Space between us (01.29.2011)

When I was young, I couldn’t wait to grow up.

My family was not poor, and we always had enough to eat, but I had dreams of a better life.

There were many things I longed for. Things that people on TV had, heck even a better TV than the black & white one with the big knobs. Those things that successful people had.

I always thought that the purpose of life was to get more money so that I never had to worry about it again. When I looked around, that’s what everyone seemed to be striving for but then we were all lower-middle-class kids aspiring for something more.

I thought if I were successful, I could get whatever I wanted. And success, in this world, is measured by the things you possess.

As a bored whimsical teenager, I began a wish list on the back pages of an old unused notebook. A checklist if you will of my innate desires in some sense.

I would often cheer myself up by adding items to my list and attested that I would achieve those things.

My list started small with the whims of a child’s indulgences and grew bigger as time went on.

One day, I’ll eat butter chicken whenever I want.

One day, I’ll buy Kwality vanilla ice cream whenever I want.

One day, I will be able to buy the books that I like.

One day, I’ll eat at a restaurant whenever I want, not just once a year.

One day, I’ll not have to make excuses when friends ask me to go out with them.

One day, I’ll own a Honda Civic of my own and it will be impressive.

One day, I’ll sleep in a bigger bed, all by myself — Diagonal if I wanted to.

For many years, I immersed myself in achieving my goals, to accumulate things. Little by little, I checked the items off my list. Yet the satisfaction of gaining something always eluded me.

Years after I first started the list, my wife and I invited a common friend of ours along with his family over for dinner when we were in Ohio.

We were living in a modest apartment, and we had to move furniture around to make extra room for our colleague, his wife, and three children. We were a bit gun-shy initially as to how they would all fit in, so we brought in some chairs from the balcony, pushed the table out a bit.

Nothing too fancy. It was a bit crowded, but nobody seemed to mind.

After dinner, we put on a kid’s movie in the background while we all played monopoly together.

The colleague and his wife were fun and engaging, and the kids had fun tumbling and rolling all over the couch in our cozy little living room. It was in all a good time had by everyone.

A few weeks later, the colleague and his wife returned the gesture and invited us over to their home for lunch.

When we drove up to their house, the first thing we noticed was how gigantic the house was. We have rarely been inside American homes and this one was amazingly beautiful.

When we rang the bell, our colleague greeted us and proceeded to take us through a 20-minute-long tour of his house, basement, porch, and the lawn behind.

As he led us through rooms after rooms, what struck me most was how every single person in the family had their own rooms.

The two older children were each in their rooms on the second floor playing on their own. His wife was in the kitchen by herself. And their youngest girl, about six years old, was in the basement home theater, watching cartoons alone.

I discount it as a slight shadow of my own envy at not having a house even half as grand as this.

When lunch came around, the family gathered briefly to eat on a long mahogany table in a room with a beautiful chandelier hanging in between. But as soon as they could, the kids excused themselves to go back to their individual rooms. And our colleague, tired out from the grand tour he had given, excused himself and retired into his study.

That day, while eating lunch in their grand house, everyone appeared bored and indifferent, including us. It was almost as if we were all odd strangers, forced to eat together.

In contrast to their visit some weeks back, the family didn’t seem interested in talking, laughing, or playing together. They seemed more interested in getting back to their individual spaces… to do their own thing.

I had an epiphany that day.

It seemed like the pinnacle of life for me was to become financially successful. I thought that successful people got everything they wanted, including a better life. But seeing that hollow loneliness of these very good folks, made me realize that maybe I had gotten it all wrong.

The wealthy have their credenzas that can put someone’s kids through college. They are walking on floors made of wood that could buy me a house. It’s hard not to want their things, their lives. Maybe want is not the right word — Covet. It’s hard not to covet these lives that anyone would ache for — because it all looks so easy, so pleasant. The almond milk cartons from whole foods, the shelves of books never read, the long hallways, the perfectly chilled wine coolers.

But the truth is, despite being wealthy and living in a dream house with marbled bathrooms and floor-to-ceiling views of the ocean, maybe all those long hallways and walk-in closets are just hiding places. Maybe all that glass just shows you your own loneliness. Maybe when you live in a house that big, you lose yourself in it — One person at a time.

We had thoroughly enjoyed our time together with the colleague and his family in our crowded apartment. But being in their lavish home amongst all their things it felt like their lives are still lacking something.

I realized that day that things don’t make laughter, conversation, or a better life — People do.

When I think about the place that I want for my daughters and us, it’s not big and full of things. There’s a bed for each of us, a surface for us to sit down and eat. Maybe a small balcony to grow my plants someday. The space is not big but it’s sacred. It’s sacred because we find love for each other in every corner.

I look back at my childhood and what floats to the surface are not the things we had or didn’t have but the little moments with my family-

Grandma’s kind, wrinkled smile as she soothed my worries.

My aunt chasing us kids to the side laughing, because I was blocking her view of the TV playing the latest Bollywood movie.

How my father’s eyes crinkled in laughter as he clapped when the Indian cricket team won the world cup.

My younger sister in her pink cotton dress flashing a bright smile as we created makeshift tents in one corner of the house.

All in 437 square feet of packed happiness.

Today my coffers are teeming with the lovely memories they left me with, and I intend to pass them in abundance on to my children -

To whatever extent I can.

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Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.

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Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.

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