When I first came to Lucknow, I tried to look for the new things. New perspectives. New lifestyle. New traditions. I tried to imbibe the best of the newness around me while fleeing from the worst. But over time, I have learned to appreciate something else- the things that do not change. Those sights, thoughts, feelings and actions that have a universal undertone.
The innocence of a child. That sparkle of affection in the eyes of lovers. A pregnant woman’s careful placement of hands over her abdomen. Peace. The shy smile of a bride. That lustful look of a man. The hungry cry of a baby. Taste of cold water on a hot summer morning The wagging tail of a friendly dog. A charming smile. Fluttering leaves. Flapping wings of a bird.The blissful morning breeze. Petrichor. The beauty of a butterfly. The magnificence of the full moon. Stench of poverty. The tone of wailing at the loss of a loved one. Anger. Hue of blood. Fear. Stench of urine. Road rage. Wilting flowers. Coldness of death. Thirst. Pain. . Stickiness of sweat. The cool shower. Darkness. Hunger pangs. Saltiness of tears. Blaring horns. Snoring. Wrinkles. Peace.
There is a universality amidst all the diversity of life. A common thread which binds us in an oblivious way .Somehow we manage to neglect all of this and try to divide ourselves. We place barriers of all sorts- region, religion, sect, caste, colour, race, age, qualifications and what not. If only we could forget all these and live just like humans. Humans- without any prefix or suffix.
The morning sun was trying hard to steal my sleep. I pulled the sheets over my head, in a vain attempt to hide from him. Hide from his sinister burning self that will be revealed in a few hours. Hide from my new pattern of life. Hide from life. I yearned to stay safely tucked away from the strange new world outside my window. My new world for three years. Lucknow. “Nawabon ka Shehar”(The city of Nawabs).
I have been here for a fortnight. And the feelings are quite a crazy weave. Excitement was the initial sentiment. It was this stupid streak of excitement that managed to kill those terrible fluttering butterflies in the tummy as I boarded the flight from Kochi. But after a fortnight, a tinge of homesickness is blending in with the excitement. I tried to put if off as I managed to get out of bed.
This has definitely been an experience! The architecture is mesmerizing. The KGMU campus is truly a pleasant treat to the eyes. The white buildings with its archetypal architecture surrounded by the lush, well maintained greenery definitely helps to cool your spirits despite the blazing sun. Situated in the older part of Lucknow, the place reflects a mixture of both the best and the worst. The university is ranked one of the best in India. It is a brand name in itself. The campus is huge and well maintained. But once you reach the hospital wards, you will come face to face with poverty and sickness. People sit on the ground around the hospital as comfortably as on a couch. You will also find some sleeping on the ground. Children run around in torn clothes with absolute disregard for the heat. The sight of one tiny tot crouching revealed his rib cage with such clarity that you could count his ribs and vertebra. The poverty is shocking. And humbling.
Outside the campus, life is quite a pandemonium . Transport is unbelievably cheap around here with rickshaws of all sizes, colors and shapes. The air resonates with the declarations of the rickshaw -walas on the places they could take you to. Street vendors with a variety of items line the streets. Crossing the street seemed like an herculean task on the first day. I waited for nearly five minutes, hoping to cross like a normal, law abiding citizen. But soon I ditched that idea and simply walked into the street like everyone else around me was doing. Traffic rules are something next to non-existential. Everybody goes their own way and somehow nobody seems to have a problem with it. I swallowed hard at the thought of driving in this city. Chewing paan masala is quite the fad here. It is true that the red paan filled mouths disgust me. But what gets on my nerves even more is when they decide to spit! On the roads. On the footpath. Almost on my foot (It sure was a close call!). I would love to punch people on the face for spitting on the roads or maybe give them a piece of my mind. But in reality. I just walk faster,the look of disgust hidden behind the scarf I have tied around my face.
Anybody will tell you not to miss three things in Lucknow- the architecture, chikkan embroidery work and the Kebabs. None of the three have been disappointing. Also,Lucknow sure has no scarcity of parks. Whichever corner you turn onto, you will find a park. And most of them are well maintained. But the better part is that people make use of them. When a sudden wave of fitness mania hit me, I decided to go for a jog. I was really surprised to find that the parks were quite full even at five thirty in the morning. Then there are the statues. Gigantic statues of many important people have been erected at various nooks of the city. It is true that I am not a fan of statues and would have considered the government wiser if it had used that money on improving the life of the common folks,but I do appreciate the artistic minds behind them. The city proper, though a little away from our campus, hosts every brand and facility you would want. And then there is food. It took my taste buds a few days to adjust to the new spices and the excess salt. But now I have come to enjoy it. The scarcity of non-vegetarian food in the campus is definitely disheartening. But since it is available in surplus outside, life is possible.
Now to the people. They say that the people you encounter will make or break your impression of a place. By the grace of god, the people around have been good. When your features are like an invisible banner which declares “South Indian” in bold, it is quite normal I guess to get those stares and hard looks at times. But on the whole, folks do try to understand, accommodate you and make sure you feel alright. Also, I have been blessed with some amazing people at my department who have been making sure I feel at home.
On the whole, the new experience has not been too terrible. God has been leading me faithfully. And Lucknow has been treating me quite well. It has enriched my perspectives on life, culture and people. There is a new angle to view things at. And from this vantage point , I see that I know so little about life. It strikes me that I am such an amateur at deciphering this mess nicknamed life. But one day I hope to look back on this experience and say- Veni. Vidi. Amavi (I came. I saw. I loved)
Prison was like second home to me. I got to visit this place quite often. The stay was not too comfotable but I did have some good company. There was a rumour that I might get freed in the coming days. Now,why was I not really excited about it? I tried to think of the unlimited supply of booze my friends would get to celebrate my release. It feels great to gulp it all down and forget about everything. But at some point, I usually come back to feeling a void in myself. Alcohol has always been my first attempt to escape that void. But somehow I hate it when my head clears again and I realise all of it was in vain. Then the women. They simply go to any extent to please me. My friends try to arrange the best for me. I enjoy them but even they cannot satisfy me completely. Then some riot will happen and I will inevitably be in the frontline of it. Why? Well,why not? Life is simply unfair and some people live under the pretext that everything is alright while others like me rot away. The government seems blind to all the issues.Now all this cannot be allowed. Hence,me and my friends find a reason to start a riot. People might get killed. Women might get raped.Property will be lost. Children might be mislead. But who cares? Anyways,we are all surely going to rot in hell. And I doubt if hell is any different from my life here. So why should I stop?Ooh…this thought made my heart beat faster. Now I could not wait to get out.
I could hear my name being chanted. My supporters! That sure was a huge crowd! Strange. Usually, nobody ever stands up for people like me. Had all these folks lost it? I had been sentenced for my uprise against the Roman government. It would be quite risky to support me. Yet the whole place resonated with my name. People were so gullible and stupid. Standing there, I marvelled at their ignornace. Then I saw him.
He was an ordinary man yet there was something about him that caught my eye- something even more profound than his bruises and whip marks. Whatever did this man ever do,I wondered. His bruises looked deep and rivulets of blood were trickling down them. Then suddenly,our eyes met. I felt his gaze pierce through my soul and sinew. I tried to look away but I simply could not. I was overwhelmed with emotions. It felt like my personal Pandora’s box of wrongdoing was opened. All the wrong I had done flashed before me.I felt filthy. Naked. Guilty. For a few seconds my vision was blurred by tears and when clarity was restored, I saw Him fall to the ground. He wasn’t screaming or fighting or making a ruckus. So this is the guy they were talking about in the prison, I realised. From the prison grapewine, I had heard that this man is actually innocent. As I tried to recollect more about him, a guard started removing my chains. “You are one lucky fella!”,I heard him sneer.
I walked into the midst of the crowd chanting my name. ” We are throwing a feast to celebrate your release,buddy,” a friend said patting my back. I tried to smile but my mind was stuck on that bruised man. “There is something troubling you”,I heard the serpentine voice of my girlfriend. I looked at her. But now I was not seeing her voluptuous body. All I could see was that she was a prostitute…a filthy person….yet not as filthy as me-a murderer. I pushed her away and started running. I didn’t know where to. But I just ran. Soon I realised I was not alone. There were others running but in the opposite direction. I grabbed a young lad by his collar and asked where he was running to. “Hey, leave me. I want to watch that betrayer being executed. The whole place is there”,the boy wrestled free of my grasp and continued his run. Betrayer? Who was he talking about? Wait. Is it that bruised man I had seen earlier? If so, why does it matter to me? I didn’t have an answer. But I turned around and started running in the direction of the crowd. Am I insane? Why am I doing this? My friends were waiting for me. The feast. The wine. The women. But all I could do was run.
Then I saw him. He was on the execution pole. He looked terrible. The bruises had increased. His sides were pierced. He had iron nails on his hands. I have seen more terrible things. I have killed people more mercilessly. As a matter of fact, I deserved to be on that execution pole. This should have been me there today. That thought was overwhelming. It felt like this stranger was dying in my place. What?? Why would he do that??He doesn’t even know me…nobody loves me enough to do such things for me..would even God be able to forgive all the evil in my life??…my thoughts were so overpowering that I had to kneel. And then he looked at me. It was like he had read my thoughts. I could feel him say,”Yes.I did.”I started crying like a toddler.What did he mean by “Yes,I did”? That he was dying for me??Or that he loves me??? Or that I was forgiven???? “What do you mean??”,I tried to yell. But no words came out. Then I felt the earth shake. I opened my eyes and there was darkness around…like the sun had hidden away on seeing this man being executed. But I finally felt a light enter into my dark life. I could no longer feel the void that was in my heart. I could not explain what was happening to me. But one thing I knew. If that man could love me enough to die for me(I didn’t know how to explain this…but I knew this was true), I had to start living for him. I was a changed person. Changed. New. Transformed. Forgiven. Loved. Set apart. There was no turning back now. I rubbed my face and got up to find out more about him.Who was he? What was his purpose? I vowed to dedicate the rest of my wretched life to whatever that man stood for. That bruised man who changed my life. And it has been the best decision of my life.
“But God demonstrates His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.Romans 5:8
I flipped through the newspaper. A particular advertisement for a jewellery brand caught my eye. The model looked gorgeous. Her attire was perfect and she carried off the jewellery with extreme grace. I kept staring at the picture. It looked flawless. She looked flawless. And made me feel absolutely flawed! The list of my imperfections rolled down in my mind. I argued in my head why I can never look like the model I was staring at. I can’t imagine being able to wear the dress she was wearing or her jewellery. It would look so out of place on me! I would have spent a good five minutes staring at that advertisement before flipping the page with a sigh. There are numerous times I have walked into a clothing store, enticed by advertisements of bewitching models in beautiful attires. I used to believe that if I got the same dress, I might be able to look like them. But in reality, no matter how much we try, we seldom end up matching up to what any advertisement shows( I definitely don’t!).
I was just thinking of the power of advertising. To be precise, about why they manage to get us. Everytime. It appeals to our desires in an obvious way but we seem to be oblivious to it. It captivates our imaginations and caters to our deep desire to be perfect. It promises to help us overcome our flaws and blend in better with the changing world. And oddly, I have found many brands claiming to “complete us”.
Completion. Becoming perfect. Blending in better. Establishing our identity. These are four core ideals of most advertisements. Nothing too much to wonder because these are areas which most of us struggle with. Let’s just look into these themes individually.
Completion. As a teenager, I always felt a vacuum in me. There was something missing. Having been blessed with a good family, I honestly lacked nothing. My parents were loving and made sure we had everything. Yet I stuggled to find completion. The search was terrible and I always reached back to square one. You can’t wear that favourite dress forever. You get bored of that expensive perfume. The latest jewellery soon go out of style. No, even that expensive brand of shoes are not immune to damage. No person will ever be able to be there for you as they promise and vice versa. Nothing in this world was able to fill my vacuum. Till college. It was in college, I came to really encounter the love of Christ. I was awed by Him and as I accepted Christ as my personal saviour, the earlier emptiness seemed to vanish. It made me realise that nothing in this world can complete me. Nothing but Christ.
Becoming perfect. Perfection is something we all strive for. Some of us often get branded as “perfectionists”. Yet we are just not able to attain it. No matter how much we try, somthing always seems to be out of place. Growing up, there were times when I felt out of place. And so, I tried to be perfect. Doing all the good things. Saying all the right stuff. I tried to live a good life. But it just never seemed to be enough. No matter how much I tried, I somehow fell short of it. It just seemed like I was going in circles. Then I came across Hebrews 10:14,” For by one sacrifice Christ has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” This meant my perfection is based on Christ dying for my sins. And I am “being made” holy. It is an ongoing process. We are being perfected. God is working in our lives to conform us into the image of Christ. If so, being Christ like, doesn’t obviously mean being the best dressed, dining at the best places in town, owning that mansion or riding that famous car. Being Christ like translates to imitating the values of Christ and obeying His word.
Blending in well. That is a common thought most of us have. We want to be part of the world. We don’t want to be the odd man out. If that happens, we fear that the world will look down at us. And if someone tries to take the path less trodden, they are labelled as “eccentric” or “odd”. We fear these labels and so try to hide behind other labels- famous brands/ trends/ traditions. We run after things so that we won’t feel left out. Somewhere along the way, this run becomes a race. We try to outrun ourselves, our relatives, friends, neighbours and even the stranger on the street. It becomes a race to blend in while having the “best”- a term which gets re-defined every now and then. The best car of 1980 is out of style. You dont find the old fat television set in homes anymore. So if you dont have a flat screen TV, you are either poor or old fashioned. I could never run out of such examples.
Making a statement. Even though we try to blend in with the world, we have a yearning to make our own statements. To leave our impressions. To be unique. Quite ironic. We try to blend in while we say we are trying to maintain our own identity. Hairstyles, the clothes we wear, the car we drive..all of it is apparently our statement. I have made some pathetic efforts at some similar “statements” of my own. And obviously, I failed miserably at all of them. This left me in an identity crisis. If my identity is in the things around me, it will change with the things too. So do I need to get an “identity” makeover along with my wardrobe and hairstyle?! The realisation that my identity is in Christ put a full stop to all my doubts. If my Lord is an unchanging God who could go to the extent of the cross for me, I don’t need those frequent identity makeovers! It is a one time process. A one time shopping!
In the background, we can see how some advertisements call out to the basic evil desires in us- greed, envy and lust. We always want more. Greed.Mainly because others have it. Envy. Also beacuse it looks/feels good. Lust of eyes and heart. And Bible says all these are the signs of the flesh. So who is really in control of our lives- flesh or Christ?
Now with all this happening around us, how do we tackle the matter. Does this mean “No More Shopping?!”(my dad would definitely be glad to hear that!) No. But it means a new outlook on things. It is not wrong to have the best of things. But let that not be your identity. Let need and not greed guide you. Next time, we walk into that fancy mall, let’s just try and do some things. Pray before we go shopping(No. Don’t worry.It will stop sounding funny once you start practising it).Identify our necessities- what we need to buy instead of what we want. Reflect if what we buy/wear/eat/drink/drive is going to help build God’s kingdom or be a stumbling block to someone. Understand our worth in the Lord. Be good stewards of our money. And lastly, try to be insulated from this world instead of being isolated. This doesn’t mean we wear sack cloth and act “holier -than- thou” . We don’t have to live an isolated life. That is the opposite of what we are called to. Instead, know how to let the love, joy and peace that we have in Christ shine through all that we are. Let the Word of God and His spirit be the insulation we need as we learn to be a “practising” Christian in the twenty first century.
Attending a funeral is definitely not something anybody looks forward to. Especially if the deceased is a stranger to you.I didn’t really have a choice here. Someone needed to accompany my grandmom to her cousin’s funeral. I may have met this granny during one of those family functions when I was young. But it’s beyond the grasp of my memory. Hence,to me she was a stranger. Which is a good thing in this context. Death of a stranger should not affect you much.
We were to visit her home first and follow to the church for the funeral services. I put on a funeral-perfect black salwar. My grandmom was in a white saree. Black vs white…the better choice for funerals? Well, it differs I guess.(Getting my white salwar ironed was too much of a hassle anyways). I helped grandmom up the steps onto the verandah where the coffin was placed for people to pay homage. We stood in front of the coffin for two minutes. My grandmom was quite upset but I honestly had no feelings. I plastered a neutral expression on my face and stood by her. That’s the dictum isn’t it? You put on a sad face to a funeral and that happy face to a wedding. Just another mask we are obliged to put on. The unwritten laws of the society, they say.
We spent around an hour in that house. Here are few of the scenes my mind captured. Since I didn’t know anybody there, I played a guessing game in my head. There was young lady with tear stained eyes next to the corpse. Daughter. A young man was standing on the verandah. He had a look of loss on his face. Son. An old man sat in a corner,his head buried in his arms. Occasionally,he lifted his head to blow his nose. His face was red. Husband. Then there was the group of women in the corner who sang the funeral songs with utmost passion. Cameras were flashing as the photographers tried to ensure that they missed not a single face or moment. Priests would come in between and offer their condolences and say a word of prayer.But what I found intresting was the scene outside. Chairs had been arranged outside the house. There were around forty people seated there. I helped grandmom find a place. Most seated here were over sixty. Some seemed to be busy in happy conversations. Since they don’t get out much, funerals are good opportunities for the older folks to catch up, grandmom answered the question in my head. An occasional bored child could be seen wandering around. Soon two older women joined my grandmom. Cousins. She introduced me to them. “Oh, you look just like your mom” “Are you done with your studies?” “Are you working?”…I soon found myself swarmed with questions. Thankfully,they soon changed the focus from me to other important gossips. That left me to sit back and listen to the songs in the air. “The giver of life asked for life to be returned,can we say no?”,my brain translated the Malayalam lyrics.(thats just the content..it did sound quite poetic in my mother tongue). “No matter what you ask of me Lord,I will trust it is for my good…” and many more beautiful lyrics. Soon the songs were replaced by a short sermon by a priest. He reminded us that no matter what we earn or become in life, we exit in a coffin which is built by someone else and chosen for us by another. He reminded us of the importance of doing good during our short time on earth. And then his teaching took a controversial turn…for me that is. (I doubt if most people were even listening). “Your will be eligible for citizenship in heaven if you do good works”,I heard the speaker say. But is it so? I remember the Word of God say that our eligibility in heaven is based on accepting Christ and acknowledging Him as our personal saviour. We will never be able to stand in front of God based on anything we have done but because of the righteousness of Christ. The good works we do are just a product of our obedience and walk with Christ…this is what I believe. Well…looks like I have to get back to the Word and confirm. The speaker had many more words of wisdom. But I had tuned out by now.
After the prayers at home, the coffin was carried in a procession to the church. A jeep with loudspeakers went ahead spreading funeral songs in the air. This was followed by a series of priests clad in black. Around six to seven men carried the coffin behind them. All the mourning that you associate with funerals happened in the front. The rear end of the procession was made of a large throng of family and friends who joined for the sake of it. Once in the church, the coffin was placed on a makeshift table in the centre. Suddenly there was a loud sobbing and I saw the young man we had seen on the verandah being held by another person as he wept holding his deceased mother’s face. The husband was seated on a chair nearby. The daughter looked too tired to even cry. The empath in me got into action and I felt my eyes tear up. Wow! I don’t even know this woman and I am shedding my tears for her. Well, silly emotional beings we are, I guess. The priest went onto describe about the mother in the coffin. She had always lived in the shadow of her husband who was a social activist and local political hero. She was actually an unsung hero herself, the priest informed us. He remembered her loving nature, her sacrifices as a mother, hospitality and gentleness. He urged all the women in the crowd to remember these good qualities. As the prayers progressed, my mind had wandered. “She had dinner with her family and retired to bed. She died peacefully in her sleep”, I had heard someone say earlier. Was it peaceful? How do we know? What would she have been thinking before that? Did she know when she went to bed that she would never wake up? If she had, would she have done anything differently? Would her family have done anything differently?…my mind came back from its jaunt as the coffin was taken to the cemetery. The closest of kin followed. Rest of us waited outside the church. It was definitely not a silent wait! Soon the chatter had started. I graced many more distant relatives with a smile. Some seemed really sweet. But others were honestly a little annoying.( …”You should try anaesthesia.My niece is doing it” “How old are you?” “Still single?wow! Why???” ” I know this boy…a distant cousin…” “Don’t marry a doctor. It will be difficult ” “Child you should marry a doctor ok. Only a doctor will understand your busy life.” “You should put on a little more weight” “OMG!you have become fat! The last time I saw you, you were so skinny!”….and many more questions and suggestions). It seemed like forever before I could find my grandparents and get going.
I was definitely happy to be back home! At night, as I lay in bed, my mind went back to the day’s funeral experiences. Death is inevitable. Yet, why do we go on living so randomly? If this was your last day on earth, how would you live it? Wouldn’t we do something differently? Love our dear ones more passionately? Give your mom a hug for no specific reason? Smile at that stranger on the street? Help someone in trouble without second thoughts? Call up that friend you have not talked to for ages? Say sorry more often? Would any of those pretty clothes you envied on that picture perfect actress or that new fancy restaurant everybody is talking about matter? What about all the degrees you earned? Or that fellowship you were not able to do? Would your huge bank balance help you out? No. We have to face death, whether we are prepared for it or not. “From the dust and back to it”… But for a Lord who with His resurrection defeated death, we would have had every reason to fear. Maybe in the end, the only thing that will matter when we take that last breath is if we have an assurance of our eternity. My mind resonating with that thought, I reached for my phone and clicked on WordPress.
It feels terrible. My head aches and my eyes hurt from all the crying. Tissue papers lie martyred in the battlefield of my bedroom. I can feel myself being dragged into a deep dark pit of depressive thoughts. I don’t want to fall into it. I have been inside it. No. It is not a nice place to be. I want to run. But I can see only closed doors around. I hate this. I hate this hallway in life.
This hallway is a terrifying place of doubt. What if no door ever opens? What if I am stuck here forever? I can see all my friends move ahead. Will I ever make it out of here? “Oh, she is so unfortunate! I wonder why she didn’t make it out of there?”, I heard someone mutter. My thoughts exactly! Why? Why am I stuck here? Did God forget me? So much for all the promises of “one day the wall of Jericho fell” and “slaying the giant with God on your side”! Sounds more fancy than ever now. Was I a fool to fall for that? Where did I go wrong? Was it that one thing I did? Or that one thing I didn’t do? What?? Why???? How??? The hallway is a place of questions. And some of them you dread facing.
A place of regret. Yes. The hallway is a place of regret. Maybe I should have done a little more. Maybe I should have done that differently. You find yourself regretting everything. Everything- from your very existence to all your decisions. Maybe it was all wrong. Maybe I was too much of a dreamer. Maybe I was a fool to think I was capable. Maybe I put my faith in the wrong place. I hate the “maybes” I am facing in this hallway.
Quite humbling though. Yes, unfortunately, the hallway is a place of great humbling. None of us like it. Yet, as we pass through the fire of failure, humility might be one quality being wrought out of us. The humbled you might feel vulnerable. Like a newborn. But it can also be a new beginning. Like that newborn baby, you could have a fresh start. A new hope. Suddenly your tear stained eyes seem to see it better. Is that a tiny window in the corner? Is that a ray of hope coming through it?
The hallway seems to have become bearable. The situation does not seem as hapless as before. It is still painful. You still trip over regrets. The questions still loom over. Yet, the forlorn figure in the corner has started to move. To start over. To make corrections. To strive harder. To seek forgiveness for all the doubting and grumbling. To start anew. No it is not easy. But maybe we will all find the courage to praise God even in the hallways of life. Until He opens the right door..in His time.