Starting Over

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


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Stepping into the unknown

“Don’t let go” I begged HH, holding his hand tightly. He couldn’t hear my words but could certainly feel my nails digging deep into his arm. We were in the waters around Bali, on a snorkeling outing. The mask covered most of our faces and I was trying to bite down on the mouthpiece and breathe through my mouth as instructed. The water was clear, blue and choppy. The old man who drove the boat out to the ocean and dropped anchor, shook his head. Probably wondering why a woman who clearly couldn’t swim, didn’t trust the life jacket to keep her afloat and wouldn’t let go of the side of the boat wanted to snorkel at all.

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I was thinking the same thing.

I have to assume, so was HH, though he didn’t voice it. Probably stunned speechless by the pain of my harsh grip. “I won’t leave your hand, just move away from the boat” he coaxed. I took a few short breaths and found that I could indeed stay upright. I learnt to breathe through my mouth and slowly titled my face forward and looked below the surface of the water. Blue fish! Yellow fish! Striped fish! Big ones and small, regular shaped ones and unusual ones! They were everywhere, near the flippers that extended from my feet, almost touching my fingers as I broke the bread into pieces. The old man helpfully handed me a long plastic rope attached to the boat to guide me in an attempt to convince me to move away. I lifted my face up to the sun and saw many others in blue and red life jackets bobbing up and down in the vicinity.

The light gently reflected off the water. The boat rocked vigorously as the waves crashed against it. I looked down and was once more drawn into this parallel watery universe under my feet. There was a whole world down there. Rocks on the bottom, swaying trees, schools of fish, a couple of scuba divers exploring the depths. I held on to the rope but moved away from the boat, engrossed in walking into this giant, live aquarium. I wondered at the mystery and majesty of nature, and at my foolish ignorance of what lay beneath.

Nature is a great teacher. With a gentle but firm hand, she cuts us down to size. How insignificant is our knowledge and our presence in this vast vibrant natural world? Can notions of self-importance and conceit hold in the presence of such beauty? How trivial are the daily dramas that we create in our petty lives? 

I felt a strong pressure on my arm and looked up startled. I had moved away from HH unaware of consciously doing so. He was giving me the thumbs up sign, relieved and surprised by my obvious pleasure at this experience. I smiled.

Peering into the water I realized how closely my willingness to try my hand at snorkeling even though I don’t swim, mirrored the way we tend to handle our lives. There is an entire, novel ecosystem within reach. A new life possible if we only let go of our need to control. Holding on to what is familiar, fear of change holds us back from all the pleasures and fullness that life can bring to our doorstep. I am not a great fan of change. Status quo generally works for me. Trained as a scientist, I like to experiment but need to know the general outcome based on the variables I can control. Throwing caution to the winds, jumping off the deep end is not my style. But I had done just that, not only in stepping of the boat in the middle of the ocean but in stepping off the tried and tested life path as well. And look what a wonderful experience it has been! Life is undoubtedly an adventure, even if you choose to color within the lines. Unless we trust in the goodness of nature, in the strength of our own abilities, it will remain a mere exercise in checking the right boxes. But stepping out without guarantees into unknown territory gives depth and insight, a prerequisite for making the journey worthwhile. . 

“Time to head back” said HH, holding out his hand. The old man tugged at the rope. Reluctantly I climbed into the boat. I peeled the wet flippers off my feet and leaned into the water, waving a silent goodbye to the fish. I smiled contentedly, happy as a clam. 

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My very own Eat Pray Love story

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A month ago, HH and I were talking about the possibility of going away for a few days, without the kids. It would be the honeymoon we had chosen to defer. “Where would you like to go?” he asked.

“Bali” I replied, without hesitation.

“Why Bali?”

Bali; because it would complete my personal “Eat. Pray. Love” story.

I know it sounds lame. An attempt to replicate the iconic memoir by Elizabeth Gilbert, a book I read many months after it hit the bestseller list, a movie I saw to check if it lived up to the book. While I loved the book, the truth is that the author and I don’t bear much resemblance on many levels. She was a young American woman in her thirties, escaping from a bitter divorce, childless, and on a yearlong quest of self-discovery in Italy, India and Bali. Ok, we do share a few overlapping themes as in divorce (although I had a child), India (I am Indian) and I have always been on a quest, albeit within the confines of what was possible within my social milieu.

Oscar Wilde famously said “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life”.

I didn’t intentionally choose to visit the places that Gilbert wrote about in her memoir. But I had a tenuous connection, in chronological order, of similar experiences. I made random choices that took me to Italy on a holiday, to an ashram for finding myself and later fortuitously meeting HH, over a three-year period of time. Now that I am returning from a short visit to Bali, it seems like I deliberately sought to imitate a work of art created from a slice of life of a person who is very different from me.

It’s impossible to set a course for our life that duplicates another’s path. Ask any child of successful doctor parents who would rather be an artist or the scion of a business family who wishes to be a teacher, rebelling against the traditional path mapped out for him. The broad outline for my life was written by the society in which I was brought up. It was a formula that was family-centric and time-tested. Like many Indian women of my generation, I gamely chose to travel the beaten path, the only one endorsed by Indian society. Get a decent education, get married, have kids, be content. This is your karma, this is the script, follow it. And I did; until a twist in the tale took me on a detour into uncharted territory. I was divorced, with a child, and choose to live in a city where I could support myself, instead of moving in with my parents.

During one of my soul searching bouts when I was debating taking the big step towards divorce, my mother, a woman whose life epitomized the very Indian values that I was questioning, guided me.

“If you had not gotten married or had a child, you would have always craved these experiences. You have experienced life as a married woman and a mother. Now be free and do all the things that you feel were denied so far. Live the life you want with no regrets.” She didn’t live long enough to see me craft that life.

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I wanted to create shared happy memories with DQ and expand her horizons by traveling around the world. I love visiting new places and in the summer of 2012, a group of friends decided to go on a European holiday. We spent a week in Italy, loving the cuisine and the country, the romance of Rome, the flavors of Florence and the waters of Venice. We savored pizza and lingered in piazzas, fell in love with gondolas and gelato. We were speechless in the Sistine chapel and tickled by the leaning tower at Pisa.

A year later, I found myself waking up at the crack of dawn for the mandatory morning meditation at the ashram. I was accompanying a friend who was keen on completing a training course to be a yoga teacher. I had vaguely put that on my bucket list and the timing seemed right. Having been a regular yoga practitioner for over a decade, it sounded easy enough – a one month residential program at an ashram in Kerala. It was brutal. Four hours of asana practice, Geeta classes, Vedanta lectures and 2 hour meditation and chanting sessions every morning and evening. It was a revelation. I doubt I gained flexibility or lost weight but I did learn a lot about myself.

And soon after, HH and I decided we were serious enough about each other to consider spending the rest of our life together. I had loosely followed the life path Gilbert had drafted for herself but it was not in imitation. It was my intention to live a full life that opened up new possibilities for me. With the first step that I had taken away from the beaten track, I had removed myself from my comfort zone. While the challenges of a new way of life were intimidating, they were also liberating. I saw places, I met people, I took a risk. I let my guard down, I laughed freely, I embraced life.

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Bali, located so close to Singapore, was a not just a sensible choice but a perfect honeymoon destination. Plus it brought me full circle to my own Eat Pray Love trilogy. The final destination for all of us is fixed but we choose our own paths. From what was available to me, I chose these locations, these people, and these experiences. Each choice took me one step further on my journey. As each one I will make in the future will.

When it comes to life stories, I agree with Phyllis Theroux, who says “…we shape our lives like a story, how unconsciously we attract plots, outcomes, and other characters who undermine or complicate our unfolding drama. We supply the meaning – and therein lies the difference between one life and another.”


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Bali – starting a new year with silence

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Nyepi is a day to stay indoors, to spend time in meditation and introspection, a prelude to preparing for the new year. The Balinese take their traditions very seriously and the days leading upto the day of silence have their own rituals. Giant, colorful and scary monsters, called ogog-ogoh made of bamboo, wood and Styrofoam were setup on every major street. Monkey Forest Road in Ubud wore a festive look. We sat down at the open café, Cempaka Warung and watched couples on scooters dressed in traditional attire, carrying offerings of fruits and flowers to the local temples. Temples are everywhere, from family temples to village temples to the grand ones built by kings. A heavy downpour that instantly bought down the temperature only to leave a sizzling humidity in its wake did not dampen the enthusiasm of the youngsters who gathered around the ogoh-ogoh ahead of the evening’s festivities.

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We had a tough time finding a willing cab driver to take us to Nusa Dua where we planned to spend the rest of our time. The markets were quiet as people prepared for the impending shutdown. The shops that were still open were eager to make a quick sale. Bargaining is standard practice in Bali and if you are not prepared for it, be willing to be ripped off! Natural fabrics with batik prints, summery dresses suitable for the island weather, flip flops, bamboo and soft wood handicrafts, and the usual souvenirs like key chains and magnets all require intense bargaining encounters before you can own them.

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The road to Nusa Dua was a breeze, when we finally got on our way. There was no traffic on the streets but congregations of women and children seated on the road at each intersection. Colorful clothes, fresh bright flower offerings and prayers were in progress. Men stood by, guiding traffic. As dusks settled, each community took their ogoh-ogohs around the streets in an exorcism ritual to rid them of evil spirits. Most ogoh-ogohs are burnt at the end of the ceremony.

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The day of silence is enforced from 6 a.m. for 24 hours. The only airport in the world that shuts down for one day every year, is Bali’s Denpasar airport. Locals and visitors alike have to follow the rules for the day. No stepping out of the hotel, the hotel staff told us politely but firmly when we checked in. Just like the soil that needs to lie fallow, like the gestation of a seed, one day is given to silent meditation. We walked to the hotel’s private beach at sunrise but had to stay off the sand as a mark of respect to nature. The clear water into which we had stepped into the previous evening had receded almost a mile away. The clouds dreamily parted and the sun rose in its omnipresent glory. I was inspired to do a few suryanamaskars to salute the sun. On either side, two land masses were visible in the distance.

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It was indeed a quiet day. No news channels on TV, no shops were open, no vehicles on the streets. No talking, no transaction, no traffic. The hotel of course buzzed with activity on the inside, children crowded in the shallow pool, youngsters flocked around the pool table and gym, perhaps the spa was busy as well. We ate a late lunch in the beachside restaurant. And lazed on the thoughtfully provided private beds facing the ocean. For awhile I read a book. The sun played hide and seek in the silvery clouds. Squirrels boldly scampered down from trees to nibble at fruit offered by indulgent tourists. A bird perched on the armrest. We feasted on a delicious banana split. HH dozed off. I wandered around taking pictures.

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The weather was prefect for sightseeing that day. But we obeyed the rules. On any other day we would have visited a crowded tourist spot, shopped, polluted the environment with our presence, consumption and conversation. Following the local custom meant an entire day of lethargy, relaxation, idleness. Seemed wrong to be told that we couldn’t do anything else. We didn’t just slow down or do something different from our regular routine as on any vacation, we stopped. Completely. In retrospect, it was the best thing to do when on a holiday.

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Sit back, observe, smile.

I went back and reclined besides HH. A pregnant woman waddled by. A child picked up fallen leaves with great concentration. I held HH’s hand and dozed on his shoulder.


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Bali – lost in tradition

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We sat side-by-side at table number 2, looking ahead at an unending inky darkness. A small candle illuminated our table at the beachside restaurant in Jimbaran. The surf crashed gently, about 50 meters away. Two stray dogs chased each other weaving trails on the wet sand. In the distance, a long row of lights marked the runway of the airport as flights landed every few minutes. We sat quietly observing the deserted beach, the empty tables at the restaurants lining this stretch of a normally popular tourist haunt. Life in the beautiful island of Bali was slowly resuming the day after Nyepi, the day of silence, which is also the New Year for the Balinese Hindus. It was fitting, that HH and I found ourselves in Bali on this significant day of the year, on our honeymoon.

Bali, also called the island of Gods, is a magical place. An island suspended in time, a place steeped in myths and rituals, with people who proudly celebrate their heritage.

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“Where are you from? Are you Hindu?” were the first questions asked by Made, the taxi driver who took us to Uluwatu, to see the temple along the sheer cliffs that border a blue sea two days before Nyepi. White foam bubbled over clear waters, like a naughty child’s laughter, each time the water hit the immovable rocks. Bali is home to a Hindu majority, like India. And the Balinese are keen to know more from us, Indians who live in India. But unlike us, urban Indians who no longer remember details of the tales of Hindu mythology, the locals know and follow traditions sincerely. We witnessed the Kechak dance, a depiction of the Ramayana, as the sun dipped low in the sky, casting a golden yellow glow on the mixed population of tourists who sat around a centerpiece of burning torches. Japanese tourists furiously clicking their cameras, the Australians training their ipads on the faces on Rama and Sita, the little Korean girls looking through their identical LG phones, a little scared when Hanuman the white monkey character came to take a seat next to them. As the night descended the 50-strong supporting singers brought the show to a close with the scene of Hanuman burning the city of Lanka with a real straw fire.

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Our resort was located some distance from the quaint town of Ubud, always popular with tourists but now famous after the success of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir. We were served bottled water in glass bottles, there were no tiny plastic shampoo bottles in the room, the roofs were made of palm tree coir. The swimming pool wasn’t a sickly blue but glowed with an inconspicuous clarity that blended with the surroundings. The Petanu river flowed gently in the valley, washing the large volcanic rocks to a soft gloss.

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Temples are a major attraction but most are ancient, with remnants of the original grandiose structures housed amidst dense foliage. With an outside temperature hovering in the high 30s (degrees C), the shade felt almost air-conditioned with rivers flowing next to Goa Gajah temple, Gunung Kawi and Tirta Empul, the Holy Spring temple.

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Our visit coincided with the days preceding Nyepi when temple idols are taken for a dip in the ocean for the annual cleaning rituals prior to the day of silence. Truckloads of young men moved around the island, with traditional sarongs and caps. Schoolchildren returning from school carried brooms and pails after having cleaned their classrooms prior to the long holiday. A visit to the coffee plantation was an introductory lesson in botany as I struggled to identify the exotic tropical fruit and match it to its corresponding tree. The spiky red rambutan, a favorite of the monkeys, hung in bunches from trees, while the bright pink dragonfruit emerged from a cactus. Gaint passionfruit drooped from a trellis while durian dangled dangerously from tall trees. From common melons and pineapples to exotic mangosteen, marquisa, snakeskin fruit, the list went on. The civet-like animal responsible for the terribly expensive luwak coffee slept during the day, unaware of his role in aiding the economy. A giant spider rested on his gorgeous creation, eagerly awaiting his next meal.

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“Try some ginseng tea, it gives energy, good for second honeymoon” urged the enthusiastic sales girl at the plantation to an elderly couple. “It’s a little too late for us” the woman replied as her companion blushed. I giggled and nodded towards HH who vehemently declined insisting “I don’t need it.”

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The drive up the mountain to view Mount Batur, the volcano that last erupted in 1968 reminded me of a trip to Shillong. The calm blue lake, the rich black volcanic soil like a giant shadow bordering it with the settlement around the volcano, Kintamani, was the right place to stop for lunch. Our waiter efficiently provided vegetarian substitutes for every item on the buffet. The white clouds topped the mountain caps like dollops of whipped cream. Vehicles moved along narrow mountain roads with no honks or mad rush to whiz by. I wondered if these gentle, nature loving people and I came from the same ancestors. Even the mountains of Munnar and Himalayas cannot boast of the serenity that inhabits Bali, a feeling that permeates everything. Respect for nature, concern for the environment, pride in maintaining their culture are admirable qualities which seem alien to urban India.

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We forgot our credit card at a restaurant one afternoon. We went back an hour later to retrieve it. It had been kept safely and was handed over with a smile. Our driver said “In Bali, if you lose something, you will always find it, people won’t steal. Because, we still believe in karma.”

And I wondered, how have we managed to forget this?