Mindful, foldful, Origamiful

GUEST POST: Roopika Sood

Two weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, as I unlocked the Origami room, I was seized by a strange kind of fear – that of being stood up. Unlike the usual screaming, gate-crashing little zealots I faced every other day, today was different – it was a class meant for adults. It had been a herculean task to get them to agree to sacrifice a lazy Sunday morning.

20 minutes later, all eight heads were hung over with shoulders hunched and backs bent. (They reminded me of my parents who drop off for a siesta while watching our Sunday afternoon movies that are a weekly family ritual.) Except that the quick moving fingers here gave away the frisky minds at work. These were far from sleepy. These were agile, alert minds, looking to unearth hidden clues in a maze. Like squirrels working intentionally and intensely, dexterity and precision were the secretly, silently, shared ambition.

I moved around like Mother Hen in a coop, though it felt like I was walking on egg-shells. As I moved around as unobtrusively as I could, I heard a gentle humming. She was glued to her private moment. I would dare touch it or let anyone break that bubble of focus. That was my real role – to trigger, to watch, and finally to protect – a deeply personal moment of creative struggle. I kept a close watch on her but moved away to see two others, relatively animatedly talking. This is always a delicate situation – when two people are struggling together with an Origami challenge. And while they were speaking to each other in near whispers, they hadn’t noticed me shuffling over their shoulders. Total immersion again. As I moved away, I noticed 10 pieces on the table, the eleventh under construction. It was a eight unit model. She was humming something and folding on and on and on. Absolute focus, total immersion. A tender, private moment.

My first brush with Origami was a foldful afternoon hour that had spread to six hours and I hadn’t realised how. It was a turning point in my life – I hadn’t found anything this engrossing in a long while. And I was tired but beaming at the end of the six hours – like a good marathon, a long yoga session or a typical meditation circle.

When someone at office was asked to buy a colouring book (by her psychiatrist, no less!) to calm the tornado of thoughts that were constantly draining her mind, it got me thinking. This was the art therapy fad that was catching on at offices to the point that our CEO went out and bought coloring books for the official Zen Room.

What is it about working with our hands that makes time fly, thoughts pause and our breathing come back to a happy rhythm? Meditation, by definition, does not specify technique – any process that brings the mind to refocus, to calm, to stillness, works. In all my years of teaching Origami, I have experienced this same facet. Folding teases the intellect at first, then wraps the mind in its grip, in its ambition, in its demand of absolute attention.

Does all Origami make time fly? No. With modular origami where identical units come together, I enjoy the repetitive rhythm of the folding sequences, the struggle to zoom in and zoom out periodically while fitting the pieces together and the end result of watching an elegant, colourful whole from various vantage points. With tessellations and corrugations, the creasing of the initial grid is painstaking and pushes me to the wall. Gradually, my mind floats away to other realms while my fingers work as if on auto-pilot. The feeling of surprise at having finished folding all the papers that lay before me hours ago always surprises me.

Immersion. Focus. Concentration. Absorption. Mindfulness. Meditation. These words floated within the conversations between the folds fluidly with people of all sizes. This is what it really is, isn’t it – Focus (on the moment), Forget (any other moment, past or future) and Feel Fulfilled.

The privacy of being completely with yourself and the option of being with others that Origami grants is rare – and precious. Folding sessions often find people hunched down with a little frown of rapt attention as well as people connecting over a shared challenge that is as much a unifier as a conversation-starter. “Mindful, Foldful” is the tag-line in my head for the next wave of mindfulness meditation. There have been umpteen articles and books on Mindfulness and Origami, Zen Origami etc. Try Google and you’ll know that I am not the first to discover this.

Try folding, actually, and you’ll know why. Try it without a watch and you are on my side.

 

(Roopika loves colour, stories and people. After teaching for nine years in boarding schools, this Delhiite is now in Chennai, reconnecting with city-life, redefining herself, rediscovering the power of art in everyday life and chucking away her CV for good. Watching people have their ‘Eureka’ moment while working with their hands thrills the teacher in her. She blogs about her work on handsonpaper,blogspot.com) 

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Trying to be green, one hand-me-down at a time

World Environment Day

Water color by Vidya Gopal

It was World Environment Day yesterday and it’s all very confusing  – I am told being vegetarian is not so green anymore because it takes much more lettuce to make the same amount of calories than say bacon. I don’t want to start eating bacon, but that doesn’t mean I am not environmentally conscious.

Also, there is this whole straw movement and I did wonder at some point if I should buy a metallic straw, but the point is – I never did straws anyway; I always found them silly, and besides, I never had a real need for them; I never took to aerated drinks or drinking colored liquids with fancy umbrellas. Or smoothies/cold coffees. Which is why I didn’t introduce them to the child either. We are both slurpers. So that’s one less thing we were polluting the environment with and one less thing to substitute.

As for bamboo toothbrushes, I will buy them when my local chemist or grocer sells them. Ordering them online — when a tiny toothbrush comes mummified with triple layered bubble wrap which is covered by another sheath of plastic somehow doesn’t make sense to me. The same way as buying organic dals (is the plastic it comes in also organic, I feel like asking). I would rather buy whatever dal my local grocer has – less wrapping. But every single thing you buy has plastic in it. Bigger the brand, more the layers of plastic. Everything you eat has touched plastic in some way, even if you made it from scratch. Isn’t that scary?

I wish I could say that I grow my own produce (or at least herbs and cherry tomatoes) in my backyard, but my father grabbed all dibs on green thumbs in the family, and is being sustainable on a piece of land in Belgaum, where he grows enough for the family and some friends.

I wish I could say that I have got rid of all plastic in my life (where does plastic go when you get rid of it?). But no matter how consistently and consciously I say no to plastic, it always makes an appearance insidiously. I try to control it from multiplying – but everything comes in plastic, even though it all sits in my cloth bag. I also try to buy large quantities of things – giant toothpastes, shampoos and big bags of rice and giant cans of oil – but at some stage, they all have to be replenished.

I wish I could say that I have switched to cycling and have stopped using my car, but I like air conditioning, and I also use it (albeit for a few hours) at home. If we had better weather, perhaps I would be more green, I tell myself.

It was a few months post baby that I calculated that his diaper consumption must have made a little hillock in a landfill somewhere. It was also when talks of climate change and global warming had reached their peak and there was a sense of alarm. If planet earth were the stock market, it would have crashed then. Since I already had made the baby, I couldn’t be one of those people who said that I wouldn’t have children because I want to save the planet. But I decided one thing – I will use less, want less and  recycle more. I think I have stayed true to that resolution for the most part. I rarely shop (not for clothes, shoes, accessories, belts, bags – nothing). Everything I own is old or gifted or handed down. Even when I travel abroad, I end up going to thrift stores if at all. I buy most books for Re from second hand stores or garage sales. I often wish that one could recycle uniforms and books in schools too, but when I bring it up, other parents roll their eyes. I buy groceries because we have to eat; occasionally I buy treats for us, but there is always a mindfulness about it. 

Re has grown up almost entirely on recycled clothes and shoes. Most of his toys are recycled, although birthdays go a little out of control with people buying random presents that sometimes I have to find ways to recycle. I have some mindful and generous friends who keep aside old clothes, shoes, toys, board games, puzzles and raincoats etc for Re. He doesn’t know that shopping is a luxury and till today, we haven’t actually gone shopping for things – except perhaps to a garage sale for books.  This year on my birthday, I asked my friends not to buy me gifts, but give me something old, something they might have outgrown. It was beautiful, the way everyone responded. It is catching on.

A few weeks ago, my bhangarwala (local buyer of recyclable items including newspaper, bottles, cans , etc) asked me if I had old metal, since bottles had no value any more (the bottle recycling industry was shutting down). Since my mother will throw a fit if I give any of her copper bottomed heirlooms or iron griddles, I told him I had nothing. What about old toys or books of the child, he asked. I told him I donate it to the Don Bosco shelter for children and he laughed. “Ha ha , but they sell it to me, so you might as well, directly”

Now I give stuff to Goonj occasionally, but if there are things that I would like to set free (I don’t like the word donate), I make a list of people, call them, and ask them if they would like a pair of sneakers, a good swimming costume, books or floats or anything in good condition that my child or I may have outgrown physically or emotionally. It takes work, but it is infinitely more rewarding. Likewise, when I want something specific I ask for it. Like right now, I want a cycle. Anyone?

When I am tired of my stuff and want new stuff, I have no shame in asking people for hand-me-downs – ripped jeans, jackets, sarees, kurtas bags, embroidery books, knitting needles, yarn, whatnot. And people are always generous. I have a circle of friends I regularly do barters with and I will recycle anything and so will the child. This is the nice thing about making art. Everything finds a place.

The worst thing for the environment is not straws – it’s greed and random consumption –  to always want more, own more, dump more.

I had a green childhood. We grew up green. Our school satchels were made of thick canvas/cloth and we had the same one for several years, frequently stitched up. My textbooks were kept aside for my siblings as they were in pristine condition. Tiffin boxes were always steel. We drank water from taps. For notebooks, we used brown paper, home-made labels and home-made gum paste. All our clothes were stitched at home and everything we ate was made at home. Except Parle G and sliced bread (which made a guest appearance once in a while). We walked to school, we played with friends, we hardly had toys. Once in a month, my father or the domestic help would go to Pai stores with a list and groceries would be brought home in a large jute bag. Tins had to be sent for oil, ghee. Everything else came in recycled brown paper bags. Rice was bought from farmers (my dad always knew someone) in large 20 kg gunny bags. The only plastic that came into the house was the milk packets of Warana milk that Amma started buying once she found that our milkman was giving us more water than milk from his canister. She would wash and dry each packet, making a sort of accordion like arrangement on the kitchen tiles where they stood next to each other. These were sold once a month for Rs 7 a kilo to the same guy who bought our old newspapers. Empty pages of our school notebooks were collected and bound into “rough books” in the school holidays. Uniforms had hems that if unfurled, would run up to our ankles (just in case we got my father’s height)

Fruit was not a staple, but we occasionally ate guavas, bananas, oranges, watermelon or anything seasonal. Once a year, a crate of mangoes arrived and we had no upper limit on how many we could have. It was real indulgence. We had no gadgets (except a Sumeet mixer and a Phillips radio). No one spoke about global warming. It wasn’t a thing.

I am saddened by the world we are leaving for our children. And each time I look in my garbage bin, I am saddened even more. Especially when I multiply that amount by 1.2 billion people.

Two years ago, my son was picking up litter in Landour and he said something that i will never forget. “Mamma, when humans don’t want things, they throw it on mother earth. It’s like they don’t want garbage in their house, but they are okay with throwing it on Mother Earth’s garden. At this rate, all that garbage will become another planet.”

May be it will.

(If you’d like prints of the above water color, do get in touch with Vidya Gopal on her instagram @spink_bottle )

Why solitude is a mother’s best friend

Water color by Vidya Gopal

Water color by Vidya Gopal

Earlier this month, I packed away my mother and my eight year-old son for three weeks to Dubai as I wanted to be home alone. My mother and I co-parent my child and I am often caught between having to be a daughter, a mother, a caregiver and myself.

It was the ‘myself’ bit that I wanted to steal from my life and this was as good a time as any. My sister and my closest friend live in Dubai and they were happy to host the twosome, who came back nourished and rejuvenated, as much I was, in their absence.

There were eye rolls. Figurative ones of course.

“But you just traveled to Italy like a month ago!”

“Will he manage?”

“Three weeks! Has he stayed without you for that long?”

People didn’t say it, but I heard it nonetheless. It’s not that I needed the kid out of my way because I didn’t know what to do with him. The two of us have done plenty of nothing in the past few years during the holidays.

What I needed was to get his mother out my way, so that I could be with me.

It was easy to legitimize this aloneness. I had committed to an impossible deadline and the only way I could make it happen was to not have anything come in my way. No child-related decisions. No giving instructions in triplicate. No “what do we cook today?”. No random logistics to compute or things to co-ordinate, plan, or execute. No listening or speaking (the best bit for me!). No domesticity.

There were smaller rewards. Not getting derailed every time I paused to look at a sunrise. Having a whole mug of tea uninterrupted. Being able to make things about me. What do I feel like eating for breakfast? When do I want to take a nap? Do I really feel like talking today?

I led the student life that I had never led as a student, which included, among other things – eating podi rice or stuffing leftover pasta in my sandwich and grilling it. It was yumm, by the way.

I like being alone. I like cooking for one. I love a table for one.

I got a lot done too, and it was not all about work.

One of the things that goes out of the window when you become a mother is the luxury of solitude. A fair bit of it had already gone out when I married a man who sulked when I told him I don’t do “I miss yous”; I had programmed myself to fake it. Solitude, therefore, on the rare occasion that it came my way, did seem like a luxury. It was always measured. It was often stealthy.The father of my child got plenty of it though. All it took was a ‘smoke break’ or an X Box controller.

There were several times in the early stages of motherhood when I would dream of waking up single – when there was no baby who really needed me, when I had no one to answer to, when I could take myself out for a movie or a dinner and not have to explain. Or just drive around in my car, listening to the radio because that was my truly alone space.

Perhaps my intense need for solitude and inability to orchestrate the cosmetic togetherness that seemed necessary for my marriage paved the way to my single momhood, and for that, I am grateful. That I was able to recognize the signs and run, while I was still a good enough mom to my child and still enough in love with myself to want to claim me back.

The single mom thing therefore suited my personality really well. In my mind, I was always single and now, I was a mom too.  I didn’t have to fake collaboration anymore because I didn’t think it worked in the first place.

If it’s tough for mothers to hold onto their solitariness, it is even harder for a single mother. But sadder than the loss of solitude is the loss of anonymity. If you have to get away and leave the child in the hands of another caregiver, it better be a thing. And it had better be work, for the most part. Whenever I entered a room, the mother entered before me; when I left a room, the mother left before me. It’s a thing.

I knew all that I needed was some quiet time to heal. May be I would have got it if I had asked for it, but I never did. And even when I got it, I filled it with something, and it usually involved people. Yes, there are work trips. Getaways. But they don’t always qualify, because they are about other people too.

I know that when I go long enough without claiming solitude, I feel disconnected from myself and everything around me. But this time, I didn’t want to lose myself in the hills or the seaside or a foreign country.

I wanted to find myself in my own home. There’s something truly special about being alone in your own home. Not a hotel room. Not a flight. Not an Air BnB. Not a friend’s home. Just that same space you nurtured every corner of, but never found the time or the luxury to savor.

I finally asked for it.

I got it.

Growing up poor as one of three children in a family that never put a premium on solitude, I didn’t realize what I was missing. But I found myself travelling alone in my twenties, when it was not even a thing. I had moved to a working women’s hostel and it was the first time I had a room to myself. Unlike what others said, I slept very well, had good dreams, and no, I didn’t miss home. I often watched plays and movies alone. There were friends who didn’t get it, and thought I was odd. But I thought to never want to be alone – that was odd, almost unhealthy.

When my son was away, I didn’t send “I miss you” texts and voice messages and neither did he. I didn’t call every day to check on him. In fact, I didn’t call at all. Every time I would receive an update or some photos on WhatsApp, I would smile at the realization that I did something right. For the both of us.

Among other things, I found time to grieve. I hadn’t grieved my failed marriage, the two cats I lost in the last year, my numb disconnectedness with the autopilot world around me, the part of me that was lost in the constant winging of things – work, life, money, motherhood.

Grief is a luxury. It needs time. Space.  Grief can’t be collaborative.

I clearly hadn’t timetabled grief in my schedule. It will happen, I told myself.

When Re returned, he had learned origami, Sudoku, how to shampoo his hair and other things. He also had a plan. “Mamma, did you know that Emirates has an unaccompanied minor thing, where I can travel alone to Dubai and it’s really cool! I hope you won’t feel bad?”

“Why would I feel bad? It’s the best news of my life!”

“Really? I can’t believe it.”

I can’t believe it either. The rest of my life has begun!

(If you’d like a print of more water colors like the one above, Vidya Gopal does a whole range of them and you can reach her on Instagram @spink_bottle) 

It’s true girl power when boys have girl role models

Re and I are reading Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls right now. Every night, we read 2-3 stories and are not allowed to proceed further until we have passed the Rebel Girl exam of the previous night’s stories (which he always does with flying colors, while I goof up quite often). One of the common struggles in all the stories is fighting against limiting beliefs : eg science is not for girls and neither is math or computer technology, being a pirate, astronomer, boxer, orchestra conductor, surfer, primatologist, astrophysicist and whatnot.

Of course he knows what breaking stereotypes and fighting for what you believe in is very well; as an “unboy boy”, he’s often been subjected to scrutiny for doing “girl things” viz: dressing up his dolls, loving glitter and sequins, sewing and wearing purple Dora crocs, amulets (Sofia) and Doc McStuffin bracelets and thinking Hermione Granger is the coolest girl on the planet.

And that’s why I wasn’t surprised when he got hooked onto Project Mc2- featuring teenage spy Mc Keyla who teams with three other super smart girls to become secret agents who use science to save the day, from hackers, villains and other control freaks. “Mamma, they are rebel girls too,” he said. The timing was perfect.

Needless to say, when a hamper with a DIY kit arrived from them, he gave a squeal of delight. Apparently the lipstick and lip balm making DIY kit is an interesting diversion when they are on a mission to stop a hacking device.

And that’s how our DIY project lip balm began: mixing wax base with wax chips, melting, adding flavor, shimmer, pouring into molds and creating our very own name – Melon Swirl

It was nice to have our lip balm and eat it too. We can’t wait to raise the bar now and try something a little more complicated.

All India Radio and what it did for me

When I was a child, Vividh Bharati was my everything. We didn’t have a TV then and we couldn’t afford many books (the school library just allowed you one per week). I woke up to Jharokha (a line up of the day’s program) and then had my coffee listening to Rasvanti (or was it Bhoolein Bisre Geet)? At 7.30, I rushed for my shower during Sangeet Sarita (was totally willing to skip the classical bit) and was back for Rangavali at 7.40, packing my bag, getting ready for school but not quite ready to leave home.

At 8 am, Appa wanted to switch to Radio Ceylon for a bit before he left for work, so I endured (and later learnt to appreciate K.L Saigal, Noorjahan and co. (But Wednesday nights, the entire family would be around the transistor, for Binaca Geetmala, tuning Radio Ceylon to a microfrequency that didn’t squish and gargle, especially for the aakhri paaydaan and the Sartaj Geet!)

At the dot of 8.30 every morning, as Appa left for work, humming a Talat Mahmood song, I would switch back to Vividh Bharati for it was time for Chitralok (the only time of day when they played the latest songs). At 8.45, no matter what song was playing, I had to leave for school. I hated it. Some days, I was late for assembly on account of song greed, but thankfully there were no PTMs in those days (I don’t think my parents would have bothered even if there were)

Evenings were for Amma – there was a total line up of South Indian songs -Tamil, Malayalam and also Telugu and Kannada, some of which she hummed to and the rest of which (the modern ones) she found distasteful. Sometimes I hummed along as I did my homework and Amma was happy I was imbibing some “south Indian culture”

Post dinner and the rituals, I reclaimed my radio back with Hawa Mahal on which I heard some of the most intriguing radio plays and then bed time was Chhaya Geet with golden oldies at 10 pm. Some days, I couldn’t have enough, and sneaked in Bela ke phool at 11 pm, after all the lights in the house were out (I would hide the transistor under my pillow)

There was also the hour-long Jaimala (song requests by soldiers) and once a week, a celebrity anchored this (Vishesh Jaimala)

Years later, post an M.Pharm from UDCT, when I didn’t know what to do with my life, AIR saved me again. I used to moonlight as an interviewer for their Science channel and got paid 275 rupees per interview (I think it may have been my first income). My family would sit around the radio on the day of the telecast, listening to me quiz doctors and scientists on acupuncture, ophthalmology, plastic surgery, effluent treatment, power generation, pesticides, bacteria, viruses and other such.

Today as I entered the local radio station to arrange a tour for our school kids, so many memories came flashing back and I felt grateful for having grown up in simpler times, when all it took to fill your world with joy was sounds from a transistor. Sometimes it wasn’t even yours.

Netflix and the art of pixie dust

Towards the end of last year, I had a sort of pixie dust experience. A little fairy called Netflix walked into my life and and I began to look at screen time so differently. It was about me time and family time interwoven so well, everybody won!

I was invited to this really cool party to be a part of their core #streamteam (yes, I got a sneak preview of many new shows including Llama llama (and also a pair of red pajamas to go with it. And the book)

With my brand new subscription, the child got a profile all his.

Although the cat is still waiting for his.

Soon it was Christmas and this happened!

And then, I became a true connoisseurBut what they did for Valentine’s Day made me fall head over heels in love

with myself!

It’s Holi and I’m talking consent

For as long as I remember, I haven’t enjoyed Holi. Not that I think it’s wrong that people – big and small, get all rambunctious in their display of affection for each other one day of the year. They also happen to show this affection with generous amounts of color – wet and dry, organic and inorganic, water-soluble and non-water soluble, and in the end, it’s not even about color , but any form of substance including, but not limited to: mud, eggs, paint, tomatoes and other such that rank higher and higher in the vile index.

In all this, no one stops to ask if you are okay being the recipient of such affection. It is assumed that as Indians, we are all lovers of such orgies and affections and would be nincompoops to not partake of this grand gesture of our culture. Saying no is not even an option and even today, as schools and communities set about finding newer, eco-friendly ways to celebrate Holi and discuss at length the harmful effects of “bad colors”, consent is conveniently left out.

I dreaded Holi for the most part of my childhood, when my mother and I hid in the kitchen and bathroom when they came looking for us and sometimes we just gave in, because we feared they would break our doors. But we felt violated nonetheless. To me, it is often an example of bad touch and I wish more people would talk about it.

When I grew older, I found ways of escaping this revelry that usually involved a getaway to somewhere quiet. Once I found myself in the jungles of Dandeli , but turned out I hadn’t run far enough, as some revelers caught me.

I know that ‘consent’ in its various forms is just a recent addition to our vocabulary, and “no means no” somehow goes out the window when Holi arrives. It’s nice to know that hierarchies and boundaries dissolve on this glorious day, but what of people whose voices are not loud enough when they say no? How many times does one have to say no to be taken seriously? What of children too overwhelmed and tongue-tied by the sudden rowdiness of their ilk? What of body language that is often good enough for a no for those are too scared to protest when boundaries are crossed, when space feels violated but tongues are stuck? What of people big and small who cry hoarse but can’t be heard because, hell, who is listening when everyone is screaming “Holi hai”! And what is one child in a mob of children? Or one voice in a melee?

Because it turns out, even today, my kid is as much a minority as I was and feels violated every year on Holi, no matter what we do. Or don’t do.

But I don’t want us to spend the rest of our lives running away – from Holi, from noise, from people who don’t give a shit that other people, animals and plants bear the brunt of their excesses, and their sheer inability to comprehend that enough is enough.

And if that makes me antinational or anti-cultural, so be it.