Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A tiger by its tale

Some old photographs fell out of a book I pulled out from the shelf the other day. I almost did not recognize myself. There was one in which I was sitting astride a live tiger, smiling with abandon at the camera - a photo opportunity in a Far Eastern zoo. It brought back sharp memories of the instant at which it was taken. I could still smell the carrion breath of the tiger, feel its course fur beneath my fingers, the cold metal of its restraints against my arm, hear the loud beating of my heart and experience the rush of doing a brave and foolish thing impetuously. It got me thinking...

I was made brave by one man, who stood outside the frame of the camera. He held his breath and counsel, waiting to jump in should anything go wrong. Nothing did. As I jumped off the big cat with the help of its trainer, I remember Shekhar held me for a long words, no judgement just a calm reassurance that all was well. I recall many instances of being brave and foolish like that in our years together - sometimes it was me, sometimes it was Shekhar.

Psychologist Arthur Aron at Stony Brook University, New York says it is not just feelings of love and loyalty that keep couples together, he speculates that the level of commitment may depend on how much a partner enhances your life and broadens your horizons. He calls this concept 'self expansion'. It is based on how much a partner provides a source of exciting experiences, makes you a better person and how much a partner is viewed as a way to expand one's own capabilities. Aron says, "We enter relationships because the other person becomes part of ourselves and that expands us."

Being with Shekhar expanded me, my life and my mind. I was a better person with and because of him. What the research does not tell you is that after the partner is gone you are left with a life of shrinking proportions that your mind and self do not fit any more. I find myself trying to define who I am without Shekhar and it is hard to explain the sinkhole in my identity left by his sudden departure.

Now, as life expands and shrinks at the same time, I tread on uncharted territory. Some days it is like walking off a cliff without a net, on others there is a comfortable familiarity in doing things in ways that Shekhar enabled. Even without him, I have realized that I continue to grow in new and unexpected ways. In the persistent uncertainty of my life, sitting on a tiger has become a guiding metaphor. I do it in some way or another everyday...with the belief in a guardian angel, who stands outside the frame, ready to jump in should anything go wrong.


A man's mind expanded to a new idea never returns to its original dimensions.

Oliver Wendell Holmes
There was young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And a smile on the face of the tiger.

William Cosmo Monkhouse (1840-1901)