Starting Over

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


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Mumbai on my mind

“Where are you from?’ they ask. People I have just met, wanting to place my origin, my accent, my personality. Mumbai. Bombay. Maximum City. I say this even as I feel a twinge of sadness because there is an apartment in Mumbai where I grew up but there is no home anymore.

Here is something I wrote on a visit to Bombay during the monsoon season, after making my home in other cities and countries.

I was in Mumbai last week. The sky reflected a profusion of dull moisture-laden clouds in the puddles that lined the streets outside terminal 2. The vigorous wind blew my hair across my face as I struggled to find my name on the signboard held by the chauffeur who would take me to the hotel that offered a complimentary airport pickup. The sky was the monochrome grey of freshly poured concrete, interspersed by frequent showers, drenching commuters who hurried to dry shelters. The view from my window was depressing, the under-construction metro flyover coming up within touching distance of the hotel did not do much to improve the ambience. I wondered if foreign business travelers would continue to patronize this hotel once metro trains roared outside their windows.

Monsoons in Mumbai have always been a time of pleasure and pain. The rains signaled the end of summer holidays that seemed to stretch endlessly and marked the beginning of a new school year. The skies poured liquid relief on the residents hassled by a long, unrelentingly humid summer. New books, uniforms, plastic shoes and slick raincoats. Catching up with friends, braving the lashing rain that made crisp book covers into soggy messes and ensured everyone had a bad hair day. Reaching college completely drenched and leaving the umbrella in the back of the classroom to dry. With 100% atmospheric humidity, neither the clothes nor umbrellas would dry and another deluge would accompany us on the bus ride home. Home would be a warm and welcome place where you could strip off your dripping clothes and unload unsuspecting creatures that had hitched a ride with you – earthworms, small frogs and gods other creatures that visited us annually.

My brothers and I would sit around enjoying hot food or steaming cups of tea, exchanging war stories about our day and how we scored a victory (or defeat) over the rain gods. The monsoon, like a crazed lover, has been a constant witness to the millions who make this maximum city their own. Learning to live with and in spite of the incessant rains, is a rite of passage that has shaped all of us who consider this place home, even when we do not live there.

I am not sure if I can become a resident of Mumbai once more. In its crazy growth the city seems to have forgotten me. Or is it me who has been banished for leaving its comfortable folds, I who once knew the bus routes and train stations on the western and central railway lines? Even as I observe new flyovers, connecting roads, buildings of glass and steel that were not around when I was a little girl, Mumbai still feels like home. And I continue to wonder at the feelings that come up when I witness the awe-inspiring Mumbai monsoon.

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Wish I had written that

I came across Phyllis Theroux’s memoir The Journal Keeper earlier this year.

Her words about her mother and her new life as a divorced mom of three children gave me inspiration and a desire to put down my thoughts in a time of personal transition.

Here I would like to share some of the gems and a video link to the interview with the author.

About mothers/mothering

When I think about why people have children, I realize how little it should have to do with the future. If, before any children were conceived, we knew that our reward for raising them would be perhaps several phone calls a month, a very occasional visit, and the sense of having once been important in their lives, we might not do it. But if we realize that the rewards are given during the raising, we will calculate the cost differently. My children have taught me more than I have taught them, given me more joy than I have given them, and their not being present or even much aware of me now does not alter this.

About love

One of the strongest illusions in life is that another person’s love will liberate us. The illusion is hard to let go of, even when one lover after another has disappeared, because while they are present they do set us temporarily “free”. We do feel as if we are more talented and lovable and then they turn away and stop loving us, and we realize how much our balloon depended upon their hot air.


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Who’s counting

coffee cansI exercise regularly but don’t calculate the calories burnt. I walk everyday but do not own a pedometer to tell me exactly how many steps. I monitor my body weight but do not have a weighing scale at home. I look healthy and feel good. I just don’t have the numbers to back it up.

I am not on Facebook. I don’t know if people would care about my trip to Prague or my Prada bag (fictitious examples of course). Their “likes” do not determine my next holiday or shoe purchase.

I do not have hundreds of connections on LinkedIn. It doesn’t affect me professionally because people who are looking for me, find me, even without a LinkedIn invite.

I don’t count as friends people who remember my birthday from social media prompts or database reminders. And I don’t think poorly of those who always seem to get the date wrong, but show up whenever I need their support.

Such was my simple un-quantified life until I started writing this blog.

Now I spend time on my writing but also on checking my stats. I am concerned about the lack of response to some posts and am surprised at the number of likes for another. As a reader, I wonder about hundreds of comments to mediocre posts and worry about the gems I might be missing. I am anxious because I am not using my blog to “build my platform” on social media. I receive advice about leveraging other tools to publicize my presence. My pathetic number of followers and likes can mean only thing – I am a flop.

I feel like Alice in Wonderland. How did I get to be a numbers-obsessed blogger when all I wanted to do was write in a public space? Express myself in a milieu where other writers share their work in a virtual community.

As a scientist, I should love measurement and the unambiguous conclusions that numbers can provide. I do. What I do not appreciate is the quantitative oversimplification of life by using numbers.

Do you see yourself as more popular today because your social media post got more likes? Do you consider yourself more successful the day after your video (or photo or essay) goes viral? Are your thoughts of value only when endorsed by many others? Do you really believe that “if you cannot measure it, it doesn’t exist”? Is your life worthy of living even if it goes unnoticed by the masses?

Life, your life, is not a game of numbers. A longer life is not always a better one. A thicker book holds no more wisdom that a sheet of paper. Better to pen a blog post that marks a personal breakthrough even if it is viewed by only a few than pander to popular demand and feel hollow inside.

When DQ was little, I looked up infant growth charts to track her progress. With each passing month it seemed like her height was stagnant, her weight was dropping and her head circumference was below the minimum number! As per the charts, my child’s growth was sub-optimal. Therefore I reached the logical conclusion that I was a complete failure as a mother. Fortunately, the wise pediatrician first pointed out that the chart was not strictly applicable to a child of Indian origin since the underlying data came from a different racial demographic. More importantly, at each visit, she showed me how DQ was holding up her head, rolling over, responding to verbal cues and doing what she should be doing. In short, DQ was thriving.

I learnt then that my assessment of my child (my product, in some ways) and my responsibility to her (my mothering ability) was a very subjective and extremely personal matter that could not be distilled into simple numbers and plotted on a graph. All the statistics in the world could not describe my joy when DQ took her first step. The day she called me “Mama” didn’t matter to others but made me feel like a million bucks (in the days before a million views).

“What we know matters but who we are matters more.” Brene Brown

Yes, data is useful. It provides information. Not necessarily insight.

The quality of our life is expressed by our feelings, not described numerically. Pursuit of larger numbers and better stats may provide a context for your life but not it’s meaning. That is embedded in one-off moments, which are intensely private, celebrated in intimate settings and valued at an individual level.

A close, loving family; a few concerned friends; some interested readers – I will take these any day over a thousand distant strangers.

But who’s counting?


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About books

last lectureThe story behind one book that sits in my bookshelf is a mystery.

“The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch seemed to mysteriously appear among my books one day. I remember packing up all the books from the home I had rented for five years and unpacking the boxes in my very first apartment. I was thrilled to finally live in a place that legally belonged to me. The book seemed to be a bonus from the universe, a welcome gift for a momentous occasion.

While many have watched the lecture on youtube, I read the book first. I shared the book with DQ when she was fourteen, not sure if it was too morbid or too preachy. She read it like many of my other recommendations. And I know it made an impression on her.

Why do I like the book?

  1. Randy’s gratitude and humility

I won the parent lottery,” he says right at the beginning, grateful for his luck at being born to his parents and their impact on his life.

One particular line that DQ often paraphrases, taking a dig at me, is something Randy’s mother says after he gets his Ph.D., “This is my son. He’s a doctor, but not the kind who helps people.”

  1. Randy’s intense desire to influence his students and his children

When DQ pushes back after I repeat the same instructions or advice ten thousand times, I feel like giving up.

Then I quote from the book –“When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.”

I want her to know I will not give up on her. Ever.

  1. Randy’s faith in humanity

Some days it seems that everything I do is wrong – nothing seems to bring about the desired result, no one seems to care. At such times, Randy’s words help.

If you wait long enough, people will surprise and impress you. Almost everybody has a good side. Just keep waiting. It will come out.

To me, the book serves as a reminder that I don’t have to wait till the end to figure out the lessons from my life.

By examining my life as it happens and writing it down, I am trying to leave behind a legacy for my children after I am gone. It is my way of doing what Randy emphasized: Kids- more than anything else-need to know their parents love them. Their parents don’t have to be alive for that to happen.


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My mane girl

I step into her room at 6.45 a.m., like I always do, to wake her up on schooldays. Princess is lying face down on the edge of her pillow with Bobby the stuffed dog peeking out of the crumpled sheets. Her hair is a dark halo around her head. I touch her shoulder.

“Five more minutes” she mutters. As I try to step out, she grabs my hand and pats the space beside her. I acquiesce. I run my fingers through her hair as she grabs the last few minutes of sleep, trying to finish the dream starring teenaged Greek demigods.

A year ago, DQ, Princess and I got haircuts on the day we boarded the flight to Singapore, to join my husband, Princess’ father, to begin life as a new family. At the salon, I noticed how thick her hair was; a legacy from her deceased mother, I assumed. She gamely agreed to the short bob suggested by the hairdresser, pleased with the extra attention. She looked cute, a little older, more sophisticated than her ten years.

DQ has thin, straight hair, like me (and my mother and maternal grandmother). DQ’s silky hair doesn’t tangle even after a rough night. She moved from a short style in kindergarten to long braids to finally settle upon a ponytail as her preferred hairstyle for school. I call her my little pony. One day in the park, a stranger asked her what shampoo she used. I took it as a personal compliment; after all, I was responsible for her general health and shiny hair! We went through a phase where she wanted curly hair. As a birthday treat, I took her to a salon where they twirled her hair around curlers and brushes, blow-dried and sprayed her cascade of hair and generated a few ringlets. DQ’s excitement lasted longer than her curls, which went back to their default position, like a dog’s tail, in less than 24 hours. DQ then started lobbying for getting highlights in her hair. A few streaks of honey blonde, or red – why won’t you let me, she wailed. We have agreed to revisit this issue after she turns eighteen.

In our blended family, the responsibility of caring for Princess’s thick tresses naturally fell on me since HH, like most fathers, is clueless in this regard. With my considerable expertise in this department, I thought this would be an easy task. Ha!

For tomboy Princess, hair care is the last item on her priority list. On good days, it’s a waste of time, similar to daily showers and on bad days, it is an enemy to be subdued if not attacked outright, like the monsters that her beloved hero Percy Jackson tackles. If she could have her way, she would leave her hair in an isolated quarantine facility, out of reach of well meaning but pushy family members. The first time I tried to comb her hair, she bolted out of the chair as if I had pronounced the need for a root canal. If brushing her hair was a chore, washing it was a punishment – for both of us. She hated having me hover around in the bathroom trying to shampoo her hair that had been tortured by basketball games in the humidity of hot Singapore afternoons and twenty laps in the pool.

Some of my favorite memories of childhood involve the time my mother spent rubbing coconut oil on my scalp, trying to cool my head from “all the studying”. I loved to sit on the floor as she combed my hair and braided it. This was my special time with her, time that I didn’t have to share with my brothers, time where I had access to my mother’s complete attention. While my DNA strands may connect me genetically with my mother, my hair strands connect me to my mother on a visceral level. These strands that she caressed and cared for were proofs of her affection and building blocks of our strong bond.

I desperately wanted Princess to allow me access to her tangled mass of hair, initially, to get her into a presentable form. Awful hair is a symbol of a mother’s neglect. With immense patience (and a little bit of pressure from HH), I was able to convince her to sit still while I combed out the tangles. I told about my petite grandmother with waist length shiny silver hair who looked like a character from a fairy tale. She showed me her baby pictures with a head full of hair on her newborn head. DQ shared her admiration for a friend who had recently had her head shaved for a good cause. In the context of bad hair days, Princess told us the story of Medusa. The girls and I tried out a few shampoos and conditioners until we found the right one. As her hair grew, we bought accessories and tried new styles. Over time her hair transformed from battlefield to bonding opportunity. Each morning before school when she asks “Can you comb my hair?” I know we have turned a corner.

I pull my fingers out of her hair and Princess stirs to an instant state of wakefulness.

“Good morning. You look like Simba.”

“Why?’

“Look at your hair” I say. She smiles.

“See what I found in your hair” I show her the pink clip that has been in her hair all night.

“In my mane, you mean” she says with an impish grin.

“That’s right. DQ is my little pony but you are my mane girl,” I say as I hug her and pull her out of bed. We laugh.


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Growing in a spiral

diffuse coloured linesWasn’t it just last week that I waited for the phone call that would get me a job interview?
And last night when I thought DQ would never sleep through the night?
Wasn’t it recently that I wondered if I would ever feel comfortable in this new country?

Yes and no.

Yes, because more than two decades ago, I was a young adult in a country almost half the world away from my homeland. Some years after that first jolt of having migrated to the US subsided, I waited eagerly for my first job interview, eager to start my career. Somewhere along the way DQ grew from a colicky baby to a grumpy teen.

No, because while I still grapple with the same questions, the context has changed. In Singapore, my new place of residence, I feel like a visitor. Trying to settle here, I am still waiting for the dream job to materialize. I continue to worry about DQ sleeping through the night these days thanks to wifi, iPad, phone and other gadgets.

Isn’t life supposed to be linear? Aren’t the milestones that we once passed, not supposed to show up again? When will I reach my destination? Is there one?

I remember a short inspirational essay titled “The Station” by Robert Hastings on the wall above my desk in my lab. It was a small piece of paper, old and yellow, typed in the common but insipid “Courier” font, stuck with tape. I had inherited this legacy along with the desk and its contents – pens, cans of Coke and candy wrappers. Days in graduate school were long; coursework, exams, inconclusive experiments, unending research. Like my fellow students, I focused on getting out of school, landing a high paying job, a salary, a car, the American dream. Getting our degree was our ticket to the wonderful life that awaited us, if only we could hurry up and finish! The words above my desk helped sometimes by offering a perspective; at other times it was just a trite piece of philosophy neatly packed into a few words. “Relish the moment” was the key message. The true joy of life is the trip, the final destination is a mirage that takes away from the present moment.

The train metaphor was an apt one at that stage of my life. In many ways, my train had just departed from the station and I could see all kinds of wonderful things. It would take me to unknown places, provide excitement and pleasure in so many unimaginable ways. I graduated, started working at a big company, became a mother, I traveled, I started my own business. I tried to “relish the moments.” The significant ones, the good ones, are frozen in memory, like insects in amber, to be admired in the future. The important ones, not necessarily pleasant ones, I try to gloss over.

A journey by definition is movement, a decisive moving away from the starting point. The purpose is to travel beyond the known limited perimeters of your life as you know it. Today I feel that my life is either going in circles or I am passing the same mile markers again. Am I lost or stationary? I am no longer on a train. I am standing still in the middle of a carousel as the same horses pass by in rapid succession.

Just when I think I have crossed certain milestones in my life, I find the road ahead looks more or less similar – paved with obstacles, dilemmas, triumphs and losses. If the journey so far has taught any lessons, it is that life is not linear; it is cyclical. A phase that seems to never end, does end. A new one begins almost unnoticed; sometimes an old pattern repeats itself. Stations come and go, some new and exotic, others familiar and fulfilling.

We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

By climbing many steps of this spirally unfolding life, I have discovered the ephemeral nature of achievement, satisfaction and pride. The purpose of the journey extends beyond the uncovering of external riches to unearthing the treasures within – peace, grace, wisdom.

The lessons I thought I had mastered are still incomplete. The journey continues.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
– T. S. Eliot