Zeitgeist

Neo-Minimalist

  Image from the site of The Minimalists

Image from the site of The Minimalists

I’ve been in āshrams at various times in my life. Among them, I remember most the Sabarmati Āshram in Ahmedabad, where Gandhiji lived with fellow satyagrahis, where he hit upon the idea of the Salt Satyagraha, the march that transformed the dream of Indian independence into a real possibility, and gave it impetus. The olden-day āshram was a simple, humble abode. Lofty thoughts arose in it; great doings proceeded from it.

There is now a movement that has begun in the West, and in the Far East: to live in the simplest homes and to practice a life of least consumption. The activists seeking and preaching such a lifestyle call their creed Minimalism. Their tribe appears to be growing, and they are receiving increasing mainstream attention. A Netflix documentary titled Minimalism came out a year ago, and writers and journalists have been writing in the Guardian and the New York Times and such, telling how it felt for them to give up a large portion of their possessions. There are on YouTube numerous videos uploaded by all kinds of folks saying why they got started in Minimalism, how they are doing, why others should join them.

I watched Minimalism — the movie — about eight months ago. Its argument, made by minimalism-activists Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, was compelling. Looking for books to consolidate what I’d picked up from the documentary, I found on Amazon a books by Fumio Sasaki and Marie Kondo. The books injected an urgency for action in me. But I had to choose: Sasaki’s approach went to the limit, to the extremity of the ascetic. At his present stage in his journey to a minimalist life, Sasaki lives in a 200 square-foot dwelling that challenges the self-denial of Gandhiji himself, it seems. Marie Kondo lives more comfortably, and she didn’t mind if you kept a little stuff, so long as each thing that you retain passes a test: Does this thing give me joy?

I decided on Marie Kondo’s method to decide what to discard and what to keep; and Sasaki’s approach in regard to time — like him, I took a few months — Kondo urges instant action, all in a day if you can, for the crucible-effect the sudden change gifts you.

Now my house is bare but for the absolute essentials. It is still a short distance from the desired state, however, although I’ve been disposing of stuff continually these eight months. I’ve given away books, CDs, DVDs, shelves, tables, sofas, beds, shirts, trousers, jackets, coats, cameras, lenses, tripods, MacBook, iPad Air, Google Pixel, bags, more bags, wallets, pouches, pictures, picture-frames, vases, Buddhas — and I’m still giving. Outside the house, I’ve had plants potted and arranged on a grid-work on the compound wall, and the ground sports only grass — the compound, too, is bare.

The exercise has proved that I’ve been wasteful, that I have been suffering the press and weight of extreme clutter.

The barer the house, the lighter I get, the freer I feel. The expanding white-space is liberating. The things I have left are things that I love, and when I sight them they make me happy. Since I have fewer things I gaze longer at them, savoring each one. I’m raring to come home these days: driving back at the end of the day, I have no desire to stop to dine out, or to drop in at a cafe, or halt for anything at all.

So there. My home has come to resemble — in appearance at least — an āshram. I’m waiting for the big, noble thoughts, but there’s not yet the scent of them.

As regards tall deeds, I ask them to wait. Let me think first, I’m telling them.

  Gandhiji’s Study, Sabarmati Ashram

Gandhiji’s Study, Sabarmati Ashram

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Photos

  • Minimalism Documentary from the site of The Minimalists

  • Gandhiji’s Study: Shashikiran Mullur

Seven Little Buddhas

 16055586 - buddhist monk cartoon hand drawn illustration

Seven tender necks supporting seven shaven heads. At a distance behind them, I am seeing the back of them. I’ve been in the hall twenty minutes. I was watching my breathing, all alone in that space, and then I’d gotten up to leave, but sat down again when these maroon-robed boys with Tibetan faces came in. I wanted to see them before the golden Buddha. Why? I don’t know.

They’re only boys: the oldest is about twelve, or fourteen, and the youngest perhaps six-years-old. They look back at the slightest sound, at me, and at another man who has entered, dropped a cushion and squatted on it.

The hall is a fifteen-minute walk from Starbucks, whence I came, where I’ve been two hours through the afternoon. There I’d had a large realtor sitting at the table before mine, his bulk overflowing his chair, challenging its thin wooden legs. A lot of these types come here, carrying two phones each — for some reason, they cannot function with a single handphone. I had businessmen back of me as well, two fellows with sleek silver hair and the complexion of the wealthy, who spoke lofty things: business excellence; benchmarks; Fortune-500 mentors; and so on. Left of me, a teenage girl learnt by rote from a book, waving a finger in the air to better push her material into her head. As anywhere in the world, half the cafe is always in possession of students. Nice.

Here in the prayer hall, after a time the little fellows sink unto themselves before the golden Buddha. On the white marble floor, I see now a pool of water leaked in from the centre of the dome above. (It has been raining unusually hard these days in Bangalore). Otherwise, the hall is clean and bright, and the calm in it subdues the sounds from the traffic on CV Raman Road outside. I like this place. I’ve been for looking something just like this to spend a few quiet moments when I need to.

At Starbucks in Sadashivanagar one seldom goes in to relax over coffee. Everybody drops in for a spot of intense work — alone, or in groups. I enjoy eavesdropping in this care: Men in their twenties discuss startups and targets of twenty or thirty or fifty million — the numbers are all in dollars; girls barely out of the teens announce launches of new stores on Lavelle Road or Cunningham Road or at UB City — boyfriends ask them to mind overhead. They laugh, even as they speak such serious stuff.

Here in the Buddhist prayer hall, the man who’d come in has left. The boys are still. I gaze again at their necks, and the meaning of “green behind the ears” begins to make meaning to me, although the boys are the colour of rice-husk. As regards me, I’ve been squatting longer than my legs can take — blood has stopped flowing in them. I must get up, I must go.

Outside, I make inquiries. The place is a seminary. A total of seven kids are being put through the mill. I like what I hear, but I’m also confused by it. I need all the time the extended drive through jammed traffic gives me, to reconcile to the fact that these kids are committed to monkhood. Who made that decision for them? The kids themselves? Grown-ups on their behalf?

Back at my desk, I’m still thinking about the boys and other kids who flow all day through Starbucks. I ask: Where really is the battle against dukkha being won?

I’m telling myself I should find out. Even if it takes time and some effort.

 Starbucks, Sadashivanagar

Starbucks, Sadashivanagar

But He Didn't Have a Couch

 Photo by CurvaBezier/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by CurvaBezier/iStock / Getty Images

It was a small room in a small clinic, and I'd come in from the rain. The only window was to my left, and it let in no air, didn't send air out either. The man before me and I sat inhaling one another’s exhalations.

I was on the seventh day on antidepressants, prescribed by a psychiatrist a week ago. They’d set off a raging in my head, and returned me to insomnia that I’ve known only when very young. “Also, you need to see a clinical psychologist,” the psychiatrist had added: “He won’t advise you, but he'll help patch gaps in your thinking.” That order had been given me in a bright room with air conditioning, which I was now obeying, arriving in this sauna, where the lighting was as dim as my worldview at the moment.

“It’s a pity nobody told you about clinical psychologists all these years,” the man said. “Your problems would’ve been solved long ago.”

I nodded so much as to intimate acknowledgement without agreement. You’d understand I was not in a believing state of mind.

“You may need some pharmacological treatment. Please take it. But I can also cure you,” he said. “First, I don’t want you to think you’re depressed. You are not depressed. You're facing inertia. That's all."

I considered the rapid diagnosis. And how he was speaking in earnest, and how much. His enthusiasm had me wondering if I was the kind of patient clinical psychologists pine for. Still, wasn't he speaking more than was my right as the patient? It was then that I remembered movies I've seen, and cartoons in The New Yorker and Punch and such, in which the shrink does nearly no speaking. That's the patient's prerogative. And, looking about the air-locked room, I wondered, Where is the couch, where I should've been reclining, from which I should’ve speaking up to the dark? Shouldn't this man be back of me, on a side and pensive, pen and pad in hand?

"I get people of all ages," he was saying in the meantime. “With all complaints. I get men asking to increase the urge. I get men asking to reduce the urge. Just the other day, I got a 77-year-old man who can't do anything, but he's got too much urge. His wife had given him a hiding. He'd gone and done something to the maid. Now he’s asking, Doctor do something for me.”

(Was that a Freudian spot in our interaction, devised to provoke response? If yes, I'm curious to know how he interpreted the holy blank face I held out to him. Into which pigeonhole did I go?)

"As regards you, you're in inertia. You’re not at your potential. We can take care of it."

How so fantastic. To prove himself, he told me about a businessman who came to him at another hospital where he was working — a high-end hospital that caters to non-resident Indians.

"He had a factory in Malaysia. Doing about 300 crores. 'I should be happy, Doctor,’ he told me, ‘because I make so much money. Still, I'm not happy.' So I said, 'Who told you 300 crores is a lot of money? Just before you a patient met me who is doing 10,000 crores. Here. In India.'

"After that patient left, I forgot him. He came back after three years. 'Remember me, Doctor?' he asked me. I said, 'No.' How can I remember all patients? Then he told me about our last meeting. 'Now I have two more factories, Doctor. One in Dubai, one in Brazil. I spend ten days every month in each place, and now I'm really content. My revenues are up two times.'"

“We must ask you the same thing,” he said, bending forward. “Are you running at full potential?”

"I want to write, Doctor," I said. "I wish to be a writer."

"We can make you a writer also," he said, leaning back in his chair.

A flush of warmth shot across my being, of a kind I'd experienced long years ago when I'd first gone out with my wife — before we were married — when our foreheads had knocked one another's on the bumpy bus ride. On Route 11 in Mysore, from college to NR Mohalla. Electric images of books and newspaper features with my name on top swam before my eyes — but only for a moment. Soon as they came, the sweet visions vaporised.

“How shall we take this forward?” I asked him. He proposed an aggressive and immediate schedule. “Think about your convenience and get back,” he said.


"How did it go?" my wife wanted to know when I got home.

"Great," I said. “Learned guy. He's a PhD."

My wife arched high her brow, puckered her lips, and nodded in appreciation.

"But he didn't have a couch," I said.

Loyal Subject Of The King Of Good Times

 The Shangri La, Bangalore

The Shangri La, Bangalore

I took three Americans to Ssaffron, on the 18th floor at the Shangri La. From a corner table we took in the night-view during pauses in conversation. Not a great view for Americans, but on my part, I pointed downward to the Ashok in the distance, and told them, “Our first five star hotel. The government used to run it.” I meant to pique some interest, but the line went nowhere, so I pointed to the cricket stadium where all the lights were on. We spoke cricket, and kabaddi afterward. “It’s rugby in miniature,” an Indian American from the group said of India’s indigenous game.

I didn’t mind it when the government ran the Ashok. Being in business, I get along with government folks. I used to entertain customers at the Mandarin on the top floor there. They had then the most popular band in Bangalore: Shyam and the West Wind. Shyam appeared like he’d ridden in from a Marlboro ad, bringing along a voice to match. He sang like a real man too.

You had a choice of beers even then, all of them Indian. UB and Kingfisher beat all other brands, and foreign guests called Kingfisher the best lager anywhere. From Kingfisher conversation often turned to Vijay Mallya. I’d read somewhere that Mallya, upon taking a table at any restaurant, first leafed through the menu to the drinks page—to check if his liquors were listed. I’d tell my guests that thing about him.

The chef at the Mandarin was Chinese Indian, and his cuisine Indian Chinese. Once a waiter ran to him with a bowl of fried rice. Earshot of me, the waiter told him, “Guest is complaining rice isn’t cooked.” Picking a pinch of the stuff and rubbing the grain between fingers, the chef told him fried rice isn’t served boiled.

The Ssaffron at Shangri La is cozy inside, breezy at the alfresco. Whereas waiters at the Mandarin spoke Kannada and Tamil, at Saffron Hindi rules. Of the two waiters assigned our table, one was Bihari, the other Bengali. Both were smart young men, very proud of the five northern styles on the menu. Everything we ate was grand.

Two of my guests were Scottish American. We talked a little history. To explain South Indian civility, I told them, “Here in our province the last major battle was in 1799. We’ve seen only peace for two centuries now.” A bland expression came over their faces—I couldn’t read the meaning of it. But they assured me they weren’t bored, and I told them about Tipu.

Vijay Mallya bought the sword of Tipu Sultan from the English during my Mandarin days. I’d read the news with some emotion. I was young. Also, despite all I’ve learned about Tipu, that bundle of folly and tyranny and intellect and great daring has endured as my hero. He fell fighting on May 4, 1799, right before the breach in his fort. His body was found with his sword still in hand. The moment is a Homeric image in my mind.

Mallya flew off to England week before last, to his thirty-acre residence there. He’s left behind a broke airline he founded, and its huge unpaid bills. He has tweeted that he hasn’t run away; doesn’t say when he’ll return. Mallya is Bangalorean. I spend time on the terrace at his UB City, over coffee at Cafe Noir, with customers at Toscano’s. I enjoyed Kingfisher Airlines when it flew, although I hated his personal message on the monitors during takeoff and landing: “Every member of the crew is handpicked by me.” The food was good, service perfect. His female staff wore their skirts red and very tight, but I shouldn’t have noticed that.

Yes, I’ve been a loyal subject of the King of Good Times.

These are sanskari times. Even as everybody is worked up about Mallya’s escape, they are also bristling mostly for and a little against a culture bonanza another Bangalorean has organised in Delhi, this very weekend. Yoga and Meditation top the program list. Great makeshift edifices for his show are installed on a sensitive stretch of the Yamuna’s flood banks. The statutory authority let him off with a fine, whining meanwhile that the matter has reached its attention too late to stop him.

The man, a painfully soft-spoken godman, with the double salutation Sri Sri to raise him above the masses, closer to the Creator, declared he’d not pay the fine. “I’ll go to jail,” he declared. His devotees gasped. Others called it a bluff. But our Prime Minister was Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Chief Guest at the opening ceremony, and so something happened and the godman paid only 6%. The balance he may pay later, and everything can be worked out between now and later.

When you run short of heroes, you look to America. But Steve Jobs is dead. Obama is leaving. The Clintons are stale. My rockstars have aged. They have Trump on offer, but I’m not buying.

We weren’t too long at the Ssaffron. Everybody needed to rise early next day.

Thou shalt not…

“No, listen. It’s not like that. Let’s not fight.”

I looked up from my Kindle. The girl at the next table was saying that to the young man with her. He’d risen. She got up after him, and they went to the door and out, and when they stopped on the third step on the stairs outside I relaxed, seeing they’d returned to calm conversation.

 Starbucks Sadashivanagar

Starbucks Sadashivanagar

It’s Christmas, a time to settle quarrels. I’ve been long assured that. I’m glad for that concept, having given offence to so many people through my life. I imagine them forgiving me, and I relax, and look to the year ahead with the best intentions. This Christmas I’m reading Ramana, and I was at 29% of the book at Starbucks when the young couple broke my concentration. I have picked up Ramana after finishing Eckhart Tolle, after responding to his insistent prodding toward the Timeless Now. Tolle has my gratitude. Only, why did it take me so long to get around to the Power of Now? I’ve had to grow so much to get to the concept. But that’s all right. The past is not real, as Tolle argues. Only the moment on hand is real. At any rate, that American writer has brought me round to our own Ramana Maharshi, whose like message precedes Tolle’s.

There at Starbucks, in pauses from reading, I noted that decorations for Christmas were muted. In a basket by me where I sat, there was a short bunch dry green grass, only so thick as my wrist, and tied to it were globules finished with shiny red paper. There was another basket of the kind by the bar counter. On the merchandize shelves six feet from me, two small cartons with mugs in them were tied one with a red ribbon and the other with a blue one. On the door was the customary wreath, made of the same grass, the same red balls. That’s it. I looked outside for the red Christmas lantern. They didn’t have one. But they hand a stand-up banner on the steps, in Xmas-red and white, with an exhortation on top: Unite in Good Cheer.

Why are Starbucks skimping on Christmas? Are they reflecting a general mood? Are they speaking the sign of the times here at home? In these ghar vapsi days?

A group of four took the table the boy and girl had vacated. There was a woman in black among them, who was blessed with a generous volume of voice and a matching disposition, and she laughed and spoke both at once, and all the time. I couldn’t hear the men in the group. The lady spoke of food. She laughed on the subject of food. Punjabi food. I haven’t seen many people who speak of food with love and laughter in such large and equal measure. I commend the lady for her disposition, but I was having trouble reading on account of her. She was loud in her laughter which when it peaked rivaled a star soprano’s highest. I remembered Tolle just when I thought I’d had enough—an approach he teaches. In a situation like I was in, you surrender to the present moment and allow your consciousness to fall on the irritant and the effect it is having on you. Consciousness will flush the pain clean off you.

I went back to reading Ramana. In short periods I looked up and attempted self enquiry, just as Ramana advocates it.

The long celebrations of Christmas have always bored me. If traveling in the West during the time, the boredom has been intense. For, in Europe and the US corporations invoke Christmas from November on, and feed you myriad gift ideas and shove the celebrations in your face at every turn. Christmas trees reach the heights of the atriums where they’re installed. Colored lights and streamers and other Christmas paraphernalia cover commercial streets and shopping malls. Being of another faith, their public fuss takes my mind straight through to the spreadsheets and powerpoint presentations that have worked out strategies to wring greater sales during this Christmas over last year’s. Being an outsider to the scheme, I cannot see Christ in the Christmas of the corporations. The celebrations on the street follow me through to the hotel lobby, and they take the solitude out of my room. I wonder at the stamina of the Europeans and the Americans who can take a two-month long celebration of a festival on this scale. But of course, they are in the warm, tight, loving embrace of the corporations.

There at Starbucks, how the lady at the next table was giggling! And the pace of her speech—it was so fast. She was speaking in English, but she delivered it with inflection and accentuation that followed her native Hindi. Tolle recommends a technique that dissolves irritation and returns you to the present moment. You observe the silence beneath the sounds assaulting you. You seek out the silence that envelops and subsumes all things round you, which silence extends outward as well, all the way to the skies. I looked out the cafe window. Up above, it was blue and bright in the December sun of Bangalore, and rightward of me the sky was covered in a film of very white cloud. It was all very good. I did discern the silence. I was on my second cappuccino that moment, and at the end of the bottle of water that always accompanies my coffee.

 St. Mark's Cathedral, Bangalore

St. Mark's Cathedral, Bangalore

It struck me that Starbucks were going easy on Christmas in more than their decorations. The music coming down from above was jazz. Herbie Hancock. Not Jingle Bells. When Herbie Hancock was done and John Patton came on, I heard him out and changed my mind about Christmas 2014. I decided I must go to a Church somewhere, and listen to hymns and carols. And say “Merry Christmas” to someone, anyone. So I went out and drove to St. Mark’s Cathedral, which is a nice presence on the corner of MG Road and Lavelle Road. I see it daily on my way to work, but I’ve never gone into it before. They had plenty of parking in their compound when I drove in. They weren’t singing when I walked in, but the nave was most becoming, there was a differently done manger out front, and a large black turkey was on the lawns, flashing the fan on its rear to a large white goose. I took pictures. I shot the building, the aisle, the altar, the doors and the windows and the painted glass in them. Done shooting, I sat in the pews, and picked up a little book: The Book of Common Worship: The Lord’s Supper. It opened at page 4, where the First Commandment jumped at me.

I closed my eyes. I’m game for any command on a good day…