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Elements of Surprise

by Dakshina Gammanpila

It seems characteristic of the times in which we live that reality has been reduced to a series of dichotomies: we have more free time, but are curtailed from spending it; thanks to technology we can see friends and family, but cannot be with them to share a much-needed embrace; and although our routines have been thrown out of the window, our lives seem to follow an ordered predictability of necessary yet ordained, dos and don’ts.

There are those in life that love order, structure and schedules. There are others who crave spontaneity and change. I fall into the latter camp. Altered career paths and moves to different continents have enabled me to ring the changes. Not always easy and not always chosen Life as an expat requires a modicum of flexibility, the ability to roll with the punches is after all part of our toolkit. However, when required and the stakes are high enough routine can win out.

Take lockdown for example. The notion of enforced sheltering in place would have been alien this time last year. I explain to friends in England and other countries, (including those who made their homes in Delhi temporarily), that for months lockdown in India really did mean lockdown. They know me as a social animal and could not believe that the children and I did not leave the house for 4 months, my husband doing the hunting and gathering replenishing groceries and water. We stayed in to stay safe.

I learned about tenacity when diagnosed with a serious medical condition in the middle of my doctoral research. I had to rise to the challenge as I realised that no one could write my PhD for me. I had been awarded a scholarship and if the professors had faith in me I had to reciprocate and deliver. Perhaps  I did not want anyone to ‘get there before me’ as I was the first person to research this area and I liked the idea of being a pioneer in the field of criminal justice. Easier said than done, what was required in addition to ‘maverick thinking’ was structure and routine.

At the time I did not examine my motivation I just picked myself up dusted myself down and got on with it. A mixture of stubbornness, vanity, arrogance and the will not to let anyone down urged me on. Plus I really cared about the subject matter. On-call at 3am in metropolitan police stations? Bring it on!

So much more than that is the role of being a full-time mother putting paid work to one side.  I moved to Brazil 13 years ago with a baby and toddler. I had no social network, or Portuguese language skills, these became surmountable challenges rather than obstacles.  I adored my children (still do), this alone provided the impetus and spurred me on to cultivate structure and seemingly unlimited patience by tapping into a reservoir of unconditional giving. I surprised myself.Once you appreciate that you possess reserves it is possible to dig a little deeper.

Life is full of surprises; some good, some not so much. It is the nature of the human experience. Covid has shown that none of us are immune from life’s curveballs. Powerful nations can be brought to their knees and for many life will be forever altered and uncertain. How we lived last year seems like a distant golden utopia filled with spontaneous opportunity. Did we appreciate it at the time? Of course not, it was our routine, our daily existence. What has defined this period is the power of words and deeds brought by the pandemic, at a time when so many of the actions that we took for granted are curbed, and we search for new ways to express ourselves and live meaningfully.

I wrote about my Father last week and within 24hours spoke to 6 women who had also lost their Daddies (2 in the last 3 months). It is a fine line to write about death and grief especially now with its spectre so near, the holiday season for many peoples and faiths and the inevitable retail and media representations of togetherness adds to the loss. I acknowledge the pain that my Father’s death still brings, an infillable void and yet I had him in my life and remain grateful for that every day I walk this earth.

Walking this earth or at least a tiny corner of it has helped my state of mind somewhat. The tiny details of sky and landscape have been a comfort to untold millions this past 12 months. So too small surprise incidents bringing momentary happiness or relief. Those moments are to be cherished.

Out walking recently I heard a sound that I recognized, horses whinnying in the distance.Then to our amazement they came cantering  through the ferns dappled by the sun through trees stripped bare. It was an apparition, something from a bygone age, I have attempted to capture that in this week’s photograph. I was thrilled; I love horses and to see them wild was exhilarating. I used to horse ride every weekend for years in my teens and my children learned to ride in Brazil, where being a cowboy was a job prospect to my three-year old son(which of course it is). The idea both exotic and tantalisingly real..

One of the horses, the deepest shade of black, was separate from the herd.Skittish, he galloped over to where we stood a few feet, if that, from my son who sensing the horse’s upset remained calm, almost imperceptibly entreating him to join his comrades, like some adolescent horse whisperer.A moment of breathless magic.

We have been fortunate to share many sightings of wildlife over the years, but those at unexpected tImes and places when out walking are particularly treasured. Such chance encounters have had that element of stardust: seeing a pair of jackals in a forest close to where we live in Delhi, a baby armadillo that we rescued from being squished in forest in Brazil, a nilgai that for some reason kept pace with us in a wooded glade in Rajasthan, a small tribe of mufflon on a mountainside in Cyprus, hundreds of kangaroos that raced past us as we stood stock still in Australia and the luminous bio-carpet in one of the remotest of tropical rainforests in Asia as we went out hunting at night with indigenous tribesmen. All wild, all unplanned. Being on foot in such proximity reminds us that we are but a part of  Nature much as we might seek to control it.

I look forward to a time when I can embrace who I want without it being taboo or potentially life-threatening. Who would think that the spontaneous holding of someone you care for, a family member or friend, could be so prized and prohibited. Until then I hug my precious gems of surprise so very close. I truly hope you can too.

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