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A hand on the wheel, a thumb on the QUERTY keys in the phone, and eyes alternating between the road and the speeding text.

Feeding a toddler on the lap, a phone sandwiched between the right cheek and ear, a skewed pair of eyes scanning the laptop screen.

Half an ear on the speaker on stage, a revisionary glance on the points to present and mind on the agenda for a client meeting the next day.

Math formulae clouding the eyes, song lyrics on You Tube filling the brain and messages from a school group yanking attention.

These are examples of a few multi-taskers, capable of hopping between assignments and connecting dissimilar mental nodes at the same time without a hassle. They juggle jobs in hand with aplomb and carry the tag of super achievers with elan. There is one problem, though, and a serious one at that.

Unbeknownst to them, the two sides of their brain’s prefrontal cortex have slipped into a pattern of disharmony, and their think tank has become muddled. What they consider a phenomenal coup of their mental power has in truth turned detrimental to their brain capacity. What they take pride inbeing able to get more done in less time has in reality become their nemesis.

Multi-taskers are often lauded, but the truth is this much-acclaimed skill has no merit except it injects a notion in them of being a notch better than others, hence more worthy of accolades. It is a myth probably instituted by new age corporates that expect their employees to extract their last dreg of energy to perform, failing which, to be ready to perish.

The downsides of multi-tasking has been in discussion for a long time now, but they have been ignored deliberately for reasons of vanity than purpose. It serves one’s reputation to be a multi-tasker in a world of equal calibers; it gives fillip to one’s self-confidence to imagine that to be able to do multiple tasks at one time reflects one’s competence, and it acts as a pick-me-up sign in a contest where speed is key. Add to these, a delusion of time-management it induces into our psyche.

None of the above is true. What is true is that multi-tasking, especially when it involves neurologically intense tasks that require cognitive effort, retards our reflexes, mixes our priorities and takes our eyes off what is important. Research says it adds burden to the brain, consumes more glucose, thereby sapping our energy and making us disoriented. Our error index goes up and the quality of work suffers. As simplistic as it might sound in words, the truth behind this ‘talent’ to juggle is a lot more damaging than we may care to think. The negative effects often remain unperceived, but they come out in the open in the long term when tasks are ridden with mistakes and the final outcome is below par.

The brain science behind it apart, arguments against multi-tasking have sound reasoning. Switching focus frequently and trying to fix attention on more than one thing demands the brain to turn off from one thing and move to the other, which takes extra time. It may not seem like much, but when gathered over a series of actions, the shifting can result in longer processing time and delays. It is like how leaving our appliances on standby can lead to higher current bills that we fail to notice.

Having said that, it is nearly impossible for people to dislodge the habit of multi-tasking when workload gets overwhelming. Students have more than a handful to accomplish in order to make the cut, employees with ballooning targets stare at back-to-back deadlines and managers have bottom lines to bolster. Given these, multi-tasking seems like the only way to manoeuver through increasing work pressure.

It is a tough call to make, but one must find a middle path where neither productivity suffers nor one’s well-being. Organising chaos will require discipline and an ability to prioritise one’s responsibilities. The first thing to do is to dethrone multi-tasking as a champion’s asset and decide that we will not put our brain in duress unless life is at stake. We have a choice to either clutter our mind with miscellany or to fix our focus on one and give each task its own deserved time, and get it done well.

At the end of the day, we have only two hands and let us give them only enough to handle. Juggling might be an exciting sport, but only those who are exceptionally adept will ace it. A majority of us have butter fingers and cannot dabble with more than one thing at a time, and we had better know it before dropping things becomes an incorrigible habit.

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Those were the crunch times. Crunchier than breadsticks. Harder than arecanut. The story from those days are familiar to many, having been there and borne that, like me.

The colour from the pink slip bled, stained and spread melancholy in our lives. I was already on a shrink's prescription at that time for a different reason, and the joblessness in a prolonged period of pandemic only added to the depressive disorder. It was as if the brain just needed another nudge to keel over and fall into a cesspool of dark thoughts and abysmal pessimism. Those who know it will vouch it is a battle you are fighting against an undefined enemy. It is hard to see a foe in front of you. It is nebulous like a ghost in a diaphanous dream. The enemy is sometimes you. It is sometimes the circumstances. It is sometimes the Universe, which you think is so maliciously indifferent to your fate that it will win every sadism trophy in existence.

Actually, there is a pattern to my panic and anxiety spirals. It knocks me off the kerb first, right into the middle of the road, making me imagine I will be under the next bus and become flat meat. Then when I see the buses didn’t crush me after all, I pick myself up, sit by the wayside a bit and drag myself home. The panic inspired by the initial fits of fear will eventually become the new normal, and I will learn to tolerate it like a hostile neighbour who cooks food that you abhor. I impose a sense of stability on myself.

Then suddenly, in a renewed wave of vindictive rage a dormant turmoil tosses me up again and I spin so many times mid-air that I don’t know if I will land face down, headlong or on my vertebral column. Depending on how I fall, the graph of life will go into another tailspin. I will have confusion for breakfast, chaos for lunch and concussions for dinner.

That’s how I lived those catatonic days, like how I watched Ponniyin Selvan 1, clueless and bored, struggling to connect the dots, many of which were imaginary.

“What is really bothering you?” my therapist asked over a long-distance call. She asked me to enumerate the things that scurried in the quagmire of my brain and caused a logjam there. Almost like mid-day traffic at a city intersection in Chennai. An old friend whom I knew from her Psychology days in the University, I had sought her out only to untie the knots before they became permanent in my health resume. I didn’t want my mind to be a hideout for fossilised fears and fretting.

It was the peak of summer when I first fixed a call with her, and the weather notification panel on my pc read, “43 degrees. Feels like 49 degrees” or some such feral reading that the desert air was pressing down on us. Such climes are not new to us, yet, year after year, we hyperventilate whenever the mercury soars to levels that test human endurance, and we waste no time to declare that the apocalypse is here. We look at the real temperature, 43, and then at the feels like 49, and take the latter as the real measure of tepidness outside our airconditioned cocoons.

“What it feels like is what matters to the skin. Your body perspires based on the apparent effect and not on the latent temperature. The humidity is worse than the heat. It kills.” These are myths we have woven to help us wallow in self-pity and elicit empathy from the world. There is a preposterous delight in making our miseries hyperbolic by fixing pom poms to them and attract public sympathy.

“So, of all the things you just mentioned which one bothers you the most?” the therapist friend asked. I revised the ranking a few times, like how hurricanes and cyclones are ranked based on their intensity. I was unsure. They all felt equally grave and worthy of taking the top laurels. No first among equals.

“They are all deadly and intimidating,” I declared, but my therapist friend insisted I rank them. She said I could take my time to assess each item on the list, and there was no need to hurry. She could wait for me to navigate through the maze.

As I subjected the deranged list to an MRI scan, one of the demons put its hand up and claimed primacy. “It’s me. I have been festering in you for years, gnawing at your heart, but you have brushed me aside with slight. I deserve to be addressed first,” it said, giving me a mental whiplash with its pointy tail.

It was true. I hadn’t been honest even to myself by evading the issue for decades, and I mentioned it to my therapist friend. She asked me to elaborate on it. Chunks of old, mouldering emotions tumbled out emitting a rancid smell that I had been secretly sniffing for years inside. But the past has no panacea. They are only signposts of what we are today. So, the things I spoke remained histories that I purged just to wipe the fog off my mind.

One by one, I spoke about each item on the list, enunciating them all as elaborately as I could, impressing upon her that life had become a bundle of soiled linen now and I could not bear it on my back any longer. Some old wounds were opened for examination, some new griping were dissected, some instances of deprivations and longings were given due deliberation, some passing encumbrances were glossed over. What surprised me was I did not break down even once like I had feared I would while spreading my multi-course grouse meal in front of her. It was time to harvest my griefs. But where had all the tears I had collected for my meltdown moments gone?

After each cathartic session, she would ask, in a voice that can spread a salve on any tortured heart, “How bad do you think this situation is?” and I would blink. “How bad?” It was true that I was hurting from inside for a number of reasons, sometimes to the point of foolishly contemplating self-annihilation, but were things that insanely bad?

I looked out the large French window in my room and gauged the summer blaze. It felt as if the city was caught in a firestorm. It felt as if stepping out would turn me into a barbequed piece of meat or if my body fat was to instantly melt, a shawarma on a skewer. It felt as if I would perspire blood if I walked on the road. It felt as if I would be singed like a bug-zapper singes flying termites on a sultry evening. It felt like the summer would sap the life out of me should I venture out of home. Felt. Felt. Felt.

In the distance, I saw workers laying new asphalt on an old road, their heads and faces wrapped in shawls to keep the heat from seeping in through their skin. “How bad is it out there?” I wondered. It was sweltering hot, and that was not pleasant. But it still was not bad enough for them to give up work and go home. They still endured it even though with unspoken demurs, for they can’t call it a day until the assigned job was done.

“It is bad,” I whispered to my therapist friend. “But not bad enough to call it quits and shut the business of life,” I sum up, feeling a sting in my eye for the first time.

Even now, very often, life pokes holes into the heart and causes panic, but it doesn’t stop beating. The mind goes off-kilter and spins sinister tales, but it cannot make me succumb to its diabolic intents. The summer turns up the heat and makes me sough and sigh. It’s a seasonal tyranny one cannot avoid. But I now realise, the temperature is only 41 degrees. What it feels like – 48, 50 or 55 – ­ doesn’t matter. I hype up my summers and make them insufferable. It is a lot of fiction than facts. Like the workers out there, I must carry on. There are many worn roads in my life that could do with a new layer of asphalt.

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Updated: Aug 9, 2023

My sister and her family, all US citizens, are currently on their first tour of Europe, walking around the streets of London, and getting the feel of a world very distinct from theirs back in Wisconsin. It is a trifle hard to imagine that someone who has been in the USA for 24 years hasn’t hopped over the Atlantic even once, but the truth is when life has a steady hand on the tiller, you blindly go the way it steers you, and at some point, after crossing many miles, you pause and ask, “Where have I arrived?” More often than not, realizing that you have been walking on a treadmill, and have reached nowhere, you step off it and take a journey in search of your soul.

It's then we take detours and go to places that offer a completely different view of not just the chromatic world, but of life itself. It is nothing short of a sacred safari in which we reset out timers and recalibrate our compasses to foray into new realms of existence.

“What’s different there?” I asked her, as my sister sent me pictures taken in various parts of London first, and then a few other European cities.

‘A lot. The royalty, the history and culture, the Victorian tradition, the unique ambience none of which we get to see back in Milwaukee,’ she tittered excitedly.

For someone who hasn’t been to the US but has heard a lot about from the time a cousin went there many decades ago and gave me a glimpse of it, her answer was a surprise. I have always thought that the US had everything from A to Z. From Apple to Zuckerberg. My naiveté, of course, to believe if it is not there in America, it is nowhere else. They have sold themselves so well to the world that we now look no further than gaining a foothold in the land of opportunity to anchor our opulent dreams.

My sister topped us up with her experiences and pictures, some of which were slightly familiar to me from my two visits to Europe. There is a quintessential character to Europe that permeates the continent, no matter which city you are in. The town squares and streets festooned with eateries and coffee shops, the cobbled paths that you wander through like gypsies, the street artists who should have been performing on stages but now subsist on the bills we drop and the strains of music that spreads on us like a soothing emollient – an accordionist here, a violinist there, a pianist in the arcade, bustling tourists collecting memories and mementoes - these are the vignettes of Europe. And to my sister, it was all new.

The Baroque and Gothic architecture and the grand sculptures strewn across are, of course, things that will make our jaws drop to the ground and under, but what probably endears us and also endures in our memory are the small moments.

“We loved walking around in the busy town squares until late night on a full moon day. We shopped for knick-knacks, indulged in small pleasures of eating from small joints that we found during our strolls,” my sister wrote. And the next day, she spoke about the English Tea Party wherein they dug into ‘multi-course cute little stuff’ along with a tea of their choice - sandwichs, pre-desserts with scones, butter and jam, and other dessert pastries.

Not having been to the regal side of the globe that boasts of inherent grace and etiquette in everything it does, the English Tea Party is not an experience that I could imagine in my head, but I am not alien to its joys entirely. I have had my own kind of tea parties with the world’s most elaborately brewed tea and ‘multi-course cute little stuff’ on the side to chomp on - Parippu vada, Pazham Pori, Bajji, Ulli Vada.

If I were to count the most memorable moments in my life, the ones I have spent with my dad in Kerala, having ‘naadan chaya’ (local tea), sarbat or juice from road side stalls, along with a snack or two dunked in spicy red chutney that can launch a rocket into space will top the list. It was a ritual for us, a given when we stepped out of home when I visited them annually.

Appa made sure that he accompanied me on my outings even after I had been married for several years and could make town trips on my own. An inexplicable camaraderie, which was missing in the first 30 odd years of my life, but became the cornerstone of our relationship in the later period, made us the revel in the short indulgences.

“Appa, what do you want? Juice, nannari sarbat or chaya?” I would ask, playing the parent, and lifting my brows in a quick query.

“Anything,’ he would say, being a man with no pickiness or preferences. For him, anything goes. All he wanted were those few hours of enjoyment that came with the time he spent chatting and joking with me even as I shop-hopped to pick up sundry things, and sometimes made him participate wherever he could opine. He would patiently wait for me to finish, making me ever so guilty, but one could not exhort him to leave me and go, even if it meant having a late lunch at home.

“Appa, go home if you are bored and hungry. I will finish my stuff and come,” I would say.

“I am not hungry. You take your time. I love this loitering,” he would confirm, offering to take a bag or two from me.

Those days are etched in my memory as the most modest yet priceless occasions in my life. He had no reason to accompany me on my jaunts, but he did, for a reason. The small moments. To us both, they were super colossal.

It was in September 2016 that I had the last of such moments somewhere near a town called Malayatoor in Kerala. Not that there haven’t been other small moments after that which I could extol for their uniqueness, but if I were to index them, none would ever equal the grandeur of having a naadan chaaya with Appa. And the last one was an unparalleled, knock-out experience.

As part of my desire to write Appa’s life story, which for some reason I didn’t want to call biography, because his spartan ways and simple life didn’t warrant that weighty a moniker that people with bigger track records in life usually adopted, I undertook a journey to his native place in September 2016. He took me around his old school, almost bringing to life old images with his vivid descriptions. Teachers from the past and the stories that made them iconic tumbled out of his memory. He marveled how nothing much had changed, including the classrooms (although I was certain a lot must have, given the huge time lapse), getting animated now and then reminiscing the past.

He took me to his ancestral house, which was locked and close to collapse, and relived his childhood - an array of anecdotes that spanned the 30’s and 40’s and involved his 12 siblings. He didn’t seem particularly perturbed at its dilapidated state and took it as a natural fall out of time, and we took pictures for posterity in the courtyard. It was a pilgrimage of sorts for the dad-daughter duo.

It was also a day when I noticed that Appa had slowed down, and the deterioration in his health became apparent to me from his slow gait and faltering steps. None of it was reflected in his spirit, though. Gung ho as ever, he took me on the excursion with the enthusiasm of a school boy. But Appa now needed a helping hand now and then, and I sensed the sand in the glass slowly emptying. It was with a shudder that I realised that I had to hurry with my book. His wisdom and witticism had to be recorded, his memories had to be documented, his life had to be made a reference guide. There was a lot left to be done and perhaps, time was in short supply.

At the end of the day-long trip, on our way back, we stopped at a wayside shack, with the Periyar in the background running in full spate, for our customary Kerala Tea Ceremony, which I didn’t imagine would be our last. As the banana fritters and dal vadas sizzled in oil behind an array of glass bottles filled with jeeraka sodas and other cool drinks in a push cart, and the tea flew a mile between the hands of the tea-maker, I asked, “Appa, I had a great time. Did you?”

“It was perfect. I enjoy these small pleasures in life and I do it only when you come.” Indeed, even the small moments were few and far between in his life, for reasons only he knew the best. He had no special friends. All his acquaintances were friends to him. He didn’t go out much, but wherever he went, he made a picnic out of it.

Appa looked tired from all the walking in the day - another sign of his slow decline - but nothing could have stopped him from claiming his share of happiness that came with the tea ceremony under a thick grey sky heralding a rain.

Small pleasures. Little things. Casual joys.

Is this what we are scrambling all over for, rummaging through the big things, I wondered as I slurped the tea rich with a taste and aroma only teashops in Kerala are capable of infusing. All it took for us to relish this simple delight of having a tea by the wayside, with a ‘multi-course cute little things’ to bite into was a willingness to see life from the broadside.

As I said grace for the blessing, the monsoon clouds that had gathered above us began to fall as if to say ‘Amen’ to my prayer. The rains know when to fall and create a setting, don’t they?

This was in September 2016. The book had to be put on hold then as I needed to spend more time with Appa to gather enough content to make it an authentic manuscript. I kept it in abeyance till my next visit which I thought would happen in January 2017. But the Universe decided that I shouldn’t wait that long and came up with a reason for me to travel home again sooner. I didn’t know there was another sinister plan brewing in the chaaya kada of fate.

Barely two weeks after my return to Dubai, Appa had a heart attack, and I rushed to be by Amma’s side, who had spent the first night of his hospitalization alone, waiting outside the ICU. Loneliness can make any crisis feel like a catastrophe, but she had hung in there with only prayer and the comfort of having me with her shortly.

It wasn’t an open and shut case; Appa had three major blocks in his arteries, and he rejected a by-pass surgery outright. As an alternative option, an angioplasty, which people said was a routine procedure that didn’t warrant much worry, was scheduled for later that week. It wasn’t fool-proof, the doctor said, as the third block was inaccessible for a stent, and that could affect the quality of his life considerably.

Sometimes, life doesn’t leave us with many happy choices. We just take what comes by and give it a happy spin.

I spent the next two days giving pep talk to Appa who seemed crestfallen when he was told that life wouldn’t be the same again for him. It sapped his vital energies.

“You will be alright soon, and we will go on our jaunts again to have chaaya by the way side. We’ll make the most of life,” I said, and it livened his sagging spirits instantly and gave a smile that bordered on cautious optimism.

Despite whatever I said to him during the day, my night passed in great anxiety, alert to every move Appa made in his hospital bed, wondering why his heart never gave us any heads up before it decided to go into disrepair. On the second night after I landed, in the middle of the night when he woke up briefly and began coughing, I asked him with dread dripping from my voice, “Appa, are you OK?”

“All perfect, kondhe (a tambram term for child),” he said as if he were walking in the Garden of Eden, and went back to sleep. I lay staring into the night, trying to fight demoniac thoughts away, and making sure I heard the soft purring of his breath.

Little did I know in that fretful instant that there were only 24 hours left in his hour glass and that there will not be another Kerala Tea Ceremony for us.

On the night of 7th October, a day after he affirmed that everything was ‘perfect’ even when he was secretly fighting his fears, my naadan chaya partner, the man who taught me that true happiness was an offspring of a contented heart, moved on, leaving me with a shattered heart and an unfulfilled dream of a book based on his life.

The scattershot of death sent shards of my broken spirit deep into the space and I am still picking the pieces strewn between the stars. One day, when I will have picked them all and pieced my heart together, I will likely write the book showcasing the life lessons and tenets he lived by for 76 years. Until then, I will have naadan chaya with a kadi (traditional snack) in the Malabari restaurants dotting Karama, and every time I do it, raise a toast in his name before the first sip.

“Cheers, Appa, to our friendship and to our grand Kerala Tea Ceremonies!”

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