Starting Over

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


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Channeling angst

“Orson Welles as Harry Lime: The Third Man”

“….in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Is angst essential for creativity? If yes, does a peaceful period causes a creative vacuum?

I have been feeling a little stuck with my writing lately. No topic moves me sufficiently to write. It could be just a phase, a bout of lethargy that comes over me for no reason; a period of calm that intersperse intense rounds of warfare in strife zones. Like many writers, I write to understand, both the outer and inner worlds that I navigate each day. Some days, life chugs along smoothly like a car on cruise control. Days with clear roads, pleasant weather, and great visibility – easy days devoid of memorable moments. Then there are days when DQ is defiant, Princess is resistant and HH is self-absorbed. A day that starts with a loud thundershower, an afternoon when a monkey climbs into my kitchen (on the seventh floor!) and ends in an evening with no response from any of the job openings I applied for. I hate those days but feelings of helplessness, righteous rage, inadequacy, self-pity, all serve as catalysts for my writing. The adrenaline rush gives me a feeling of purpose, an artificial high that pumps creativity through my system.

Why do writers write? Since the time mankind started capturing thoughts in written words, I am sure every topic under the sun has been adequately covered, more eloquently than I ever could and with greater insight than I have at this moment. Why do I even bother to write?

I write to untangle the jumbled web of thoughts that constantly stream around in my head. With my words, I unravel the threads of disparate narratives that crisscross in front of my mind’s eye, like scenes from different movies playing in random order. During particularly trying times, the screen seems unnaturally clear, as if the personal crisis has granted me perfect vision, a tool to sort out my internal machinery. Perhaps it is an emotional extension of the body’s physical fight or flight instinct for survival that kicks in as needed to preserve life. I write to preserve my sanity.

I first started writing when I was overwhelmed by guilt at working full time after DQs birth. Sleep-deprived, hormonally unbalanced, emotionally distraught – the words came out of me as apologies to my little girl. Only when I wrote down my rambling thoughts did I make sense of my seemingly contradictory desires to be fulfilled personally and professionally.

“Into each life some rain must fall” and I have had my fair share. When the storm clouds gather and I wonder which way it will blow, for how long and how hard, that’s when my senses are at high alert, not just to the cues outside but to the internal radar that serves as my guide. Under that rain-soaked cloud, cloaked in the hazy half-light, I have my moments of clarity. Epiphanies abound. Learning is accelerated. A spiritual growth spurt occurs. Accompanied by a strong urge to preserve that experience in words.

I have had periods of remarkable stability as well. Phases where I felt I was in control – of my day, of my life, of my moods. I have been shaped by these quietly introspective months as well as the momentous upheavals of major life events. Perhaps I have written less during the peaceful phases because my ideas needed a time of gestation to mature, to coalesce into some inchoate form that could then be identified and named. Life has been a continuous process of learning, letting go and relearning. My writing is not a final polished product but a witness to the process of my growth.

As Anna Quindlen’s protagonist Rebecca Winter in “Still life with bread crumbs” puts it

“Then when she really thought about it she realized she’d been becoming different people for as long as she could remember but had never really noticed, or had put it down to moods, or marriage, or motherhood. The problem was that she’d thought that at a certain point she would be a finished product. Now she wasn’t sure what that might be, especially when she considered how sure she had been about it at various times in the past, and how wrong she’d been.”

 With each wave, a gentle surf or a tsunami, I change and evolve. With each turn of the road, I choose my path and my attitude. With each chapter of my life, I write my book.

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A tale of two names

I have always had two names – two first names, two last names. Many people call me by the name my mother gave me, the one she had decided as a teenager to give to her future daughter. This is the name I share with a soulful melody in Indian classical music. The other name was important for many years; it was the name by which my schoolteachers and college friends addressed me. This name originally belonged to my father’s sister, the one who died young. The name my mother refused to accept, fearful of any misfortune that might come my way by making this choice. Torn between the wishes of wife and mother, my dad did what he thought was reasonable. He made both names official. And saddled his only daughter with dual identities. Although not born under the Gemini sun sign, I felt like that there were two parts of me; complementary, not congruent.

When it was time for me to get married, several years after my paternal grandmother passed away, there came a time to decide. I could choose to rearrange my names and take the same last name as my new husband. I was undecided. Dad stepped in again. I needed a passport to travel abroad to join my husband. With the brand new marriage certificate in hand, he officially changed my name again. My shiny passport had my picture but belonged to a stranger. The two first names switched places but stayed. I now had a new last name.

My new name marked my entry into a foreign country. Here I was a wife. As if that wasn’t strange enough, I was once again a student but now my graduate school classmates called me by the same name that I was called at home. With time, I grew into my name and life grew like a tightly wrapped shell around this central kernel of my identity. I published scientific papers, acquired a green card and later wrote freelance articles for local magazines. As far as my name went, my personal and professional identities finally merged. I was no longer the split twin. Years later, I checked the spelling on the document that the social worker showed me in the hours after DQ’s birth to ensure that the name I picked for DQ was spelt correctly. It was no surprise to see that our new family of three was united in one way; we bore the same last name.

The story so far is a standard one. A life defined by a name, a name conferred by someone other than me. I didn’t get to pick the name but I could decide what the person who bore the name did. Like many women before me, some who kept their maiden name, the ones who agonized about their decision to take on their husband’s name either at the time of the wedding or after the birth of their children, I lived within the confines of social mores, not over-thinking the consequences of my name in a future I could not foresee.

It has been several years since DQ’s dad and I divorced. I have continued to use the name that was on my first passport, the name that I had identified with in adulthood, the name that I have the legal right to hold on to, irrespective of my marital status. I kept the name for the same reason I had taken it in the first place, it was just easier to do so. As a single parent and the primary one, it marked DQ and me as a unit. As a career woman, it maintained the continuity of my professional credentials. Now that I am remarried, is my name an asset or a liability? Is it a possession that belongs to my ex or a reminder of another time, permanently etched to my identity?

Like GPS coordinates, my two last names pointed to my location on the planet for equal number of years. A name after all is a label; as personal as “sweetheart” that my husband calls me and as distant as “hey you” that a stranger in a crowd may utter to address me. But a name is more than a label. It is an inheritance from your parents that is uniquely your own. It is the primary way in which you respond to the world and the lens through which the world sees you. It defines you, shapes you and grounds you. It is the one right you take for granted, from the time you start interacting with society.

Over 25 years ago, author Anna Quindlen wrote about holding on to her maiden name after marriage “…. it so happens that when it came to changing my name, there was no consideration, rational or otherwise. It was mine. It belonged to me. I don’t even share a checking account with my husband. Damned if I was going to be hidden beneath the umbrella of his identity.” Although she felt left out when she had children who bore the same last name as her husband, she declared, “I made my choice. I haven’t changed my mind. I’ve just changed my life.”

A fellow blogger wrote recently about deciding to take on her husband’s name after having two children. “It will draw me, on paper, into the fold of our little foursome. We will be our unit. I don’t know why it matters to me that the world sees that. But for some reason, it does. I want the world to know we’re a little family of four. That means playing by the world’s rules. That means all having the same name.”

It is not so simple for me. Any change I make will affect the family. If I take on my husband’s name, DQ gets left out. If I go back to my maiden name, it adds more names to the family mix. Perhaps, I should stick with just one first name, like Madonna, but I am no celebrity. The hardest part of this dilemma is that it is one that only I can solve. The name by which I am known is mine alone and any decision that I need to take is a personal one. My father is not around to point me in any particular direction and HH has wisely left the decision to me. DQ does not have an opinion and Princess is unaware of my predicament.

The city I grew up in changed names a few years ago, the Anglicized Bombay was discarded in favor of the original Indian “Mumbai”. The city remained unconcerned – the population density, poverty, chaos and overall entropy continued to increase. Shouldn’t the new name have symbolized some change? An improved version, a makeover, a different avatar perhaps? Change happens as it inevitably does. The Bombay of my childhood and the Mumbai of today are different. The change had nothing to do with it’s name. The city evolved in response to external factors. It had grown, decayed, resurrected and renewed itself in many ways, undocumented by name boards, unsung by media. Mumbai remains a whirring, buzzing megapolis, filled with indomitable energy. It is a testament to the irrepressible DNA of the city that survives, unfazed by natural disasters and manmade terrors.

A name change generally signifies a life change. In my case, my life changed while my name stayed the same. I am not the same young woman who left behind her maiden name when she left her father’s home. I am no longer the sad, bitter person who struggled with building a life after divorce. I am not the single mom mourning the death of her parents. I am the resilient woman who survived and took a chance at building a new family. I am the optimist who can see the long term unity of this family with a mosaic of names. I am more than a combination of words. My personal identity is more than just my name. Like Bombay, my evolution will continue, unseen and unannounced.


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A mom who cannot swim

“How do I know if the time has come to

Accept my limitations,

Or whether I still ought to try to

Fulfill my promise?” – Judith Viorst

It will be dark soon. I am sitting by the swimming pool trying to read the newspaper. The lights around the perimeter have been switched on but add no value as the last light of the evening sun drowns out the electric arcs. Princess has finished doing laps and is bobbing up and down in the water. She does handstands, retrieves coins, and keenly observes the tiles lining the bottom of the pool. For Princess, being in the pool is fun. DQ has just jumped in with a small splash, preferring the sudden immersion in the cool water to the inch by inch dip. She swims purposefully, elegantly. Her blue goggles and black cap visible at regular intervals as she rises to take quick breaths. Her feet hardly make a splash. She moves across the length of the pool like an arrow, zipping across. When she is done, she quickly walks out and away. For DQ, being in the pool is exercise.

For me, being in the pool is a pain. I cannot swim. It’s one of those things in life where I wish I could go back and rewrite. I would have liked to learn how to swim at a young age. Lack of opportunity to learn was the sole reason I am adrift (pun intended) in water. While I didn’t particularly consider it a major shortcoming for a long time, I do mourn the lost window of childhood where picking up new skills comes easily. I wish I had learnt a foreign language, hula hoops, table tennis and discovered other hidden talents by being open to trying my hand at new skills.

There was a time when DQ, a chubby toddler, stepped into the splashing pool , loving her frilly swimsuit and floats. The weekly swimming lessons at the Santa Clara Swimming Club were a chore to me but fun outings for her. I feel a special thrill I get when I watch DQ swim. It is more than simple maternal pride. As she glides effortlessly on the water, a part of me is propelled forwards. A quiet exhilaration fills me at what seems trivial to her, moving across a surface that is not solid earth, navigating a medium that is not air.

She can do something I cannot. I enabled her learning by taking her for swimming lessons but the skill is hers alone. Our separation as mother and child is complete. The moment is bittersweet, I applaud her skill while acknowledging that she has moved ahead. Children not just outlive parents but outdo them on many fronts.

My mother wondered about things I learnt to do that she couldn’t or wouldn’t do – driving, public speaking, traveling alone to a new country, leaving a secure job to start my own business. The thought of possible failure deterred her from trying new things. Some of that fear rubbed off on me. I am open to new pursuits but those that fall within my comfort zone – I learnt Sudoku, embarked on singing lessons late in life, took up writing. I go for walks daily but don’t ever consider running as a hobby. I prefer yoga to aerobics. I may survive a trek but not a triathlon. Physical exercise intimidates me.

As W. H. Auden put it, “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

Firmly in my forties now, am I at that point where I need to accept my limitations and watch from the sidelines?

Swimming presents challenges on so many fronts – a swimsuit is not the most flattering garment for my figure, floating in water is scary, learning with little kids is not befitting my age and definitely belittling for my ego. The only reason to even attempt to learn swimming is my attraction for snorkeling. Immersing my face that is grotesquely distorted by the mask, with my lips tightly closed around the mouthpiece that helps me breathe and a snug life jacket to keep me afloat, I am transported into the ocean world where for a brief moment I float free. I am not an aquatic equal but a fascinated bystander (or floater). Like stepping over a threshold into a parallel universe where the old rules don’t apply, I can see with new eyes, witness with a childlike curiosity and come back to earth with a renewed sense of purpose. All learning is the same, stimulating the mind, taking you out of the unending loop of limited understanding and opening new worlds.

  “Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.” – Flannery O’Connor

The one major reason to take up a new activity is to be a living example of a person who is always open to learning – epitomizing the standard lecture that both DQ and Princess are subjected to periodically. Therefore I have decided to take a deep breath and step forward. I have signed up for dance lessons. I have chosen to take a bold step on land first. Swimming needs a leap. Not today.


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What faith looks like

“She discovered with great delight that one does not love one’s children just because they are one’s children but because of the friendship formed while raising them.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

DQ turns 17 today. Each year on her birthday I think back to our first day together.

Twelve hours after her arrival, baby DQ slept beside me, tired from the journey across the birth canal. I admired her cone-shaped head, puffy face and the mass of black hair that peeked from under the yellow cap. Stiffly swaddled in blankets, she was the little angel I had waited for. In the labor room, there had been tears at the first sight of a fully formed healthy baby, shaky hands cutting the umbilical cord and unbridled jubilation. Now it was night and I was alone with my baby, the one who had always been with me, first as a gleam in my eye, then as an intense yearning and later as the bump with octopus-like arms and legs that kicked me at regular intervals just under my ribs. Here she was, visible and tangible, not just the black and white ultrasound picture but a breathing, moving live baby. I dozed off with her warmth in the crook of my arm, smiling. I woke up to a gentle wiggling at my side. It was DQ trying to snuggle further into my body. Sensing my movement she looked up. Our eyes met. And she looked straight at me and through me, a wide-eyed stare made all the more vivid by her unblinking focus.

Do I know you? You sure seem familiar. Have we met before? Why are you looking at me like that? Stop it.

We both echoed each other’s thoughts. A little tentative, a little scared, unsure of each other’s abilities and potential. In that instant, we made a silent commitment to each other.

lotusHow will I bring up this child? I wondered aloud. There is no training or preparation for being a good parent. Have faith, said my mother. You will know what needs to be done. With guidance from a deeply embedded genetic memory of having been a loved baby once, my mother’s physical presence and an instinctive understanding, the years went by.

Today DQ and I communicate through phone messages, slammed doors, raised eyebrows and rolling eyes. We bicker, I nag, she clams up. Sometimes she speaks. Standing on the threshold of adulthood is not easy. Changing families, making friends, finding her way in a new country and planning ahead for life is a lot to deal with.

How do I help my child? I wonder silently. Have faith whispers my mother. Scattered memories of her loving presence and patience jump up from hidden recesses of the conscious mind. What is faith?

How do you explain faith to a teenager? It is easier to convince a child. Children are naturally trusting, eternally optimistic. The teenage years are the ones where the hard kernel of cynicism that adults try to cover up, is exposed unashamedly. Being contrary counts, falling in line is lame and debating each point is a right that is fully exercised.

How do you describe that faith is the color of falling rain on barren land? The droplets measured in tears of frustration and grief.

How do you communicate that faith is the sound of sweet nothings that you wish your sweetheart will fill your ears with? The syllables jumbled but clear in their intent.

How do you transmit the fragrance of hope that forms the wellspring of faith and teases you with promises of wishes soon to be fulfilled? The delicate scent heady and insistent.

How do you reveal the flavor of faith that each one must discover, combining individual insights and experiences to workout a philosophy of the self?

And finally, faith that covers you up like a warm embrace when all other pretensions are shed, when people give up, when the odds are stacked against you?

Have faith, I want to tell DQ.

Faith, is what made me visit the reproductive endocrinologist my infertile friend recommended after she became a mother.

Faith, is that little bundle placed in my arms by the hospital staff, believing that I will do right by this child.

Faith, is the words of a friend who replied “don’t worry, they grow up on their own” when I expressed concern over handling this tiny life.

Faith is staying with your dream, assured that you will be guided.

Faith is knowing you will pass an exam without knowing all the answers.

Faith is in embarking on a path different from the well-trodden one knowing that your journey will be different but worthwhile.

What does faith look like?

To me, dear daughter, faith looks – like you.

I hope you will see it too.

Happy Birthday!!

 

A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because her trust is not on the branch but on her own wings. Always believe in yourself.” ― Unknown


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Sunset stories

“Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky.” – Rabindranath Tagore

phuket sunset 2I love watching sunsets on beaches. I have always harbored an enduring attraction for observing the burning ball of the sun dissolve into the endless line of the deep blue water which in turn merges into the sky. I am lifted outside myself and into the elements that constitute my body – earth, water, sky, wind, all merging, blurring the senses, absorbing me into a greater whole. At the water’s edge, what I am, what I know and what is in store, all come together. The confluence of three oceans at Kanyakumari, the tourist-filled beaches of Goa, the sheer cliffs lining the blue seas near Vishakapatnam – so many beaches, so many stories.

I must have been five years old then, running aimlessly in the sand at Juhu beach. A time when the shore was clean, the water blue and safe enough for children to spend an entire day building sand castles or immersed in the water. I picked shells from the sand, chased my brothers, ran into the wind with red balloons, enjoying the cold-sour popsicle as stray dogs looked at us with expectant eyes. The Arabian Sea in Mumbai was never really blue, a blue-gray on good days, murky brown on others. The water was never clear, carrying coconut shells or a tangled tree branch, a painted ear or trunk belonging to Ganesha idols immersed in the sea each year. I spent all day at Juhu on a school picnic once, trying to find a spot of shade in the afternoon, letting the warm sea breeze dry out the blue school uniform, braids hanging limply on either side of a happily sun-tanned face. The evening brought with it treats, spicy bhel puri, frozen milky kulfi or a ride on the not-so-giant wheel. I soar, lightly on this fun day unburdened by thoughts of an uncertain future.

The edge of my sari slides over my head as I step further into the Indian Ocean until the water is at my waist, the weight of my sari tugging at my hips. I take a deep breath, bend at the knees, almost sitting in the water, and dip my head. I repeat to ensure that I am completely covered, immersed by the purifying waters as I prepare for two days of intense rituals. I follow the instructions sincerely. There shouldn’t be any lapse on my part, no lack in my devotion. I must have the blessings of the gods for what I crave most, a child of my own. The beach at Rameshwaram, the southern end of peninsular India is a popular spot for pilgrims, particularly for childless couples. In a country of over one billion people, a temple town that calls to the unfortunate few who fail at a basic function of human life, procreation. I travelled from Washington DC to perform the ritual that had been suggested by concerned family members. “As an educated woman, why do you believe this superstitious mumbo-jumbo?” asked a well-meaning cousin. I did because my well-wishers did. Doctors and dieties, it is only faith that cures. I discard the heaviness of my longing into the ocean, feeling a momentary lightness as faith carries my unspoken desire to the higher powers.

The Pacific Ocean is cold, even in July. Little DQ runs to the waters edge at Santa Cruz beach with a little red bucket, eager to bring back water to build sand castles. The green plastic turtle and yellow dolphin molds lie haphazardly scattered. The blue and white checked swimsuit with a watermelon motif makes this child of mine, born after many prayers and a miracle, look absolutely adorable. The sun dips down with a knowing wink as the clouds crisscross across the golden orb. DQ grins at me with her gap teeth glowing in the gathering twilight. I see her tiny form, framed against the magnificent expanse of a pink-purple evening and feel complete. How insignificant is my presence in the grand scheme of things? But I feel whole. I have completed my part in this infinite circle of life. My life is now defined; by this child I brought into this world. My life and hers forever entwined. A lightness overcomes me. I kneel in gratitude.

HH sharply pulls me aside as the bicyclists pass by, a little too close. Fish cluster around the bread we throw in the small pond outside the seafood restaurant that claims to serve anything that swims. Turtles climb over each other scrambling languidly to get to the food. We watch the Andaman Sea that stretches before us, the horizon a dotted line interspersed with large ships and ocean liners. The gentle sea breeze chases away the lingering humidity. Dogs on leashes run beside their fitness conscious humans. I appreciate the silence that endures despite the bustling activity around us. My thought is interrupted by the boisterous laughter of the group at the barbecue pit. As the sun sets, planes light up the sky, lined up like cars on a highway at rush hour as they take their place to land in nearby Changi airport. I rest my head on HH’s shoulder with a sigh. I am grounded and liberated by his love and our commitment to each other and to our new family.

IMG-20140602-WA0008The ocean bears silent witness to my stories that fluttered brightly but briefly like fireflies on a summer evening. Waves of longing, gratitude, sadness, desire, fleeting but powerful feelings ebbed and flowed as I turned the pages of each chapter in the chronicle of my life. The sandy beaches provide no clear link to these disparate narratives but form a boundary of sorts. As Rebecca Solnit describes brilliantly in “The Faraway Nearby”

……..there was an outer border to my own story, and even to human stories, and that something else picked up beyond. It was the familiar edge of the unknown, forever licking at the shore.