Alone in a Café (Or With Friends)

I haven’t stepped into a restaurant or café for one and a half years. One of the first things I plan to do when the pandemic is finally over, is to sashay into a coffee shop. (Without a mask) Normally one doesn’t sashay into a chilled out informal space defined primarily by coffee and biscotti, but after the long hiatus just a casual walk-in won’t do. A swagger of some sort would do more justice to honor the moment. 

There is something persuasive about a coffee shop, isn’t it? When I go on shopping jaunts, rather, when I went on shopping jaunts before lockdown, the main event was the post-shopping tryst with a Starbucks or cafetaria where I could plonk down tired but happy with all the shopping bags clubbed in heaps around my feet. 

If a dictionary of “happy words,” were to be compiled, coffee shop / café would rate high. One can sit, dawdle, idle away time for hours if need be only at a joint like this.

A subtle seduction is at work. Coffee smells flamboyantly flounce around. Freshly baked bread aromas try, but graciously bow out, to the brew. There is a pleasant noisyness as a background score. The array of temptations like croissants, biscotti, cheesecakes, and cupcakes peeking from the glass counters add delicious charm to the interior landscape. The result: an unwinding zone, quasi magical, where you can give a shot at feeling happily aligned with the universe.

Have you noticed how people slip into this carefree state, suspiciously close to happiness in coffee shops?? Simply by being with friends at a table, and sipping latte? Laughter rings louder. So much so that perchance, if an alien were to train its lens on earth on them, it would infer, “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world.” 

Visiting a coffee shop I have always felt, what is termed as the ‘coffee shop effect’ like a tangible thing. It is the hug of a friend, a high five, a love story. Above all, It is a space, stylishly cosy for just loosening up, being relaxed and casual, no dress codes, no stiffness, only informal gassing.  (Gossip is on the menu, if you wish).

Also, if there is a place where loitering is honed into a fine art it is the coffee shop. It’s a place to hang. Making some sense of the world and its problems, especially those perennial knotty ones of relationships and the like, is a wee simpler with a coffee cup in your hands and a friend across the table. Even  if not sorted at least be given temporary reprieve.

Girltime and the trading of juicy stats about current status is ever on high sail here. The joy of exchanging those relevant and irrelevant tidbits from your lives is non pareil at a coffee shop. You can squeal, guffaw, be as undecorous as situation demands, without anyone batting an eyelid. Point is you don’t have to sit like mannequins. (That requirement is for the stiff starchy interiors of upper-end restaurants.) 

And now here’s the funny part. Though “catching up” is great at these coffee joints, even just being alone by yourself is a tremendous feeling, on occasion. At least for me. I have always felt a peculiar joy in walking into a coffee shop alone, sitting by myself ordering my stuff and sipping it in quiet reflection and splendid isolation.The atmosphere is so cheery and congenial that it simply embraces you whether you are alone or together..

Many great writers often frequented these warm spaces with notepad and pen and imbued them with their literary charisma. James Joyce, TS Elliott, Franz Kafka, Gertrude Stein, F Scott Fitzgerald all frequently took recourse to coffee shops and cafes to do their writing. Great ideas for literary masterpieces were brewed over a litter of endless cups of coffee. The buzz of sidewalk cafes, and their fuzzy warmth, stoked writers’ imaginations perfectly to tabulate the subtle and complex nuances of human nature.

No wonder that a coffee shop with its ambient warmth and promise of a good brew with friends or lovers, (or alone) remains unequivocally the most splendid and enduring symbol of happy spaces and camaraderie in the world. 

Can’t wait!

Poem

Oceans swirling
In
Depths
Of
Eyes
Drowning
Me
In
Shore-less
Bliss
Uninterrupted

Note: This is the time in India when one festival follows on the heels of another! So the mood is very spiritually aligned and so these poems…This is on Krishna who was the One who attracted all with His divine beauty, and the lilting notes of His flute…

Sage Stories #12

Once an artist  wanted to make a painting of the most beautiful thing on earth. He ruminated in his studio for a couple of days but couldn’t come up with a definitive conclusion. 

Was the sunrise in its molten glory the most beautiful, or sunset with its fussilade of flaming orange, peachy pinks, tempered-purple?

Or..

The copper moon, hanging in the sky, glinting on a midsummer night? Or the millions of stars scattered like gem-dust across the firmament?

His mind wandered to a summer meadow crammed with flowers. What could be more beautiful than that?

Or..

Blue ranges of mountains punctuated by streams of liquid emerald that gambolled across the terrain also asserted their claim in his mind.

He gazed out the window and with chin on his hand, he reflected and reflected..

Next morning he made a decision. He packed a knapsack and took off on a day’s sojourn to find out the most beautiful thing. He thought he might get hints or insights from the people he met and spoke with.

The first person he encountered was a priest. He posed his question explaining the quest he was on.

‘O Priest, what is the most beautiful thing in the world?’

The priest gave a quick immediate response. It was very different from the things he had been thinking of.

He said, 

‘Faith is the most beautiful thing on earth!’

The artist was pleased with the reply. He mentally chided his own self for having restricted beautiful things to external things only like flowers and stars!

However, he was not fully satisfied. He thanked the priest and moved on.

Next he met a monk sitting serenely under the shade of a banyan tree. He asked him:

‘O Monk what is the most beautiful thing on earth?’

With a face lit with tranquility the monk replied,

‘Peace of mind is the most beautiful thing on earth.’

The artist was inclined to believe him as he had never seen such an unlined peaceful countenance ever before. Yet he was not fully satisfied. He thanked the monk and walked on..

For a while he roamed and then he noticed a stir of music and revelry. He realized that a wedding had taken place. He approached the couple to offer his good wishes and congratulations. The pretty bride smiled happily back at him.

Though it was not entirely in turn to do so, he couldn’t control himself and impulsively asked her:

‘O lovely bride, what is the most beautiful thing on earth?’

The bride beamed a smile as radiant as the sun and replied:

‘Love. Love is the most beautiful thing on earth.’

The artist smiled back and felt extremely happy to hear her answer.

Mulling over all this he walked back home. At the doorstep his wife and kids came running to greet him. They had missed him the whole day and embraced him with warm hugs. 

The artist suddenly behaved in an erratic manner. He rushed to his study and furiously started working on his painting. 

He worked feverishly on it. Finally, he called his family to see his painting of the most beautiful thing on earth.

What was it? 

It was a painting titled:

‘Home.’

At the doorstep when his loving family received him, he saw faith in his kids eyes, love in his wife’s eyes, and the combination of that made his home a haven of peace.

The most beautiful thing on earth was not any one of the three things told to him but a harmonious twining of all, and it was right there in front of his eyes…

Childhood Ecstasies v/s Adult Pleasures

I must have been 7 years old when my older sister came home from school with a ‘library book’… It was a Friday, and the book was meant to be read by her over the weekend, (wedged in between homework and outdoor play), and returned on Monday. Love at first sight never happened with a person in my life, but it happened with story books. I begged her to read out loud a story from that book. She did, and I was starry eyed the whole day — and ever after. That day started the love affair, which had no limitations. Books never tired of me, nor me of them. There was no danger of staleness, and the best part, was the mutual passion stayed alive, in spite of decades of closeness.

Going back to that first book, my sister read out only one story to me (her good deed of the day), the rest I had to, well, sniff. I held the book in my hands, flipped the pages, yellowed with use, and sensed a smell, which rose like warm vapor and got locked forever in the treasure chest of happy smells, in my brain. At that age, not knowing even the meaning of the word ‘ecstasy,’ I experienced it in all its deliciousness. I loved books so much that I slept with them under my pillow! Books were, then, one part of the story of childhood. (In the era before smartphones and online games.)

Then there was play. Endless play. Life was a vast exuberant playground in which to sport around, run, jump, hop, skip, throw ball, hide ‘n’ seek, climb, fall, pick yourselves up, and continue play. There were unnecessary interruptions for meals, baths, and school work, but the ruling motif was always play. If not outdoors, boardgames came out, and if not that, anything could be blithely converted into a game. You got under the dining table, made it your ‘house’ and draped bedsheets all around to cordon off your territory. Or you took all the dining chairs and lined them up together, and made them your express train. There were always only a million possibilities. Picnic programs with packed hampers, the chasing of butterflies in the garden, looking for goblins and elves you were sure were hiding somewhere, climbing the treehouse your father lovingly built for you on the jackfruit tree, sandpits and sandcastles, coloring books, the paper boats, the paper rockets, the water pistols, pillow fights, blindman’s buff, the works … an endless arena of fun. (The fights, the scowls, the tears and the broken toys were also there but they were always only passing clouds…)

But even as you were having all this fun, you were growing up too, and strange new attractions were edging out the old. The overpowering new thrill was a funny feeling in the stomach regarding boys, if you were a girl, and girls if you were a boy. Suddenly, all you wanted was to look smart. Clothes, cosmetics, accessories to embellish your appearance became supremely coveted and important. Gyms and body building gained ground with the boys. And face it, you couldn’t think of anything else – it was just so awesome, this whole boy-girl thing, and you were continually in its helpless thrall. And then, of course, the ‘falling in love’ of which, nothing can be said, which can be satisfactory enough. Ah what a feeling! ‘Love makes the world go around’ is never truer than in those heady days when you first fall in love and walk around in a mesmeric state. And when the object of your affections reciprocates your feelings, the mooniest, most delirious days of life follow, as you float on cloud nine. You have found the love of your life, you love each other crazily and together will walk into the sunset to live “happily ever after.”

Sigh. Of course, you may live happily together for the rest of your lives, but, where does that first thrilling mad attraction go? One of the perennial mysteries of life is why sexual attraction, and the feeling of being ‘in love’ with a person, so overpoweringly strong at first, wanes with time. This reality is the primary source of the collective emotional angst of all romantic relationships. It is the source also, of a lot of good literature! But why does this happen? According to Indian wisdom, human love though the greatest experience is yet not perfect, vitiated by ego and a sense of possession. Also, the aspect of physical attraction, invariably a part of the experience, is pegged on the external senses, which by their very nature are limited. They have a quick saturation point, and beyond that point create an effect opposite to what was originally sought. Love remains of course but not in the mad way of those early days!

But the uncanny part is, this limitation does not apply to childhood pleasures. (Or pleasures, common to both children and adults, like reading books, hearing music, painting, being close to nature – all of which reach into some inner part of you). As a child, you played in the garden with your friends, screaming and shouting, till your cheeks turned red, but you never got tired, nor did the pleasure wane. Only when your mother sternly ordered you to come inside for meals did you do so – and that too only in obedience – you could have played on forever. Why is this?

Are we as children more spirit than body? Are we less gross and less mired in body-consciousness? As kids we care not for getting muddied and dirty, or skipping baths … All that appears so irrelevant. Yet fastidious adults urge us to get clean, stay clean … It matters not a whit to children, if their faces are grubby, knees scraped, clothes messy, because their pleasure and joy comes from another place. Body-concerns, be it pleasure or pain, are minimal in kids, because the hold and purity of spirit is most powerful then. Children are often called, free spirits, because that’s exactly so – their spirit is free.

Unfortunately, this spirit-consciousness recedes as we grow older, and bodily demands assert themselves. Adults get mired in the endless cycle of satisfying desires, which are related only to the external senses – and never get satisfied. However, interestingly, reading a good book or hearing beautiful music, or communing with nature, as an adult gives great joy. This is because these joys are not ‘sense- centric’ – they feed the spirit. (In fact, I wonder, is it to recapture the lost essence of childhood and ‘play’ that makes gaming such a thriving industry today?)

This felicity, of less body, more spirit, is the most precious aspect of childhood. How wonderful to be able to retain that ability, as we grow, and seek those pleasures too, that come from a place deeper than our skin, from somewhere closer to soul.

Shammi Paranjape, Contributor

A lover of words, well-placed and well-used… so, an author and writer.

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Sage Stories #11

Photo credits – pinterest

Once a king visited a Buddhist hermitage. He was curious to see with his own eyes the monastic way of life so vastly different from his own extravagant and opulent one. This desire led his royal footsteps to the spiritual retreat.

Upon arrival, he was warmly received by the head monk. The king observed that the hermitage was a verdant area dotted with small neat hut-like structures. The head monk reverentially offered to show the king around the place.

It was a pleasant walk because of the lush greenery all around and a certain calm vibration pervading the air. The monk gave a detailed guided tour and showed the king the dining hut, rest house, kitchen quarters etc. All the rooms or huts were spare and had only the barest necessities.

The king felt bemused at the bare spartan conditions. The rooms in his palace were the epitome of luxurious excess and comfort and here there were just bare walls and floors but the monks looked happy enough!

But suddenly, even as the monk was leading him to the next spot they came upon a central area, housing a centerpiece of elegant and stunning beauty. It was so astonishingly aesthetic and beautifully designed that even a king like him so habituated to seeing lavish and extraordinary beauty felt hugely impressed and attracted.

He felt highly intrigued too, moreso after having just seen the previous sober and plain rooms.

Turning to the monk he asked in surprise, “What do the monks do in this beautiful house?”

The monk ignored the question and kept walking on to show the king the rest of the hermitage.

Feeling a bit snubbed but not allowing it to upset his equilibrium the king obligingly saw the rest of the humble sections of the hermitage. But there was only one query buzzing like a bumble bee in his head and that was about the beautiful house and its purpose. What need did monks have of such a magnificent area in the middle of their humble dwelling?

After the conclusion of the tour the king had still not got an answer from the monk even after having repeated the question. He began to lose his cool.

While mounting his horse, he said somewhat irascibly to the monk,

“You showed me all the rooms and told me their purpose, even though I didn’t ask but the one place I asked you about – the beautiful house – and what do monks like you do there, you chose to ignore my question.”

The monk gave a hearty laugh, his eyes twinkling merrily.

The king looked nonplussed. What was so funny?? Ha, these sages and monks had decidedly a peculiar sort of sense of humor compared to ordinary worldly mortals, he thought.

“Sire, please forgive me,” answered the monk. “Your question is wrong so how can I answer it? A wrong question will fetch a wrong answer. 

The reason I did not answer your question was because we don’t do anything in this house.”

“You don’t do anything? You must be doing something. If you don’t do anything, why have you built such a beautiful house?”

The monk said,

“Sire, pardon me. If I tell you the reason for  building the house you may not understand.”

“Try me,” said the king, a trifle irritably and with a touch of imperiousness.

The monk gave a gentle giggle before giving the answer.

“We really don’t do anything there.”

The king stared at him rather severely.

The monk not wanting to try the royal patience any further said,

“Sire, It is the house of meditation.”

The king replied with exasperation, “Then why didn’t you say so? Why didn’t you say you meditate there?”

The monk smiled, that serene smile monks are famous for and said softly, “That is the difficulty. One has a bath, one eats a meal, one cooks, one does exercise, but meditation? Meditation cannot be done. Not doing anything is meditation.”

And so in truth we do nothing in this beautiful house..”

The king had the grace to smile back at the monk’s answer, and stroking his royal chin said reflectively, “Ahhh..”

The monk continued, “You may wonder why we can’t do this in a room similar to the ones you have seen…we can!

But, outer beauty has value too –  when it opens the door to the inner beauties…”

The king looked decidedly pensive, hearing the reply. He thanked the monk graciously enough but he knew he had a lot to think about and ruminate upon on his ride back to his own ostentatious palace!

Sage Stories #10

Once a sage was traveling through the kingdom of a mighty monarch. He noted that the people were prosperous and happy.

While he was walking he suddenly spotted a currency coin on the street glinting in the sun. He picked it up. He felt that it was meant for some needy person and had been placed in his palm for that purpose. He decided to donate it to the first needy person he encountered.

He walked for a bit perambulating the area but could not spot a single mendicant or raggedy person who looked in need of it. He walked a bit more traversing as much of the city as he could but was unsuccessful in his quest.

Finally, as dusk descended on the land, he decided to find a peaceful shelter for the night, and rest it out. After a refreshing night’s sleep, he could resume his efforts, with more vigor the following day.

The next day dawned clear and bright and after his morning salutations to the sun shining brilliantly in a blue sky, he embarked on his little mission again, with renewed zeal. He felt intrigued and impressed by the fact that he hadn’t met any needy person till now.

There appeared to be something astir in the city though. He could hear trumpets blaring and a lot of noise of the hooves of horses on the trot. He turned a corner and saw an unexpected sight -The king himself, mounted on a magnificent steed, along with an impressive army of soldiers! 

When the king saw the sage he peremptorily ordered his army of soldiers to a halt. He thought it a fortuitous occurrence and trotted to where the sage stood. Folding his palms into a reverential namaskar he addressed the sage thus:

“O Sage, it is my good fortune to have you cross my path today! I am embarking on an ambitious mission to expand my territories. Please bless my endeavors so that I may be victorious!”

The sage smiled. He paused and then dug his hand into his pocket. He took out the coin and said to the king:

“O mighty King! It is my good fortune as well to have encountered you.. This is a currency coin I found on the street. I wanted to donate it to a needy person and have just found one. You!”

The king was aghast. And fairly annoyed too. What temerity he thought to himself, to donate to him, who owned and ruled the whole kingdom a one penny coin!

He questioned the sage, with as much decorous restraint as he could muster. These holy men had strange divine powers and he didn’t want to earn the ire of one such just prior to his excursion. 

“Why O Sage, do you give this coin to me? I own the whole kingdom!”

The sage smiled again.

“O King, I roamed your entire kingdom and could not find a single person who was in any kind of need, as all looked content and happy with their lot..”

The sage continued, in a soft tone, “But you, in spite of owning this huge kingdom and vast territories, are dissatisfied and yet want more! So you, O King, are the only needy person in this kingdom and I donate the coin to you!”

The king could and ought to have exploded in rage, sage or no sage, as kings are infamous for doing when slighted, but he was a wise ruler and always looked to gain wisdom from wise souls.

So, the hapless king hung his head in mortification. The barb hit home. In his favor it must be said that instead of flying into a rage, he accepted the coin in all humility as a talisman to reflect upon and perchance touch upon some valuable verities of life…

He bowed his head to the sage and stunned everybody by ordering his army to retreat and turn back!

The sage raised his hand in benediction and blessed the king..

Dog Person, Cat Person, Beaches, Mountains, Coffee, Tea, You and Me..

You don’t only love people. Life is filled with varied pulsations. There are many natures of love. This is the bounty of a Cosmic Provider. He gave a large playing field of delights, from which to pick out, according to inclination and taste. People love – so many things.

There are golden beaches, aquamarine seas, dusky hills, gorgeous books, lilting music, ethereal art … There is also, tea, coffee, (and lager!) cats, dogs, flowers, trees – and singing and dancing in the rain.

Some love city life and its neon energy, others country, with its deep quiet vitality. If country is deep breathing then city is a constant workout producing sweat on the soul and brow. Both are valid choices, in alignment with personality. There is engaging diversity in outer landscapes as much as in the inner landscapes of human nature. And that is to perfection, and as it should be. It would be a dull enterprise if everyone were the same and loved the same things.

I love tea, you love coffee. I love sweet pea, you love dahlia. I love dogs you love cats. I love the hills, you love the sea. The wonder is that we have this incredible bounty of both the dahlia and sweet pea, dogs and cats, mountains and sea, and tea and coffee.

The list does not end there. There are meadows, lakes, fishing, hiking, travelling, poetry, birds, swimming, running, yoga, football, board games, perfumes, fruit, chocolates, exotica in landscapes and cuisines, books and ideas, and – breathing. When you think of the innumerable things of life that are pleasing, beautiful, uplifting, fascinating, exciting, marvelous, you wonder – how can anybody on this planet, not be happy?

They say, life comes in the way. True. And today for the whole world, a pandemic has come in the way. Yet, if we keep the faith and keep bolstering our spirits with the right hopeful thoughts and affirmations, that, ‘This too shall pass,’ then getting through this period will become easier. And, when all the bounties which we may have taken for granted, return, to be placed in our laps again we will cherish them more.

What adds aesthetic value to a beautiful painting is the varying shades and colours. Joy and sorrow, comfort and discomfort, gain and loss… Everybody experiences, to some degree, all of the above. Nobody but nobody is exempt from pain and loss. The reality is that this world of ours is mounted on duality and for everything there is the opposite. That is the main catch of every pleasure – its reverse side is pain. So the encouraging thing is, if life is a seesaw of opposites, the pain of today will lead to the joy of tomorrow.

Attaching importance to the day to day simple bounties of life is the key. All the moments of life, which are free from overpowering sorrow or misery, are moments of happiness. When something disrupts the even tenor, then we are very quick to slip into states of unhappiness and bemoan the situation. However, just prior to that, when things were cruising evenly, did one acknowledge that grace? No. The biggest mistake is to think that happiness is a constant high frequency state of spectacular excitement or extreme joy. Happiness is a subtle landscape, a well-being, which is effortless. It is a state of contentment in the absence of overpowering pain or misery. However, most of the time, this grace is not cognised, due to not ‘living’ in the present moment. Dwelling on the past or worrying about the future is how the precious ‘present’ is perniciously squandered away. That’s a waste!

The more we appreciate simple things, the more richer and happier our day-to-day life will feel.

So, however busy you are in life, (online or off line!) do take the time to smell the roses.

��;

Sage Stories #9

 

Once a spiritual master asked a new disciple of his to go and get some fresh fruit from the bazaar. The fruit was needed as an offering in worship of the Lord.

The disciple, eager to please his master and elated to be called upon to do some seva (service) for him hurried with eager steps to the market for the purchase.

He scoured the fruit stalls for the freshest fruit as he knew it would be offered to the Lord and nothing but the best would do. Also, he secretly hoped to win his master’s approbation and pleasure for procuring the best, ruddiest looking fruit for the offering. Just one brief glance of satisfaction from his master would put him on cloud nine of delight.

Finally, after having carefully picked out the freshest produce from the fruit baskets on display he quickened his steps back to his master’s abode.

He had almost reached it when a poor urchin boy and  his frail mother caught his eye. They were in rags and looked wretched and emaciated. The child with a bony frame and eyes bulging out from a gaunt face appeared to be beseeching him with a look. 

It was apparent that they were starving. The disciple felt extremely pained to see their condition. He had fresh wholesome fruit in his hands which could appease the hunger of the mother and child. But he had picked it with such meticulous care for his master, who had specially assigned the task to him, from amongst all others. It had been such an honor to have been picked by him. And he would be awaiting him. The thought that his master may be displeased to see him return with empty hands and an unfinished task, made his heart ache. His mind was in a swirl of conflicting emotions. The mother and child just stared vacantly at him. 

Next moment in a flash of illumination he thrust the fruit into the hands of the child. Very kindly he spoke to them in soft words full of  compassion. The pale wan faces of mother and child lit up with hope and gratitude. 

But now with empty hands he reached the master’s abode. The master was waiting at the threshold. 

The master asked the disciple if he had got the fruit back with him. The disciple replied in the affirmative. 

“Where is it?”

The disciple replied he had fed the fruit to two hungry souls on the way.

“Very well,” replied the master, “But why did you answer in the affirmative when I asked if you had brought back the fruit?”

“I have brought back the fruit of action, master!”

The master beamed. He gave more than a brief glance of appreciation! He patted the disciple’s cheek lovingly and said, “You have imbibed your lessons well, my child, and pleased me immensely. Yes, God doesn’t want flowers or fruit that can be purchased with a few coins in the marketplace with minimum effort, and which fade or rot, He wants the fruit of your actions from a purified heart!”

Saying this the master placed his hand on the head of the disciple and blessed him profusely. 

The disciple felt a wave of bliss run through him. By a simple selfless act of compassion he had not only pleased his beloved master but offered God the fruit He loved best!