DNA Column January 2015
‘Why are you here?’
The first time I was asked this question, shortly after landing back in Mumbai this last November, it made me pause.
Was this an invitation to engage in an existential discussion? A moment to fearlessly dip into my bag and proffer my dog eared edition of Tagore’s ‘Sadhana’? Or was this the prelude to being handed a brochure for a Vipassana retreat?
Has Mumbai become more reflective since I left in 2001? Or dare I say it…more spiritual? ‘I mean, why are you back in Mumbai?’
‘Where’s your husband?’
I tend to reserve the art of satire for those who deserve my fearless disrespect, as Salman Rushdie put it, and unlike the fallen clowns of Charlie Hebdo, which has been far more generous than I, with tragic consequences. So while I was tempted to retort: ‘He got away. I’m looking for him in fact, have you seen this man?’ I merely stared back blankly.
I was still digesting the first question, and well, my husband and I are inseparable- though we spend lots of time apart. But that just sounds like a zen koan and last time I checked Mumbai and Zen are at opposite ends of whatever spectrum which measures reality.
Why am I here?
The question hasn’t abated in the last few weeks, only the quality of asking varies, from solicitous to confrontational to confused. So many inflections, so many transparently apparent motivations embedded in the line, it’s become a master class in studying human behaviour and by extension, in acting. But I digress…
I’ve been tearing myself apart over a right or wrong answer. So I’ve experimented with responses in various shades and tones.
‘Because I’m mad.’ (provocative)
‘Because I love India and living here inspires me creatively’ (sincere) ‘Because I need to ventilate my mind’ (philosophical)
‘Because I’m mad.’ (semi-truthful)
‘Because I’m in search of an identity without borders’ (poetic)
‘Because I hate the cold’ (practical)
‘Because living in Mumbai is sooo convenient, don’t you think?’ (sarcastic)
‘Because, life has thrown me a second chance, so I’m doing it differently now, I’m liberated from all the conditions which ruled my life before so I’m free to roam wherever I feel and do whatever captures my imagination…and if you were given a second chance you’d understand as
well…’ (truthful, but earnest and too many words for a casual exchange)
I’ve now settled on ‘Unfinished business’ as the most appropriate response. It has an officious yet mysterious ring, and more importantly, the word, ‘business’, a word which evokes instant high regard in Mumbai.
But the real truth is, I don’t know exactly why.
My most rewarding life decisions have been spontaneous and unplanned. That’s not to imply that I haven’t worked hard, made the most of opportunities, steered the ‘boat’ and been guided by a vision. If I had to emblazon a single word on a tshirt to describe the central theme of my life so far (an interesting Sunday afternoon exercise, highly recommended) mine would say, ‘Serendipity’. And I’m not referring to our island neighbour to the south either.
Serendipity is what hurtled me from Canada at 16 and thrust me into a high profile career in Bombay in the early 90s, Serendipity then led me in turn to London, Paris, New York and to a period of enchanting destinations, roaming and room service. It led to my cancer diagnosis in 2009, to discovering writing, meaning, healing and to meeting my husband a few years later.
Serendipity has also done the work to prevent me from getting jaded and skeptical. There’s no call to manipulate people or situations when you know, deep inside, that your next course will appear before you, once you’ve chewed up and lived through the previous. You have to digest what life presents and be prepared to devour the new.
There seems to be a compelling need for logical reasons for life events- such as moving to a new city- which as I see it, is a rejection of the mystery and serendipity of life. And we’re taught to believe that the main aim in life is to follow a plan- without stopping to ask if the plan was our own, or created by someone else.
And then, quite often, something will happen to derail the ‘plan’- loss, death, a diagnosis of cancer- which forces one to confront the cheery reality that the future is uncertain, and you may as well unburden your critical mind and live with imagination and flourish and as if you are greater than the sum of your parts.
I guess what I’m trying to share is just over 5 years ago, on Christmas Day, to be exact, I experienced an internal baptism. I was in a hospital bed in Hamilton, the taste of canned corn at the back of my throat as fresh new stem cells streamed into my body to find their way into my marrow, the centre of my bones, and infuse the space between death and life with an
expression of aliveness. It was an instant rebirth, a ctrl-apple-reset and I’m still under its spell. My Bangla friend has named it ‘Lisa’s Borodin’, which is the bengali word for ‘Christmas, but can also mean ‘Big Day’.
Why am I here?
‘To live out my second chance.’
‘Oh yeah, and I travel without a return ticket.’
The truth is I don’t know.
And I’m okay with that.
I still say ‘Unfinished business’ because its also the truth. I’ve toned down the sarcasm to not pay the price for someone not getting my joke.
Ask the question- just don’t get hung up on the answer. ‘No, but seriously, why ARE you here?’
To which I respond:
‘Do you know why you’re here?’