Easy does it: Rediscovering the perks of life in the slow lane

Waiting is something we city folk abhor. There’s always another route to take,another number to call, another resource to tap, a plan B

Illustration by: Vidya Gopal
Illustration by: Vidya Gopal

Lalita Iyer

In the summer of 2014, I left Bombay, the city I spent the first four decades of my life in, the city of my birth and grounding—to live and teach at a school on a hill 250 km away. The catalyst was my failing marriage.

In 2020, I did it again, this time moving to live a less cluttered, better AQI life in Goa with my son. The catalyst was Covid and the compounded paralysis of it all.

In both cases, I was recalibrating my life, creating new contexts as it were, adapting to new landscapes—physical and psycho-social. But as time passed, I realised I was shying away from fully inhabiting these new lives that I had created for myself. I was adapting well, but I was not immersed in the way I thought I would be. In a sense, my new was still a carry-forward of the old.

I am what they call the sandwich generation—a group of people responsible both for taking care of their young children and their ageing parents. The caregiver in this situation gets sandwiched between two generations that need their support.

Throw in trying to hold a job, or worse, navigate a career and you have a person feeling yo-yoed by competing emotional and labour-intensive demands. Multiply that a few thousand times with being a single parent and you have my life over the past decade. No wonder I felt I was running on empty.

When we are young, we feel that we are always right and that everything our parents say or do is wrong—including the food they eat, the clothes they wear, how they smile or don’t smile, the questions they ask of strangers, the people they think we should be, or be with.

Rebellion becomes our default setting and if we are not conscious of this, the chasm between us and our parents widens. Meanwhile other people arrive to occupy slots that demand care—partners, spouses, children, and if we don’t pay attention, we drift further away from our parents.

With the last ten years taking its toll on me in every way—personal turmoil, bodily trauma, financial insecurity, single parenting—neglecting my parents was the easiest thing to do. As a daughter, showing up was optional. As a mother, it wasn’t.

And then, the unthinkable happened.

I missed being a daughter.

I missed being told what to do.

I missed the food of my childhood.

In fact, I had deviated so much from the food I grew up eating that I scarcely recognised the produce in my mother’s fridge when I visited. It felt alien. Home felt alien. And the strange thing is, the alienation did not bother me.

When ageing and arthritis debilitated my body even further, I yearned for the food of my childhood. I was hesitant to acknowledge this yearning, until my yoga teacher convinced me that going back to the food of our childhood was a path of recovery. As I saw it, the only way to recover was to reset.

It was time to go back into the womb. My land. My people. My food. My language. A small town in the Palani hills ticked all the boxes. It helped that the weather was conducive for both my son and me, and there was the promise of a good education for him.

A move to the hills means different things to different people. To some, it is growing your own produce, starting that NGO you always wanted, chomping on nasturtiums plucked from your own kitchen garden, capturing sunsets, clouds and rainbows for the gram, finding your community, building that dream house.

For me, it was being able to reconnect with my parents.

Once I moved to my house-with-a garden, I invited my father over (he is the one who has land skills in the family). Within two weeks, he had cleared my backyard, planted some wild sevanthis (chrysanthemums) in my front yard to join the poinsettias, roses and hydrangeas.

As we speak, there is a plantain uncurling in my backyard, revealing one leaf at a time. We cooked together every day with fresh produce from the local Sunday market. I made notes, because none of these recipes are on the internet.

And we talked. Something we hadn’t done in years, decades. It helped that the frequent power failures induced many candle-lit evenings where he mostly spoke about his childhood, his aunts and uncles, working on the land with his father and his many travels on Indian Railways.

My garden was full of juicy grass that bisons were attracted to in the wee hours and cows made a play for whenever my gate was left open. My father opened the gates to a bunch of cows one afternoon. “Let them enjoy, yaar!” he said. “Your grass will also get cut in the process.”

Legend has it that if you ever encounter a bison in the Palani Hills, there’s only one thing to do—step aside and wait for it to pass. It could take hours but wait you must, because everything is smaller in comparison to the bison—you, your car, the path to your home. Sometimes, I would spend hours watching a family of bison from my window or terrace until they were sated and left.

How did I get so good at waiting? It could be waiting for a bison to pass, a plumber, electrician, grass-cutter or fence-maker to arrive. Where did I leave my impatient self?

Waiting is something we city folk have been resisting all our lives. We dislike it. There’s always another route to take, another number to call, another resource to tap, a quick change, a plan B.

My father left last week with a bounce in his step, eager to come back for more. I now veer towards vegetables in the Sunday market that I had shied away from in years—the ash gourds, the kohlrabis, the yams and other tubers, the baby shallots, the raw bananas and chowchows—things I cooked with my father.

A hand-me-down coconut grater from one friend, freshly pressed coconut oil from another, and here I am, cooking with coconut every day after scoffing at my parents for doing it for decades!

My body seems to be responding. The arthritis, which was exacerbated by the humidity in Goa, has mostly disappeared and my fingers for once feel agile and supple. On the pain scale of 10, I have gone from 6 to 2. Is this just the accidental byproduct of reconnecting with a slower self, and with my parents, conversations with whom are growing softer by the day?

It makes me wonder—what if we could make hard decisions when we are not under duress or pushed by extreme circumstances? What if turning on the reset button in our lives was a more proactive process—thought through and mindful? What if one were not running away from but walking towards something? What if you could actively participate in the creation of every moment of your life?

A friend who lives in Athlone, Ireland said to me that animals only come to spaces they feel safe in. Could this human animal have found her safe space, at last?

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