My Sangha

Dear Mom,

Twenty five years ago, a doctor sliced your stomach open and pulled me out. The shape of your life changed overnight. Here was this howling, giggling assembly of bones, flesh and dreams demanding your attention. You had to help it grow. You joined forces with your greatest collaborator — Dad — to work through the process. Day in and day out, you two showed up and rolled with the punches. You sacrificed sleep and ensured I could be curious and expressive as my senses evolved.

I grew teeth, bit things and formed half-sentences. I learned that my arms were for grasping, my legs were for moving, and the sum total of my arm-leg complex was for dancing. I drew all over the house, covering the walls with scenes from other realities. You and Dad celebrated at each step, watching in awe as the little human you had pulled out from the ether observed and rearranged the world.

But then you had to put me in a uniform and send me to school. I was lodged into a system that required me to compromise my intuition. Expression had no home here. We were given precise lists of instructions to follow. Our success depended on how well we could swallow sentences from textbooks and spit them out on command. I filled my notebooks with drawings as an escape. This bothered my teachers. Every other week, they summoned you and told you all about my ‘developmental problems’. They painted bleak pictures of my future and suggested it was your fault I turned out this way.

I remember peeking through the window and watching you cry in the kitchen. Little did I know that in your grief, you were giving birth to a resolution. You were taking control of your narrative. You intuited that teaching was less about bending humans into shapes and more about shared connections and discoveries. You wanted to turn that glimmer in your heart into something real. You wiped away the tears and decided to teach.

You wielded the gift of language and wanted to share it with the women in your community. You wanted to restore their sense of wonder and possibility. You knew that you couldn’t go the traditional route. To see your vision through, you had to start something of your own. You teamed up with Dad to come up with a strategy. You took over his old office space and filled it with desks, chairs and a blackboard. You sent out ads in local newspapers and found a group of students who were willing to take a chance on you. You taught them how to catch thoughts they weren’t allowed to express and turn them into sentences. Your approach centered around collaborating with them rather than talking down from a polarized position.

You were born into a world that made you believe that all you could do was get married, have kids and take care of households. You broke out of this illusion and reached for a greater purpose — to illuminate those around you. You became more than a teacher for your students. You helped them dismantle harmful thought patterns that restricted their flight.

This year, you completed ten years of teaching. Your students are inspired to look beyond the lives they’re societally destined for. You understand that the teacher + student relationship is not one in which knowledge flows from above to below. Rather, it is a relationship between equals who are joining forces to peel back the layers and understand the mysteries of life. Through the student, the teacher gets a beginners' eye on her ideas. She encounters questions that her more experienced mind wouldn’t think to ask. In turn, the student receives whole new ways of viewing the world. He is given the tools that help him reshape his reality.

You taught me that learning is not an isolated phenomenon. We cannot compartmentalize it. We have to weave it into the fabric of our lives.

It’s been four years since I left home. We’re 8,401 miles apart, and we only get to see each other once or twice a year. But every weekend, we talk for hours about all things mundane and profound. The thread that connects us is healthy, with love and knowledge streaming down both ends. But during one of our recent conversations, you picked up on a quiver in my voice. You sensed a familiar shroud occluding my bliss. You asked me to be brave, so here I am, honoring that request.

The only way out of this problem is through it, and so I’m looking my truth in the eye and coming to nodding terms with it.

Six years ago, it began as a stabbing sensation above my perineum. Dad and I visited a doctor who told us to give it a week. Three weeks passed and it got worse. It felt as if an assembly of sharp objects had emerged deep inside me, widening lacerations with each movement. The pain restricted my ability to walk and caused my thoughts to collapse in on themselves. We visited the doctor again and he couldn’t find a physical basis. He decided that the pain must be psychological. We got a second opinion which wasn’t too different. The overall consensus was I was either going crazy or making it all up. All this while, the pain was widening its reach. Knives would cut if I brought my legs together. Pins would pierce if I sat for too long. Needles would pinch if I dared to walk. I would fall silent in the middle of conversations and excuse myself so I could scream into my sweatshirt. I grew distrustful of my body, pounding it with medication in feeble attempts to escape. The pain overtook every aspect of my life and sapped away the energy I needed to leave my bed.

I twisted and turned. You felt the full weight of watching someone you love suffering and not being able to do anything about it. While all of your friends’ children were discovering themselves and having their first romantic experiences, here I was, trapped inside my room, inside my body, wracked by an alien affliction. I felt my hope turning brittle, cracking into fragments. There was nowhere to run. All I could do sink my nails into my palms as I got torn apart.

Nine months scraped past. We decided to seek help again. We found another doctor — Dr. Shimpi — who revealed himself to be patient and thoughtful. He put me at ease and asked a lot of questions. He ran tests and unearthed the root of the problem — it was a prostate infection. He prescribed a treatment, and after a few weeks of pills and injections, the pathogen was flushed out. But the impact of living with the infection stayed on. I was in an adversarial relationship with my body. I was picking up self-destructive habits that stopped my wounds from sealing.

Through the nine month ordeal, my solace had stemmed from books and music. Growing up, you and Dad tirelessly supported my fascination with words and sounds. You ensured I was always lit up with inspiration. As my world collapsed, I was being pulled up by the works of writers and musicians who turned their dreams and fears into insight and comfort. Their efforts yielded wisps of light that were guiding me out of this hole. To fulfil my karmic commitment to these beautiful souls, I began to write.

By then, I had developed a tolerance for the pain. I would bite my tongue and push through when it flared up. I refused to let it mutate my facial expressions. I started getting out of the house and making things. I met two artists, Rachna and Mrinalini, with whom I started a collaboration. The plan was: I write, they illustrate. I would pen down passages and mail them over. They would make drawings and mail them back. This call-and-response routine persisted for several months, as we traced the contours of our story. I travelled to my friend Aalap’s mango orchard to wrap up the writing process. We would pluck, wash and package mangoes by day, and write at the sun’s descent.

On returning from the orchard, I added finishing touches to the story, sequenced the words + illustrations, and built a website to host to the project. The final piece fell in place when Roshan — an artist I met while crashing on my friend Shalaka’s couch — made us some stunning cover art. I closed my eyes and felt a deep sense of calm when the project was complete. This was the work of unique individuals, and yet it felt unified. We had dissolved our egos and given away our talents in service of something greater than ourselves. The end result looked great, but the process had been the real reward. We had developed faith in each other’s intuitions and melded our minds to create a cohesive narrative.

In that moment, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to nurturing such collaborative relationships.

With this project, I began the gradual process of opening myself up. I grew close to Shivang — an acquaintance-turned-friend who had just returned after completing an internship in Copenhagen. Shivang was a designer. He brought back with him a book that documented all the things he’d made. He had played with the layout, color and style of the text to amplify the impact of what he was saying. His work opened door after door in my mind.

As I made my way through the pages, I felt a notion take shape — writing is only a part of a greater whole. We can’t draw boundaries around our disciplines and stay perched within them. As writers, our intention doesn’t stop at weaving words into sentences. It extends to washing away ignorance and loneliness with beams of knowledge and understanding. By engaging with other disciplines, we discover more effective ways of making this possible.

I biked over to Shivang’s house almost everyday. He gave me glimpses into his process and dispelled myths upheld by gatekeepers. He let me wade through his collection of design books and helped me establish my foundations. We would lean against the walls of his terrace and talk about how design affects our experience of living. I had no formal training in design, and little confidence in my skills. But Shivang sensed my enthusiasm and encouraged me to do something with it. I installed Photoshop on my laptop and cranked out one thing after another — album art for bands that didn’t exist and spreads for magazines with an audience of one. When I designed, my mind wavered away from the pain, leaving behind a singular point of focus.

While holding the infection, I almost dropped out of college. I stopped going to classes and almost flunked my second year finals. My classmate Tasneem helped me bounce back and scrape through. We would meet up at a nearby cafe and talk for hours about how words could emancipate. She had great empathy for my predicament — she could intuit how violently the storms were crashing against my walls. She would thaw me with her presence till I regained my ability to think and move. With her help, I was able to make up for my bad year and graduate with a decent score.

Once I finished college, it was time to move out. I packed my belongings and bought a one-way ticket to Mumbai. I worked as a music journalist by day and polished my design skills at night. Hopscotching between writing and design, I understood the interconnections between them. Design enables us to capture attention, and writing enables us to guide it. Design enables us to simplify an idea, and writing enables us to put it in context. Design decides how we feel, and writing articulates why.

The more I worked, the more I met people who opened new doors. I worked with Parizad — a photographer who created symphonies with color. My friend Neehar — a humanist technologist — taught me how to code so I could turn my designs into functional prototypes. I attracted the attention of Vijesh — a visual effects virtuoso who had cut his teeth working with some of the most respected directors in Indian independent cinema. He commissioned me to make his website. He had invited a cohort of filmmakers and animators from all over India to live and work with him through the summer, and I joined them. We nerded out over shared influences and blew each other’s minds by pushing beyond the boundaries of our abilities.

Watching me go at it, you and Dad egged me on to apply for graduate programs in design. I was convinced it was too soon — I wasn’t getting in anywhere. You talked me into applying anyway. I put together a portfolio and filled out applications with great earnestness and no hope. I was knocked out when I learned I had been accepted into two of my top three schools. You called and said you hadn’t slept all night because you were way too excited. Come fall, I was on my way to the School of Visual Arts in New York.

I can’t quite articulate what it felt like to get off that plane and take a cab into Manhattan for the very first time. I was enveloped by the energy of generations of artists who tore past the fringes. I stepped out of the cab, onto the Lower East Side pavement, and breathed deeply. I was being pulled into the web that brings together beings on the same path.

At school, I found a संघ of my own. There’s Kohzy — who designed tools to avert accidents in chaotic cities; Saba — who designed new ways of preserving memories for future generations; Dave — who designed communication tools which treated autistic individuals not as patients, but as equals; David — who designed recreations of what Manhattan sounded like before it was inhabited by humans; Julian — who designed games about dealing with mental illness; Nour — who designed homes that enabled disabled people to live independently; Mischa — who designed ways in which computers may manifest beyond screens and buttons; and Amsha — who designed toys that taught kids about recycling.

Together, we learned that design extends far beyond playing with shapes and colors. It is built on the belief that we create the reality we inhabit. When we design, we begin by opening ourselves up to the world. We notice the interplay between how we affect it and how it affects us. We imagine all the different ways in which the present may unfurl into the future. We weigh the opportunities and consequences of each fork in the path. We create artifacts that bring into being the reality we choose. On this journey, we believe we can catalyze change, but have the courage to shift paths if our assumptions are disproved.

Working with my संघ, I grew fascinated with how technology and design influence one another. The tools we use to manifest our ideas affect the shape of the ideas. This notion led me to investigate the shifting complexities of computers and their influence on design. At the end of my first year, I ramped up this investigation by accepting an internship at the Google Creative Lab. My host, Tristan, gifted me with a beautiful insight. “Quality comes from quantity,” he said. If you want to make something, make it a hundred times, in a hundred different ways. The contours of your idea become more clear through the sheer exhaust of this process.

I came back from the internship feeling inspired. It was thesis year. We had to make individual contributions to the world’s body of design knowledge. I chose to work at the intersection of design, technology and music. Having raised me, you are well aware of how deeply I love sounds that excavate emotions. But at the time, I knew very little about where they come from. I wanted to spend the year understanding how music is made and lowering the barriers to entry. My final project — Signal Flow — was an interactive synthesizer that explained its own workings. Signal Flow was an exercise in simplifying complexity by reducing it down to its most simple elements. After all, what is complexity, if not simple things piling up? I was energized by the challenge of making complex systems easier to understand. After graduating, I returned to Google and moved to San Francisco to do it full time.

The external successes were mounting against a backdrop of internal wounds that refused to seal. I found solace in design, but sooner or later, the day would end and we would find ourselves too tired to proceed. We had to leave the studio and head for our homes to recuperate. It was time to drown.

While living with the infection, I had begun combating the aches by harming myself. I was making attempts to numb out the machinery responsible for sensing and interpreting pain. The infection was gone, but it had mutated my thoughts and left behind the belief that I was far too damaged for love. The experience of having my sanity questioned still stung, and I held a deep distrust for the act of seeking help. I fell deeper into an unceasing loop of damaging my body in attempts to come removed from it. I would attack the general site of the infection and find release as the pain burst into bloom. I grew addicted to the agony and wore out my reproductive system.

This went on for years, and got to a point where I was so hurt, I sat in the middle of a footpath and burst into tears. The abrasion rubbed against itself when I moved my legs and unleashed throbs that took over every corner of my mind. It took a few feats of mental gymnastics to build up the resolve to go to a doctor again. I filled the forms and found myself in a waiting room. The nurse invited me in, drew blood and ran a few tests. She handed me a hospital gown and left the room. I changed into the gown and waited for the doctor. “So what’s your story,” he asked as he arrived. I dived into the darkness, reaching for a beginning. As I dug into the specifics, he talked right over me. “We don’t understand those parts of the body very well,” he said. “There just isn’t much research or insight available. Medically speaking, there’s nothing we can do.” He sent me away and charged me $400.

I moved through the days in corpse mode, using every ounce of energy to maintain a veneer of normalcy. I couldn’t think of many reasons to keep going. I began conducting research for my final final project — How might we exit this life without causing a mess? I was falling hard and fast, but then a web of connections woven by my संघ broke my fall.

My संघ had grown to include Jerome and Vince — friends of Nour who I had grown close to after moving to San Francisco. Vince asked me to come out with him to a techno show. I decided to take a break from working through the logistics of my exit and bathe in the cleansing pulse of the kick drum. On our way back from the show, we talked about why we create. It was a long, rolling conversation that made us hyper aware of the beauty of manifesting ideas. As we completed each other’s sentences, Vince said, “My soul understands your soul.” In that moment, I felt connected to a greater whole, my inner dialog shifting from ‘me’ to ‘we’. I cancelled my final final project and resolved to see this life through.

The pain came in relentless cycles. I made an attempt to block the impulse to harm myself, failed, made another attempt, failed, and so it continued. The clouds gathered around my head and I began slipping again. A month passed and I entertained the idea of reopening my final final project. But then Jerome took me to a day party in Golden Gate Park. We danced into the sunset and explored the woods after the music died down. We were passing a clearing when we heard a cosmic creak coming from behind us. We turned around and saw a phalanx of trees stretching all the way to the sky. Their majestic stance was the end result of decades of evolution. Watching them swaying so regally, I was reminded that this is only the beginning of my creative journey. If I want to create something that matches their beauty, I have to play the long game.

The more I persisted, the worse the pain got. But everytime I came close to the brink, someone from my संघ would swoop in and pick me back up.

A few months later, I met Andrew — a new designer at work. It wasn’t long before he joined my संघ. We started hanging out all the time, launching conversational expeditions into the gears that turn our minds. The weekend I hit my deepest low yet, he invited me to a show by a folk artist called Nat Lefkoff. Nat gave a crushing performance, weaving his words into a gigantic blanket. In his last song, ‘Great White Plains’, he sang:

“Where you gonna run to now?
After all the love runs out
Aren't you worn? You must be tired and torn
and burned out from the fire,
holding on the flames get higher”

Wrapped in the warmth of acknowledgement, I spent entire days listening to this song on repeat, crying loudly and without control. ‘Great White Plains’ topped my ‘Your Top Songs of 2018’ playlist on Spotify.

I kept things low key during our weekly conversations. I didn’t want to worry you. One morning, you passed the phone to आजोबा, who said I ought to slow down and take care of myself. He suggested I try योग. The practice had served him well. He had spent years meditating, regulating his breath, and folding his body into complex poses. In return, he had stayed healthy and independent as he pushed into his eighties. I took his word for it and signed up for a beginners’ class at a nearby studio, ‘Love Story Yoga’.

The teacher, Haley Havelock, began by asking us to identify an intention and hold on to it as the class progressed. She invoked the spirit of गणेश — the remover of obstacles. “A योगी’s life is measured in breaths, not minutes,” she said. She eased us from one pose to another, helping us find our balance when we faltered. She got into an अधोमुखश्वानासन, and asked us to follow suit. “Right leg up and back,” she said, and my left leg went up. She noticed and said, “The other right leg.” I suppressed an upswell of embarrassment. My brain + body mapping was completely scrambled. I didn’t trust my body, and in turn, my body didn’t trust me. As the lack of synchronization became painfully obvious, my hatred for my body peaked. I realized how out of touch I was with my own limbs. I bundled up my face and swore under my breath.

Haley walked over, patted my back, and said, “It’s okay.” With this gesture, she let me know that I could stop comparing my current state to some imagined perfect state. It’s okay to accept the here and now for what it is. I shouldn’t wait for my body to mould itself to my expectations to start loving it. I should collaborate with it, be more attentive to its signals, and do my best to support the journey towards healing.

It took me a while to understand her message. This wasn’t a clouds-parting-and-knowledge-streaming-down-from-the-heavens moment. It was the initiation of a gradual and nonlinear unfolding. In the weeks that followed, her class served as an anchor, giving me the space to suspend the drama in my brain and rethink my relationship with my body. But as I delved deeper into योग, I began drifting away from the purpose. I looked up more complex poses and tried them out in my room without supervision. Instead of being patient and letting things take their time, I was approaching it with the ambition and intensity with which I tackle creative projects. I pushed my already ravaged body into poses it couldn’t handle and ended up hurting it more.

While waiting to recover, I looked up phrases Haley would say during her class. She would urge us to come removed from our worldly attachments and give away our talents and fears so we may become infinite. She would advise us to stand in the fire and embrace the pain that precedes growth. She would reassure us that we shouldn’t force it — we should let evolution take its course. Upon Googling her words, I found a book called ‘Be Here Now’, written by a clinical psychologist-turned-psychedelics pioneer-turned-spiritual teacher called Ram Dass. He had written it after returning from India, where he spent some time internalizing the wisdom of the ancients. He had playfully distilled insights from esoteric scriptures and made them easier to grasp. The images and words were interwoven in ways that made my inner design nerd break into song and dance. I read the whole thing over and again, feeling waves of bliss wash over me.

In ‘Be Here Now’, Ram Dass introduced me to the idea of creating a witness. He said this trip is full of suffering, but I can’t be the one who suffers. I can embody this paradox by creating a witness in me — an entity that stands away from the tempest of my thoughts and watches my life unfold with dispassionate detachment. By looking at my life through the eyes of this witness, I can stop identifying with my thoughts.

As I practiced this process, I grew aware that my thoughts are just waves that will eventually crash into nothingness. The desire to self-harm was no exception. When the impulse arose, I’d just sit there, revving up my calm center, waiting for it to pass. Soon, it would go away, leaving behind an all-consuming sense of peace. With time, the veil of thoughts grew thinner and began to dissipate. I grew hyper aware of the details of the world around me. I perceived forms, textures, colors and sounds as acutely as I did when I was a child. But I wasn’t the one doing the perceiving — I was watching myself perceive. I felt my self-hatred receding and being replaced by conscious awareness.

It’s been three months since I stopped harming myself. I’ve started doing improv with my body, saying “Yes, and...” to its signals. I’ve been nourishing it with lots of water and vegetables. The pain still comes and goes, but at a much lower amplitude and frequency. I’m getting better at coming removed from the drama in my brain. I fall back into it, and I climb out, and I fall back in, and I climb out, and so it goes.

When I focus on my breath and step away from my thoughts, I’m one with everything that exists. I stand in awe of the exquisite interconnections that sustain life. A luminous wash of bliss originates at the point between my eyebrows and spreads all around me. My troubles melt away and make way for acceptance. I find infinite joy in the tiniest details — skies and leaves and whiskers and veins and words and winds and all the things that constitute the infinite cycle of destruction and regeneration.

When the inevitable contraction occurs, I sink into a lake of isolation. A miasma of toxic thoughts thickens around me. I’m reminded of how I’ve systematically shied away from the loving touch that our bodies need to heal. I grow convinced that I don’t deserve it; I’m far too broken and undesirable. I crave warmth and pull away from it. The world disappears behind a swarm of unfulfilled needs. I want to puke my soul out. It gets worse and worse until it gets better. I find my focus again. The world shines through. The forgetting amplifies the richness of the remembering.

Falling in and out of the fog, I’ve learned we can never really slay our demons. We have to learn to work with them. And so I’m transmuting my darkness into fuel for creation. My संघ has kept me afloat with love, and now it's my turn to close the feedback loop. I'm working on myself so I can give them the support to grow and flourish. I'm trying to beat the system by being a wellspring of joy despite going through hell. To pull this off, I have to move past the self-lacerating internal dialogue and invite the love I deserve into my life. I have a plan: I’ll celebrate the love I have, let radiate outward and transform everything it touches. We'll see how it goes.

While I'm at it, I'm delving deep into how design facilitates healing. Design enables us to be intentional about our environments and interactions. It primes us to understand how we are affected by the things we see, hear, touch, taste and feel. We can inquire into how our bodies react to the rooms we’re in, the tools we use, the conversations we have and the relationships we nurture. We can activate our senses to unlock the deep-rooted knowledge embedded within our subconscious. We can use this knowledge to alter the shapes of our lives and augment our regenerative processes.

As I’m learning, I’m also teaching. I’m crystallizing my experiences into breadcrumb trails for beings on the same path. I want create the experience that you create for your students and Haley created for me. Good teachers give us new lenses for viewing the world. They ignite the sparks that send us on transformative journeys. They enable us to change the shape of our narrative. This is not the story of a broken boy succumbing to his wounds. This is the story of an awakened being reaching for greater heights of realization. The other day, I took a walk around Golden Gate Park and let the trees and flowers fill me with a profound sense of wonder. I smiled, and said, “Yeah.”

I love you more than the entire universe can contain,

Written, photographed and designed by

Ritwik Deshpande

Physical version printed and bound by

Ritwik Deshpande, Sara Strickler and Zachary Clark at The Hive

Typeset in 'Eczar' by

Vaibhav Singh (Designer), David Březina (Producer), Rostta Type Foundry (Publisher)

This wouldn't have happened without

Jérôme Tave, who sparked this process; Vince and Amélie Losanes, who unleashed a vicious torrent of love; Saba Singh, who offered shelter and warmth; Andrew Sibert, who gave brotherhood and perspective; Sandy Woodruff, who provided early impressions; Anshuman Kumar, Xavier Benavides Palos and Chikezie Ejiasi, who made coming into work a delightful experience; Kohzy Koh, who inspired by being inspiring; Haewon Hwang, who sat with me through the most terrifying films; Rachel Balma, who matched wavelengths; Conrad Bassett-Bouchard, who endlessly supplied jokes and puns; Arush Kalra, Trijeet Mukhopadhyay and Akshay Sawhney, who co-conjured music; Ash Tengshe, who showed me the way; Amol and Aparna Deshpande, who gave everything and more.