Thursday 30 November 2023

The Gratitude Project - Update 2023

A few years ago, we embarked on an ambitious “Gratitude project”. I was reading my old post where I wrote:

Our family is definitely more grateful for all that we have! We are closer, more connected, more mindful. I personally feel more centered and conscious when I am not fully present for the people that matter. I am more proactive about being in the moment and can reset quickly when I am not. For someone who tends to have a million different things running through her mind all the time, this has been a big achievement.

The children are more centered too. They have learned to articulate and contemplate their feelings and emotions better than before. Are they more empathetic? I don’t know, but they know they need to be! Are they more resilient? Only time will tell, though I strongly feel that their can-do attitude and calm courage while negotiating a big cross-continent transition this year, is due in big part to the Gratitude Project!”

Fast forward four years, where are we? It has been hard to keep the practice going, no doubt about that. The initial enthusiasm with which we began and pursued it in the first few years was bound to plateau as the kids became teenagers (hence less amenable to listening to us), and as the family dealt with the logistical challenges of different schedules. With daily gratitude circles, monthly meetings, and annual goal-setting sessions, the 2 MBAs in the house I fear managed to make it all feel like being in an office with KRAs and OKRs to get behind :)

I have also been reflecting on the myriad ways in which we talk about privilege, a word that is bandied about quite loosely nowadays but not something that was consciously thought about as my generation was growing up. Perhaps we didn’t have the vocabulary for it then; though in fact, I was a child of privilege as much as my parents were (as successive generations kept climbing up the privilege ladder). So to accuse my kids, not directly but subtextually of being privileged seems not just disingenuous but also ironical. I am trying not to do it. I understand that my generation was fortunate to reap extraordinary gains during a period of history when the rising tide lifted our boats higher than those of many others. We could attribute our material success to our incredible efforts and hard work and that makes a great story to tell our kids (as if they care!) but fact is we are as much the lucky winners of the birth lottery as they are. So ever so often if it seems that our kids are unconscious of their astounding luck and “entitled”, yes of course they are, wouldn’t you be in their place? They have no real understanding of what it took to get here; and telling them that grandfather walked barefoot 10 kilometers in the blazing son to go to school is like one of those Amar Chitra Katha stories- fascinating but nothing to do with their life :) 

So I bite my tongue when Y complains about how her English teacher hates her, even though I’d like to remind her, to put her problems in perspective, about the children suffering in Gaza. It’s taken me time to understand that gratitude and compassion can be cultivated without forcibly injecting privilege into the conversation. I have to hope that within the narrow confines of their current worlds, our kids have enough interactions with a wide enough range of people to understand their place in the world (being in public school helps). When Y tells me about her friends who cannot wear what they want, or who aren’t allowed to go out and socialize with their friends, or who have troubled family lives, she understands how privileged she is, and I expect she is grateful for it. 

Building the gratitude muscle in the kids has been a journey of letting my parenting evolve as well. So much of good parenting is “Show, not Tell”. So we make it obvious how we live life with an attitude of gratitude and hope that being a good(ish) role model will do the trick. Until then, we turn into irritating nags who insist that the family gathers for monthly meetings (and the kids are so good at deflecting these requests so that the meetings never happen). Last week, Y was annoyed that she and her brother were trapped in an impromptu “monthly meeting” in the car while we were waiting for our table to be ready at a restaurant. Conditions were perfect as it was brutally cold outside and we knew they wouldn’t just walk off :)

Monday 11 September 2023

College move-in

When Ads was a toddler, he was a stickler for routine (he still is). Predictability was key to avoid meltdowns so if there was going to be any disruption or even a minor change to his routine, we would proactively manage it and let him know what to expect. 

I am realizing now that he used the same tactics to prepare us for his departure. Slowly but surely, he has been disengaging himself from us for the last year or two. This summer, between his gym routine, summer job, cricket practice and matches, we barely saw him. He slank in and out of the house quietly and sometimes the only inkling I had of his arrival or (more likely) departure, was the sound of the garage door closing! 

It has now been 10 days since we dropped him off at college. We flew into Madison the previous evening, picked up all the stuff that I had shipped to my friend's place, unpacked and loaded into the car. We also had a nice Indian dinner with our friend. The next morning, we were up bright and early to make our 9 am move-in slot at the campus. The move-in was extremely smooth. We went into the dorm, discovered his roommate was already in the room, and got to work. Lofted the bed, unpacked the bags and in an hour almost everything was in place. Ads is lucky because his residence hall has no ACs in any of the rooms, except for his room! The fan I had ordered from Costco never arrived, so it was a good thing we had AC...I would have collapsed in the heat otherwise. Madison was baking in uncharacteristic 90 degree weather.

We had lunch in the dining hall, and made a quick trip to Target to stock up on essentials, and another trip to get him a credit card. Then back to the dorm, said goodbye and left him to his own devices. He had a house meeting that evening and seemed to want to be left alone. S and I headed to Memorial Union terrace to have some icecream and soon after, whom do we see, but Ads heading our way with some kids! Apparently, we were all going to the same place - a gathering of desi kids and parents on the terrace overlooking Lake Mendota. We parted ways again after that, but of course S always meets and knows people everywhere and there was a catchup of his BITS batchmates (5 of them have freshmen in Madison this year!). By the time we finished dinner and got back to the hotel, it was past 11 pm. It had been a very long day.

The next day, we did a tour of Epic Systems, a Madison institution (started by a Badger). Fantastic and quirky corporate campus. Lunch on campus, another quick catchup with Ads and it was time for a final goodbye before we drove to the airport. No tears, no drama, much to Ads' relief. 

And 10 days later, he seems to be doing well and so are we! Proud he has settled in so well and hope he does well at school, makes a lot of new friends and feels good about his choice. His dorm has been great about organizing events almost everyday so that has helped break the ice (not all dorms do it). He is playing tennis everyday, and hanging out with people. With more than 8000 freshmen, there are a lot of people to meet! 

Tuesday 22 August 2023

Match-ing matching

6570 days. Of loving safeguarding observing teaching listening and letting go. 

Learning to be vigilantly nonchalant, lovingly tough, fearfully confident; never graduating to beyond the advanced beginner level. Parenting is full of oxymoronic situations!

As Advaith turns 18, I’ve been reflecting on how I (we) did. Did we equip him with everything he needs as he travels to college and beyond? Did we teach him to be independent but not be afraid to ask for help; to be confident but humble; to be kind and helpful but establish the right boundaries; to advocate for himself but spare a thought for others? 

Suddenly, a lightbulb moment-  how could I have missed this!

"Ads," - I yell - "do you know how to strike a match?"

My son looks at me with a resigned expression, which reads - What random question is this woman throwing at me now?

"Of course I know, Ma", he dismisses me.

"Ok, how?"

"I know it ok? You do the thing with the thingy."

"Can you come here and show me how you do the thing with the thingy please?" I insist. 

"When am I ever going to use a match Ma?" He whines.

"I don't know, but please learn how to, right now."

Anyway, it’s clear he’s never used one before but after a couple of tries, he lights a match, throws it down in disgust, and walks off.

Mission accomplished!

Feeling ok with being looked down upon by one’s progeny - literally and figuratively - is also a key parenting skill!

As I keep reminding my kids - your brains aren't fully developed until you are 25. And I have a 30 years head start on you guys!

Sunday 20 August 2023

Getting closer to move -in day

Ads turns 18 in a few days. I started blogging exactly 15 years ago, just as he was starting preschool in the Bay Area. It feels surreal to know that in less than a fortnight, he will be in college and in his dorm and we will be hundreds of miles away. It feels like he has done a very good job of becoming increasingly independent over the last couple of years, and in some ways, it feels like he has pushed us away ever-so-gently, which will hopefully make the separation process a little easier. As a parent whose primary aim has always been to make herself redundant, this is especially gratifying and gives me the feeling of having been successful. 

Over the past few months, I have been reflecting on my mothering journey with Ads and feeling thankful as I always do for how easy he made it for us. He has always been low-maintenance, a no-fuss, no-drama kid. Very accommodating and adaptable, and in his own way affectionate and caring. All of us grow with our kids and Ads gave me a window into how to be your own person. He is someone who is barely affected by peer pressure and doesn't much care about what others think of him. He doesn't use social media, or play video games. He reads a lot, plays, watches, and reads a lot of cricket, and is a sci-fi buff. We've drummed into him the importance especially now as he heads to college, to be better at social interactions, to network more, to become more interested in other people. I am sure the next 4 years will be transformative for him and I can't wait to see the new version (Ads 2.0, if you will) of this young man!

Thursday 9 March 2023

Musing on suffering

Over the last year and months, many of my closest friends have been suffering - either the prolonged illness and death of a parent, or scary illnesses and surgeries of close family members, and in several cases a perfect storm of multiple such issues descending upon the family. So much heartbreak, and suffering. Part of it is just all of us hitting middle age and sandwiched between aging parents with health issues, and teenage kids with their own problems, at a time when our own bones are creaking and our bodies in most cases are slowing down. As so many of my friends exclaim - "All we seem to do is talk about health issues and doctors!"

Then just today, I was invited to attend the memorial service of the son of someone I know. This more-than-an-acquaintance, less-than-a-friend, is in his 60s and his 30-something son took his own life a year ago, after struggling for several years with a mental illness. The (Zoom) service began with a slideshow of the son's life. Looking at the happy smiling family pictures, I almost tore up. Even though I never knew the son and don't know the dad all that well, I could connect with the unimaginable pain and the rush of emotions he must be experiencing at the moment. And of course, as a parent, you can identify with the loss at a cellular level. As I was watching the slideshow, my phone pinged, and seeing it was an email from Ads' school, I immediately opened it. The principal was notifying the school community about the death of one of the students today. Even Ads had not heard about it and this was yet another heartbreaking news to top off the day.

I almost didn't attend the service but I am glad I didn't skip it. My friend's eulogy for his son was very moving. Being in solidarity with him and listening to his heartfelt words, even if only virtually, gave me a fresh reminder of how often we just sleepwalk through life, overvaluing a lot of things that don't mean much on your deathbed, even while undervaluing all the little joys and triumphs of daily life. What are the values we want to live by? Is this an issue I want to go to battle over? What will make the other person happy, while making me not-unhappy?

When people around you are dealing with life-threatening illnesses or the loss of a loved one, it's impossible not to feel grateful for all the good things happening in your life. Our life becomes much more meaningful once we practice gratitude so regularly it becomes like muscle memory. 

At the same time, I feel I am also getting impatient with problems that seem self-inflicted, superficial or just plain silly. And that's not a nice empathetic state of being. Edith Eger, in her thought-provoking book "The Choice", has this to say:

I also want to say that there is no hierarchy of suffering. There’s nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we can plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another. People say to me, “Things in my life are pretty hard right now, but I have no right to complain—it’s not Auschwitz.” This kind of comparison can lead us to minimize or diminish our own suffering.

One morning I saw two patients back to back, both mothers in their forties. The first woman had a daughter who was dying of hemophilia. She spent most of her visit crying, asking how God could take her child’s life. I hurt so much for this woman—she was absolutely devoted to her daughter’s care, and devastated by her impending loss. She was angry, she was grieving, and she wasn’t at all sure that she could survive the hurt.

My next patient had just come from the country club, not the hospital. She, too, spent much of the hour crying. She was upset because her new Cadillac had just been delivered, and it was the wrong shade of yellow.

On the surface, her problem seemed petty, especially compared to my previous patient’s anguish over her dying child.....

I realized that day how much my two patients, who appeared so different, had in common—with each other and with all people everywhere. Both women were responding to a situation they couldn’t control in which their expectations had been upended. Both were struggling and hurting because something was not what they wanted or expected it to be; they were trying to reconcile what was with what ought to have been.

Wise words. I'm afraid I am not there yet! And sometimes I feel I don't want to be. Some people, I just want to knock them on their heads and say "Get a grip. Don't whine. Just think of actions and solutions, you'll be fine."

Of course, I would never actually say that. But I can't promise not to think it!

Monday 2 January 2023

Dois Irmaos

I had read about the Dois Irmaos (Two brothers) hike in Rio on many blogs and I pinged our travel agent to ask if he would arrange for us to do a sunrise hike to the mountain. To my surprise, he flatly refused. "Not a sunrise hike, Aparna. We can do a daytime one, though." To get up in time for the sunrise, which in Rio is at 5 am, we would have to leave our hotel by 3 am. The trailhead to the hike is accessed through a Favela (slum) and Adam, our agent, was adamant that it was too risky to go wandering around in that area in the wee hours. He launched into a big tirade about guns/drugs/the mafia/shootouts and how he could not take responsibility. 

So we started off around 9 am with Sergio (our guide for the day). Sergio is probably 15 years or more older than me, but much fitter, as would become obvious later! We took an Uber to the favela. A bunch of guys in yellow reflective jackets each sitting on a motorbike started hounding us for our custom as soon as we got out of the Uber. We picked a mototaxi each and the bikes took off. Up the steep hill, zipping through traffic with abandon and taking corners at great speed, it was quite an adventure! 

The favelas in Brazil don't look like Indian slums. If anything, they look like lower middle-class housing in India. So the sense of abject poverty that you get in Indian slums, is definitely missing. Many of them, at least in Southern Rio, lie on the sides of the mountains so they have spectacular views of the beaches, ocean, and mountains.  We passed through a community football ground where a heated game was in progress. The trailhead lay inside the Tijuca National Forest, the largest urban forest in the world, bang in the center of the city. The Government has taken up a lot of reforestation initiatives, introducing native plants and trees to the habitat.

The trail itself is short (1.5 km only) but belies the distance by being extremely steep. It took us about 45 minutes to get up the hill, Sergio agilely leading the way and me bringing up the rear, huffing and puffing. At periodic intervals, Sergio would look back at me encouragingly. "Almost there!" he would exclaim. I stopped listening to him after the fourth time. Along the trail, there were 2 enterprising lads from the favela who had lugged up ice-cold drinks for thirsty hikers, at captive pricing of course! 

The view from the top? I'll let the pictures do the talking. 

We headed back down the trail, exchanging smiles and Feliz Natals with the cold drink vendors, back through the football ground, another hair-raising mototaxi ride down the hill, to a shop selling what looked like bhaturas (turned out to deep fried cheese puris) and..... bliss....fresh sugarcane juice! I needed that sugar fix and for 5 Reais (US$1), we could get unlimited refills. 

Definitely an unmissable part of the Rio experience!

Brazil #1

"God is Brazilian" - the people of this country like to say. One can almost believe it; that it could be no alchemy of geography and climate, but only a divine hand that could have endowed this land with such an indecently large share of natural treasures. To counteract which, as one of our guides wryly observed "We have our politicians!" 

The tiny part of the country that we managed to see in a week or so is swoon-worthy alright. Rio's setting is spectacular, a picture-perfect composition between the South Atlantic Ocean, Guanabara Bay, and the Atlantic rainforest.

What really stood out for me though were the people. Our family usually blends in quite well in Latin America, but in Brazil, there is such a wide range of skin tones that no one could tell we were NOT Brazilian (until they started jabbering to us in Portuguese, at which point it was clear we weren't even from the same continent!). It's not that there is no racism in Brazil but there has been such a long history of miscegenation and "racial democracy" is such an ingrained part of their national identity, that race is simply not a part of the national conversation as it is in the US and other countries. 

And the body positivity!!!! I was very impressed with how Brazilians of every size shape color and age own and rock their itsy-bitsy bikinis (I rarely saw anyone in a modest one-piece swimsuit; if I did, likely they were foreigners). Not just women but men too. From 80+ year old grandmothers and grandfathers to tiny kids, from the morbidly obese to the size zeros, whether suffering from postpartum stretch marks or the unfortunate effects of gravity;I guess this is what comes of a lifetime of wearing the minimum of clothing and knowing no one cares or judges what you look like. 

Keep calm, sip a caipirinha and watch the sun go down in Copacabana :)  

Also, even purist Tamilians will find it hard to complain about the coffee :) 


Arpoador. In Portuguese, it means "Harpoon thrower". In the 16th and 17th centuries, this rock was where the indigenous people of Brazil and the Portuguese settlers would harpoon whales. Today it is THE spot to view the famous South Atlantic Sunsets in Rio. 

We arrived well in time for the 6.45 pm sunset, found a good spot, and perched uncomfortably on the hard rock. The husband went to the very edge of the rock to guarantee unobstructed views. Y plugged in her Airpods and immersed herself in a musical world. Ads, irritated that we were a full 30 minutes early for the big event, pulled out his phone as well. 

I elected to people-watch. Next to us, a young couple was cootchie-cooing inside a warm blanket.  A little ahead, another couple was fiddling with some complicated pieces of equipment to get the best shots of themselves with the falling sun. A woman about my age tied her flip-flops around her arm and gingerly made her way down the rock, away from the rapidly swelling crowd, to sit in solitary splendor at a 90-degree angle to the sunset. I would have loved to click a picture of her, so regal she looked illuminated in a glowing haze of yellow. In the water, surfers were riding the waves with varying degrees of competence. In front of me, Morro Dois Irmaos (the two brothers' mountain) leaped up from the waters, their jagged peaks in sharp relief against the orange sky. "Agua, Agua Coco!" yelled a young man walking in between the crowds, paying scant heed to the view. He had probably seen hundreds like this one and was intent on selling his water and coconut water before the crowds dispersed. 

The kids woke up from their phones. "It's really pretty", Y remarked and started clicking photos. As the sun slowly sank into the ocean, clapping burst out all around us. Ads looked at me in wonder "Why are they clapping?"

"It's a tradition here. I read about it", I told him. 

That evening, there were probably 200 or more people on the Arpoador, waiting for the sunset. Yes, many were on their phones, and many were posting about the experience even as it happened.  #stunningsunset 

There were foreigners like us, and Cariocas too. There were rich people from Leblon and Ipanema and poor people from the favelas. There were families, people in love, kids, and people having deep conversations with others and themselves. There were also people making a living selling coconut water. 

But for 45 minutes, all we did was sit on a rock and wait patiently for that most common yet most timeless of daily events, a sunset. For a brief moment, even the avid surfers just bobbed along with their boards, their bodies and eyes turned towards the horizon. And when it finally happened, all of us clapped, in delight and wonder, and okay....because everyone else was doing it :) 

I could tease some "universal human experience" gyaan out of this but what I really learned from it was that one must always always clap for a sunset :) Oh and sunrise too, why not?!