Wednesday 4 December 2019

This is Us :)

It is Thanksgiving. My brother and his family are in town and we are joined for a few hours by my cousin and her husband and their grown-up kids. Stories fly around, fast and furious, some old, some I had never heard of. Family members near and distant are discussed threadbare. Peals and howls of laughter periodically punctuate the conversation. The children flit in and out of the discussion but mostly they just look bemused (in the case of the older kids, amused). Every now and then I glance at my husband, wondering whether he feels bored with all this family talk. However, I feel not a smidgen of guilt, having been a patient witness at similar gatherings of his family.

Later, in the family WhatsApp group, photos are posted. My father starts a thread reminiscing about the family home in erstwhile Madras and the many happy memories associated with it. Cousins, aunts and uncles jump in with their anecdotes about the house, sundry family members, vacations, weddings and other seminal events. 

Reading through it all, I can vicariously experience that long-gone lifestyle, a house and life teeming with extended family and friends, brimming with hospitality and generosity. Over the years, like all other families, this one too has gone through ups and downs. Its members now live far in time, distance and thought from that house in Madras, but their shared history and collective memories have woven a rich and unique tapestry that binds and cocoons generations of us, whether we are conscious of it or not.

One of my fondest childhood memories is lying down between my parents at bedtime, and drowsily listening to them talk over the days' events. For years (thanks to never having my own bedroom as long as I stayed with my parents!), I dropped off to sleep listening to the soft tones of two people recapping their day, discussing family matters and indulging in gentle gossip.

I'm in my forties, yet even now, I slide easily into the old ways. Sinking down onto the cool floor or onto the bed during afternoon siesta time, only for the pleasure of hearing my parents tell some stories. 

I think of the stories I tell my kids. About how I grew up, places, people and incidents that shaped me and made me what I am today. I think of similar stories my kids hear from their dad. I think of the stories that we laugh about amidst our close friends, the ones that have survived endless repetition. Doubtless, we'll continue to tell them well into our old age. I think of the new stories we started weaving after we became parents that are now a part of my children's memories. 

Family stories are free, portable, revealing, and inspiring. 
Stories capture the narrative arc of our lives. But more than that. They are us. And we are nothing without our stories.

Every now and then, I will sleep in Y's bedroom. Before we turn off the light, she will ask "Can we talk?" I acquiesce even if I am sleepy. She's only asking us to make more stories!

Wednesday 13 November 2019

A fashionable journey

I have never quite got used to the fact that we can now buy clothes and shoes and handbags at the swipe of a finger or the click of the mouse, gratification instantly provided and net worth instantly depleted. While I bow down to the utter convenience of it all, every now and the nostalgia strikes in thinking of simpler, more penurious days. When one didn't need to adopt slow fashion; fashion, by definition, was slow. When middle-class clothing budgets allowed for no more than twice-yearly shopping expeditions to find that perfect outfit (in my family those events happened for one's birthdays and Deepavali). When the intense pleasure of wearing a new dress could not be diluted one bit by the sight of multitudes of others on social media, wearing better clothes and shoes; or the belated information about yet another flash sale on that cool must-have brand!

I must have started paying attention to fashion early. I remember being engrossed in my mother's college home science notebooks which featured clothes designs, sewing patterns and household decor ideas (the latter definitely contributed to my current and lifelong obsession with interior design and decor). Today Sabyasachi, Manish Malhotra, Prabal Gurung and their ilk may be household names. Who knew fashion designers back then (though they must have existed!). All one noticed were film stars and their unique style mantras. Rekha's exquisite taste in sarees (Kanjeevarams in Basera, chiffons in Ghar, sexy halterneck blouses paired with satin sarees in Silsila, and those elegant high neck blouses) come to mind. In the late 80s/90s, fashion icons abounded. I remember rushing off to pay a white kurta and churidar with a flowing green and white chiffon bandhani dupatta after Chandni released, and accessorising the outfit those with tons of oxidised bangles.  I personally found the Maine Pyar Kiya fashions ghastly (especially the white high neck kurta in the Kabootar ja ja song) but I did pay homage to Bhagyashree's costumes with a butter yellow kurta and a multi-coloured dupatta to go with it. In later years, my eye candy was Madhuri's outfits in Saajan, Juhi's puff sleeve top and long flowy skirt from Raju ban gaya gentleman, and all the outfits worn by Suchitra Krishnamurthy in Kabhi haan kabhi na. Down South, Amala and Nadhiya were my fashion icons; blessed with the not-so-healthy proportions of the Indian figure, these slim actresses could carry off pants and skirts with aplomb.

Linking Road and Fashion Street in Mumbai, Brigade's and Comm Street in Bangalore, Sarojini and Lajpat Nagar markets in Delhi, hold such fond memories. In Chennai, Amma and I used to shop for fabric at Pantheon Road in Egmore, delighted to discover bolts of cloth that roughly approximated those worn by the screen divas. Off we rushed to Panama Tailors in Besant Nagar, a hole-in-the-wall discovery which entailed multiple trips by PTC bus from Thiruvanmiyur to Besant Nagar, to check whether the dress was ready. No whatsapping or calling in those days! 

The dress, once delivered and paid for, rarely looked like its screen counterpart. And neither did I look anything like those film stars! Never mind. The pleasure of having 'created' something using limited resources and talent was enough. And in fashion-backward Chennai, I was fashion-forward enough! Leftover scraps of the material would be diligently collected from the tailor to fashion a matching scrunchie with a bit of elastic. Voila! A transformation indeed!

For years, Amma's old sarees were torn up to metamorphose into salwar kurtas, skirts and blouses. With Westside, Shoppers' Stop and their ilk a distant twinkle in some corporate's eye, creativity was the name of the game. For my 12th grade farewell party, we even tore up a Tanchoi silk saree to make a ghagra choli, an act of desecration so vile that I now cringe to think of it. Little did I know of heritage weaves then!

I rarely experience that heady feeling of creative achievement any more, when hardly any of my clothes are tailored for me. Buying the nicest clothes in an airconditioned mall doesn't quite give the same kick. However, I still tear up fraying kanjeevarams, to craft outfits for Y, and to feel once again, inventive, and resourceful. And I take some pride in the fact that my daughter is not just interested in fashion, but constantly browses online shopping sites and is often to be found trying out new styles with her existing wardrobe. 

Ads mocks us....after all, fashion is unnecessary, vain and there are so many other things we could be spending time on. I don't try to disabuse him of his notion that his book-reading, non-profit working mom is also a frivolous fashionista :) 

Wednesday 30 October 2019

The power of transitions

This post was originally published on Medium.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us……
These immortal words by Charles Dickens come to mind when I look back at the last year. In the summer of 2018, we moved countries and continents and I faced failure after repeated failure in getting my next role. I give myself an ‘A’ for effort; I networked, called and met people, applied to all sorts of organizations for all kinds of roles, had several interesting conversations and promising interviews; yet, the result, if measured in terms of a concrete job offer, was a big fat zero.
I played the blame game for a while. I blamed the lack of opportunities suited to my profile. I blamed vague implicit hiring biases. Most of all, I blamed my fate as the trailing spouse, being forced to move cities and continents for the sake of my husband’s career. I am not proud of the many resentful thoughts I harboured for months. Try as I might, the worst and pettiest elements of my nature reared their ugly heads as I focused angrily on the most negative aspects of my life. Every day, I had to brutally refocus my thoughts on all that was beautiful and infinitely precious — good health, the kids, our home, a loving family, financial security — and give thanks for all that I had. It was enough, I told myself. Even if I didn’t have anything else, what I already had was over and beyond what most people enjoyed.
I walked for miles and miles, in the most inclement weather, pounding out my frustration on the asphalt. Over a period of months, slowly but surely, my confused thoughts gained clarity. Out of the bleak and opaque quagmire settled in my brain, arose some degree of coherence.
I was able to answer some cardinal and elemental questions. What did I really want? What were the fundamental principles and values on which I wanted to base my life? What was truly important to me? Did I need or want the career that I was expected to have (and whose expectations were these?), or did I need to craft a life that would harmonise every aspect of my life and leave space for my many eclectic interests? How could I unshackle myself from some deep-rooted insecurities, and the expectations of others, to pursue a life that was truly undeniably authentically mine?
I believe this is an Alcoholics Anonymous mantra- “You can’t think your way into a course of action; you can only act your way into a course of thinking.” I like to think that all those hours and miles of walking, all those hours spent cleaning/cooking/caring for my family, all those hours meditating and twisting myself into yogic asanas, all of this inexorably led to a profound re-evaluation of my life goals.
I’ve been told by people who know me well, that I am confident, and resilient, and strong. The last year tested all those assumptions to the hilt, and then some. Transitions lead to unexpected and often painful change but as I learnt, change is often a prized gift, an opportunity to reflect, reframe and recharge.
I used to think of opportunity costs, the sacrifices I made to support someone else. On a bad day, I could easily relapse into a quasi-victim mentality. Haven’t I paid the double tax of being a woman and a mother, and being a trailing spouse? But victimhood helps no one. What the transition gave me in spades, was time. Immeasurably priceless, for how often are we offered an all-paid holiday to just thinkClear the cobwebs of the mind, contemplate, ruminate, chew the cud?
Finding one’s life purpose, I used to think, was that lightbulb moment when all would be magically revealed. I did find my life’s purpose in one such A-ha! moment many many years ago. What I did not realize is that purpose, just like one’s personality, beliefs and tastes, changes over time. It mutates and evolves, fueled and enriched by our experiences, our difficulties and our failures. What is my purpose today, may or may not stay the same a few years down the line.
Today, having “acted my way into a course of thinking”, I remember this famous poem by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth……
No matter what we do, we will at times always think about what we didn’t do, what we could have done, what we were meant to do but didn’t….But the difference is only in our heads.
What is, is now.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Character is destiny”. Who we are, is infinitely more important than what we’ve done.

Friday 25 October 2019

Animal instincts :)

We are more 2 months into the school year. Ads is in high school (gulp!) and Y is in an 'Advanced Academic Program (AAP)' this year. We did not actively seek to put her in this program, but her teachers have observed her last year and decided that she would be better served with a more challenging curriculum in English, Social Studies and Science. She wasn't very happy to move to a new class with none of her old friends joining her but has since made new friends and settled down.
Time seems to have speeded up, quite unnervingly. Maybe all parents go through it, but sometimes I feel quite alone in wanting to grasp the tail-end of the weeks and months as they go flashing by. In four years, Ads will leave home for college and that thought, above all else, is terrifying.
With every day that passes, I feel a strange primal urge to touch and cuddle this soon-to-be-independent child of mine. Often I sit next to him and nuzzle my cheek against his, relishing the sensation of the mild fuzz that is covering his face now, the soft skin belying his growing maturity. He is puzzled and half-amused, half-annoyed at his mothers' strange behaviour. Can you stop behaving like a baby, he says!
Yes.... I am relapsing to elemental ways of showing my love and affection, and he has to deal with it!
Detached attachment should be the guiding philosophy of one's life, I am told. All very well in principle, much harder in practice!


Monday 23 September 2019

Mindfulness journey #2

The mindfulness journey is ongoing with some tweaks here and there. I have tried to be more intentional in my listening, to my kids, husband, friends. I meditate and do pranayama every day, for 20-30 minutes. Recently, I took up my drawing pencils and brushes again, to revive a long-ignored hobby. Nothing begets mindfulness as much as poring over thin brush strokes, petrified that a single shake of the hand will wipe away several hours of hard work!
I'm pretty sure it's the one thing that's helped me do better with keeping my temper in check. I still have a long way to go, but baby steps :) 
Some of my art-work: 

Sunday 16 June 2019

Reflections on 'hardship'

When I was 7 or 8 years old, we lived in Meerut and for days my mother slept with a kitchen knife under her pillow. Communal riots were common in Meerut and occasionally the entire city would be on edge due to an "incident", leading to riots. One night we sped across a handy connecting door into our landlord's house and huddled with his many kids and grandkids as a rampaging mob laid siege to the city. My father was away in Chennai and my mother was all alone with us. 

Last winter, S was away and at 4 am I leapt out of bed to find the burglar alarm going full blast and the back door thrown open. It turned out to be a false alarm but for several minutes, I sat on the stairs clutching a useless weapon (a heavy stone Buddha!), my heart thudding frantically in my chest, and cursing that I didn't have even half of the courage my mother possessed. 

Communal riots (not once but multiple experiences), 6.5 Richter earthquakes, accidents, life-threatening illnesses, deaths. When I think of all the bad stuff that my mom/parents have been through, I count myself lucky that I saw some of these happen when I was a child and not expected to behave like an adult or otherwise take responsibility for anything other than my own self.

My mild-mannered mother once took our landlord severely to task over some issue. I remember being astonished at her sudden bravery, and simultaneously proud that she was standing up to a bully who was taking advantage of her vulnerable single status (my father was working in the Middle East at the time).

It is not lost upon me that the hardships that many families faced as a matter of course in those days made the people involved stronger and incredibly resilient. Our grandparents and their parents did not have it easy, our parents may have had it somewhat better. As the next generation, mine had the advantages of a good education, a comfortable if not luxurious lifestyle and economic opportunities far surpassing anything our parents could have dreamed of. 

And our children have no conception of hardship. The experience of hardship is a half day spent wondering at the evil in man, at the Holocaust museum. The experience of hardship is volunteering at a homeless shelter once in a while. Not knowing what it was like growing up with frequent power outages, being bitten to death by mosquitoes, hanging on for dear life in public transport, having severe financial difficulties, no AC, and no telephones (what's that!) 

Yes, life is so good now. Yes, there will be hardships (who doesn't have those) but there are unlikely to be hard times.

I thought about this during a discussion in a Facebook group about our childhood, and how different it is for our kids. I commented that we hit the birth lottery a few decades ago, and so did our kids. Immensely grateful for the opportunities we had, and continue to have.

And we are done with the school year

Almost a year since we landed in the US, and a couple of days ago, we were done with the school year too. 
I remember my gut-wrenching anxiety in the months and days leading up to the start of the year. It has not been smooth sailing, but the kids have blazed through the year with aplomb, grace and confidence, making a fool of my paranoias and anxieties. I am so very proud of them and very glad to have been proved wrong once again! 
Ads got onto the honor roll two terms and received a prize for outstanding achievement in English. He has made a few friends, played a lot of cricket and recently, even started a new Science blog. Y has loved her teacher, her class and had a lot of fun the entire year. 
Ads will go to a new school (high school) in a couple of months and that will be a new experience entirely. I am sure I will have my usual anxiety attacks next year also, but fingers crossed he meets any challenges head-on with his usual quiet confidence.  

Monday 13 May 2019

Peru and our first foray into South America - Part 2

Part 1 of the Peruvian adventure is here.

Back from Machu Picchu, it was back to Cuzco and onward to our next adventure, in the Amazon rainforest.

Imagine flying to an airport called Puerto Moldonado. It's nothing but a large, asbestos-roofed shack and the minute you step out of the building, you just know you are in the tropics. The air is warm and sticky. It is a sea of green all around. The bus you are asked to get on in painted with bright toucans, jaguars and caimans :) 

The bus took us to the Rio Madre de Dios, which flows across Peru and Bolivia and is a sub-tributary of the Amazon. This river looks pretty powerful and impressive so I immediately wondered what the mighty Amazon would look like!

The journey had just begun. We were on a motorboat for 2 hours, in the middle of the Madre de Dios with lush and impenetrable green on both banks. The odd fishing boat was the only sign of any human habitation. Later I discovered that the rainforest occupied 60% of Peruvian land area and held only 5% of its population (no surprise there).

Our lodge was a large one and stuffed to the gills with European guests. It didn't have phones, mobile signal (there was a radio set for emergencies) and electricity would be available from 5-10 pm every night. There was limited electricity at other times, powered by solar panels. Three square meals a day in the communal dining room were fresh, local and delicious. We thought we would relax in the lodge after our busy schedule in the Andes, but that was not to be. Between long and short hikes and caiman-spotting excursions, there was barely time to snatch a few moments here and there to lie on a hammock and read.

One of the hikes was exhausting, the air still and stultifying, thick with humidity so that in minutes we were soaked with perspiration, our sunscreen and insect repellent-coated skins taking on an additional sheen of sweat :) The sun beat down on us so that we would be relieved whenever we were able to move into a patch of shade. We didn't see as much wildlife as we expected to, although always there was the slightly menacing sense of something breathing and observing us from behind all the thick foliage. Maybe it was just my overactive imagination!

The Amazon jungle is massive, majestic and utterly fascinating. Full of things (flora and fauna) that can bite, sting, cut and kill, it is also full of things that can heal and restore, as our guide demonstrated to us time and again. 

I was so glad that we saw two very different sides of Peru on this vacation, from the sublime and lofty Andes to the splendid Amazon. There remains much more to explore in this beautiful country, and hopefully we go back some day. 

Peru and our first foray into South America- Part 1

If Costa Rica and Peru are even a little bit representative of Latin America, I see a long love affair looming! So colourful, geographically diverse, beautiful and friendly! We choose Peru for our first South American foray for the simple reason that it doesn't require a visa for Indian citizens so long as you have a US or Schengen visa. Also, we wanted to see what the big fuss around Machu Picchu, was all about.

Now Peru, like most big countries, is a 10-15 day trip. I know people fly in to see Cusco and Machu Picchu (MP) and fly out, but that's a bit like seeing Delhi and Agra and pretending that's all there is to India. A nice taster and appetizer, but not the whole meal! The kids had the week off for spring break, and with the weekend on either side, we would have 9 days. Given the time taken to travel (with flights and layovers, we were losing a day on each side), I decided to pull them out from school for 2 days so that we would have 9 days in-country.

As it turned out, both kids went down with the flu one after another just the week before our departure and ended up missing the entire week of school. It was exhausting running up and down the stairs and to the doctor and pharmacy, dealing with fever, cold, pain and vomit for 2 kids, maniacally disinfecting all common surfaces and areas and praying that S and I don't catch the flu. Fortunately, since the kids had had their flu shots in the fall, this infection was not as bad as it could have been, and they were recovered well in time for our trip.

We flew to Lima on Copa Airlines via Panama city. We left at 10 am EST and reached Lima at 7.30 pm CST (Peru just being an hour behind DC time). Annoyingly, after such a long flight, we couldn't find our pickup/driver and after waiting for 30 minutes, decided to take an airport taxi to our hotel in Lima, where we had dinner and called it a night.

The next day, dawned bright and sunny. I had planned a self-guided walk along the cliff overlooking the Pacific ocean, and that occupied a couple of hours after breakfast. It was supposed to be a longish walk, but we had to cut it short because of the heat. I had packed for fall weather, with full sleeved tops and pants, and the warm weather caught me unawares. Poor Y kept asking me - "Why didn't you pack SUMMER clothes? I am so hot!!!"

The ocean views were pretty, and the parks were clean and crowded with fitness enthusiasts (it was nice to see a large group of women boxers).

The cliff path with a view of the Miraflores lighthouse

Relaxing at the "Love Park" 

After a quick lunch at a pizzeria where they served us with amazing veg pizza, we were off to a walking city tour led by Urban Adventures. We were the only people on the tour so it became a private walking tour. Our guide Paola led us through a food market, where we got to see and taste many of Peru's distinctive fruits and vegetables.

Chrimoya, a sweet and fleshy fruit

Granadilla, from the passion fruit family

Walking through the market 

A stop for gelato!

I had the lucuma gelato, which was a bit like tutti frooti and very yummy 
Some of the other Peruvian favourites, were toasted and salted corn (yummy!) and Inka Kola..and of course, the national drink, Pisco sour (alcohol content between 38% and 48% so definitely not my thing).

A crowded bus drive brought us to the Plaza de Armas, the main square in Lima, filled with gorgeous buildings- the Presidential Palace, the Basilica of San Pedro, the Archbishop's Palace etc.

We had a hard time getting back to the hotel. Apparently, Friday night traffic is not a problem only in Bangalore! It took ages to find a cab and we got caught in an epic traffic jam before being dropped at our hotel, settling in for an early night before our flight to Cusco the next morning.

Cusco (or Cuzco, Qusqu being the Quechua spelling) was the capital of the Incan kingdom for about 3 centuries until the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century. A gorgeous city with the ubiquitous Plaza de Armas, it took our breath away, quite literally (as it's the same altitude as Leh, around 3400 m above sea level!). 
Very few of the original Incan or pre-Incan buildings remain as the Spanish invaders razed everything to the ground. The pre-colonial buildings that remain are in ruins, some partly restored, a mute and sad testament to the ingenuity and technology of the Andean kingdoms that were native to the Sacred Valley (or Valle Sagrada). 

The kids and I missed the city tour as Y and I got a touch of altitude sickness and we stayed put at our hotel drinking copious amounts of coca leaves tea and staying hydrated. But we were fine the next day, which was good because the next 72 hours were super hectic as we whizzed through the Sacred Valley, covering Pisaq, Ollayantaytambo, Chinchero, and Machu Picchu, marvelling at the Anden civilization's mastery of astronomy, architecture, engineering, agricultural techniques and of course the sophisticated art and craft forms.  

I didn't quite know what to expect at Machu Picchu. You know the feeling when you've seen a place and read about it innumerable times? One is always anxious whether the real thing will live up to its promise. When we climbed up to the caretaker's hut, I almost let out a gasp. There it was! The "classic" pic of Machu Picchu, seen countless times in magazines and travel blogs. If possible, even more stunning in reality (though S went back the next morning and brought back more outstanding photos of the citadel in the mist and rain). 

But I go too fast. The train ride to Aguas Calientes (the base to pick up buses for Machu Picchu) is itself beautiful. The panoramic windows of the train allow for mostly unrestricted views, over a landscape of gushing water and high mountains, green (in April) with foliage.

The rest, contd in Part 2.