Existence is a colorful mystery; I never know how the inner hue will change as different colors combine, influenced by each new day’s experience-palette.
Each moment’s a rare delicacy. It comes my way once, makes its mark, and then departs.
In youth, I didn’t have time to relish this vibrancy, always busy trying to be someone special. Ambition inhibited my awareness of the radiant reality always present within and without.
In my later life, I’ve learned to take notice of each moment’s gift.
Born into affluence, it took me decades to realize how impoverished my inner life was. Now, astride my little boat, with my consciousness as expansive as the celestial ceiling above me, I feel wealthier than an emperor on his jewel-encrusted throne.
Riding the gentle, bluish waters of the Arabian Sea, I’m dazzled by dancing diamonds ornamenting wavelets passing by. I smile and gaze upwards, grinning my gratitude. The golden globe grins back.
Perception’s a funny thing; it gets skewed when too many colors fly at you, until you learn to accept them all without resistance, welcome each color as a friend. Even the nasty ones deposit gifts in their wake.
My parents named me Ravindran, but everyone calls me Ray. I’m Delhi-born, but brought up all over the world since my parents traveled, though we stayed most often in New York, where they call us NRI’s, Non Resident Indians.
My youth was painted in the garish gold of wealth and fame, with bold accent strokes of scarlet passion, tangerine delight and crimson tragedy. In between, silver-pearl moonshine gave respite for a time, till red-fire dreams destroyed momentary serenity.
My father, a celebrated writer of Indian descent, traveled widely but most often resided in New York and London. He’d reached the heights of world renown before he was murdered the summer I was fifteen, leaving my mother an emotional shipwreck. The ink-black veil of grief consumed her heart with such gloom there was no room left for stars to shine in her mind’s sky.
The police never caught the murderous culprits who killed my father. I sensed it had something to do with his controversial writings, often debated amongst the traditional Indian community. Needless to say, the trauma of him in that violent manner made a harsh impact on my sensitive psyche.
My mom and I moved in with Uncle Devidas and Aunt Sarasawati in their spacious apartment on Central Park West. In spite of their hospitality, I felt a persistent urge to flee, stifled and stiffened by traditional attitudes of Indian circles.
I also imagined myself stunted by the school system. Before my father’s cruel death, my parents had home schooled me. With all our travels, I’d received extensive education in the school of multifaceted-life-experiences and by encounters with a wide variety of people and circumstances from an early age.
Uncle David knew my parents wanted the best for me, so he used some of my inheritance to send me to a top prep school for my senior year. It was a superb curriculum and I immersed myself in the classes.
Though people say I am handsome and should be popular, with dark boyish wavy hair, large chocolate colored eyes with long lashes (which my mother used to call lotus eyes, just like Shree Krishna,) I never fit with the ‘in-crowd’.
I did not wish to be like them and preferred to be a loner.
During free periods, I’d park myself on the only comfy chair in the hallway right near the art studio, and bury myself in a book until the bell rang. Having always thought to become a writer like my father, I never tired of devouring books. I’d looked forward to a semester of extra book-reading time, but one day Mr. Jyoshi, the art teacher and the only other NRI in the school, saw me sitting in the faded but cozy armchair.
“Why sit there with your nose in a book when the empty canvas calls?” he asked.
“Huh? But I don’t know how to paint.”
“Ah, but you will.” He tilted his head toward me as if confiding a secret. “In art, knowing isn’t the most important part. It’s just one aspect–the craft is to learn the ‘doing’ of it. The feeling, the inspiration–that’s being it. It does not come from any outside influence, but from within.”
“Sounds interesting,” I mumbled, gazing at the floor and then casting a sheepish glance in his direction. I felt inspired by Mr. Jyoshi’s passionate enthusiasm and the gleam in his eyes. “How do I begin?”
Mr. Jyoshi flashed an enigmatic smile as he drew me into the art room and placed a blank canvas, a paint palette, and an array of different-sized brushes, sponges, and other artist’s tools.
“Just begin.” Mr. Jyoshi chuckled and raised an eloquent eyebrow challenging me to ask no questions but simply start.
So I did.
I don’t know how Mr. Jyoshi knew I possessed a talent for painting. When I asked him about it, he said it was divine inspiration; he just knew. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but was glad how things turned out.
Mr. Jyoshi and I bonded during that year as he tutored me. It was nice to feel a connection to my motherland by spending so much time in his company. I often shared some of Aunt Sara’s awesome home cooked meals with him while listening to Ravi Sankar’s sitar. Mr. Jyoshi never failed to entertain me with dramatic, non-verbal comments indicating how much he relished each dish.
When I graduated, I wasn’t sure how to proceed with my painting career. I thought of going to college and studying art but felt an aversion to the competitive atmosphere and formality of the classroom.
I decided to see how life itself could teach me.
With this in mind, I set up as a street artist on Fifth Avenue, just near the entrance to the Central Park Zoo, and rented a one bedroom flat in Soho. I enjoyed interacting with all different types of people, but sometimes preferred solitude. Having an independent style of work allowed me freedom to choose my activities according to my mood.
For some months, I struggled to earn enough for rent and food, but this did not last long. I met with unexpected lucky breaks. One day, Mr. Jyoshi, who by now allowed me to use his familiar, affectionate name, Jay, suggested I place paintings on display in his friend’s art gallery in Greenwich Village; so I did.
The response was both immediate and spectacular, and within months all the best galleries in Soho wanted dibs on my paintings. As swift as a Central Park squirrel scampering up a tree, I became a celebrity in New York’s quick-paced, high-energy Art Market.
Elite magazines wrote articles about me and published my artwork too. They produced a page about me in the Arts and Entertainment section of the New York Times. The critics hailed me as a master.
I haven’t figured out how this all unfolded so effortlessly. All I know is colors speak to me; life speaks to me. Everywhere I look, I gather impressions of poetic compositions and Mr. Jyoshi’s training helped me translate those images onto canvas.
It brought me joy to be creative, but the fame and money felt like bags of sand weighing me down. By the time I reached the age of twenty-five, with a million dollars accrued in the bank, I yearned to return to the simple days I remember as a boy, visiting my Nanna, whom the locals called Ammamma, in her palm-jungle village near the Arabian Sea.
With great nostalgia, I made paintings of that place and portraits of my Nanna’s face. Nanna grew up hearing the voice of the ocean as her own mother. She understood the symphonies conjured by waves and wind, and she always listened. She’d taught me to listen too.
My grandfather, Pappachan, also loved the sea; his ability to read her moods was the key to his success as a humble fisherman. A lucky thing, since he lived in a town where earning a living could be considered a luxury. It is amazing how famous my father had become when he stemmed from such humble roots. I think it has something to do with karma. My grandparents were decent people, spiritually elevated, and they always found ways to help others. That earned them the punyam, good karma, which seemed to transfer success to their kids.
Pappachan died before I was born but I felt I knew him through the stories Nanna told. She never tired of telling me the tale of how one day Pappachan had an epiphany and heard the oceanic voice–not just with his ear, but in his own heart.
Every wave comes and goes, but they are all extensions of me , said the sea. Every movement of the sea has a purpose and a rhythm. Each wave returns to me. In reality, there is no separation.
Listening with his heart, he felt a kinship with the sea as passionately as a priest with his crucifix. Over the years, he’d learned to trust each moment on the sea would bring him not only food for his belly, but the lesson he needed for the day.
Nanna would inhale deeply, sniffing salt and seaweed mixed with breezes bringing surf foam, sand and the catch of the day into a medley of odors humming the sea’s song, and she’d smile, knowing Pappachan was with her. This is where she belonged. To her, the serenity of knowing this was like spiritual food.
The art world loved those series of paintings with seascapes and portraits of Nanna and the villagers. Yet the astounding success those paintings generated failed to fill the gaps in my soul.
I longed to feel whole but did not know how to pursue that goal.
My nanna would never believe the turns my life had taken. Back then, I couldn’t decide how she might have felt about it were she still alive; would she be proud or disappointed?
The last memory of being with her flashed on my inner screen. I’d been twelve years old.
“Nanna, I’m tired of traveling around all the time. Can’t I stay here with you?”
“Little one,” Nanna said as she stroked my hair and cuddled me to her shoulder, “You’re always with me, wherever you go.” She paused and peered up at the sky through the open doorway of her humble cottage. “The clouds always travel. The sky goes nowhere.”
“The sky’s an empty canvas watching things pass across it.” She smiled, nodding sagely, and patted my head. “You may not understand Nanna’s kitchen table ramblings now, but one day you will.”
“Okay, Nanna. I will try.”
She chuckled and kissed my cheek. “Here, punna-mon, eat these biscuits. I’ll be right back.”
She returned with an odd-looking object in her hand.
“What’s that?” I tried to grab it with eager, crumb-laden fingers.
“Settle down, dear child.” She wiped off my fingers and then handed me the ornately carved wooden box. The wood looked old and worn but the carvings were beautiful. “My most precious treasure. Open it.”
I held my breath. I always looked to Nanna with a mixture of adoration, affection and awe, the awe being the largest portion in that recipe. She had a grace and power like no one I’d ever met yet she was so simple, humble and approachable. Even as a toddler, my parents had told me, I’d revered my Nanna above all others.
I opened the box. A small book covered in worn felt fabric lay inside. There was no writing on the cover, so I opened it. The title read: ‘Gems of Wisdom from the Upanishads‘.
“What’s this book?”
“It’s for you.” Her eyes widened, shining with moisture as she beamed. “When the time comes, you’ll discover great meaning in it. For now, keep it safely and remember I give you this gift because I cherish you and know you’ll use it wisely.”
Where’d I put that box? I wondered, as the image of Nanna’s sweet smile faded and the furnishings in the my apartment created an ironic contrast between my inner and outer vision. I rampaged my closet, throwing clothes, old toys, and other odd objects behind me in a frenzy to find it. I didn’t know what fueled my intensity.
I finally found the book and opened it.
‘Tyagenaike Amritatvamanasuh‘ read the Sanskrit transliteration, translated as: ‘Through renunciation alone is immortality attained.’
Huh? I skipped a few pages and read another sloka:
“The pleasures of the world are riddled with pain.”
This stuff makes no sense, I thought as I put away the book. It would take many years before I understood the depth of meaning in those words.
Though I longed for something deeper and more sublime, name and fame drove the wheels of my life’s chariot and I became more and more corrupted as the years drew on. All the trappings of the fast city life caught hold of me: drinking, women, night life–even drugs to some extent.
A terrible emptiness took root in my heart as I ambled down the road of a ruinous lifestyle.
My paintings continued to make fortunes, though the quality had degenerated from the inspired first years. I’d lost something and could not figure out what. Loneliness and longing gnawed at my insides. Every night, I’d light a stick of Jasmine incense. The aroma took me back to moments with Nanna at twilight when the night jasmine bloomed more fragrant near her cottage by the sea.
At this juncture, Nanna’s cherished book gave me only riddles, no answers.
A turning point came after I was victim of a hit and run accident.
Nurse Markus, my night nurse during recovery, helped me come to my spiritual senses. Embittered and frustrated, I used to ring the call button numerous times and make demands for help and comfort.
“NURSE!” I shouted at high pitch. “NU–urse!” I pressed my finger to the buzzer and held it there, listing to the awful ringing sound creating cacophony in the hallway. Even after two minutes, I did not release my finger. It must have driven everyone on my ward crazy.
A sharp beam of light entered the room as Nurse Markus opened the door. “Shhhh. You’re waking up the whole hospital, Ravi.”
‘I don’t care,” I mumbled and gazed at the floor but took my finger off the button.
“You should be ashamed.” Nurse Markus had a gentle tone, even when scolding. “You woke up Mrs. Peabody and she has such trouble sleeping. I’ll be on my toes all night calming her down.”
“I’m truly sorry.” I meant it. “It’s just so frustrating being cooped up here and not knowing if I’ll be able to use my hands, if I can ever paint again.” There, I said it. This was my fear, but I felt an almost ironic relief about it, as if my soul knew my talent held it back as much as it was nourished it.
“Think positive, Ravi.” Nurse Markus held my mangled hand. “These hands might heal, though they may lose some finesse, they’ll work well enough to live with, and hopefully to paint with again.” He put my hand on the mattress with care, like it was a delicate flower. “Take this as an opportunity to reflect on your life. This time is a gift, even though it may not seem like it. God has a reason for everything, especially our suffering.”
“He must be crazy, then,” I grumbled but his words had struck a chord within.
After he left, I lay gazing at the broad white ceiling, thinking of when I’d watched the twilight show on the vast ocean sky with Nanna. I felt as if she sat near me, gently affirming what Nurse Markus had said.
The next day, as I thought about his words again and attempted to apply them, I realized fame brings jealousy and more wealth than is needed. Wealth, when not used properly, generates ego and indulgence. People become friends because they want something from you, making it impossible to find genuine fulfillment in personal relationships.
“The pleasures of the world are riddled with pain.”
At this point, finally, I understood.
Now, as I feel the gentle waves rocking my fishing boat, I smile in fond remembrance of how Nanna’s little book of wisdom was like a seed that germinated gradually but eventually guided my journey home. I eventually followed the advice of renunciation, allowing wealth and fame to fall off me like an old coat, to be hung on the hook of memory, without any need for further use.
After my recovery, I continued to read each sloka in the book and contemplate on it for hours. Every time I read it again, new insights flashed across my mind.
Inspired by the philosophy of spirituality my painting style changed completely and drew the attention of a new audience. Spirituality and the New Age had become fashionable in New York, and my artwork soared in that branch of the art market.
I was introduced to all the great gurus and teachers passing through New York and even socialized with some of them. Once I visited a popular Chinese restaurant with a Tibetan Rinpoche who cracked jokes with a twinkle in his eye.
“Rinpoche,” I said, “How can I find peace?”
He laughed uproariously. “Can’t find what you already have.”
“But I do not feel it.”
“Dust off the mirror. Then see the clear reflection.” He winked.
“Breathe.” He peered into my eyes. “Stop thinking.”
Suddenly, like a lightning flash, the entire room seemed doused in liquid light. Everything shimmered and nothing seemed solid. All other senses disappeared except the sound of Rinpoche’s guttural laughter. My mind was like an empty canvas.
I’ve no idea how long this glimpse lasted, but when the room returned to normal, I saw everyone in our party gazing at me. Rinpoche chuckled again, pointed at me and said, “Ripe mind–instant karma–momentary view … now, practice!”
From that day onwards, I began reading Buddhist texts and teachings. I felt a spontaneous resonance with their practical wisdom.
It wasn’t hard to locate Nanna’s house and buy its current owners a new place to live. I settled into a simplified life like a happy fish in a coral reef. All those years of chasing worldly dreams, I’d been a foolish fish athirst in the water, longing for peace hidden within me all the while I’d looked for it outside.
I donated half my savings to charity and divided the rest between myself, my mom, Uncle David and Aunt Sara. Then I retired to Nanna’s cottage to gather my own pearls of happy wisdom earned by a dedicated, simple life.
The sun begins sinking towards the horizon, so I know it’s time to turn my little boat towards shore. I remove the broad-rimmed hat I always wear to block the sun and smile as the deepening sky reveals its first glints of stars.
The swish of wavelets forms a background melody as distant peals of temple bells sing counterpoint to the baritone call of the Muzzein from the mosque: ‘Allah hu Akbar’. Even though the loudspeakers have a scratchy sound of static, the sound of his pure call resonates in my heart. The temple bells ring again and I picture them like little notes raining rainbow colors in the sky-canvas of my mind.
I no longer need to paint on canvas. Each moment’s an animated painting, fluctuating with unique nuance underscored by the constant drone sublime emptiness.
Tonight, I experience a living self portrait of myself in my boat with the music of deep blue waves, colorful raindrops of tinkling bells, the golden sunset sound of the gong and a hint of the scent of jasmine, an echo of my past, reverberating in my present.
Life is grand: each new and precious moment.