courage in us, some sensitize us to other cultures, some are reflective, some help us to become better. These films cover some of the most important themes in today’s world – gender equality, drugs and suicide, faith and religion, food, queer acceptance, international conflicts, books, fight against racism, existential reflection, the warmth of human connection, and overcoming personal obstacles. The diversity of these films is evident in their setting too – they span through France, Cuba, Austria, Israel-Palestine, US, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Japan, and Britain.

It is my belief that anyone who watches these twelve films will be a more informed, sensitive, self-assured, empathetic, and a culturally-literate individual. Or to put simply, a better human.

.  .  .

January – Believing and Becoming our Better Selves

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With the turn of the year, most of our look forward to a qualitative development in ourselves. We often assign goals and resolutions to ourselves. What does the passage time mean if we don’t grow? January is the time to brace ourselves to believe that we can do whatever we set our mind to, despite our shortcomings and lapses. It is the time to remind ourselves to put undoubting effort into the project of our lives.

The King’s Speech, a period drama, embodies the spirit of discovering that we’re much more capable than what we’d thought of ourselves. Set in the years preceding World War II, Albert (later King George VI) sustains stammering which he conquers as he works with his speech therapist Lionel. He goes on to deliver a crucial wartime speech that stuns the British public. Albert never believed he could do it nor that he was capable of leading the country, he gets frustrated and gave up more than once. It was his wife and Lionel who keep him at it and showed evidence to him that he was indeed making progress. It is representative of our own unwillingness to put undoubting effort and also that we also could do with support from the people around us.

.  .  .

February – Love and Human Connection

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February is the month of roses and romance. Of course, there is a broader meaning of love. Love as a romantic notion is only a modern invention, while universal love has been time immemorial and more essential to what makes life worth living. February is a time to commemorate the importance of human connection, the joy of companionship and understanding.

The Sound of Music answers the call of February. Set in Salzburg during the Second World War when the Nazis were soon to occupy it. Seven children and their widowed father, a former naval captain, live in a house where warmth and joy had long left. In comes the Governess Fraulein Maria, a nun on a sabbatical from the Nonnberg Abbey. With her light spirit and music, she brings back joy to the children, the household, and the Captain. It is a film that could bestow us with the spirit that could help us spread joy and warmth around us and forge human connections.

.  .  .

March – Courage of Women

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Whether a presidential candidate in the world’s most powerful country, or the wife of a tribal leader in northern Pakistan, or a highly educated professional woman in the boardroom, or a flower-seller lady outside a Hindu temple in India, women face intangible barriers of innumerable layers. On the month of International Women’s day, shouldn’t we make ourselves (even if you’re a woman yourself) of aware of the ‘hidden’ burden that women carry every day?

Wadjda, a Saudi Arabian film by a woman, is an apt watch for our longing. Wadjda, a little girl – who earns her own pocket money by selling bracelets that she makes in her spare time – lives with her mother while her father makes occasional visits to their house. On seeing her male friend driving his cycle and the freedom that it gave him, she desires a cycle for herself. But women don’t drive cycles in her country and the mother refuses. This does not stop Wadjda, she hatches an industrious plan to get the cycle.

.  .  .

April – Reflect on the Deeper Meaning of Food

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Food is not just food. It is a survival material, a pleasure, a tool of faith, often fosters community and companionship, and at times alludes to sex. It is amazing how we humans have elevated a simple biological need of food into fulfilling our social, emotional, and psychological needs. Yet, it is also painful that we don’t appreciate food as much in our 21st century busy lives – we cook less, we eat less mindfully, and we are in general less connected with the food we eat. April is a good time to consciously develop eating and cook if you aren’t already doing these.

Tampopo, a Japanese film, fulfills our longing for our deeper association with food. A widowed woman who runs her husband’s ramen shop wants to become a serious ramen chef. In her endeavor, she is helped by a traveling truck driver. Tampopo is not food porn but connects food with the essential elements of life. You won’t look at food the same way again.

.  .  .

May – Understand the Role of Faith

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Every year, 1.8 billion people around the world observe Ramzan. I’m sure where ever in the world we are, we will probably have a people who observe Ramzan around us. Whether you’re a non-muslim or a Muslim, it is a good time to understand the religion and the culture behind the phenomenon. Understanding the origin of one religion often helps us to understand the workings of another. It helps us to look beyond heinous narratives and the paradigm of a clash of civilizations. Most religions were social revolutions and were the most progressive of their times. While Ramzan may not strictly fall in May, it is safe to assume that a good part of Ramzan will always fall under May.

The Message, set in Arabia during the time of the Prophet Mohammad, tells the story of the birth of Islam. A social revolutionary faces backlash when he attempts to change the rotten status quo that has impoverished the community but benefits the people at the top. A camel identifies a spot for the first mosque, the tradition of calling for prayers, the reason for certain verses in the Holy Quran. The film awakens us to the role of faith and helps us realize that the project of religion was human progress.

.  .  .

June – There are Many Ways of Being

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For too long, much of our social mores have been unfair to people’s freedom of sexual orientation and gender. Worse, a lot of us don’t understand it at all.  We owe to people around us and ourselves to appreciate and understand same-sex love and gender choices. On Gay Pride month, we can do good by watching a film that makes us aware of experiences that may be alien to us. Or if we’re queer, it could help us identify ourselves.

Fresa y Chocolate (Spanish for Strawberry and Chocolate) is set in the 1970s communist social context of Cuba. While there quite a few same-sex romance films, what we need is much more. The chosen film does not have any same-sex romance scenes but it is about how a straight man- also a fierce communist – overcomes his prejudice of a gay pro-individualist man. He eventually understands and forms a warm friendship with him.

.  .  .

July – Being Open to New Experiences

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With half the year pass by, it is a tragedy if our lives settle into the humdrum of sameness. Often, we fight to keep our life constant and intact, very circumspect of anything that might alter the status quo, even if it might be for the better. It only hurts us and prevents us from becoming our more fullest selves. We could do well to open ourselves to the unknown and be transformed and hit by something that we’d never knew existed or that we wanted, but something that makes us better.

The Kid With A Bike is such a story of Cyril and Samantha. Samantha, a young hairdresser, takes in Cyril – a boy abandoned by his mother in a state-run youth farm – for weekend visits. But the boy still lives in the hope of his father’s love, which he later understands is non-existent. Will Samantha adopt Cyril? Samantha must decide what is important to her life and even sacrifice – she had to let go of her boyfriend – while Cyril must emotionally grow to love and trust Samantha.

.  .  .

August – Brace Yourselves to Fight Injustice

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On 28th August 1963, Martin Luther King delivered one of the famous speeches of the 20th century, ‘I have a Dream.’ That moment has been hitched in the memory. The history of racial discrimination of African-Americans in the United States and the fight against it could stand as an alibi for every other kind of unfairness in any part of the world. The world need not be as it is, we can change it for the better. Change is possible if we can dream and prepare ourselves for it.

The Great Debaters, set in Texas of the 1930s, is a film inspired by a true story of how a Professor at a black college in Marshall, Texas, inspired the students to form a debate team and led them to successive wins in debate competitions against the best of the White colleges. The film reminds us that only a few decades ago there was blatant injustice against a particular race that was accepted as normal. The debates-speeches in the film as delivered by the lead characters are as powerful as Martin Luther King’s. My appreciation for the power of words comes from this film.

September – There are Humans Behind Borders

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Conflicts between nations and the proportion of people affected by it today are less as compared to any other time in history. The last world war was over seventy years ago. Yet, international peace is not guaranteed, nor do we have foolproof systems in place. Ethnic conflicts, territorial conflicts between nations, nuclear buildup, cyber sabotage,  and civil wars have been around us. 21st of September is celebrated by the UN as International Day of Peace. We could look for commonness in our humanity and find joy in warmth beyond boundaries and political labels.

Lemon Tree, set in the West Bank territory occupied by Israel is the story of a Palestinian widow who tries to guard her lemon tree grove against being uprooted by the Israelis. The territorial conflict between Israel and Palestine is humanized through the experience of two female characters. Towards the end, we witness the Israeli woman empathizing with the Palestine woman for her travails and finds her own country’s actions as unjust.

 October – Care for Mental Well-being

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Quite suitably, the talk around mental health has been growing. But not quite enough. Often, it is shrugged off as fluff or overly stigmatized. This has been an era of increasing stress and anxiety. There are many around us who silently endure the pains of mental ill-health and various forms of addiction like alcohol and drugs. At times, certainly on more occasions than we presume, the sufferers take the grave step of ending their lives. October, ordained as the Mental Health Month, is a great time to sensitize ourselves mental health issues, and ensure that help is available to ourselves and others.

Oslo, August 31st, is the poignant and reflective story of a young and a recovering drug addict. After a few years at a treatment center, he is given a brief hiatus. He attends a job interview, meets old friends and family, and experiences the outer world again even as he reflects on his early of memories of the places he visits, about other people, and the existential questions of life. Can he resume his life and return to normalcy? Or has he got nothing to live for?

.  .  .

November – Let’s Celebrate Books and Reading

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Books and reading can be crucial elements of a well-lived life. A lot many people have spoken about the life-saving quality of reading, the power of books, the effect books have on our soul, and how good books build character. But it also a fact that in the 21st century, while more people than ever have reading skills we also read less and less because of other attractive media. November is National Novel Writing Month. while the aspiring writers are busy on their keyboards, the rest of us could commemorate the importance of reading.

My Afternoons with Margueritte, is simply a story on the joy and meaning of reading. A man with poor reading skills who had hardly read anything into his thirties is inspired to take up reading by an old lady Margueritte, whom he meets serendipitously on a park bench one afternoon. After his job in the morning, he spends every afternoon with the Margueritte listening to her read out to him.  She encourages him to read and gifts him a dictionary. Eventually, with great effort, he develops a proficiency and liking to reading that transforms his life.

.  .  .

December – Reflect on Life’s Larger Questions

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No matter how old we are, life’s larger questions of meaning, mortality, and existence are something we can never stop reflecting on. Our civilizational heritage, what makes life worth living, and questions on religion and faith are ever enduring. We need to take time regularly to reflect on the bigger picture and update our perspectives if need be. End of a year is the best time to do this. It could be a time when you realize that you have really done well this year – achieved your goals, promoted at work – or that things didn’t go so well at all – you may have lost a loved one, couldn’t get a job you really wanted. Either way, it is a moment to step back and realize the larger canvas of life and human existence.

The Man from Earth is about a history professor in his thirties bidding goodbye to his colleagues, as he plans to move on to a different scene. His unexplained move baffles his colleagues. He is also a man who could have been living for over fourteen thousand years through multiple ages, civilizations, and continents. The conversation flows in the single room setting, as he narrates his past to his colleagues, who believe and disbelieve in equal measure. It sends us into a reflective trail on human life and civilization. A suitable note to end the year.

.  .  .

On Moving Home

Moving out of a home could be a profound experience.


I’m moving out of the house I’ve lived in for the last two months. As I took my ‘ceremonial last walk’ around the place, and indefinitely procrastinated on packing my stuff, the following thoughts appeared on my mind. 

.  .  .

Moving out of a Home and Nearing End of Life

When you’ve got only a few more moments at a place, your perception of the place heightens. You start to notice and appreciate little things. Many of these, you may notice for the first time. And what appeared mundane earlier — the little girl in the park, the next door grandmother— appear very special now.

As you leave the place, it seems more beautiful than you thought it was.

Is it not much like life? Don’t you live more deliberately and with more awareness, when you finally realize that you’ve got only a limited time on this planet?

.  .  .

Being Ungrateful to the Shoe Shelf

Quite strangely, as I opened the door of my shoe shelf this morning, I was clouded by emotions. That morning, I had developed some feelings for this little space that held my shoes.

Many a morning I’ve pulled open this same door to take my shoes out. But never did I stay on a little longer to appreciate this space. I never appreciated it for holding my shoes safely.

This feeling spread to many other little spaces I accessed frequently at my home — the placed where I stored my kettle and coffee, the space where I had my meal and did my reading.

Until today I never spared a thought to these little spaces that made my life better. How ungrateful have I been!

.  .  .

Leaving a Little Bit of Myself Back

The room or home itself has a life of its own. It is going to have new people occupying its spaces. Could there be an emotional link between me, the person who will occupy this space after me, and the person who had occupied this space before me?

In the Indian film Dhobi Ghat, Arun (Aamir Khan) finds a left-behind videotape of the previous tenant in the house that he just moved into. He starts to identify with the lady in the video, who was also the previous occupier of the house, and begins to imagine the house through the eyes of the lady.

Should we leave back something for the people who will occupy these spaces after us? A book, or a strange item that will intrigue the occupant. A welcome note hidden somewhere or a recommendation on something cool to do in the city.

.  .  .

You Never Leave as you Came

During the time I’ve been here, I’ve added new thoughts to myself. I’ve gained new perspectives. To start anything new is difficult. It is the nurturing that I experienced in this place that gave me push to start these new things, despite inertia. Here, at this place, I’ve started at least three new things that add value to my life.

In this home, I’ve grown.

Now, when I’m leaving, I’m different from the one who entered it. I’m slightly a better version of myself. And this home has helped me become that. I leave this place with a clearer vision and purpose.

Farewell.

An Hour at the Mosque: A Ramzan Diary

Slices of life-affirming experiences during the breaking of fast at one of India’s largest mosques


The Date Seller and the Girl in a Hijab

As she heard the call from the mosque, the young girl — in a loose blue salwar and a black hijab, with a sweet joy on her face that’d belie that the owner of the face had been on fast for almost twenty-seven hours — wished to buy a few dates to break her fast. The old date seller with a dervish-like demeanor refused her money. It was a beautiful moment of humanity, when the girl, embarrassed and blushing, tried to return all but one date, while the date seller insisted that she keep it.

.  .  .

Faith, Family, Food

The courtyard plotted with large colorful mats. Women and men rested on their knees, with prayers on their lips and piety on their faces. Little boys ran through the human maze, the young mother tended to her baby, and the teen girls clicked selfies. Families perched around platters of watermelons, mangoes and bananas, chickpea salads, batter-fried vegetables, meat dishes, and bottles of water. The fragrance of attar, the aroma of well-cooked meat, and the sweet smell of summer fruits co-mingled under the canopy of faith and the joy of companionship.

.  .  .

Under the Ramzan Moon

Under the Ramzan moon, the emotions and the expressions of every man, woman, child were at their purest. Those were among the most sincere smiles, banters, and actions I’ve witnessed.

.  .  .

A Thousand Prayers

I did not pray. But amidst the thousand prayers around me, I experienced the bliss and benevolence of the spiritually charged moment.

Strangely, I felt at home among a thousand strangers.

.  .  .

Epilogue: Religion, Civilization, and Human Experience

It is here, among these thousands of people — congregated to break the fast, commune and partake in a meal — that I find my greatest faith in human civilization.

Isn’t this a representative moment of civilization? Isn’t this among the most life-affirming moments? Isn’t this among the grandest ideas that we humans have ever known? Wouldn’t it be a loss to our human experience, if one day we are to lose these traditions without a sufficient replacement?

With these thoughts on religious traditions and experience, I walked towards the northern gate of the mosque, profoundly grateful for the higher experience while still trying to make sense of it all.