1 Comment

Everyday Empathy


I can recall vividly the day I first read those words. The writer was Harper Lee and the book was ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I was lying on my sofa at home reading a book that I would not fully understand till I had read it over, years later. But even through my fogginess, one sentence stood out for me.

“You never really understand another person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Fact: Empathy is integral to our lives. And yet, if we’re honest, I think we’re living in a world that makes it so easy to lose sight of another person’s pain. The truth is that people haven’t lost the ability to empathize, but they may have lost sight of the fact that tapping into our emotional core needs to be an everyday occurrence and not something we do selectively.

What does this deficiency do to a person? What has changed in our empathetic wiring? Have we become so distracted that our unseeing eyes aren’t able to really connect with another person?

It dismays me somewhat to see that people’s collective stirrings has the power to move masses on social media resulting in phenomenal movements that can bring about revolutionary change. And yet those very same people can remain aloof and emotionally unavailable in their own human relationships. Such a paradox!

As my fingers circle the rim of my coffee cup this evening I am more convinced that one of the reasons people struggle with empathy is not just because we don’t understand others. I think a huge issue in our present world is that many people still don’t understand themselves. How can one who is unbalanced or conflicted ever be able to really empathize or understand another? How can you love your neighbor if you don’t know how to love yourself?

I wonder. Can empathy be taught? Can empathy be developed?

Compassion is a cornerstone of our emotional quotient, a vital first step towards Empathy. As a teacher I am conscious of my own role in role-modeling empathy and while I am aware that having empathic parents and teachers does not guarantee that children will become empathic, it is certainly an important factor.

I’ve been sitting here marinating in my thoughts. Perhaps unnecessarily. Perhaps not. I am not saying that I believe that people are lacking in empathy today as opposed to in the past. That premise would be wrong. True, people are the same as they ever were but what has changed drastically I believe is our ability to connect and gain deep insight into what other people think, feel and do and therein lies the problem.

In a world that spends billions on professional therapy, I think what we are most in need of is deep introspection. While it is surely not possible to feel connected to 7 billion strangers our only hope for the future is if we can at least exist organically and really feel instinctively for the ones we know and love.  Everyday empathy, that’s what we need. After all – Ubuntu, it is our humanness that connects us all.

Leave a comment

Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence

I’ve only managed to read a measly eight books this year. Just eight. That’s three less than the 11 books I read in 2014. One of the reasons for the slump in my reading statistics is the time I devoted to each of these books. Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’ has taken me the longest – a little over seven weeks to get through 728 pages. The large capital letters of his name have been by my bedside as a constant reminder that I have long neglected the bourgeoisie memoir.

The truth is; the novel didn’t suck me in the way I thought it would. The maestro’s 700 page story of a man’s obsessive love for a younger woman wasn’t exactly riveting. The first half of the story is a classic tale of reckless passion colliding with bourgeois standards. The latter is far more interesting and as the political upheaval begins to rock Istanbul, the book and the protagonist both undergo radicalization and change, as the neurotic kleptomaniac makes his way through the stations of his doomed love affair.

PAMThe love saga of Kemal and Fusan gradually becomes grandiose and unrealistic and makes the narrative a slightly difficult read. I literally forced myself to finish the book but only because I was reading Pamuk and I refused to give up on him.

For me the hero of the book is not the compulsive lover caught between his fiancé and his mistress. The true star of the book is Istanbul and Pamuk masterfully captures the essence and intricacies of the beautiful city as he chronicles the oddly timed love-affair. The novel masterfully captures a panoramic view of life in Istanbul and the identity crisis experienced by its upper classes who find themselves caught between all things traditionally Turkish and on the other hand the westernized way of life they were just getting used to. Istanbul is almost like a character in itself – it mirrors the characters’ own conflict as a city torn and ravaged by political upheaval. The vistas Pamuk paints are like monochrome reminders of conflicted people in complicated situations.

Reading the lavish descritpions of the city, I found myself closing my eyes to re- imagine the biting cold of January 2011 as I stepped out of the Atatürk Airport into the chilled winter air. Minutes later my minivan speeding through the serpentine roads and finally onto the magnificent Bosphorus bridge as the bejeweled skyline came into view alongside. Pamuk’s descriptions of the romantic city are exquisite and a delightful sensory journey not to be read but rather – experienced. I hope to go back to Istanbul some day and I’ve promised myself to read his novel with the same title when I’m there.

Coming back to the novel, it can be read and interpreted in multiple ways. It’s a love story, a political chronicle and a social commentary all rolled into one. At the end of it all, though Kemal does somewhat resemble the emotionally fraught Miss Havisham s the objects Kemal collects and adds to his ‘museum’ seem to pile up in his attempt to compulsively ‘freeze time’ – something that is not all that strange for the average person. There is something to be said for memorabilia, we value little things because they represent a connection with something important in our past. Many of us keep all kinds of memorabilia around and while I don’t believe those things intrinsically represent a threat to your present, they are part and parcel of who you are and what you have experienced.

A few months ago I blogged about my own ‘Cardboard box’ full of keepsakes and mementos that are vital scraps of my life. So much of who I am and what made me this way is confined therein. Kemal found love a little too late – he was an ordinary man placed in some extraordinary circumstances and his museum became his sanctuary. You and I may not obsess over memorabilia the way Kemal does in the novel but we sure do know what it represents and how much we value those memories when the real thing is long gone. Perhaps a book about objects of desire, so to speak, will make more sense to a reader who has had the pleasure (or displeasure) of being in love. Read it, you’ll understand why.

In conclusion, Pamuk’s novel is (if nothing else) a saga to the value of our memories and the place they hold in our lives. Having said that, there is one last thought I cannot shake  – the funny thing about memories is that they only last as long as you remember them, don’t you think?


Leave a comment

Terse Verse #Micropoetry in 140 Characters or Less

This summer I have been trying my hand at mastering the new-age art of micro-poetry. Micro-poetry is not new per-se, since Japanese Haiku and other such have existed since the 17th century or further back with the masters like Basho and Isaa juxtaposing the mundane and the deep in terse verse.  However, what I am referring to is the new genre of creativity called micropoetry or tweet-sized poetry in 140 characters or less that has taken @twitter by storm.

If micropoetry (like the Haiku) is about saying something with little worry about form and structure, isn’t Twitter an ideal medium? The 140 character limit forces us to synthesize our thoughts and experiences into coherent phrases, and that is one of the main reasons the platform has become so important in a time in which we digest our information in little bite sizes trough social media and other online platforms. The limitation does make us think more concisely and sometimes more creatively. So it makes sense that wanabe writers, poets and wordsmiths would embrace it, precisely because of the character limit.

While it can be quite challenging to convey an emotion, or an experience through pithy verse, what I love most about the form is that it is similar to a photograph or snapshot of a moment in time, that can be captured beautifully, with just words. With poetry filling our @twitter feeds every time you refresh your page, logophiles are continually exposed to the power of words, their nuances, quirks, and their ability to create images and feelings which can only deepen our respect for the art form, as words simple and powerful, give us a creative escape during the average day.

You can check out some of the good work out there by using #micropoetry #soulwords and #madverse or follow me @sydneydxb for some of my attempts. More than anything, I wish you would give it a try and let good poetry give you the kind of creative release that only words beautifully strung together, can give.


I write.

The swoosh of pen on paper

or fingers tapping on a keyboard,

fork-lifting the words out of my chest.


If you try,

you can hear more In the gaps of conversations,

In the silence between words,

than in the cacophony of everyday sounds.


Summer afternoon

drifting daydreams

caught in tangled branches


Early morning,

liquid ochre poured into my chipped cup

as the scent of tea estates

fills the dining room.

1 Comment


I have just returned from another trip to England and like I always do when I travel anywhere, I did my fair bit of wandering and exploring whenever the opportunity arose. I’m reminded of an incident from when I first travelled to England many, many years ago. Late one evening, a friend and I decided to do a little bit of sightseeing. By the time we were done and ready to head home it was dark, and after we had walked a couple of blocks we realized we had absolutely no clue where we were. We were very lost. Suddenly the formerly quaint town we were in, with its cobbled pathways and Victorian architecture became a menacing labyrinth of narrow alleys, lanes and by-lanes we had to carefully maneuver. It really could not have been later than 10:30 or 11:00 pm but we might as well have been roaming in Terabithia because neither of us had any clue about where we were.

Finally, after a bit of panic and what do we do now’s, common sense set in. we picked a well-lit direction and walked confidently into the light, as each tried to assure the other with some cautious-optimism. Finally we began to see landmarks we recognized and we were able to guess our way home.

I’ve been lost in other cities since then, but I distinctly recall the pangs of fear and trepidation of being lost for the first time, without ID, money or anybody to call for help. Nowadays, I know better than to panic. Walk on till you find your way out. In all the countries I’ve visited since, I always find an opportunity to get lost.

There’s something so liberating about discovering new routes or an old wooden bridge when you least expect to. Turn a corner and there’s a new jewel to be found – a stately sculpture, a street-performer, a farmers market or even the beauty of a quaint home-styled café that welcomes you as you rest and take in your experience. These experiences bring a kind of soul-satisfying joy (if you have a bit of wanderlust) that a map or brochure simply cannot bring. On my travels, I’ve often found that the best way to discover a place is to wonder aimlessly and see what eventually comes your way.

People have different ideas of what constitutes fun on a vacation, I get that. But there are some things a guided tour doesn’t show you and certain joys a website cannot express. While in the Farncombe county of Surrey earlier last month a taxi driver mistakenly took me down a wrong stretch of road. And while there was a brief moment of worry, I soon had this panoramic view of the hills, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that wrong turn.


Maps, plans, itineraries are about knowing for sure, about owning your path, about control. That’s a good thing, or else you could end up in a bit of a mess in a strange place. Direction is important but what’s equally important is throwing away that schedule and allowing yourself the freedom once in a while to not know where your next wow moment is coming from.

Life is like that too, sometimes not planning things still lead you to exactly where you’re supposed to be. NO?

Leave a comment

Rain Dance

Reblogging an old post ‘Rain Dance’

Frankly Speaking - Sydney Atkins

The following short story was my entry to the Monsoon Romance Prose Contest conducted by http://www.sulekha.com. The story now features on the Sulekha site and is awaiting moderation.

The first drops of rain that Friday morning sent people scurrying along the bustling boulevard. Office-goers darted to nearby tea stalls and department stores to keep their freshly ironed clothes from getting wet. Hawkers whizzed by each other to cover their wares with tarpaulin, their swift movements like a frenzied ballet that had been mastered over the years. Mothers held their little children tight to their sides, screaming curses at the taxis that whizzed past them, splashing puddle water on their crisp cotton sarees. Everyone was possessed with a sense of urgency to evade the cold deluge that had begun to bathe the city after weeks of stifling humidity; everyone except little Piu.

Across the street a tiny figure had emerged…

View original post 650 more words


Tikkun Olam

What a wonderful feeling it is when your passion and your work come together. Lately, I have been becoming more and more aware of a feeling of deep fulfillment that seems to cloak me when I spend a few minutes each evening, just playing the day back in my mind. The mute rewind makes me sigh and smile and wonder. So much can happen in just 12 – 14 hours! Each day I wake up and do what I love and this sense of fulfilment pervades every day. Every single day.

The thing I love most is the fact that I get to be part of people’s lives, part of their joys and triumphs, partners in their sorrows and despair. Maybe I’m a tad too sensitive. I think I was absent the day they taught how to do that whole “close your heart off” thing because I don’t seem to be able to do it.

As a child, I hated being in crowded places; being near so many people dealing with difficult emotions overwhelmed me. I was much happier curled up with a book or at home alone. As I got older, I found ways to deal with other’s complicated experiences, to deal with all of the emotions bouncing around from people, to deal with anger, sadness, joy and pain in the world around me.  The drive to fix things or  help people stayed with me like the scent from wet earth that you can’t shake off in a hurry. I traveled across India working with my youth group. Volunteering in old age homes, clinics, aids camps, jails, NGO’s and orphanages.

Strange how fleeting our time on earth is, each of us here for the other. To fulfil a cosmic purpose; a divine plan that connects us all. Tikkun olam. However, it look me a long time and several late night conversations with friends to realize this one true thing:

We are not here to fix each other. There is no magical Utopia where you can intervene and then like magic, everyone is happy and whole again. Life is just not like that. But that isn’t the end of the story and while this is the place where some people throw in the towel and decide that all is futile, it is where I come into my own. I believe I am wired and fashioned to be there for others. THIS is my calling and is probably why dealing in lives each day gives me such a deep sense of fulfillment.

People aren’t problems that need solving. Life happens to us all and sometimes, there’s beauty to be found in its struggles. What matters is who you have with you on that journey. Sadly the lives we invest in so heavily are sometimes just foreigners passing through.

Very often I am reminded of how much my outer and inner life is shaped by the labors of people who have been my helpers, my co-pilgrims, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. My journey is about living purposefully. Being to others the kind of co-travelers I was fortunate to have had and to leave people a little richer than before our paths crossed.

I work so I can live (in every sense of the term) and I love that each day my work improves my life.

Leave a comment

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Just as the rays of the sun were breaking through the early morning sky, three little pairs of feet touched down on the well-used wooden floors of the village homestay.

bwNestled among the leafy foliage of the surrounding hills, the house that had been cut into the cleft was a peaceful respite from the frenzied town center a few miles away. Wrapped in thick woolen coats the children made their way out of their beds. The routine was automatic. Rise. Bathe. Pray. Eat. And within thirty minutes they were on their way to the local train station in the valley.

The trio delighted in their daily morning jaunt and looked forward to meeting their father briefly at his railway office cabin. As the village station master, their father was the finest man they knew and each morning his face was the last one they saw as the train left the tracks to transport them to school.

This morning however was unusually silent and as they made their way along the path the white peaks of the majestic Himalayas appeared as if a splendid painting in pristine hues of white and azure was carefully being unveiled. Around them, the green terraces and trekking trails grew brighter as the children skipped along oblivious to the captivating beauty of nature’s early morning exposition.

Finally they reached the station. As they made their way up the muddy path to where the little cabin stood, a sense of bewilderment washed over the oldest boy. Where was their father’s cabin? Where was their father? Had they taken a wrong turn along the way? Impossible.

Thirty minutes later they were still the only ones at the station. No trains arrived. No people rushing by. No signs of their father.

Time passed by.

As the trio tiptoed along the tracks like tightrope walkers without a harness, they noticed that large chunks of the hillside had rolled away. The valley below looked broken and exposed. Around them, the jagged edges of bent metal from the shattered train tracks rose up like giant blades glistening in the morning sunlight. Something strange seemed to have happened whiles they slept last night. The valley was now a ghost town.

Twelve hours later, the oldest boy lit the kerosene lamps and hung them up to illuminate the dirt path that led to their cottage. There had been no sign of their father that day.

He clutched his little siblings tight. They were asleep now and as he watched them inhale and exhale he found himself matching his breath to their beat. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

Perhaps father wasn’t coming home after all. Perhaps when the world was convulsing violently last night his dad had been brave enough to go out and see what was happening? Perhaps when the soil rolled away from the cliff it took father with it.

Perhaps he would never see his father again.

There was nothing more he could do tonight. Nowhere he could take them. So he leaned against the patio railing, clutched his siblings tighter and swallowed back the tears.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,960 other followers

%d bloggers like this: