Shantaram

Halfway through 2018, one of my friends introduced me to Shantaram. He insisted it was “the best book ever”, a statement I casually shrugged off. Luckily, Kart was so obsessed at it that he actually insisted on me borrowing the book. It was more than 900 pages long and as I looked at it for the first time, I wondered if I’d ever even take on the challenge. Maybe I’ll keep it for awhile, that would rightfully be courteous.

Six months later, I am a completely changed person. Shantaram was indeed one of the best books I’ve ever read! I only took to reading it in bed, usually before I slept. It was engaging from the moment I opened til the moment I closed it – a feat rarely achieved by lengthy novels. Even my dad, who I had prodded to read the book as well, relented that it was indeed good – “no wonder you want to go to India”. And this comes from the leading person who is disagreeable with my impending trip back to India. As with most books I read, I usually note down the lines that strike me the most. I have a lot more from Shantaram, but I handpicked a few of my favorites that I’d like to remember at different points of my life:

During times of hopelessness

I realized, somehow, through the screaming in my mind, that even in that shackled, bloody helplessness, I was still free: free to hate the men who were torturing me, or to forgive them…freedom is a universe of possibility. And the choice you make, between hating and forgiving, can become the story of your life.

When I start seeing people only for what I can gain

The little victories haggled from him by foreign tourists costs Anand his daily bread, and cost them the chance to know him as a friend.

When I hide behind wisdom as an excuse for inaction

That’s not wise, Lin. I think wisdom is very overrated. Wisdom is just cleverness, with all the guts kicked out of it.

When I wonder whether I truly want something and all the suffering that comes with it

Hungry, for anything, means suffering. Not hungry for something means not suffering.

When I crave for words yet actions speak for themselves

His handshake was the kind that good friends sometimes use in place of a whole conversation.

When I think hardening my heart is the only key to survival

If you make your heart into a weapon, you always end up using it on yourself.

When I’m sad and I don’t think I can make anything out of that sadness

There are many animals that can express their happiness, but only the human animal has the genius to express a magnificent sadness.

When I doubt the good in people

One of the worst of many failings, in those exile years, was my blindness to the good in people. I never knew how much goodness there was in a man or a woman until I owed them more than I could repay.

Shantaram was written by Gregory David Roberts

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A week after the new year isn’t that late for resolutions, I hope. But first, allow me to look back to the year that was.

January. I started this new blog, and this was what I wrote on my first post:

I’m 29, currently unemployed, single and at the throes of figuring out a career path after an unremarkable PhD.  There is no resolution yet in sight, but for some reason I am not petrified.  Yes I’m scared, but there’s a difference.  This point in my life is yet another beginning of so much possibilities.  It’s the end of all possible formal schooling and the start of more selective and conscious learning.  I’ve lost many, I’ve kept what matters.  But perhaps the weight is an exception, I welcome more loss.  And more of what matters.  In starting this new blog, I will try to keep to my plan to be brave enough to write about pain, failure, and uncertainty as I feel it.  To be unashamed of these lesson-bearers.  And in the same way, I will try to stick to my plan to see through clouds of happiness, because it’s not always sad girls who write.  Happiness deserves to be an inspiration, because we are not undeserving of it.

Right now there’s 21 posts so far, not bad. I think I did somehow cover all that. A little into this month last year, I formally became a postdoc when I said I never wanted to be that.  I took that job because I would otherwise be jobless indefinitely. It was a choice between being practical and demanding to get what I want – I let go of my ego. And in letting go, I found an even deeper appreciation for research and for all the stakeholders in the academe. But I was finally sure that wasn’t how I wanted to live my life.

March. I started a project with my friend, Yeshi. We opened a photo-sketch travel website (Tamago Walks) and this had kept me busy almost every weekend. Taking photos, editing videos, drawing, editing, writing blogs. Unconsciously, it helped me channel all the pain I had from 2017 into something else. It made me forget I cared about finding love. I was finally out of the heartbroken trench I fell into. Things felt like they were looking up, I thought I could feel that way forever.

May. My most memorable trip to date – I went to Ladakh alone. I realize now why I loved that solo trip – because it was an area of my life I both had and did not have control. It allowed me to be what I truly wanted to be in that moment because nobody held me against who they thought I was. It was exciting discomfort. This was also the month I fell in love after more than a year of guarding and nursing myself back. I knew he’d break my heart the moment I did, but I fell anyway.

June. All the hardwork looking for a job outside research finally paid off. I was ecstatic for this milestone. Although I was sad for leaving my NUS family and I was nervous of what laid ahead (would I ace it like how I imagined, or would I not?), I was excited. It was a new beginning, and an incredibly lucky one at that – I got exactly the job description I was looking for. But the new environment reminded me how it was to start all over. It took me months to become comfortable at my new workplace, but when I was, I was again reminded that things fall into place always eventually. For all the anxiety and self-consciousness I felt, my manager gave me a good review at the end of my 6 month probation this December.

July. I formally graduated from PhD. Ironically, while I’ve been planning my entire PhD to write an exposé of the horrible truths of being a PhD student, beyond what everyone outside the academe thinks of us, all I wrote about was gratitude. The silver linings I found at the end of it all outshined all the darkness. It was a chapter closed and I’m glad I finished. How I wish my mom was there, but it was great to have my dad and my brother at my side. We were at the age wherein we were both family and friends.

August. I broke my heart. But I didn’t hate him like how I was angry at my previous heartbreak. I simply recognized the connection for what it was and that it was time to let go. I was sad, but I didn’t go back to the trenches.

October. I turned 30. No flashy celebration, just a simple acceptance of age.

November. I published my first book, ‘Inay’. I got over my self-doubt if it would get positive feedback or not. And for every kind word I got for this book, I was reminded of the person who wrote that book. And how I need reminding to be that person still. I was thankful to get reminded by my brother that money is there for our dreams, and this was a dream I gladly paid for, if only to share about my relationship with my mother. More importantly, I was reminded of how fortunate I was with friends. My friends who wholeheartedly supported my book, bought it, read it, and told me how much they loved it. It was incredibly humbling.

December. My dad retired at 60. It felt like the dawn of a new era – of thinking better how long more I plan to be abroad, and how I want to define my life. And so in moving forward, these are the goals I want to live out this year

  1. Love. Although my feng shui says it’s my lucky year for love, I will not try to fall in love with every other guy I make a strong connection with. Instead, I will fall in love with people more. I will trust rather than doubt. I will slow down and take the time to smile, or at least to acknowledge. I will listen and I will be humble. In that way, there’s no way I’ll end this year loveless.
  2. Live. I will own myself. I will not apologize for who I am. I will stand up for myself rather than choosing to always be the one shortchanged. I will embrace my passions and not be embarrassed of the simplicity of my dreams, of my excesses and my inadequacies, of the vulnerability of my soul.
  3. Learn. I will actively learn and teach again. PhD burned me out, it made me feel like school was a hot coal in my hands I wanted to get rid of the moment I could. But I love them both and giving up pursuing the standard life after PhD doesn’t mean I’m giving up what I love.
  4. Build. I will live simply. I will build my wealth actively – not just to be rich, but to be able to share what I have and to live out my dreams. I will see money for what it is, a medium for trade, not a purpose.
  5. Give. Because it’s my end goal for all the points previous to this. Because my life is not just for myself, and all my decisions should have this in mind.

first book

After a year of looking for a publisher in vain, I finally just decided to go through the self-publishing route of uploading a pdf on Amazon. No complaints though, it was a perfect way to realize one of my small dreams to write/publish a book. It may be my last book, but one still counts. I’m uploading the pdf version here as well for anyone interested. But if you’d like to support my paperback version, that would be awesome and so here’s the Amazon link. They print pretty to be fair. It’s also available in an electronic version (readable in any phone/tablet), yay for Amazon and boo for the delivery rates to Asia.

front cover

And finally but not at all the least, thank you Vergelle for being the prime motivation for me to actually decide on doing this project. Because when I wrote most of these entries in my blog back then, I never did really think anyone else would appreciate it. Thank you for being such a positive energy and reinforcement to your friends, luckily including me. You have no idea how much that makes a difference in other people’s lives – you should know, if you don’t. Consider this book one of the products of you being you. 🙂

 

cemetery

I saw a cemetery from the bus this morning. It was along the way somewhere I’ve also never been to, but decided to go to this morning on a whim. The cemetery was a few meters from a military air base. If it had been a luckier day, I might have seen a plane fly by. It was on a rolling green terrain and sat in the midst of a plain that was blanketed with just the view of the sky. I almost wanted to go down.

There wasn’t any sun as the bus ploughed the empty road – and I was far out from places I’m familiar with. Honne’s Warm on a Cold Night album played over and over my headphones. Finally, I was going out for my soul.

30

It’s been a long while since I last made a conventional blog post, so I thought something for my birthday this year would be apt. I turned 30 exactly a week ago. Work was extremely busy that it feels like it’s been two weeks since my birthday. It was tiring, but in a good way. On the day itself, I had dinner with April and her boyfriend and didn’t even blow any candles. Lost my phone after dinner for awhile, but this is Singapore and nobody would bother on a Sony Xperia (as Ray said when I recounted it to him). Needless to say, I found it after.

I’m not really one for grand celebrations, and I was truthfully pleased with how my birthday went. I decided to celebrate this year by sponsoring a medical mission in the Philippines. It isn’t as noble as it sounds, I sent the money and that was all from my part. My dad and brother generously made time to make it special. When my dad sent me the photos, I was shocked, but amused, that the external organization my dad usually volunteers with for his medical missions, had printed a huge photo of me with a “happy birthday”. It looked like a mediocre political campaign. But there was nothing mediocre about it. Aside from the free medicines, my dad made sure to buy a lot of food for the local community, a cake complete with a family joke dedication, and even provided ice cream for all the kids in the area. As he recounted to me how the mission went, it made me happy that he was doing something that made him happy on my birthday – volunteering. As for me, I asked Swati to come and help at a local soup kitchen in Singapore a day before my birthday. We were dressed in the most unglamorous way and had breakfast together in an unplanned cafe. Quite different from how we usually celebrate each other’s birthdays – dressed up with a lunch or dinner booking at some fancy restaurant. We ended that day with me randomly bringing her for plant shopping, and we both went home with several pots of happiness. I had other little celebrations with a couple more friends, and was extremely humbled and happy to receive two paintings of myself. It flattered me that Mabel and Yeshi knew exactly how I wanted to be captured – looking away.  The other messages I got from my genuine friends across time and miles were what made my heart even fuller. That was all that mattered, it was a good birthday. Nothing monumental, neither forgettable, just a collection of the little joys in life that make me grateful. Oh, and about those life goals on my new year post, I didn’t say it there but one of my goals for this year was to find a job I’m passionate about. That’s what I’ve been busy with for the past 4 months. On the other hand, going down to 50 kg has still been rather elusive.

Despite all the joy, I was also reminded of how our life is but an interim of existence. Two people I knew passed away a few days shy from my birthday. As much as I’m thankful for the things that make me happy, I’m glad life still sends me reminders of how important it is to stay true to what matters whenever I forget.

And of course, I can’t skip on recounting that on my birthday, a butterfly flew right into me. If that was you trying to surprise me Inay, you certainly gave me a jolt. How could I ever forget you? I didn’t. Thank you for visiting me too. 🙂

 

love

I’ve always been evasive when I write about love, if not metaphorical.  It’s probably because it’s both my greatest strength and weakness.  Somebody asked me one day what my strongest motivation in life was.  And I came to the conclusion that it was love.  It sounded so cliché at that time and I kept it to myself – because to me, people wouldn’t understand the depth of what I mean when I say that.  That it didn’t mean I was in love with life.  That it meant during my lowest points, it was love that saved me.  Even when it was love that threatened to destroy me in the first place.  That I consciously take care of my friends out of love, even when sometimes it’s easier and fairer to let go of them.  That I am capable of inflicting much more pain on people who have inflicted pain on me, but I stop myself out of love.  That my head and heart can sometimes be full of darkness, but I never let it out because I’m scared people will not be able to love me if they see that side of me.  That I try my best to appear like the love I have in my life is enough, but the truth is I crave for a love that I might never find because I’m a complicated wreck brimming with an excess of intense feelings and emotions.

I’ve rarely prayed or wished for love, because I always assumed the universe already knew that was what I wanted the most.  It felt so self-serving to have to repeat it in some form.  I’ve gone through so many painful lessons in love now but even during the most heartbreaking ones, I’m always amazed that even after promising to completely shut love out of my life, it always somehow finds a way to come back.  It comes back to remind me that it’s what gives my life meaning, whether that love soothes me or hurts me.