Because that’s how it’s always done

I’ve seen my share of dictionary definitions, but so far, I haven’t found a single resource that equates traditions with obsessive compulsiveness.

Let’s back up a little.

Today’s a special day where I live. It’s the first day of the Tamil new year, and this means people wake up at 4 am and make “pongal.” It’s a rice-based porridge made in two flavours: savoury and sweet.

Today’s better known as the rice farmer’s festival, because its purpose is to thank the sun god for their year-long kindness to the crops and to wish for the same goodness in the upcoming year.

Farmers and their families celebrate this day with abundant gusto, dedicating today, the first day of the new year, to the sun, and tomorrow, the second day, to the livestock that labour through the fields year round. They deep-clean and decorate their homes, and serve pongal to the gods and cattle as a sign of their appreciation. They then gather round as family, wishing each other a good year ahead, and gobble up pongal all day.

Now that’s a nice picture: Thanksgiving for farmers.

However, it evolved into a generic Tamil festival which led people to adopt the habit of porridge-making in their own homes. What happens when townsfolk and ultra-urban dwellers celebrate Pongal? Well, they wake up early and make both kinds of pongal, serve it to the gods that reside in the kennels they’d built in their houses, and then devour porridge all day.

You could say it’s not too different from what the farmers do—except the underline purpose and the divinity associated with thanking nature for a prosperous crop-yielding year has depreciated altogether.

And so now, every year on this day, we make a big deal of making pongal early in the morning. And if you’re in a village where everyone wakes up at 4 am every day, it’s rather a competition to see who serves porridge to the gods first. If the auspicious time begins at 10:30 am, they try and finish cooking well ahead so they can pray to the gods as soon the time’s right.

That’s just one aspect of the Pongal festival. Another is the custom of making pots-full of both flavours even if it’s too much for a family of three. Farmers live in extended families—they have children, nieces, nephews, and cows to feed.

In the city though, it’s just the parents and a child or two. Since everyone in the neighbourhood also prepares the same pongal, there’s often too much to give around to others.

Regardless of making this mistake every year, and feeling bloated, people repeat it again and again—just because making pongal on this day is a tradition you shouldn’t skip.

Now if that isn’t obsessive compulsiveness, I’m not sure what is.

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Of resolutions

Every year around this time, everyone talks about one thing: new goals for the new year. And without a doubt, every time, we share big plans with others, spending an entire evening rambling and trying to prove to ourselves that we can achieve whatever we set our minds to.

Why do we do that, though?

Why do we have the urge to tell others, to share our life plans with external stakeholders, to allow them the power to hold or words against us when we fail?

It’s because we all feel the need to be accountable. Deep within us, we know that letting someone in on a secret or running an idea by them helps solidify it. The more the number of people know about our plan and agree with it, the stronger is the possibility of its success.

That’s why most of us inflict our most profound plans and ideas in the world, in the last few days of the year because new years are new beginnings.

I’ve never made a special New Year’s Resolution (or NYR as the text-speakers call it) because I don’t need the first of January to start working on something I care about. Any day is the beginning of a new year for me. I know what I want to do next week or next month, and what I want to achieve by the end of the year.

That said, sometimes I don’t know what I want to do this week. And that’s fine too. Perhaps I’ll go to work and see what challenges come at me.

It’s nice to have someone enquire how things are going and offer to help, but we needn’t force ourselves to figure out a goal so that we have something to say when it’s our turn.

“What’s your resolution for this year?” — That question is a mere conversation starter. Perhaps a good way to diffuse the tension around a family dinner table or at a boring work party.

Family and friends might wish us well when we tell them we want to lose 15 pounds. Or make a ton of money, or end debt, or work harder, or spend more time for personal wellness.

Beyond that, however, it doesn’t matter to other people what our resolution is or why we chose that one in particular.

But the idea of forming a plan, a proper outline for how I want the rest of my days to turn out is a lot of pressure. After all, no matter how much we plan and plan, life will throw surprises and disasters our way.

New Year’s resolutions are overrated. People make something up every year and promise to uphold it even if they know they won’t. New Year’s Eve isn’t about trying to think of something almost achievable that we don’t feel inadequate at the party later, but it’s more about reflecting on our mistakes from the previous year and learn never to make those mistakes again.

Real goals don’t sound like weak NYRs. Real goals are inclusive of the unfamiliar, respective of the uncontrollable, and realistic to the core.

Image source: Unsplash.com

If I were to die next week…

Here’s a thought: If I knew today that’d I’d be dead by this time next week, what secrets would I want buried with me?

As I sat down to think about all the things that I hold precious, the physical baggage that I won’t be able to carry to my grave, I realised none of it matters as much.

A few weeks ago, I was on a trip with my colleagues. We were at a dam called Manimutharu, and although the waterfalls were too savage for us to shower in, we still explored the lower end of it where the water washed through polished and uncut rocks. I was climbing up one rock from the one I stood on and slipped. I fell face forwards into the water, right in between two big rocks. My head grazed the stone but missed a catastrophic collision by mere inches. My immediate reflex was to get back on my feet and protect my phone. But it took me a couple of seconds to recognise I’d lost my spectacles in the interim. It was a heavy current and all our efforts to find my glasses went in vain. 

Now that was an expensive pair of spectacles. It was sun tinted with a cat’s eye frame. No one in my family liked it, but I’d insisted on it. I loved the way I looked wearing it and washed it every day to ensure maximum clarity. And it was gone.

To my surprise, I didn’t care. I knew I’d lost a lot when I lost my glasses, but it didn’t bother me at all. I was just thankful to be standing on my feet again. 

That’s when it hit me. Even though I valued that spectacles so much, the experience of falling into the water changed my priorities altogether. 

The moment I knew I’d escaped colossal accident, nothing material mattered anymore. 

With that experience, I wondered again: do I have anything that I’d want to take away with me when I die?

It took me a while, but there was one thing I didn’t want my family to see: my diary.

When I started writing a journal, it was my emotional outlet. I poured out my happiness, sadness, pain, anger, and frustration to an inanimate character I named, X. 

I complained about homework, summarised episodes of my then favourite television series, Robin Hood, and droned on and on about my parents. My family was in disarray, and I was going through a hard time. Every day was a struggle against the depression and self-deprecation that engulfed me.

It was an account of a disturbed teenager’s life. Now that I think about it, I took my inspiration from Anne Frank, one of the many Holocaust victims who died in a concentration camp. Her father published her diary years after her death, and it at once became a chilling reminder for the rest of the world of a time we all wish we could forget. 

Although I read and appreciated Anne Frank’s thoughts and emotions, I never wanted others to read mine.

My journal portrayed me in the most vulnerable state I could ever be in. And years later when I moved out of my parents’ house, the diary remained there. I’d made my mother swear never to read it, but I’ve spent many days worrying for the secrecy of its contents. It disturbed my peace so much that I regretted having written it in the first place. 

That’s the only thing I’d want to take to my grave.

But last week, I burnt it all.

My dad was getting rid of some weeds in his garden and wanted some papers to help ignite a fire. And as I watched years of diary entries crumble into ashes, I felt an incredible sense of calm. 

I’m happy I wrote those emotions down—it was a physical way of letting them go. Now I’m also glad that all that I’d let go will stay gone forever.

If I die next week, I will take nothing but memories.

How about you?

The best place on Earth

I came across a writing prompt today:

“If aliens made contact with you asking for the best place to land, what would you tell them?”

Sunset in the International Rose Test Garden, Portland

Switzerland! Screamed my head.

Portland, said my heart that likes to think it’s well-travelled.

Somewhere in the mountains, quipped my analytical brain.

The more I thought about it, however, the less I wanted to recommend a place at all. Yes, of course, Portland is one of my favourite places. I spent five days exploring the city and I’d move there in a heart beat.

I felt rather the same way about Austin. It was hot and I got tanned on the first afternoon there, but I still enjoyed the greenery that filled my eyes and the breeze that kissed my freckled cheeks.

Seattle was nice too, with Pick Place Market being a great place for an afternoon walk and Alki Beach, a necessary reminder of human history.

Then there’s the place I call home—Trichy—with the Rockfort Temple, a massive rock that people claim to be half as old as our world itself. I had no idea—I just love scaling the mountain to look down at the city and feel ecstatic.

Or Chennai. Or Banaglore. Or Mumbai or Delhi—all the grand metropolitan cities in India.

Times Square perhaps, if the aliens don’t mind getting squashed in the thronging crowds. I can’t help but smile at the thought.

But, no. I would recommend none of these places to an alien visiting Earth.
I would instead ask, why come in the first place?

As I tried to identify the best place for a foreigner to visit, I found myself thinking about the least polluted, least ugly, and least offensive place. And that’s when I realised that although there’re plenty of places that fit the description, there’re also countless undesirable places—polluted, ugly, and so offensive that I wouldn’t wish it upon even my vilest enemy.

Our world’s hurting. It’s tearing at the seams and bleeding from within, and that’s only the physical damage. Aside from the tsunamis, the volcanic eruptions, and the random calamities we label “natural,” we’ve also become the termites that gnaw at the Earth bit by bit.

Just look around—children on a shooting rampage within the school campus, familial relationships crushing under the weight of egotistical self-worth, vulnerable people becoming targets of physical and emotional abuse—there’s no place on Earth left that an alien would feel welcome.

All the world’s travelogues, vlogs, and holiday destination businesses sell a Utopian dream of what the world should be. None of it’s true. I loved Chicago for its grandeur, but I also saw homelessness on every other corner. I cherish New York City’s cultural diversity, but there’re alleyways I couldn’t go past without fearing for my life.

That’s the reality of the world—it’s not a walk on roses. It’s a bleeding, sweating, rotting mess of human flesh.

And if aliens still want to visit, it doesn’t matter where they land because everywhere on Earth has a beautiful spread that’s also spreading thin. Alas, there’s a bitter pill to swallow as we look forward to closing another year on this Earth.

Hasty

The girl squirmed as she replied to the hooded man. She wasn’t impressed with whatever he was selling either. His hung his head low, spoke as in a whisper, and looked straight into the eyes of the girl who was now regretting taking the bus to work that day. 

Across the bus stop, the policeman observed everything. He wanted to intervene, to nab the vermin that injected evil drugs into his society. But it was neither his place nor right to disturb unless the woman called for help.

After about ten minutes, it was becoming clear that the shady salesman wouldn’t accept no for an answer.

Jeff threw caution to the winds. So what if he was under suspension for wrong accusations? He knew a drug dealer when he saw one. Inspired from super cop movies, Jeff jumped in on the scene, “Hey, mister. You’re coming with me for drug trafficking.”

He pulled at the man’s hood. 

An old beggar woman stared back at him. Not a drug dealer, but instead a gypsy selling beads.

Prompt: Today’s Author