Starting Over

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


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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?


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Blending in

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HH brought some office colleagues over for lunch yesterday. Six people sat at my dining table enjoying the assorted items I had made – Chinese-style fried rice, sautéed baby potatoes, Indian chole served with middle eastern pita bread, a falafel-like starter with coriander-yoghurt sauce, mini idlis and banana nut muffins for dessert. Why not a purely Indian spread, colorful and spicy? The reason is that Singapore is amazing in the versatility of the people who live here. Whether it is the people who attended a writing class with me last week, or patients waiting at the doctors’ office, group of kids signing up for tennis coaching or just the people riding on the bus with you, they represent multiple countries and continents. My lunch guests included a tall, reclusive South African, a talkative Vietnamese Australian, a bubbly Singaporean Chinese lady, a bright-eyed, almost Indian looking gentleman from Egypt along with two garden variety Indians, including my husband. My challenge was to assemble a vegetarian meal that had adequate protein along with a balance of flavors that would appeal to an international audience.

Singapore is perhaps one of the few countries where the diversity of its population is not just visible but prominently highlighted. I take the bus everywhere and it helps me notice things that I wouldn’t if I was driving. Every Friday I observe large groups of men wearing the traditional white caps on their heads as they walk to the neighborhood mosque for the afternoon prayer. The churches dot the skyline as do the colorful facades of the Hindu temples, located not just in Little India but all over the island. The Buddhist temples with red pillars and fluttering prayer flags, the perfume of joss sticks burning, provide stark contrast to the monotony of the high-rise buildings next door.  In the few months that I have been here, the large banner at the nearby park has conveyed wishes from the town council members to the residents for Deepavali, Christmas and Chinese New Year.

The obituary section in the newspaper is always interesting at first glance – large color pictures of the recently deceased, faces of loved ones of all ages and many races. The announcements at the underground stations carry instructions in various languages in addition to English. Official forms are available in Malay, Tamil and Chinese where you are asked to identify your race as a matter of routine.

I smile at the cashier at my local grocery store who may be a dark haired woman with a bindi or a young woman wearing a pretty hijab. The hawker center food courts offer Indonesian, Thai, Korean, Muslim Indian and Chinese food choices at budget prices. Saris and cheongsams, noodles and rotis, Siam coconut and Singha beer – everything defines the unique confluence that is Singapore. Not yet 50 years old, Singapore is a work in progress, a flowing fusion of cultures as it updates its national identity.

When a new immigrant group enters a reasonably homogeneous society, they have to make changes in order to blend in. My father told me the story of the Parsi community in Bombay who originally came to India as immigrant centuries ago.

When the Parsis came from Persia, they landed on the shores of the western state of Gujarat. The priestly leaders were brought before the local ruler, Jadi or Jadhav Rana, who presented them with a vessel “brimful” of milk to signify that the surrounding lands could not possibly accommodate any more people. The Parsi head priest responded by slipping some sugar into the milk to signify how the strangers would enrich the local community without displacing them. They would dissolve into life like sugar dissolves in the milk, sweetening the society but not unsettling it.

What wonderful way to visualize the mixing of cultures which could add flavor to the existing mix? Living in Singapore serves a daily reminder of that sentiment. Not because it is written in the constitution but because it is on display everywhere; not just outside my home but also within where I join the laughter of the group that has been invited to lunch.


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Keeping me whole

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“Yoga is not exercise” emphasized the gentleman with kind eyes and a soft voice. Although surprised, I listened intently to the instructor in this new yoga class that I joined today in Singapore.

This isn’t the first time I have found myself in a yoga class. The first time was more than 15 years ago, at the gym at my workplace in California. I was at the office 6 weeks after giving birth. My body was a shapeless over-inflated balloon, my eyes seemed permanently encrusted with sand. I dragged myself to work each day and took naps at my desk when I thought no one was looking. “Its always easy to spot the new moms” said my colleague with a smile, pointing to the tell-tale drool marks on my left shoulder.

My supportive boss who pretended to look other way when I was slumped in my chair, showed me the poster announcing the lunch-time yoga class. I was the only Indian woman (other than the instructor) in a class of 20, predominantly female employees. I was the novice, the one who came from the land where yoga originated. “You had to come to America to learn yoga ha?” smirked the woman on my right. “I had to come here to be stressed enough to need it” I replied haughtily. On that tart note began my initiation into the ancient practice of yoga, one hour at a time, twice a week. By the time the 12-week session ended, I was a rejuvenated woman. I looked forward to the classes and to each day. My eyes got back their shine, my body started looking a little bit like my former pre-pregnancy shape (just a tad thicker around the middle though) and only the baby took naps during the day. I was a happier mother and my boss was an overjoyed manager.

The journey into yoga that began with a single step into the aerobics room at work has taken me places.  Whether I lived in California or India, labeled a new mom or newly divorced, working woman or entrepreneur, I held fast to my yoga practice. From was initially a purely physical improvement program, the simple practice of being with myself for that one hour on the mat, allowed me to transcend daily travails. I inhabited a space of oneness.  

I stood tall in the tree pose; it enabled me to write every night about my baby, about being a working mom and my tightrope walk across the chasm of guilt that divided these two selves.

I did 12 sun salutations the day I left the home I shared with my husband after we moved to India, taking only my daughter and a few clothes with me.

I sat in the lotus pose as I pondered how to create a fruitful life as single mom in a culture that frowns on divorced women.

I bent over in surrender in a forward bend while accepting that death of my parents, both of whom died within a few years of each other.

Like a mother, yoga suffered with me in the days when all I wanted to do was weep in bed. Like an older sister, yoga quietly watched me trying to quiet my mind as it ran off in a hundred different directions, afraid of what would descend once it stopped moving. Yoga stood by me watching like a proud parent when I turned my life around to find meaning in each day. Like a mentor, yoga showered me with blessings when I found a wonderful man to once more share my life.

I have tried different styles of yoga, different gurus. I experimented with various routines, at various times of the day. I spent a month at a yoga teacher’s training camp at an ashram. Yoga is always on my mind, if not in my body during the months I practice daily and even the days when I waver.

I don’t weigh myself to monitor my gains when I practice regularly. I just observe myself many times a day.

I don’t go to a gym. I watch in silence as the sun comes up shyly over the hill that I can see from my bedroom window.

I don’t need a therapist. I stay present to my feelings as I experience them.

And I have yoga to thank for it. Ever the patient teacher, yoga helps me gently come back to my center whenever I wander too far.

I asked my first yoga teacher “how do I know if I am doing the asanas correctly when I do them at home?”

“It’s simple. Do you feel better after your practice? If yes, you are doing it right.”

I feel great. I must be doing it right.