Saturday, December 3, 2011

Flecks of a White Christmas

Once again, 'Jack Frost' surprised us with a festive show.

Three years ago, when we'd barely moved into our new home in December 2008, it looked like a rather strange holiday season over here. Hardly any neighbours. No tree. Packing boxes from the move stacked and strewn all over the place — upstairs and downstairs and in my lady's chamber! The kitchen a gutted-out square at one end of the living room.

But we knocked together some chairs, unpacked the sole green-leaf-edged plate that survived the movers, and boiled up a pudding. And got started on fitting out the kitchen. Washing up was done in the bathroom sink for a fortnight.

And then, just as the sink was set in, we had to fly away north, like the birds.

Next year, the boxes were mostly gone. The kitchen, with its stove and oven and sink and larder in place, worked. Oh! and it was only me at home for Christmas. Half of this family would only arrive after work was done for the year, on the 26th of December.

But we put up some lights, put out artsy tabletop trees, and roasted bird and roots, boiled a pudding when he did arrive. We debated getting a real tree, but we weren't sure what we wanted to put in the ground. The garden wasn't ready to receive any new roots just then. So we got to work, in the single week we'd have until he headed back to Delhi again. It wasn't done until almost New Years', but at the nursery, we found — way over in a corner at the back, abandoned — two leggy-looking slender specimens with a spray of white at the top.

They reminded me of snow. And Oriental silk paintings. They turned out to be 'poinsettia' that hadn't quite made it big, and could be had for a song. We got a pair. They turned out to be Euphorbia all right — but not pulcherrima. These were Diamond Frost. And apparently they were new and cool.

We left them on the back porch for a year, while we still tried to start the garden. The clay was impenetrable, immovable; yet the weeds were rampant.

December came again. The 'rest of the family' moved to this city, finally. But he was still away for Xmas, on the train home. No tree, again — not yet. But guess who welcomed him home at the door? Though I'd given up on those two frail doormen of mine putting up any fight at all against the hot, wet tropical elements, they flowered! In two sprays of white that framed the garden door, harbingers of what could be.

And this July, when I was out of work and wondering how to make do, when the Diamond Frost had really suffered a roasting over summer and seemingly dried out, the unthinkable happened. A third man appeared among them! There was a tall shoot, hidden behind the untameable weeds of the monsoons. We didn't dare believe it could be the Euphorbia. But it looked like nothing else.

We put the other two in the ground finally, framing the porch. And they first white sepals unfolded, just in time for the holidays, and aptly — on 1 December.

It had risen again, out of adversity and into startling, heartening beauty. Unexpectedly. A parsimonious gift that nevertheless kept giving, multiplying even. A being epitomizing not just of joy, but hardiness and holding on, fortitude and fecundity.

As we celebrated our eighth anniversary yesterday, looking back on years of 'making do', we realized we didn't need a tree this year either — the slender shrubs we were 'making do' with for three years, with whom it was sometimes touch and go in these torrid tropics, would make sure we had our leafy marker of the holidays.

Odd how 'making do' becomes the best of traditions, isn't it?

Now there are three of my slender garden sentinels. Framing both doorway and window.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Resolution: To Make Money...

Stop laboriously picking up peanuts from today.

A short and sweet resolution, because it's important.

Yesterday, I tied up a project of the kind I used to take on regularly. Low pay, relatively easy and enjoyable work, and slow going. Painstaking — which I tend to gravitate to. Painfully slow — because almost always revealed to be far more involved than it sounded on first correspondence. Painfully underpaid too, because the publishing industry has its own caste system, and freelancers are the scapegoats of it.

We get scalped, though often we do the lion's share of work on a book, save the writing of it.

We get condescended to, though we often end up with a clearer understanding of the texts published this year than the house editor ever will.

We get devalued because, ironically, we do it for the love of it and because we can't bear to see a hatchet job done on a manuscript with possibilities, and because in-house editors hardly ever edit any more, so that they are in danger of forgetting — or worse, never learning — what exactly it takes to do the job and do it well: the time, the effort, and yes, even the knowledge, both of the language and of the subject.

But we keep at it. For love and for money.

So why am I quitting?

Because I realized I can't afford a love so draining — emotionally, intellectually, temporally or financially. And conversely, because love can't be bought for peanuts. It's a costly investment. Beginning with the down payment of some respect.

I thought those few thousand rupees mattered too much to let go of, mattered enough that I could put up with less respect. I lost sight of the opportunity costs. No, I hadn't had to turn down too much other work to do it. Yes, I sometimes often let the house become a shambles because I was snowed under with this work I 'loved'. I had let myself become that bugbear: a workaholic, who has forgotten where work stops and other fun starts. And I had sacrificed time in which to find more fulfilling work, and skills that would help me grow into the life I wanted.

However, after many cutbacks and setbacks over the last several months, I have come to realize that no matter how messy things are, they aren't so desperate yet as I've made them appear to myself over the last couple of years. Which means I should not have been scrabbling for pennies (or paise); I should instead have been looking for meaningful, enjoyable work that also pays what it is worth in terms of my time and effort, and — dare I say it? — my expertise.

What was needed was not for me to scramble to do everything (I thought) I wanted to do. What was needed was for me to prioritize and do what was important to me.

I left it rather late — until lack of resources squeezed most other modes of procrastination out of my hands. But having to buckle down — to less impulsive food purchases; fewer wardrobe additions; no more books and magazines; hardly any it-all-adds-up nights at the movies and afternoons at coffee shops and fast-food dinners — and making do with less forced me to focus.

And once I focused on what was important, I saw in a few short months what had eluded me for several years lately — I saw what was really missing from my life.

I thought what was missing was money, because money can buy freedom. What I was really missing was freedom from constraints. I thought I needed to just throw money at my limitations, until they disappeared. Turns out all I had to do was live within my limits to have the life I had wanted all along — a life that was not missing opportunity or time in which to explore a new one. Once I started to work with my limitations, I felt liberated — because I wasn't wasting money and energy on the limitations, I could spend them on things that mattered.

It wasn't just money I had been wasting. I had been wasting time too — it's just that no one bills you for your time. (Well, not yet — but just you wait till someone figures it out.) And a lot of the time, I had been wasting time chasing 'easy money' — money it took far too long to earn... so long that it was devalued.

Because money that steals time also steals opportunity. It steals fun. It steals possibilities: A walk in the park; a run around the neighbourhood at dusk. Time to sing a song; time to sit down with friends. The leisure to enjoy the home I worked so hard to have; the leisure to curl up with a book in the sun. The chance to make time for family; the chance to make them a gift.

Too short-sighted a focus on earning money has robbed me of a chance to live my life a little more.

I can and should use my time better. To develop new skills. To take time for loved ones and loved activities. To give my brain a break from worry and drudgery. To stop and smell the flowers — really.

Making money should be an empowering thing. Not a stultifying situation I have to be stuck in.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Overwhelmed by Unmentionables

If there's a white elephant in my (non-existent) 'closet', it's the underwear drawer.

Our combined 'closet' is currently a four-drawer dresser—two wide drawers and two narrow ones that I share with my partner. Which means we should get one large and one smaller drawer each—so the fact that I had one entire narrow drawer of innerwear, stuffed in till they seemed to be vacuum-packed in it, was an unmentionable embarrassment. Especially as it meant that my handkerchiefs, scarves, camisoles, belts, swimming gear had ousted his stuff from the other smaller drawer.

This year, not wanting to repeat last year's obstacle course of sweater-filled suitcases piled at the foot of the bed for months, I decided to select a leaner winter wardrobe. Which would give his sweaters a home other than a pile on his bedside chair.

Taking on Project 33.3 helped clear out—not just un-stuff—my larger drawer. It was unprecedented, seeing my main clothes drawer half-empty. Which meant by swimming things, my homeless handkerfchiefs, my scarves-in-storage, and my score or so of socks could migrate to roomier quarters—out of Man's Land.

The funny thing was, with the stack of homelies shortened and the clothes 'closet' uncluttered, the smallest drawer, that smalls drawer, begged for a decongestion to match.

After some furious and frazzled trips to the 'outbox', several tippings in and dippings out, the embarrassment of inner riches has been curtailed to:
  1. A dozen knickers (yikes! and yes, that's the shortlist!)
  2. Half a dozen bras
  3. Four matched sets (typically reserved for the travel case)
  4. Two camisole sets for sleeping in (a top and a pair of bottoms each)
  5. Pair of slips
  6. Sixteen(!) pairs of socks—including sleeping socks, gym socks, 'slipper' socks (oxymorons, what with the rubber dots for traction), and just your everyday foot warmers and shoe liners.
Not a very descriptive list; but then I don't want to be accused of washing my dirty linen in public!

Ideally, item 4 belongs in seasonal storage; but they take up little enough room, so they stay put at the back of the drawer for now, rather than getting lost in the recesses of one of six suitcases.

What in the world was banished to the storage box, then? Well, all the stockings (about 10 pairs possibly); the half-a-dozen half-slips; the pair of shapers; oodles of other (new!) undies...

What was I thinking? Yeah—don't even ask! They're evidently called 'unmentionables' for a reason...!

'Home/work' togs

My no-dishwasher, no-driver, no-maid, no-cook, no-durwan lifestyle has a habit of getting mucky.

Especially since the gardeners and complex maintenance staff have decided they'd rather not come in our gate.

Perhaps they found it too arduous or too taxing to remember to move our coir doormat to wash the driveway. To avoid removing the leaves mulching the base of my hibiscus bushes when they mow. To stop trimming plants in some misguided lopsided fashion, making odd wall-high green parallelograms — when you only need to prune overgrowth and let the tree grow up and out of your way.

So it turns out I need a whole household army's worth of clothing to wear through my 'homework' hours. After all, friends and family and neighbours apparently have that many people in that many sets of clothes marching around on a daily basis, not to mention their own clothes for home, work, and play!

But still, the teeter-totter pile I had on the bench was getting to me. I needed a trimmer team of togs.

Since my daily dealings turn me—by turns—into (i) gardener, (ii) cook, (iii) cleaner, (iv) dishwasher, (v) online worker ant,* and additionally, at times, (vi) mercury-at-the-door, I figured I needed at least a couple of outfits for each function. One goes in the wash while I wear the other to wash up—that's the idea, anyway. That makes a dozen dress-up get-ups.

And because I'm also a paranoid android—which is how I got to overstuffed suitcases, crammed cabinets, and startlingly tall stacks in the first place—I thought I'd add three for emergency trails and tribulations (washer's dead! power back-up's failed! it rained on me, out of season! I sopped up spilt soup with my tunic!).

That's how I've ended up with 15 slightly scruffy to barely presentable outfits this morning. Made up of:
  1. Blue-green printed salwar-kameez set
  2. Black block-printed kameez
  3. Black knit churidar
  4. Striped maroon tunic
  5. Green-on-beige block-printed wraparound skirt
  6. Green-on-green T-shirt
  7. Blue-and-black striped 'fisherman's pants'
  8. Waffle-weave navy T-shirt
  9. Grey T-shirt (basic)
  10. Flock-printed black-and-blue T-shirt
  11. Blue-grey 'fisherman's pants'
  12. White elephant-appliqued T-shirt
  13. Multicoloured printed T-shirt (sadly sorta stained)
  14. Dark grey stretch pants
  15. Dark grey embroidered T-shirt
  16. Teal green T-shirt
  17. Grey T-shirt (v-neck, warm)
  18. Rose-printed red-and-cream skirt
  19. Old white salwar
  20. Navy-and-red tunic
  21. Blue striped tunic/kurta
  22. Pink printed kurta
  23. Brown 'tracksuit' loungewear (I actually bought them to wear around our chilly home in Delhi; fleecy on the inside, they aren't exactly the right fabric for actual activewear)
  24. and, of course, a pair of tattered-hem indigo jeans
So the stack's still tall, but has at least stopped teetering. Footwear at home is a pair of purple rubber thongs. As for the currently active sportswear, that consists of:
  1. Grey Dri-Fit capris
  2. White Dri-Fit T-shirt
  3. Black Dri-Fit capris
  4. Black Dri-Fit T-shirt
  5. Black swimsuit
  6. Black gym shoes
This set of activewear may not see as much use in these cooler months, though, so I should seriously consider bagging them up until spring.

Meanwhile, the nightclothes are currently an unruly horde, and assorted camisoles from the underwear drawer, plus the grey and teal T-shirts above, tend to migrate into the melee every so often:
  1. Green kaftan
  2. Red kaftan
  3. Flannellette 'holiday'-print nightshirt and pajamas
  4. Pink pajamas
  5. Pink-and-brown printed pajamas
Turns out 4 & 5 are cross-seasonal and make good travel companions too, especially if putting up in a hostel.

*I did try not having extra clothes for working out of home. Really, I did. But it didn't work out so well because: (a) I often had to switch from worker bee to general dogsbody in a jiffy, and wearing 'outside' clothes made the switch too scary for their life expectancy; (b) 'going to work' in the truly ratty, stained, bleached, paint- and sauce-splattered suits meant I was too conscious of what I wore: the opposite of what I'm trying to achieve; (c) some of the 'real clothes' are inherited from days in an office chair, and don't play so well when sitting tailor-fashion.

The good news: it's still a huge saving of space and money to not have a 'real-working-person's wardrobe'!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Halloween=Dress-up Box, aka Project 333: my way

  • The post-Diwali nip in the air is one good reason.
  • A surfeit of overly festive dressing up for various pujas is another.
  • Sheer boredom with the hot-humid-most-of-the-year wardrobe is the most important one, though.
One way or the other, it's a ritual born of necessity — the seasonal wardrobe switcheroo.

And it's a long-standing ritual. Been doing it for over a quarter of a century, in fact.

But this year, I'm ringing in the changes. It's a switch-up that's different from the usual for me, because I'm attempting my version of Project 333. (Which I feel is better called Project 33.3, because I'm a nitpicky super-editor in everyday disguise.)

Why? Because this year... I. Don't. Have. Any. Closet.

That's right — our clothes have been homeless for the last two years, ever since we moved into our new home! And I have grown tired of two stuffed drawers of an old broken dresser and tottering piles in holding pattern through half the rooms.

I want space. I need sanity. So here goes...

The original idea is to pare down your closet collection to precisely 33 items to be used for 3 months, with at most a small switch-in-switch-out box of three more for changing your mind, holding over to find best fits for the fashion-insecure, or for dire emergencies and extra-special occasional occasions. That's 33 items including not just clothes, but also accessories, protective outerwear (raincoats, gumboots, overcoats, even umbrellas), shoes and jewellery.

What it doesn't include:
  • sentimental or other jewellery you never take off: the permanent piece in your piercing, the wedding ring, the locket with a lock of a loved one's hair.
  • undergarments.
  • gym clothes and sportswear (to be worn ONLY for working out).
  • lounge-y, grungy stuff you only wear around the house or in your yard. And I interpret that to mean ratty stuff to paint in, wash the car in, garden in, or blow out cobwebs in — which is probably a whole lot of latitude more than the more rigorous doyennes of minimalism would allow.
The big difference for me: I need two capsules of 33! One for using at home; another for the bag that always stands mostly packed for flying away on work (the travel journalist's assignments, that is).

I found out last year that it was a whole lot saner to get away on short notice when I wasn't rummaging madly through laundry box and ironing pile and seasonal storage to find the things I needed for a transition to a whole other climate and milieu in two days. Especially since I no longer need 'office formals' on a daily basis, now that I work from home!

Now I just add underwear, 'away jewellery', travel-sized transparent cosmetics pouch to my strolley; pick up my big satchel with the notebooks, chargers, and extra pens; and can head out in under an hour!

I've made another change to the 33.3, which is rather huge: I'm giving my jewellery a free pass. Mostly because I already have a jewellery separation system of oft-worn and rarely worn and 'working-holiday' in boxes and drawstring bags that works for me already. Also, because these don't go into my clothes drawers and laundry bags and random stacks and piles, they don't contribute to that clutter that I'm worrying about! And finally, most of the time I don't really add anything to my everyday wedding ring and single ear piercing anyway; even the 'oft-worn' is worn about once or twice a month, so not a lot of time wasted on choices there!

Without further words (and with much behind-the-scenes ado), these are my 33 for the next 3 months (November to January):

Tops, ethnic
1. Kameez, muted blue-and-pink print on white
2. Kameez, bright blue-pink-brown print on white
3. Kameez, white self-check
4. Black batik kurta
5. Kameez, red-and-teal kalamkari
6. Kameez, blue print on off-white
7. White v-neck T-shirt
8. Van Gogh (Cafe Terrace at Night) T-shirt
9. Blue bandhini print T-shirt
10. Blue and red block print T-shirt

Tops, others
11. Black linen top
12. Green tunic/overshirt
13. Long grey knitted top with asymmetrical hem
14. White-on-white printed top
Churidars and salwars
White salwar
15. Light brown (tan?) salwar
16. Beige salwar
17. Blue knitted churidar
18. Off-white knitted churidar
19. Dark brown knitted churidar
Cream-and-brown printed churidar
Pants & skirts
20. Faded blue denim boot-cut jeans
21. Brown flannelette pants
22. Bodo weave stripe-bordered brown pants
23. Grey-brown cotton herringbone pants
24. Grey pinstripe asymmetrical skirt

Shawls & scarves
25. Brown madder-dyed long cotton dupatta
26. Beige woollen stole
Pale blue woollen bandhini shawl
27. Grey woollen shawl

Cardigans & sweaters
28. Pale grey long cardigan

Shoes & bags
29. Lime green handbag
30. Black quilted handbag
31. Blue gladiator-style slip-ons
32. Black strappy mules
33. Red-green-and-brown kitten-heel chappals

The trio of 'extras'
1. Blue-grey blouson tunic with attached slip
2. Fawn khadi kurti
3. White-on-white printed Mughal-style undertunic and overshirt

A few random conclusions:
  • I have a floral block-print favoritism going on. And I like it that way!
  • I have a LOT of blues, solids and print, in my 'home base' mix — to the point where they seem to be my wardrobe 'neutral'! If I ever decide to be less colourful, it's bound to be brown. For me, black seems to be an accent colour for special-occasion clothes where someone else would choose red or pink or purple or yellow!
  • My 'holiday/working' mix, on the other hand, leans on white and cream as its base! (That list in a future post — I'm tired today!)
  • Given the Tropic of Cancer's idea of winter, the 'woollies' are essentially a few shawls and an odd sweater. For the most part, during the day, it's more a matter of longer sleeves and a few thicker natural weaves or synthetic fibres than summer and monsoon and autumn can stand!
  • Even in the cooler weather, the only completely closed shoes I need are the Crocs I use for gardening and similar splashy-messy yardwork; a pair of gym shoes for workouts; and the ankle boots I wear on trips away sometimes. No more boots and sneakers need to be bought! (Note to self: The 'extra shoes' bin needs to be rotated till a few of those pretty old pumps fall apart; nothing more needs to be bought in the tie-up, zip-up, snap-up departments.)
  • I have a whole bunch of mismatched pieces left over from a wardrobe (wardrobes?) belonging to different climes. Some have never had a partner and represent unplanned purchases or gifts that aren't really my style but which I got sentimental about. (Whee! another list to make... It has to be easier to just box it up and drive it over to a charity.)
  • I am really good to my clothes — there are exactly three pieces in the 33 that aren't at least a couple of years old; 15 of the remaining 30 are over five years old and look great, if I do say myself . ALL of my lounging-around, mucking-about and sleeping-in clothes are over three years old and have never seen a seasonal break (that's another tall stack I need to sort down to manageable, and another post!); at least half are over five years old, and the oldest (a pair of warm flannelette pajamas) is over eight years old yet NOT ratty at all!
  • Corollary: I better buy more of the classic stuff. Given their age, a lot of things go to my 'outbox' because either I'm bored with them by now or they look like props from That 70s/80s/90s Show. (And no, I'm not really even aware of what's 'in'.) Yep, the classic stuff is often more expensive, being better tailored and better quality fabric; but the way my wardrobe lasts, it should be fine as long as I don't let myself outgrow garments physically (which I've no business allowing, for health's sake!).
  • I still have enough clothes in storage that I could possibly change the whole 33 on a whim, just because I'm bored or something!
  • Some of the camisoles in my underwear drawer could actually very well claim a place in the 33, seeing as they are nice enough to do double-duty as tanktops! Ergo, I don't need as many T-shirts as I think I do, and certainly need NOT replace the T-shirts that went to the 'outbox'.
  • Similarly, some of the T-shirts I bought last year just for sleeping in are still in decent enough shape to actually wear outdoors in my main 33, and can even go in the travel suitcase. Rinse (mouth out) and repeat: I don't need as many T-shirts as I think I do. (They were also cheap enough to replace as needed, and always available as a store brand; I do NOT have to buy extras to hoard 'just in case' I run through them sometime soon. And yeah, likely story, that...!)
  • Frighteningly, for an inveterate dresser-upper, there isn't a single saree in that set! Which means I have a whole other stack of special occasion garments I can dip in to the moment I feel too constrained. (Not good. Not good at all. For the self-control, don't-think-about-dressing-up-each-day part of this experiment? Disastrous, in fact.)
Now, the in-house clothes bank (night clothes, gym bag, lounge-about garb) desperately needs cleaning out and consolidating. But please, not until tomorrow. Or day after...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Story So Far...

Two years and two months ago, I moved into our new home, back to my hometown. The town that (peers like to say) time has left behind. So what if it's one of the nation's five most populous metros? Even Kolkata's first citizen, old man Oitijhyo, seems to be hanging his head in the face of the new tempera of 'trendiness' (circa 1970s/80s) that urban planners, out-of-town architects, and the demons of new-found commerce and enterprise want to sugarcoat this crumble with.

But it was home — where my life was waiting, silently and patiently, for me to return from my sabbatical in the sunny capital (where everything seemed possible, and stopped at the seeming).

Exactly a year later, I left work. For good. It was a wrench. It was the workplace that had enabled my homecoming. It was even close to home — just an hour's walk past the fields and jungle, along the canals and slums and sheer stretches of nowhere lining the ecological treasure that is the East Calcutta Wetlands. Coming home at rush hour, I had no buses to board — just 15 minutes by auto-rickshaw and shank's mare past the 70-odd water buffaloes and cows. Typically, one of my 11 co-passengers on that puny vehicle would nudge an especially obdurate calf off the path with his knee. (I've taken my turn as cowherdess too.) I lost six sets of shoes to that (non-)road, and developed new respect for horseshoes and hooves in the monsoonal mess.

But the work had gotten old, fast, as so much does in this hot, humid pressure-cooker of a city that makes short work of tough skins, deadbeat dreams, and indeed all the claims on the package. More crucially, perhaps I had gotten old — too old for the hamster wheel of hope that things could change, or that I could change. I enjoy networking as much as I love cobwebs. I prefer woolgathering to news-gathering. I understand science better than I do sensational. And I am too old not to care that I was going nowhere. So I wanted to go home...

...and to stay home. I missed my old friends, those argumentative twins Variety and Simplicity. I wanted a room of my own again, and my own computer in my own corner of it. I wanted time; I wanted to stop punching the cuckoo clock. I wanted to mean what I wrote, and to write what I meant. I wanted to stop pretending at (a)politics. I wanted permission to care more about Beowulf than bylines. I wanted face time with a few friends, not just Facebook time.

Exactly a year ago, then, I was grateful to be home alone and to be out of work.

Yes, I felt lucky that day. Although my mother needed a new hip. My father needed a new attitude. My partner needed a new contract. We all needed new insurance. And, emphatically, I needed a new income to cover all of them above.

What I did NOT need was to be elsewhere as my mother learnt to walk again. I did NOT need to fit my father's doctor's appointments into the slots between other people's schedules. I no longer needed to earn more just so that I could afford to keep on earning. And I no longer needed to ask permission to go listen to the bulbuls babbling in the bottlebrush on a weekday afternoon.

But yes, I was also newly and utterly broke. For the third time in a decade, I had to learn to start afresh. And this time, I meant it to be a lesson for life -- one I could actually live with at the end of each day, even if accidents intervened, as surely as they do.

Which meant I needed to learn to live cheaper and live better.