(Khaleej Times dated 15 Nov, 2022)

Handling compliments have always been a tricky affair for me. There is a queasy quality about praise that gives our ego an instant fillip and in the very next instant, makes us pause and wonder if we are deserving of it at all - that niggling sense of self-doubt that never lets us take credits wholeheartedly. The skepticism that surrounds praise makes it additionally hard for me to accept the good word because in a world that has made sycophancy a creed, it has become difficult to tell the difference between the genuine and the phony. Many are said to complete courtesies, and some even meant to be left-handed. But occasionally, a compliment comes by that lingers in the realm of the exotic, one that could lead me to a path of meaningful contemplation if received and regarded with humility.

‘You are a perfect, complete woman.’

It is a compliment that I would have dismissed as hyperbolic and ridiculous had it been handed out by an anonymous reader or a remote admirer with low scruples. I could also have been miffed at the rawness of the statement and launched a tirade against it for being uncouth. But when it came from an erudite, decent individual for whom I have immense regard, I sat up and listened. I was stunned by its enormity, but it wasn’t the frills the compliment added to my profile as an author that intrigued me. It was the idea of ‘perfection’ that stood out and begged to be put under the scanner and be understood. The statement soon assumed a lot more significance to me than it had at first. It wasn’t mere commendation anymore. It was a signpost to knowing myself. Am I really perfect? What does ‘completeness’ mean, after all? And where does one find it in this melee of daily survival?

Stripped down to its bare bones, our life is nothing but a constant pursuit to accomplishing completeness. It is what we are all seeking with every act, word and intent, at work, in love and in all our everyday engagements; that state where we are convinced about being fully sated and have no feeling of dearth or deficiency; that point where we could sit by the river, drop a line and wait for hours for the fish to bite, unfazed by the prospect of returning empty-handed at the end of the day. It is not about the fish, it is not about the time, it is not about the river in spate. It is about us, at peace, feeling as if space and time converged into that all-consuming moment. This is the moment of completeness where no external factors are incumbent on us to make us believe that we are whole by ourselves.

Completeness is not an aggregate of our human attributes or a summary of our wonted accomplishments, although we have come to loosely equate it to these. It is probably this misled perception of finding perfection in the wrong places that has made us increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated ins spite of major breakthroughs in life. We are investing our resources in the transient aspects of our life – in wealth, in power, in pleasures – and attempting to define us within these narrow confines. It Is a pursuit in vain. Our completeness doesn’t comprise of what we have, either in terms of disposition or possessions. That which we call perfection isn’t an absence of faults, but an acceptance of what we are despite them.

It reminds me of the Japanese art of Kintsugi in which a broken pot is not discarded as imperfect or flawed but is mended with golden lacquer and given a completeness that makes it exquisite. I am thinking of the compliment I received at this point. A perfect, complete woman. If ‘complete’ and ‘perfect’ mean ‘lacking nothing’, I barely fit the bill given my inconsistencies and predisposition as a human to err. Yet, when I scrutinise it in moments of profound recollection, I realise that my completeness doesn’t come from being perfect in the eyes of others or projecting an image of being flawless. It comes from knowing that I am a consummate piece of art that may have developed cracks from use, and those are cracks that can be fixed by a layer of golden lacquer.

It is this golden lacquer that we need to find in our lives to restore us to our impeccable states, be it in the form of love, faith or selfless service. Hankering after anything else with an expiry date or short shelf life can only lead to a perpetual sense of inadequacy and incompleteness. It would be a pity, considering we are all fundamentally whole universes by ourselves, and not partial pieces of existence.

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I recently noticed that in most pictures that I take with people, I have an arm around the shoulders of the other person. It is a curious habit that I have picked up unknowingly over a period. When I rewound my memories of the photo-ops, going through the motions mentally, I recalled that the first thing I did when posing for a photograph was to extend my arm and hold the person in a grip of camaraderie, expressing my affinity and closeness quite unconsciously. Perhaps, it is not a common gesture and might be considered akin to the friendly embrace that many people detest, but to me the expression of sentiment to the people we hold dear is as important as loving itself. I gently hug people when I meet them in informal settings and give them at least a pat on the upper arm while taking leave.

No, I am not advocating public display of our affections in a way that would violate common decency; I am only highlighting the importance of being communicative about our sentiments. Of letting people in our lives know that we care, with our words and gestures, of telling them more frequently that we love them and showing them through our little actions that they have a significant space in our lives.

I grew up in times and in a milieu where open demonstrations of affections were unknown even between parents and children, or between friends. We didn’t tell each other that we loved; we didn’t make our deep commitment for each other apparent. We merely spent time together without letting others know how much we meant to each other. It is a dearth that has left deep impressions on me and in some ways, it shaped the way I interacted with people as an adult.

It would only be fair to assume that people who are more extroverted may have a greater propensity for baring their heart than those who are withdrawn. But it need not be so. Often, people who have higher emotional intelligence will be able to articulate their tender feelings towards others than those who are frigid in their relationships. Not all talkative people are open about their feelings, nor are all emotional people very verbose. The tendency to hold back feelings of love and appreciation comes from a lack of practice, and a belief that open expressions are uncouth and unbecoming.

Spouses love each other, parents dote on their children, children idolize their parents – it’s a given, so what is the need to bring in words and expressions to demonstrate it, right? Wrong.

We have all been fed an erroneous assumption that relationships that are fundamentally strong will survive even without having to tend to them with liberal assertions. We take people in our lives for granted and our interactions with them a routine affair where a compliment, a romantic declaration, or a tender acknowledgment seems superfluous.

I remember once at a dinner table, when my spouse passed an item to me, I said, ‘thank you’, and the host was pleasantly surprised that I had indeed said it to him as if to a second person. In my host’s view, it amounted to excess and was a needless formality. Although it wasn’t my place to correct his view, I politely said that it was my way of letting my spouse know that every little act of his counts for me, that every good word we tell each other helps make the edifice of our relationship stronger.

Not all of us may be equally bestowed with such ease of expression. Many of us may live in the notion that those who know, know and no effort is needed to supplement relationships with attestations of love. Having grown from a childhood where hugs from parents have been rare, and ‘I love you’ has been alien, having matured into a world that needs to have more of these endearing words and actions, I have made earnest attempts at letting my inhibitions go. I may not use the prescribed words of fondness or cheesy utterings, but I will make sure that the people who enrich my life with their presence in it know that they have a huge space in my heart.

Try saying ‘love you’ to your loved ones and friends more frequently without attaching any profanity to the phrase and see how your relationships will become a permanent well-spring of loyalty, joy and commitment. Every relationship needs to be watered with words and letting them thrive on their own like cactuses will make them frail and listless. As Kahlil Gibran wrote, ‘between what is said and not meant, and meant and not said, many a love is lost.’ Let us make sure that the love in our lives is not lost for a lack of words.

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What is the name of this colony?’ the auto driver asked as I handed him the 100 he had asked for the drop home from the town, without a demur.

(For a long time now, I don't haggle with rickshaw drivers in my hometown. I have realized that it isn’t worth the bad blood it breeds between me and the driver who is also trying to make ends meet and fighting odds just as I am. A few units here and there shouldn’t be reason for people to have acrimony between them even if for a while. So I give them what they ask, which in any case isn’t a king’s ransom.)

‘Housing Colony.’

‘I have never come here before,’ the driver said as if he had discovered a new archeological site, looking around.

‘Oh, it has been here since 1980. Nearly 42 years.’

The driver takes a good look at our house, a two-storey building, and asks, a wee sheepishly, ’Won’t it crumble and fall?’

'It hasn’t fallen so far,’ I say smugly, happy that the building has so far stood the test of time and weather.

As I cross the 42-year-old gate, I tell myself that this house, Ganesh Mandir, shall never fall, not until there is wind in my soul. The house has undergone a lot of changes from what it was when Appa bought it as a bare, unfurnished readymade unit in 1980 from the Kerala housing Board in installments. From a no frills, single storey, 3 BR house with red oxide floor to a double storey 4 BR with tiles to traipse on, it has transitioned sufficiently to suit our modern needs. Yet, it remains quintessentially the edifice of those times, with many things remaining intact, from its basic structure to all its furniture. The sofa set is 44 years old, and so is the dining table. The Godrej steel bureaus, a fixture in every household then, have been there from the earliest times, and there stands a Bajaj scooter in the garage as a marker to our humble beginnings and a happy past. From 1976 to now, it has been Appa’s hallmark, even after his tenure on earth expired. KLG 36. It is not a number to us. It is a legacy.

The house is an old soul with a quiet demeanour, although a lot of cosmetic changes have made it look snazzier than what it originally was. It lacks the opulence of a Gulfee’s mansion with none of the newfangled fittings and interiors to brag about. It still carries memories from our initial days in it when there was no water supply, and we used to get water from a nearby Municipality tank in pitchers and pots. Over the years, we saw it fall into disrepair, getting decrepit with age, falling off from ends and corners. The attrition it suffered pained us, like watching a loved one enduring a terminal illness. Termites ate into its innards, roots tunneled into its heart, monsoon rotted its façade, and slowly, it looked all set to become a memory.

Appa who promised to help us put some fresh life into it, left without honouring it, and we were left with a house, which like the auto driver suspected could crumble and become debris should the monsoons press the pedal a bit. Revival and resuscitation of something that had become so dilapidated wasn’t a challenge; it was a nightmare. Most people in the area had resorted to the easiest way out – of relieving the structure of its ailments by pulling the plug off. We saw many old houses in the locality being razed down and new, contemporary edifices being raised in their place. It was an option that we dismissed as unviable because there was a first floor which was only 15 years old.

If something could be done, it had to be exclusively done to the ground floor alone. The mere thought of a restoration of this magnitude beat the living daylights out of us, but one can’t leave a loved one to die without an attempt at revival, can we? We did what it would take to put Ganesh Mandir back in shape. It was arduous; months and months of uncertainty, contractor tantrums, remote control from Dubai, overshooting of budget and inordinate delays later, the house came back to some structural stability. A lot of things changed, but a lot remained the same.

One of the things that has remained constant from the time I can remember is the way our puja altar looks. Although a number of deities were sent into superannuation after the refurbishing, the basic arrangement still looks the same. The three large pictures that adorn the walls of the puja room have been part of my earliest memories. And the Guruvayurappan in the middle is something that has graced our home for 55 years now. It was purchased by my parents at Guruvayur soon after their wedding, and the fact that it still stands tall without peeling off, with only some bit of its original colour paling, is testimony to the fact that the house is in safe hands. Amma wanted to know if we could do a digital enhancement of the picture, but I insisted that it remain as it is. Taking it off the frame might break the paper and even if it is safely separated, any improvement will purloin its sentimental value.

To me, this picture is like O. Henry’s Last Leaf. Till the portrait survives, and till He surveys the precincts with His benevolent eyes, this house will not fall. Every time people quiz me about the purpose of keeping the house when in all probability, we may never return to drop anchor there, I say, ‘It’s a bridge between my past and my future. Burning it would mean razing my identity to dust. To us, our family, Ganesh Mandir isn’t a house. It's our permanent address. It is the quintessence of our life. It is the cradle of our destiny.'

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