Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around


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Family recipes

There is no better classroom
 than the family table
 – Kaye Earle

My grandmother used to tell me a story of a shy young girl who was asked what she would do if she got pregnant. “I will run away to the forest” was her reply. I didn’t understand the life lesson embedded in this tiny tale then. The fact that you cannot run away from yourself or the situation you are in. Your life follows you. Your life defines you. Your life is YOU.

My life recently has been one of upheaval – in a good way.

I have remarried, moved to a new country, taken on responsibility for another child and promised to love my husband, for all the years we have in this life. I have a lot on my plate and as I contemplate what it holds, it feels overwhelming, sometimes. A marriage, however well-thought out and a marinade, even with a recipe, are activities (and words) that require more than a pinch of commitment and a dash of time. To flower, a marriage needs trust, an ingredient not readily available on a shelf in the department store. To reach its final perfect flavor, a marinade requires constant attention, not accessible on any online shopping portal. Trust takes time and attention requires commitment.

Did I just use a food analogy to describe my life? My attitude towards food has always been simple. Food is essential, sustains life, gives pleasure. I treat food preparation and consumption with the same respect with which I treat anything that adds meaning to my life, like books, music and yoga. I make time for it, I give it my full attention and I stay open to feedback. But now food has taken center stage. Trying to meld the palates, eating habits and preferences of four highly opinionated and diverse individuals has not been easy. A fitness-focused husband, an appearance conscious teenager and a health-unconscious preteen make for a challenging audience. Instead of being at their mercy, I prefer to think of myself as the matriarch (fancy word for mother hen), who controls the family’s food choices. That explains the preoccupation (if not obsession) with food. If I am not checking out recipes, I am discussing them with other like-minded women and in the remaining time, I cook. How the mighty girl who argued for abolishment of gender stereotypes in her teens and showed no interest in cooking has fallen? I am sure my mom is having a good laugh from heaven.

I love my new life – a family of four, a supportive spouse and an enabling space. I really do. If things were any different (i.e. I had a full time job), I wouldn’t give much thought or time to cooking. But life has a way of throwing you challenges in the very areas you choose to sideline but are essential for your growth. For me, right now it is food. Oh, I can cook. I have watched Masterchef shows on TV. I own cookbooks. I have held on to hand-written recipes passed down by my mother. With all the experience behind me, I am still a novice chef, trying novel ingredients, exploring new techniques, catching some disasters before they happen while nursing wounds that arise from preventable errors. As I figure out lunch for four or a dinner party for fifteen, I find myself using a fusion of tried-n-tested approaches and innovative methods.

Food doesn’t define my life. My choices do. In life, as in a kitchen equipped with a refrigerator and pantry full of ingredients, I am handed a hand of cards and a set of tools. What I bring with me is my imagination and commitment. How I use what I have depends on what I know, what I have learned and a little bit of faith. What I create depends a little on my craft (life experience) but mostly on my attitude. When I use my optimism to push forward in a direction that seems right but has no precedent, I do much better than when I follow a rigid recipe that has been successful for others.

As Annie Dillard puts it – How we spend our days is of course, how we spend our lives.

The days blur together, indistinguishable, brushed with the dullness of monotony. But life is still interesting, particularly when viewed in hindsight. As I try a new cuisine, tweak an existing recipe or pull together a contemporary take on a traditional offering, I am creating a meal, crafting a life. My days are the building blocks that constitute my life. And my attitude to each day is the theme that will define it. As I make little choices each day about feeding my family, I weave a ribbon that holds the days together, defining our life as a family.

Recipes are not just written instructions for preparing a delicious feast; recipes define an approach to living. As I try to recreate a traditional recipe that my mother used to make specially for me, I am transported to a time when I stood beside her, seeking her advice on an important matter. I forget what the matter was but I can feel her love in the gentle but firm response that she gave me. I wrote down the recipe but imbibed her spirit. A loving, supporting way of parenting. I didn’t take notes, but I hope I memorized it well. A family recipe is not intended to be a flash in the pan, only time will tell if I got it right.

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Why I am not on Facebook

I wonder if being on Facebook would have helped me feel any different.

I didn’t attend my college reunion this weekend.

The reasons to go were many:

  • Good networking opportunity
  • An impromptu holiday of sorts
  • Have fun stepping back in time, becoming teenagers once again

And the reasons for not going:

  • the usual – its expensive, involves international travel, takes away from family time
  • the not so unusual – I haven’t really kept in touch with most of my classmates, I can’t see myself spending an entire weekend with a large number of “almost strangers”
  • the personal – going to Mumbai (or Bombay as I will always think of it) makes me sad

I made my peace with my choice (or so I thought) until the day arrived. And the Whatsapp group that is normally filled with juvenile jokes or trite feel-good quotes now had pictures and hourly updates.

I recognized many friends who I had seen everyday for four years but not for over two decades and puzzled over others. I confirmed my stereotypical notions about some and was genuinely surprised at the transformation in others.

I could have been in that group picture with the million-watt smiles. I wished I had seen that sunrise view personally at the beautiful hill resort. I wanted to compare notes, rehash memories, laugh without a care, fit in and fill up shamelessly on nostalgia.

blue doorI would have hugged the only woman in the group who now boldly sported her gray hair but once was the short-haired girl who had kindly included me into her little group as I stood undecided the first day, lost in a new environment. I would have thanked the ones who had watched aghast as my teeth chattered in class one afternoon, classic “fever and chills” symptoms of malaria, but accompanied me home anyway. The reunion would have been akin to stepping through a door into a different time and place altogether. I may have found answers to some mysteries and the true stories behind some legends. I could have marveled at the ones who had held on to their child-like innocence and the ones who had grown up. I would have been amazed at the awkward ducklings who had turned into glamorous swans and good-looking guys who were now just balding middle-aged men.

Why are you not on Facebook? People ask me quite often; people who don’t know me are the ones who ask. I don’t have an acceptable response for them. People have known me from the pre-Facebook era, don’t need to ask. I like my privacy and as a corollary I like to offer the same to others. I am willing to listen, encourage, appreciate or offer advice if approached personally. Frequent and public Facebook updates consisting of pictures of romantic getaways, display of branded luxury items and flattering in designer outfits fall in the same category as celebrity gossip magazines that I read while waiting at the dentists office. It provides me a minor distraction. I am no closer to understanding the celebrity after I have read the article and seen the glossy full page photographs.

About the reunion, the questions foremost on my mind were – how far had each one travelled and how close were their ties today? How many years of catching up did they have to do? Did they relax in each other’s company, recreating a simpler time of life when all we had to do was attend college and stay out of trouble? Or was it a face to face one-upmanship competition, verifying the glamorous pictures posted online, sharing details of exotic holidays and showing off the accomplishments of offspring? Did they slip back into past behavior patterns or did they hold on to their hard-earned sophisticated personas? Did the ones who lived abroad show off their polished exteriors or did the ones who spent all the intervening years in the same giant metropolis bring out the local accent amongst the non-residents?

There was so much I wanted to know. Was I the only one feeling a little stupid and left out? Like me, about half the class had now shown up. Was my acute bout of “What if” an unnatural reaction? Perhaps I felt more lost than others precisely because I was not on Facebook. From Facebook, I would have known how many had kids in Ivy league colleges, who had travelled to the maximum number of countries in the world, who had received a top award in the field and who had married into the right family. But Facebook would not have told me the things I would have  liked to know. How many were struggling with their teenagers, who had been laid off, how did one come to terms with the loss of their parents and who had walked out of an unhappy marriage. The humanness that underlines all our lives is what interests me. Facebook would have given me information and visuals but not wisdom and insight. Insights are arrived at after you invest in the object of your attention, engage your senses, be fully present to them so that your intuition can surface. For those who matter to me, I would like to give them all that. For others, my prompt “likes” and prolonged silences are of no significance.

By not being there, I missed the chance to meet old friends and evaluate if those friendships were worth reviving or filing away like sepia prints in the album of life. By not being there I lost an opportunity to perhaps share the story of my life honestly and thereby prompt a more complete disclosure from others. By not being there, I was unable to complete one loop in the circle of my life.This is what I mourned as I smiled at the pictures of my classmates being silly, funny and full of life. My sentiments echoed those of Frank Underwood  (season 1 of House of Cards) in his speech at his alma mater:

Harmony. It’s not about what’s lasting or permanent. It is about individual voices coming together. For a moment. And that moment lasts, the length of a breath. That’s what I think about my time here.

Will I get on Facebook in order to keep in touch? I don’t think so. Passive curiosity is not what drives me, it’s active concern for those who made a mark in my life. The ones who are important continue to do so, with or without Facebook. For that I am grateful.


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A mom who sings

You cannot teach a child any more than you can grow a plant. All you can do is on the negative side—you can only help. It is a manifestation from within; it develops its own nature—you can only take away obstructions – Swami Vivekananda

A little bird flew into my balcony last week. It seemed content to rest for a few minutes until it started flapping its wings to take off. It would look around, muster the energy needed to lift itself and fly out, only to hit the transparent 3 foot glass barrier. I wondered if it was injured, or too weak to make a higher vertical flight upwards and outwards. I watched as it made multiple attempts, titled its head sideways, puzzled about the invisible wall that prevented it from flying free. I couldn’t help, only watch and send encouragement wordlessly as it continued its struggle.

I think about that bird as I sit cross-legged on a carpet on the floor. The iphone app which plays the notes to define our scale drones in an infinite loop in the background. Our teacher sits facing us. She is younger than her students, three adults, who have signed up for a beginners class in Indian classical music. She is patient, encouraging and supportive. She sings a phrase and asks each of us to repeat. My classmates do it, shakily but correctly. I hesitate, stop midway, look around embarrassed. “Don’t think” she admonishes, “just sing”. But how can I?

I can’t “just sing”. What if I make a mistake? I will make a fool of myself. People will snigger. I am not generally shy. Put me in front of a large audience, I can speak coherently without missing a beat. But singing. Ah, that’s something else altogether.

Is it my age that limits me? Not in a physical way. I didn’t learn singing at a young age. But years of conditioning, failed expectations, public humiliation and negative feedback have all conspired to create a mountain of obstacles too high to scale. How wonderful it is to learn something new in childhood, a time when every activity is taken as a game, with no grades, no targets, no comparison? Learning that happens subconsciously, proficiency that is developed with innumerable repetitions without any hint of self-consciousness, is the best kind. Have I missed the opportunity altogether?

There is no pressure in this classroom. The lady with the business suit who comes to class straight from work, the man who has no exposure to music but approaches it wholeheartedly, we are all fellow seekers, expanding our world by stepping out of our comfort zones. I know that. But I can feel the tension at the bottom of my stomach, a catch in my throat as I try to sing. I take a deep breath, close my eyes and focus on the notes I hear. I try to obliterate the stimuli around me. I make a minor error. The teacher moves on to the next student. I relax.

How much of one’s learning is acquisition of new knowledge and how much of it is letting go of everything extraneous – fears, biases, beliefs?

I remember watching DQ take her first tentative steps a few days after her first birthday. I had been watching her prepare for the big day for months. Pulling herself upright from a sitting position, holding on to a surface as she moved one foot in front of the other, slowly letting go of one hand. Each step towards independence was marked by many falls, some painful, others funny as she mastered various surfaces and textures. The first day she walked across the room without support was an important one for me but just another day for a child of that age. DQ started walking everywhere the very next day, giving no thought to the crawling expertise that she had left behind. Children learn quickly because they focus on the task. They gain expertise as they apply hours of practice to hone their skills. They forgive themselves when they trip or miss a beat. They don’t doubt that they will eventually master the activity no matter how long it takes. I spend more time explaining how busy I am and why I cannot spare more time to practice. I hesitate to display my half-baked talent to others, harsher on myself than the world will ever be. I wonder if I will ever develop proficiency in this. Why am I wasting my time? Instead of building my confidence I am losing what little faith I had in my musical ability.

If Swami Vivekananda’s quote “Education is the manifestation of the perfection already in man” is true, I have a long way to go. For a child, the core of perfection can come to fruition more easily as it is not buried under layers of doubt and criticism. At my age, the seed of musical aptitude that resides in me, is striving to flower, to push its way out through the resistance that marks adulthood. Being a parent has shown me how easy it is to adapt to a new way of living.
I am that bird, limited by my own perceptions. I can sing, just as that tiny bird can fly. There is a period of learning, a long road to perfecting the art. Yes, there are barriers, but there is an easier way than crashing repeatedly into a glass pane. I must first acknowledge the effort involved but instead of accepting defeat, I can step aside and find a gap in the barrier and allow myself to soar, just like that bird.


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It’s not about the money

Money won’t create success, the freedom to make it will – Nelson Mandela

I can’t put my finger on it. This lingering sense of disquiet, an emptiness, a longing.

Is it the waiting? “Waiting” is not my favorite status. Waiting patiently is excruciating. Waiting with no end in sight is almost impossible. That is exactly what I am doing right now. Waiting for a job, to be gainfully employed. To do meaningful work that also pays.

Is it the lack of a regular income? I like making my own money and have been self-sufficient financially from the time I left my parents home. Money represents value for my time and skills. Money helps pay for mundane but necessary stuff – DQ’s college tuition, HH’s birthday present, travel and bling.

Is it because I am unemployed? Work gives me a focus for my attention, an outlet for my energy and the opportunity to complete a job to my satisfaction. I meet people, I contribute to something outside of my little world and I find balance in the multiple personas that I juggle.

Is it because I have to list my occupation as “housewife”? Although my own mother was happy to be one, I always knew that my work would distinguish me from her and so many others. Housewife indicates an area of specialization on the home front, a level of expertise which I am sure I will never acquire even if I spend more years with the title.

Is it a consequence of spending so much time at home? I appreciate the rewards of solitude but not the hours spent in solitary confinement as most weekdays seem to be. I turn on the TV during lunch just to have voices around me, how depressing!

A critical ingredient that completes the recipe of my life is missing, something small and insignificant by itself, like salt, but one that adds flavor and zest to everything else.

If I seem to be bitching about the life of privilege I am currently leading, I agree. Sometimes I feel I am being unnecessarily grumpy about a phase which I know will pass like all the ones before this one.

I find myself unhappy when I am a human “being”. I would much rather be a human “doing”. I prefer to be actively pursuing something, moving towards a tangible goal, not necessarily a material one. Striving for something, self-improvement, personal development or whatever you call it, seems to be a worthy way of living. Passive existence is lame, as a teenager may label it. If I look back at my life, there have been times of intense activity followed by a period of dormancy. Not of my choice but brought about by circumstances. How often have I waited for an event, a milestone, like a child on Christmas morning, piling all my hopes on it? And how many times have I learnt (in retrospect of course) that the very same object of my fascination becomes superfluous, a burden even, inciting a reverse activity of sorts, to change things again?

There was that time when I waited impatiently for my green card. I thought it would solve all my problems. It made life a little bit easier for a few years once I got it. But a few years later, I found myself turning it in to the officer at the US consulate in India who accepted it wordlessly. The green card no longer served any purpose for the life I was living. My life got simpler without it.

About a decade back, I left my lucrative job in San Francisco, confident of taking a well-deserved break after the move back to India. I didn’t have a job. I was in a new city with no friends, no income, no specific goal. It was a painful wait. One day I landed a great job and the life of leisure I had envisioned soon morphed into an overwhelming work life remarkably similar to the one that I had left behind in another continent. I resigned from that job after a few years, choosing to make my own way, not employed by a giant corporate but being my own boss, the much-anticipated job cast aside easily.

As I look at career options in Singapore, exasperated by the lack of opportunities, I fret, I clam up, I vent my pent-up frustration. It’s not just about the money. It’s the lack of prospects. A part of me knows that what I yearn for now will be just another episode in the drama of my life. I need the structure and support of work that confers financial independence to the insecure me, the one who had once been left to fend for herself and her child. I need a physical space, a productive place where I interact with people and get rewarded for doing what I am good at.

Just as salt added to the food we eat unites the flavors, money is the key ingredient that gives a material dimension and a quantitative perspective to our work. A little is nice, just the right amount makes life easier but a whole lot more is neither necessary nor good.

So I wait – impatiently perhaps, while the next act unfolds, anxious for a honest day’s work.