Sometimes, I realise, we are made by our hurts. Things that hurt us either remind us of who we are, and who we are not. And help us choose. I am going to list ten hurts that made me remember myself, ten moments in life that rebooted me to my authentic self. Some, tiny incidents, some episodes and some phases.
(Do I have a list of ten hurts that I remember? Nope, not that jobless. But there must have been at least ten, and I remember two- enough to make a start)
So, this was when I had just come back to India, and decided to live in Delhi. London had been wonderful, and a great launching pad for my aesthetic self too, among other things. I traveled a lot, often budget, often luxury, but always in search of wonderful things that uplift. That is my definition of a good aesthetic whether in nature or whether created, that it must boost. Give a bit of a lift to life and the soul. Living next door to Europe there was much beauty to see and learn from, some of their countries and cities have made it their very purpose to be beautiful. Consider Florence, Venice, Vienna, Salzburg, Paris and so many more. Consider Switzerland. Immersion helps. London learnt from those, even if grittier and expressed it in so many ways, for example food. I have eaten the most beautiful food in that city. It permeates, and it was absorbed.
Then, I am uprooted to Delhi. Now, don’t get me wrong, it is one of my home cities and I will always have a deep rooted, even visceral love for Delhi. And only a true Delhi person will be able to admit that a love for Delhi is just one step away from deep anger and frustration with the city. London is rough, but Delhi, it is abrasive. Blame the dust. I had aimed for lofty aesthetics and Delhi is a combination of bling and ceramic tiles. I do not joke. Delhi, especially a decade ago had the aesthetic that is at its kindest given the benefit of doubt, saying it must be a work in progress or jugaad gone wrong.
I blame the dust. And the extreme weather. Nothing lasts here, so everything is bought to be ‘mail-khora’. Buy things that are brown, the dust will not show up on it. Buy solid ugly furniture, it will weather the extremes. Buy things in plastic, it is cheap and easy to replace. Buy things that do not hurt you when they break, because the help does not care for their value, and you cannot possibly dust them thrice a day unless you are super rich. Everything has to be middling, unless you are the super rich who can outsource their aesthetics to professionals.
For like many other places, in Delhi, even being rich does not guarantee good taste. I could go on about the subjectivity of good taste, but let us just acknowledge that Delhi and I had different views of it. Gurgaon, I am sorry to say, fared even worse in my eyes – it was a copy of Dubai, which was a copy of London, which was a copy of Europe and Empire, which was a memory of what was at its artistic best exploitative and elitist and so troubled. (Ya, I just did that, it’s only an adda here man, not a treatise. Chill). Anyway, with money, it felt copycatty, without money it was synthetic (madam, curtain aaj kal is hi material mein chalte hain. No, I do not want what is chalte hain!)
Surrounded by study tiles, thick tiny carpets, uncomfortable sofas, shiny objects d’ not art at all, I went minimalistic. It was honestly a fear of dusting. (I kid you not, it takes ten minutes in Delhi for a layer of dust to be visible again). And yet, I hoped, it was soothing, comfortable and aligned. Form with function is my holy grail, and that, I hoped would fit into the admittedly excessive demands of the Delhi climate.
And yet, I could not allow myself to either be hoity toity, nor allow myself to sink to synthetics – and don’t tell me that in your heart of hearts you have not tried to bring a balance that works for you too! I wanted nothing fancy, but something pleasing. Simple wood that did not try to hard, a sofa with straight plain lines that did not call themselves to attention, polish that did not have at least one drippy line. Try getting that in Delhi (at that time – it’s so much better now). Again, unless you were super rich, in India you could access the finest workmanship if you were very rich or connected.
I’m coming to the hurt. But that is actually less important than the journey. It just happens to be the memory pivot.
Now, every one who seeks their personal aesthetic balance knows that is always about the cultivated ‘eye’. This is again a lovely segue into the colonised mind, the constructed outlook and all sorts of pretentious versus authentic perspectives – but I shall resist for now. For me, a charpoy under a neem tree is a beautiful aesthetic, but practically I could not possibly fit it into my city living room.
Now, this ‘eye’ is notoriously fickle. You show it a hundred ugly things, and it begins to normalise those. The ‘aise hi to hota hai’ virus is catching. Fashion, trends and convenience begin to creep in, and before you know it you have lost your authentic eye and have slipped into the quicksands of the contemporary ( I so want to pun on contempt here, but again, shall refrain). You lose yourself, basically. You get confused and make mistakes.
So, in order to remind myself of what I hold dear, I made up a motto for myself. I held it like a talisman, and everything I looked for must go past the talisman or it would not do for me. This motto was, ‘art and beauty’. Anything I brought into my life must elevate, must bring me to a deeper understanding of myself and something beyond me, must have either a deep personal history, or some story. Something more than the mere physicality of the object, and it’s ephemeral comforts. Something that makes me think, for I am insistent on creating thinking spaces. (Our livelihoods depend upon that).
Art of course, has it’s own purpose, and it leads you within. It makes you question different versions of what is made visible, and to seek within the shadows. A blank wall can be art too, for it creates that thinking space. Beauty, for me, comes from alignment. In physical spaces it comes from an alignment of form and function, of seamless flow, of a sense of uninterrupted possibilities. Sounds fancy, but the simplest of spaces can deliver that, as can the most ornate. It is about feeling good, about being able to be your best self. The purpose of a space is the elevation of personhood. For me, it was via this cusp of art and beauty, done minimally. I still wanted to minimise dusting, this was Delhi after all.
Now Delhi has this ability of making hardy folk of us all. Those of us who survive in Delhi are like the local keekar shrub that calls itself a tree – bony, edgy, with thorns and few small leaves. We give neither shade, nor kindness, and only sufficient food for goats to thrive, and the rest of us to be left in contemplation of the dusty desert that surrounds us. We Delhi people are not easy to get along with, and we cover it up often with bluster and laughter, at our core, we are the keekar. The keekar, except in relief does not know art, nor beauty, even as itself may be both. It knows utility and survival. This is us, the people of Delhi, we are abrasive. I made the mistake of telling my sister in law of the criterion of art and beauty, and was mocked mercilessly for years about it. Mercilessly, and mocked. Of course, she was young then, and has now discovered the need for both, as a palliative and as an escape from keekardom that Delhi inevitably delivers.
It hurt, and the memory of it still hurts. Not because I was wrong, but possibly because I was so alone. I was new to the city, and in my quest for building a fulfilling life, not only did the shops only showcase either derivative copycat, or badly made tat, or folksy impracticalities (dusting, remember) meant for feudal households. And then, the people too, were the same. Either pretentious, or keekar. My choices lay clear – grand solitary isolation, or placing myself in the bowels of either the pretentious or the parched.
Neither art, nor beauty found hope here. But as I slowly built a life, on my own terms, in my own way, they found a home.
It is not perfect, and my eye is not as good as it was. I make mistakes, as need demands sometimes. But then, there are a few moments of perfection, when art and beauty, when alignment and opportunity, when the soul and its aspirations find a space to rise, and be. That, for me, is enough.
(Catty postscript: One of the older pieces we have is an ancient leather chesterfield. Just last night, the leather squeaked when the person sitting on it (not me) moved. Much mocking and laughter, and I felt the familiar annoyance rise. Of course, I reminded myself, it is not my fault that you do not know how real and good leather works, at the same time reminding myself that it needs some good cream and elbow grease – after all these years it is cracking beautifully, as grace should. And did)
Oh, and why did I write this? I was reminded of this by a tweet by Neil Gamain where his speech on Make Good Art was mashed to music. Here, listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWjVUQjqaB8&feature=youtu.be