Monday 23 November 2020

Of light, diyas, Diwali and celebrating life.

Photo credit: Sahitya

Dear Readers, 

I hope you've been well and healthy. 

As some of you may know the past fortnight has been all about Diwali; a festival of lights celebrated by --- and this is where I'm struggling (she admits after tapping the backspace button 5 times!)

So, who celebrates Diwali? Is it only Hindus? No, my Muslim and Christian and Atheist friends get as excited about this celebration of good over evil as much as I do. 

Is it just Indians? No, the same list of friends includes some whose connection to India is purely and only (unashamedly) gastronomical--alloo gobhi and gulab jamun.

I tapped the Backspace button so many times wile trying to complete the sentence that I decided it was better to explore the questions arising within and share them with you rather than forcefully plant a word that may limit the horizons of Diwali's celebratory aura.  Does assigning a festival to a group of people makes it divisive? Is there any need any more to attach festivals to regions and religions to celebrations? 

I grew up in secular India. The sweetness of Eid mingled with the joys of Diwali and colours of Holi and langars of Guru Purabs and twinkling lights of Christmas like Van Gogh's brush strokes. Everything mixed together and remained distinct at the same time. The end result was always memorable. We celebrated all the festivals on the calendar -- some more fervently than others, but the collective canvas was always vibrant and life affirming.

The common denominators were sweets and new clothes and holidays. It didn't really matter whether Krishna was being born or Christ or if the Moon was a crescent in the sky or Full or New. We were celebrating. Those three words were enough to bring the neighbours into our homes, us into theirs, families to meet and school friends to pack left over feasts in dabbas to take to school the next day to swap, bargain over or share.

Those three words didn't need any qualifiers like which God or Goddess was being thought of that day. The names of the festivals were important only to the grandmothers and banner makers. 

The celebrations were communal. All of us in the mohalla (neighbourhood) participated without invitations or inhibitions.  There were no T.V. ads to drool or fight over. No celebratory guidelines were issued by governments. We simply turned up with dreams of new things, hungry tummies and lots of noisy energy. And that was that.

Diwali of Doon, when I was a little girl, looked nothing like the showy, noisy, decadent, ridden with consumerism commotion of a tamasha everyone is compelled to be a part of and yet complain afterwards these days. Festivals have become giant conglomerates of more vs more, shiny vs shinier, louder vs deafening. Many magazine articles tell you how to 'cope' with the stresses of celebrating a festival, a holiday and how to destress afterwards.

Aren't holidays and stress supposed to be antonyms?  I may go so far and call them oxymoronic. How can stress sit next to a holiday/a festival on the same line unless we are going about this business of  celebrating  the wrong way!

Friends and family have complained of over-doing the party scene in the past years. I am guilty of getting into such a tizzy about cleaning my entire house in a day that I had to resort to a Panadol just before doing the Diwali puja this year. Why do we create mountains to climb over in order to feel like we've done a good job of celebrating? I'd love to know your thoughts.

Apart from the day long cleaning circus I planted myself in, Diwali was different this year, like everything else. Covid made sure the ex-pat Indian population couldn't travel back home to celebrate and that worked out well for the art initiative I've been a part of for the past 2 years.

Let me explain. Two years ago, I visited a facility where cancer warriors undergoing treatment stay. The facility houses blue collar workers who come to Doha from all over the world to work. They come alone and either live with their sponsor's family as their maids or drivers or in community housing provided by their employees and sponsors. Qatar Cancer Charity provides them with treatment free of charge and makes arrangement for some of the more vulnerable patients to stay in this facility so that it's easier for them to manage.

In 2018, around Diwali, I visited the facility for the first time to give some money in the spirit of giving. There I met Gary, the manager in charge, who shared his vision of using posters or art pieces to make the rooms more warm and vibrant for the patients.

"How about if the patients make that art?" I volunteered.

Gary didn't look convinced but he agreed and let me come in the following Thursday to dabble in art with 24 patients in a large activity room.

What started off as a 'one off' session has grown and blossomed into an initiative that keeps me busy and fulfilled. Many dear friends have joined in to help and support. The magic of art and the human spirit have shown me a new way to celebrate. And in this kind of celebration, trust me, there is no stress. On the contrary, my weekly visits destress me.

So, this year, we made diyas with clay and decorated them with colours. They turned out to be the most beautiful diyas I have ever seen. If you don't believe me, ask anyone who's bought them. They'll tell you:)

So many homes and hearts rejoiced in India, Morocco, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Egypt this Diwali because kind souls bought diyas made in Doha by cancer warriors who fight not just the disease but the perpetual uncertainties limited finances bring.

This year, diyas made by Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims in a hospital far away from any of the countries the makers come from brought Diwali of forty years ago, from a gully in a mohalla in Dehradun to Doha and reminded me that it's the human spirit that wants to celebrate the miracle of life. Divisions of religion and countries blur into oblivion when the light of life shines. Life wants to live. There's no better place to witness this fact than in a place where disease stares at you with its painful and sometimes imminent stark reality. 

Life, every day and every minute of it, is a celebration of light. Why store it in a box of decorations to be stored away for  yet another year? 

Photo credit: Deepa

If I could capture the tears of joy, the smiles of satisfaction, the spring in steps, the blissful immersions in the making of art and the energy that fills the room (which looks like an art gallery now) and share it with you, I would. You wouldn't have to go spend a penny to 'celebrate' anything ever again. That's how intoxicating this joy is.

Brother David Steindl Rast in one of his YouTube videos talks about the difference between a journey and a pilgrimage.

"In a journey, you reach a goal, that is the essence of the journey." He states and carries on, "In a pilgrimage, every step is the goal: now, now, now. The essence of a pilgrimage is love because in love, with every step, you reach the goal." 

If celebrations became pilgrimages, not journeys, we'd stop exhausting ourselves to reach those goals. Instead, we'd be in blissful joy every step of the way. Don't you think?

For some of us, making diyas this year was a pilgrimage of sorts. Diwali became a pilgrimage in times of Covid.

You can watch the video here:

I'll leave you with a prayer. 

May we make pilgrimages out of our journeys every day and may all the celebrations light up the light that's inside of us. It needs no flame, no oxygen, no expenses at all. Just a smile. And even though smiles may be covered with masks (as they should these days), our eyes will convey our heart's songs to the ones near and far.

Happy Diwali my lovely ones.

Warmly and in gratitude for your presence on this page today,

photo credit: Deepa

Friday 30 October 2020

Good news comes in twos

Dear Friends and Readers,

I hope you've been well and healthy. 

The year 2020 seems to have played a trick on us. Every time I write a blog post, it feels like I'm near April somewhere. How could I be looking at the beginning of November already? I'm not complaining. As a matter of fact, I'm here to share two tasty pieces of treat i.e. good news with you. But before I do, a little preamble to how the news came about.

As you may recall, this year's A to Z Blogging Challenge took me down memory lane where I met my grandparents: Beji and Papaji. Some of the posts I wrote introduced you to them and their love of land and food and their devotion to us, their grandchildren. I chose to call myself a princess in one post and Artemis in another. What they call pride/hubris in the real world is known as imagination in the land of stories, right? Those posts were received with so much love and appreciation that when a call for stories for an anthology of feel good stories rang out in these parts, I rewrote a post into a short story and sent it.

Guess what? It got picked! And the book was launched on the 28th of October 2020! Miracles do happen. I'm sharing all the links. I'm not getting paid or anything but half the money raised from the sale of the book will be used to support an animal charity called 'Prani, The Pet Sanctuary' in Bangalore. I think it's a win win. My dream of seeing my work in print is helping to support a charity. What more could I ask for? I'm happy:) 

You can read 'Kingdom of Kitchen' and 27 other stories in the collection.

Presenting: Tea With a Drop of Honey by the Hive

Please leave helpful reviews if you can.

Covidkaal (the Covid Times) brought out another passion of mine to the fore. It happened by chance. And once again, it's thanks to the A to Z Challenge of 2020 where I met a kind soul and my namesake, Arti of my space who introduced me to online open mic sessions. One thing led to another and I found myself reading out my stories on zoom calls and Insta live sessions in June and July. By the time August rolled in, I had even started 'performing' poetry! It felt like I was back in school, on stage, debating and reciting. The thrills and chills felt exactly like they'd done more than 3 decades ago.

Then, last week, someone I'd met online on one such session asked me to send him some of my work and informed me that he hosts Mirchi Scribbled, a poetry/spoken word/storytelling platform affiliated to a well known radio channel in India called Radio Mirchi. He liked the pieces I'd sent him.

Artemis was back -- she even did a little victory dance to celebrate:)

When a piece was picked and okayed, I took it with me on my morning walks, sat with it under our neem tree and let the words that were written on a laptop screen become one with me.

Then last Friday, the husband and I teamed up to shoot a video of my poetry recital. I wore a grey Coimbatore cotton saree with a gorgeous black and mustard border, my favourite Kali locket, a pair of jhumkas and a big red bindi. I was ready.

We should be done in an hour, tops. I figured. We'll eat lunch after.

Two and a half hours of forgetting a line, knocking the phone off its stand, forgetting to push the record button, loo breaks, umpteen emptying of full glasses of water in single gulps followed by more loo breaks later, we agreed to stop and send the best recording we'd managed thus far. Lunch couldn't wait any longer.

Thanks to Parth Vasani of Mirchi Scribbled who did a stellar editing job, our amateur attempts at recording look pretty neat.

Presenting, my debut performance:
So, that's all folks.

I know Covid Times have been tough but all this sequestering has been like a hatching for me. I'm the egg that's had enough time and warmth over the last six months to crack open tiny parts of my creative spirit from the safety of my nest and peek out a little.

Wishing you a wonderful Halloween if you celebrate and a magical weekend if you don't.

It's a very special full moon tonight. Do go out (if it's possible and if the skies are clear) and let the Moon bathe you in her moonlight.

I owe all the above to the world of blogging and to the A to Z Challenge this year. And to you my dear friends and readers.

Thank you.

Love and prayers,


Saturday 29 August 2020

Dubrovnik: A bird's-eye view

Dear Readers,

I hope you're all well and healthy.

Re-sharing an old post today.

A friend shared some photos of her trip to Croatia recently on her Instagram account. Her clicks put me in mind of the time we'd marvelled at Croatia's cerulean skies in 2017.

Here it is then--an old post with travel pictures.

The poetry in the end that I wrote three years ago put a smile on my face today:) It seems like the 2017 me knew I'd need to read these words today. This is time travel in a blogger's world. I sat down  with an agenda for the day: a tad worrisome: mired in a to-do list of sorts; but after reading the post, all I can do is smile. The birds in the garden who have been singing all morning are sounding clear and chirpy now. The fog has lifted. 

Wishing you all a sparkling day wherever you are.

Much love

Arti xx
My morning routine has adapted itself to the hot summer of Doha and the holy month of Ramadan. I don't have to drop my son off to school first thing in the morning, so I find myself in my garden at six: watering, pruning and clicking pictures (when I remember to bring the phone with me). By nine am, the mercury is shooting to reach above 44 degrees, so I cherish this short window of time in the morning when the grass feels cool.

Gardening duties over, I make  my way back to the kitchen. En route, I pinch a few tulsi leaves to boil with fennel seeds and grated ginger to prepare my chai. The husband is packed off with his sandwiches and the son is yet to wake up. I am left with the gift of twenty minutes--too short to sit and mediate or practise yoga or run a wash cycle, but long enough to meet my feathered friends. I cradle my garam, garam chai in my hands and go back out to sit under the fragrant blooms of frangipani and the shade of the mulberry leaves to have tea with the birds.

A mishmash of house sparrows, Spanish sparrows, mynahs, doves and even the odd bulbul play their orchestra of notes while hopping from a branch here, to a leaf there, then to the moist ground to pick juicy breakfast. I've often thought of buying some seeds, but the birds seem content with berries and worms. Sipping tea, while squatting on the grass, trying to be invisible so that I can be part of their world for just under twenty minutes or so is the most special part of my day.

The birds gather here everyday like it's the first day. Their songs herald every day with the same magic, no matter the news, the changing temperature or the moon cycles. I sit and look at them and sometimes my heart flies around with them--free and fabulous.

It's been over a month since I've  blogged. I've been busy doing nothing--yes, that's the best kind of busy. Cleaning, cooking, reading, yoga and walks in Aspire Park have kept me occupied. I've been in a questioning mood (more about it in a later post--maybe:)

Today, after a long while, I feel like I'd like to write and share again. Birds sing, hoot, squawk and squeak.  They hop, skitter, skip and then fly off. I sit and watch and wonder what they make of what they see. So intent are they on their business of being, that they don't seem to have the need to question anything. No purpose needed other than the joy of living. Oh! how blessed are these feathered friends who have no mind to calm, no hearts to open, no chakras to align, no breath to focus on--they know how to be.

Bird's-eye view -- a term used for when you look at something from above--physically removed, detached, like an observer. Maybe that's the secret of the birds' lightness--they observe from a distance, they don't mire themselves in situations and reactions. Maybe one doesn't have to fly to detach, maybe one can sit and close ones eyes and let go. Maybe. Let's see. It's early days, but the journey to be has begun. 
April, this year, saw us exploring Croatia and one of my favourite walks was: walking the walls of Dubrovnik. I urge you to do it if you're able to. The views were stunning, of course, but the peace and quiet up here (at least when we were there) takes you back in time and space. You can be a bird, an ancient warrior fending your kingdom, a princess or a washerwoman waiting for her lover, or a mother carrying a camera:) Up here, your imagination and your eyes will keep you occupied for hours 

All these photos were taken from top of the walls that surround the Old City. 
Dubrovnik: A bird's-eye view

One never knows when ones seams  may come undone;)

And here's a view that's been painted by many artists:
Back down in the old city, who should I see? 
A bunch of birds--colourful, but not free.
Summer heat and political news makes me want to read poems like this one by Emily Dickinson:
Photo courtesy: Google Images.

This is my hope for you dear readers, and in this hope lies a prayer that I send out for me.
Have you noticed how the words our hearts seek
 are the ones our fingers type so our eyes may peek?

I wish you a summer such as this.

May you smell the flowers 
and always caress the grass

May books be read under trees 
laden with summer fruit or leaves fluttering in balmy breeze

May much-too-juicy mangoes quench your thirst for childhoods gone
and may those fleshy cherries make you cherish the lands to which you now belong

May lemonade infused with mint and thyme
fill you up with still and sparkling bubbles of tender travelled time

May jamuns and black berries colour you in their darkness so deep
that you may frolic in merry mischief of those once-upon-a-time afternoons 
when you hoodwinked sleep

May cold and creamy kulfi held with both hands on sticks
melt more rapidly than your greedy, clumsy licks.

May white kurtas and cream dupattas bear stains plenty
of tumbles and first kisses when lovers had wished for public parks to be empty

May ice-cream carts ring in all your summers from before
through gates and gullies and welcoming open doors
of orange bars and shared bites
and bursting into neighbours' houses to claim reclaimed kites

May you sing with birds and fly with them too
May you remember to wear sunscreen, shades, hat 
and let not your smile go askew

But, whenever you step out
May you be you this summer
May you always be you

May you always be you: 
the sum total of memories, dreams and dew
Enjoying every now and then --
your own personal bird's-eye view


Thursday 20 August 2020

Rejection: does it make you or break you?

Have you ever felt the insides of your gut churn so violently that you are sure the intestinal walls have convoluted into a vortex—a sinking, gutted, dark vortex that will only stop once it has buried you deep in the Earth’s core?

Saturday, 16th August 2020
It started last night.

24 hours later, and the whirlpool inside me rages and whirls and tornadoes round and round.

I want it to stop.

But then my heart which has been beating faster than it has ever beaten--even faster than that time my lips had touched his for the first time!

Okay, that happened a long time ago, but still--the dhak, dhak, dhak of my heartbeat drumming against my ear drums had erupted with the ferociousness of first love--after we’d kissed, however, the heart had found its usual rhythm again.

But this time it hasn’t stopped its somersaults since Friday night.

What’s happening to me?

All I did was: sent my story for a story-telling competition; got picked for a regional round; learnt my story by heart and performed it in front of a panel--zooming into my own eyes on my laptop screen. The little camera light on top kept blinking throughout -- reminding me that I was being watched and judged.

Now, I’m waiting for the results---anxiously, neurotically, obsessively. Not at all like my calm, cool as a cucumber veneer that the world sees. Not at all.

Inside, I'm this mixer-grinder: crushing hot, red chillies on and on; the sharp blades slicing through my invisible expectations: will I? won't I?

Outside, I am visiting a friend who’s had a knee surgery recently: even cracking a naughty joke to cheer him up.

Every opportunity I get, I check my Instagram feed--on the sly--hiding my newly developed obsession from my own judging eyes.

I search for the organiser's insta--refresh their page. No news.

Stop it Arti! I admonish myself. Show yourself the face you show the world--be the badass bindaas optimist you’ve always claimed to be.

Why? What’s the matter? It's not so easy when it hits home, is it? Why is this bothering me so much? I ask my sanity.

Is it the long, long lockdown? Has it turned me into a self-obsessed, inward looking narcissist? 

No matter how soundly my own logic supports common sense, my ears refuse to listen. I can’t help it.

Night falls. No results.

“It’s a tough call”, a WhatsApp message on the participants' group chat says. "You were all so good!" it says.

It doesn’t make a jot of a difference to my pummelling gut.

Others on the group are pouring their hearts out; making connections, sharing stories they wrote.

I’m feeling quietly confident about my story--despite the drumming in my ears--so, I play the mother (a role I love to play) and send out some congratulatory direct messages. It calms me down.

Secretly, I’m very, very hopeful about my own chances. Those fairy lights I so artistically put in my rattan pot should’ve done the trick. They did say make the background interesting.

My story spoke about how my life had unravelled when I was 19. A mother’s suicide, a father’s betrayal and step-motherly treatment were the plot points of my story.

I’ve only recently reconciled with my father. What if he objects to my story when I make it to the finals? Will we become estranged again? I weave webs of future possibilities entangled with past injustices.

Night falls. We’re told the results will be announced the next morning. I put my phone in the other room to help break this silly new habit of checking it every half an hour.

Sunday, 17th August 2020
It's 2:30 am. I can sense my phone is missing me. I get up and bring it back to my bedside table.
I toss and turn and try to get some sleep. I drift off for a bit.

I'm up before sunrise.

My gut is a pit--it’s churning.

My heart is a mess--it’s burning.

My mail inbox blinks with the address line. It’s from them. I open it.

The first line reads:‘Hope you’re well.’

The bile rises like Doha temperature in summer.

My saliva tastes like sour grapes.

My ricocheting heart frees itself from my rib cage and slides down the chair’s legs-- the chair I'm sitting on. It feels like fresh cement drying, heavily.

I wish I was Hailey of Modern Families who would say: "Don’t keep me in suspense! Tell me! Did I make it?" whenever one of her family read the first line of her college application reply: “We regret to inform you….”

Every molecule and every fibre of my being was expecting to read : "Congratulations!" not “Hope you’re well.” 

How can I be well after reading this??

Pray, do tell.

I type out: “Congratulations--All the best.” on the WhatsApp group chat.

One or two winners respond with: "We are all winners."

I smirk. Only a winner would write that.

More ‘congratulations’ float in--mostly typed out in pain (I think) by others like me whose stories and performances didn’t cut the mustard in the regional rounds.

A fog of self-doubt is threatening to settle around. I get up and fix myself a super strong cup of coffee--even through the fog I remember to add coconut oil--skin to fog mein bhi dihktee hai na—dhyaan to rakhna padega.

But instead of dissipating the fog, the coffee acts like an electric charge. Now all of me is reverberating like a phone on silent mode: buzzing aimlessly in all directions.

Yoga. I think. 

Yes, a good stretch and a few deep breaths will shake me out of this 'self-imposed-pity-party-monologue'.

I share the rejection with Giselle, my yoga teacher.

She smiles and I feel her love.

I’m in locust pose when my phone starts buzzing--silently. My bag dances on the floor. My phone never rings during yoga class.

I check. It’s Vidya. I’ll call her back, I think and resume the locust.

“I thought they were calling to say they’ve made a mistake.” Giselle whispers.

“You and I belong to the same galaxy--forever the optimists.” I tell her while transitioning from locust to downward dog.

“Why not?” She says.

I nod looking at my navel.

A head stand should help me change my perspective.

At least you made it to the regional round. 1500 applications. Imagine! How wonderful!

Dhadaaam! My pesky perspective is lying sprawled out on the mat with me.

“What happened Arti?” Giselle sounds worried.

I have never fallen off like that.

It's a Sunday of firsts, I amuse myself with that thought and reply,“I lost my focus.”  

“Get a hold of yourself woman--what’s gotten into you?” I tell myself cocooned in child pose.

Yoga is over. 

I start my car and drive off. I reach the barrier too soon. It refuses to lift. The security guard looks at me. He’s miffed. My usual over exaggerated waving hand to say bye is missing today. He signals me to reverse, a little more, a little more…enough distance later, the barrier relents and lifts to let me go.



The light bulb comes on. 

Distance, woman--take a few steps back, back off a bit. Then try again.

The fog flops over and starts to settle down around the accelerator pedal of my car. A cautious driver, usually, I can’t wait to get home to face my rejection head on.

Park car. Lock car. Turn keys. Mask off. Sing Mahamrityunjaya mantra to ensure the hand-washing is taking its stipulated time. Dry hands. Run to the laptop. Start typing.
I can and I will.

Rejection may be plucking my heart strings and serenading songs of mein bechaaree –a duet with my bruised ego, but my spirit--the one that shines through me and blasts out to the world that it’s not over till the fat lady sings is making sure I write this story out--my story  out and send it as a wild card entry.

Perhaps rejection was the spice that was missing from my first entry.

Perhaps it’s time to pickle that rejection and turn it into a projection.

Feminism ka sirf gaana nahin gaana hai. Feminist ban kar dikhana hai.

Shakti and Kali didn’t sit and cry when things didn’t go their way. They picked a different weapon and carried on.

Agar dil tootega nahin to shaayree kaise niklegee? 

What better instrument to write with than a broken heart?

I write. I record. I send my wild card entry at literally the last minute.

Wednesday,19th August 2020
Another "Hope you're well." mail greeted me today.

But, this time it didn't sting as much.


I've come to the conclusion that experiences such as the one I went through this past week are my 'quality checks' sent to me by the universe. Just when I was lulling myself into believing that I'm so cool about working for the joy of it, not needing any pats on backs, doing it all in Krishna's name, for it is the Spirit that guides me and She who does it all and I just get the credit. Why! I had been reading and understanding the Gita all through the lockdown. OMG! I am so sorted now. 

Dhadaam---just when that egoistic self-congratulatory voice makes a hammock out of you and swings on you--plays you like a spinning top--such occurrences blow in like  tornadoes. tip you out of that comfy hammock and say: 

the work is never done--keep going--keep going--keep going.

What are your thoughts about rejection? Is work enough? Or is acceptance part of the game?
Are we more in need of acceptance of others when we are insecure?
Or is it the essence of art?
jungle mein mor naachaa kisne dekha?

Does rejection rock the boat
or does it keep one afloat?

Does a story need a reader/listener to be called a story?
Or can it survive in isolation?
I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Rumi, adrak wali chai and stunning sunsets work in tandem to nudge me closer to my equilibrium. 
I can't thank them enough:)

Stay safe and well dear ones.
I'm so grateful that you take the time to read these posts.
Much love.

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Beirut is where Michele (pronounced mi-SHEL) lives.

Dear Readers,

I'm sharing a post I wrote about Beirut more than two years ago when I visited this historical city with my friend, Angela.

The people we met were warm and welcoming. Beirut charmed us with its history and its vibrant energy. Bullet holes and stunning murals jostled to show off the walls of a city that Faiz Ahmed Faiz referred to as  "Beirut: the ornament of our world" in his Beirut poem.

Angela and I exchanged messages yesterday to express our sadness at the turn of events. 

I offer this post as a tribute to this jewel of Lebanon which shattered my perceptions and unarmed me of some of my preconceived notions.

Stay safe and well.

Much Love



Street Art in Gemmayzeh
"What's he doing?"


"They look like spikes."

Angela and I are in Beirut. It's our first time in the city. 

We wanted to see each other. The current blockade makes it extremely difficult to visit each other as she lives in Dubai and I reside in Doha. We were looking for nearby destinations. The flights to Beirut looked good to travel on staff rebate. 

So here we are, a day after Valentine's, exploring a city both of us have read about in books and in recent news.  

We see an old man hunched over a low work bench. He's sitting in a deep chair with armrests with his back to the street, his hands are busy polishing what look like brass spikes.

We carry on walking.

"What do you think he's making?" asks Angela.

"No idea." I confess. "Perhaps he's cleaning them."

Our thoughts linger on the hunched over old man in his grayish bluish coat, peering through his glasses, steadily polishing golden rods (about 6-8 inches long) without looking up, for a few minutes before our eyes spot something interesting-- an achingly old building with a fading facade that hides tales of eras past. 

A few hours later, tired but excited about being in Beirut, we decide to head back. Without intention or design, we find ourselves on the same road, in Gemmayzeh. The old man's hands are still busy. This time I spot a table laden with jewellery pieces. I am almost tempted. It's getting late and there's always tomorrow. We hail a taxi and leave.
Next morning, we decide to start our exploration from the other end of Beirut (Hamra). The map, which till yesterday had looked like a puzzle, behaves like a friendly guide.  A longish coffee stop and lots of walking later, we find ourselves looking at the old man's table full of  jewellery in Gemmayzeh. It's late afternoon and lunch is on our minds.

"These look good." I declare.

In the freshness of a new day and the familiarity of day two in a new city, the area around the table covered in red cloth reveals more of itself. The table is set out on the front pavement of an old Antique Shop. There is a bright light trying to peep through the cloudy glass of the half open doors. The old man is wearing a brassy ring on his left thumb and using a tool with his right when he looks up and smiles.

"Do you make these?" I ask.

"Yes." His voice is clear and warm, like a glass of fresh milk: soothing and full of life. "I make these."

He walks the short distance from the far corner where his low work bench sits, laden with tools and a twisted brassy sheet, over to us and slides the ring off his thumb.

"It says 'my light' (or did he say 'my love'--I'm not 100 % sure) in Arabic." He says in perfect English and holds the ring up so we can see the light enter the calligraphic carvings on the ring.

"You did this?" Angela and I ask him in unison.

"Yes. You can come and make with me if you want." he offers.

I'm not sure I've heard him correctly. Maybe he doesn't mean that. Maybe he wants to say he'll make one for us just like this one.

I'm doubtful. Surely, he's not going to spend his time teaching us! Surely, he's expecting us to buy something. Odd, how easily cynicism overtakes trust. Why are we programmed to veer towards mistrust as our first instinct?  Is it evolution (survival of the fittest) or just the way the world has come to be?

"What's your name?" we ask.

"Michele." He smiles and disarms my canons of cynicism with his grin.  "And I'm ninety years old." He beams. 

"No!" we almost shriek like teenagers. "Ninety?"

His eyes twinkle a little more brightly. I ask if I can click his picture. Michele obliges like a true gentleman and even poses.
"What's yours?"


"Like the angel." He says and takes Angela's hand while I continue to take  pictures. Angela melts in front of me.
Michele looks up and I give him my name.

He squints quizzically at me.

"Like Art with an I...Arti." I offer an explanation.

He nods and smiles and when he finds out that Angela is from England, he mentions Teresa May.

"This world needs more women really. Women are smart."

Who would've thought we'd run into a ninety year old male feminist on the streets of Beirut!

"I was watching a programme on TV about ancient Indian architecture recently, it's so good." adds Michele exuberantly when I mention to him that I'm of Indian stock.

"Yes, India is full of amazing art and architecture." I add and nod. 

It feels part surreal and  part normal to bump into Michele. Human connections such as these is the reason why I love travelling. No monument or museum can live up to simply connecting with another soul. Unless, of course, I'm walking alone in the hills, then I'm happy to be all by myself.

My conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, is that Michele is the most interesting man I've met on my travels in a while. We could've talked the afternoon away, if we wanted to. 

"What were you making yesterday?" Asks Angela. "those spike like things..."

"Come inside the shop, I'll show you..." says Michele and wanders towards the glass door. 

Loud music is blasting  from a corner of the shop. There is stuff everywhere. 

"I haven't had the time to clear up..." he offers an apology and sounds like I do when friends drop in and my house hasn't been dusted! "This is what I made with the spikes..." he points to the light and stands next to it with such a big grin that he looks like a six year old who's just got a 10/10 in his math quiz--absolutely delighted with his work.
"You made this?" We sound like we don't really believe him.

"Yes, and I'm making these to send to my son in Canada. He will use them to make another light like this one." Michele points out the spikes we'd seen him with the previous evening.
If I ever reach ninety, please God, let me be like Michele--working with my hands, open to strangers, warm and kind and curious like a two year old.

I spot a pair of swirly earrings on the table when we step out of his shop. I consider getting them for a friend but decide to wait till I explore a bit more and perhaps come back the next day.

"We should buy a cake for him and go see him again." suggests Angela as we polish off our vegan lunch at the Sursock museum cafe a couple of hours later. 

We couldn't stop talking about Michele after we bid him goodbye: while eating lunch we wondered about him, throughout that evening we discussed his kind eyes and warm smile and even later that night we pondered aloud to each other:

Imagine the stories he'd have to tell. 

What all must he have seen in his life.

He must've put the music that loud so he could hear it outside.

How amazing for us to come across someone like him...

 and on and on.

The one regret I have is that we decided to postpone our cake with Michele idea to the next day. 

Rain and wind and grey skies welcomed us the next morning. We went to the shop. It was shut. It was our last day in Beirut. Our flights were scheduled to take off that evening.

Sometimes, cakes should be bought and shared as soon as the idea enters our hearts--for one never knows if there will be another tomorrow.

I don't have Michele's number or address. But if anyone in Beirut is reading this and knows him, please give him our love and heartfelt thanks for infusing our weekend trip with his generous smile.

Facades cover buildings, like faces cover souls--what is that old saying again? Never judge a book by its cover.

Better still, never judge.

There were many such kind and helpful humans in Beirut who we encountered in restaurants, shops and even at the farmers market selling their delicious vegan wares. If you're thinking of going to Beirut, I'd say, if you can, then just go. 

Leaving you with a few eclectic shots of facades that caught my eye on the day after Valentine's in the city of Beirut.

 This reminder of 'James and the Giant Peach' (as Angela pointed out) is an old movie theater.

The oft-photographed colourful steps on Armenia Street of Beirut
May this beautiful city and its people find the strength to deal with their losses. 
May their hearts heal and may their smiles return soon.