Starting Over

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


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A right to remember

tulip 2Was it the beautiful pictures of the Jefferson Memorial on Freshly Pressed a few days ago that made me nostalgic? Or was it the newspaper column on Sakura in Japan last weekend? Or did the pale pink bougainvillea flower that wafted into my balcony this morning trigger the memories? Maybe it’s just that time of the year when cherry blossom trees all over the world make their debut after a barren winter. And oh, what a debut! So many sweet memories rushed in to fill in the gaps left by time.

I remember the annual ritual that we followed each spring in those years when I lived in Maryland. I would take the train from Baltimore to Union Station and then transfer to the metro. A short walk and then – the breathtaking view of the Jefferson Memorial flanked by blossoming trees! Thousands of cherry blossom trees that dot the circumference of the Tidal Basin in Washington DC flowering in unison, a grand symphony of petals, responding to the baton of the most accomplished of all conductors, Mother Nature.

I still feel a twinge when I see cherry blossoms. Reading about the devotion of the Japanese to sakura makes the memory more poignant. It’s a flashback to a simpler time of my life, a phase of contentment, fulfillment even. I was a full time graduate student then, loving every day I spent in the lab pursuing my Ph.D. I was young, newly-wed, full of promise, in the country where dreams were supposedly routinely fulfilled for a person from India. DQ was not even a glimmer in my eye. We would sometimes pack a picnic dinner, complete with disposable plates, cans of Coke and even a piece of cake. Some years we found a carpet of flowers covering the walkways, ripped from the branches by the cold callous rain. At other times, we would drive down from suburban Maryland on a weekend to showcase the spectacular flowers for friends visiting from New Jersey. We hardly ever watched the parade. There are pictures in old albums stored away now in boxes, proof of happier times.

It doesn’t seem right, almost adulterous, to allow these memories to surface now. After all these years, to smile at the simple pleasures that had made life meaningful before things turned sour. I used to be equally enthusiastic about a regular day at school, a weekend in Atlantic City, a summer job in Delaware or a quiet evening walking around the Washington monument. Trudging around in a silk sari is one of my favorite memories of the Lincoln Memorial. Two weeks after arriving in DC in December, when we steeped out after the office Christmas party, a blanket of snow had covered every street and structure. My first snow! Neither the cold, nor the incongruous boots hidden within the folds of my magenta sari could hold back the sheer delight of stepping into fresh snow.

Am I doing something wrong? Allowing myself to be swept onto this pleasantly nostalgic train of thought? Why is it more acceptable to reminisce about the unhappy ending to my first marriage? In spite of my best intentions to move forward, pictures of innocuous cherry blossoms are sending a trickle of happiness climbing up my spine. It’s a pure unadulterated feeling. No blame for what followed. No regret for what could have been. No guilt for messing up. It’s like unexpectedly finding a family heirloom of special value.

It seems right somehow. There is a phase of anger and finger pointing. There is a time to grieve, for lost relationships, for a future that may have turned out differently. And when all such emotions are spent, there is a time to understand, to forgive. To know that there were good times, folded deep within the reams of memories where the repeating motif was sadness. Life is layered and rich. Every phase that throws up a challenge, also holds within it a lesson. I matured as much from the adversity that came my way as in the moments of calm. I learnt from my academic endeavors and also by handling what transpired outside the centers of education. Wisdom resulted from soul searching but peace arose from the gratitude for times like these.

With honesty and the clarity of hindsight, I find myself today in a place of forgiveness. Self-forgiveness. Like charity, compassion must also begin at home, with the self. As I think back to the younger me, excitedly throwing her arms out to feel the mist of Niagara Falls on my face, I smile indulgently. I am still that same person. Easily enthused by simple pleasures, licking my ice-cream slowly, giggling when caught in a sudden downpour, picking up a smiling infant on a bus.

I give permission to the real me to take charge.

tulip 1The tulip display in the Flower Dome is impressive. I stoop down to take a picture and I feel a bubble of laughter bursting forth.

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I witness

“Tell me. Who proposed? Did you propose to Dada or did he propose to you?’ Princess asked me last week. We were on our nightly walk after dinner, Princess and I. What was once an exercise in solitude has now become a family activity where Princess or DQ or HH or all three, accompany me.

“Weren’t you present when Dada got down on his knees the day before the wedding?” I replied.

“Not that one. He only did it because your friends insisted on proof at the mehendi party that there would be a wedding the next day. I am asking about before that.”

I couldn’t clearly recall who had proposed, when and how. So I did what anyone in my position would do. I changed the topic.

It wasn’t a “senior moment” that had me at a loss. Perhaps it was the fact that for me, this time, it wasn’t an arranged marriage. HH and I had known each other for almost a year. Perhaps these details are not as important second time around where the focus is on the specifics of what happens next. Or perhaps, we are just an unromantic pair of oldies who would rather skip the rigmarole and get on with our life together. I think it was simply because I did not insist on a formal proposal even after we broke the news to our respective families, which included our kids who would take on starring roles in the new family show.

Coming from a cultural mindset that puts marriage as the center-piece of a woman’s existence, I had taken a long time to get over the fact that mine had crumbled. After the formal divorce, I went through a phase that alternated between relief and grief, freedom and fear, exhilaration and exhaustion. I struggled with anger, sadness, rage, self-pity and remorse. I stayed away from depression because I did not have the luxury to do wallow in it. I focused on rebuilding: a home safe for the two of us, a career that would support my single-mom lifestyle and a reputation that would enable me to respect myself and my choices.

I also avoided men, if not ignored them completely.

Until one morning, feeling particularly happy about the life I had created for myself, attributed in part to a good hair day and a hearty lunch, when I confessed to a friend that sometimes I wished I could share my life with a suitable man. My friend, no points for guessing, a guy, put on his problem-solving hat and said, “I know just the person you should meet.” With those fateful words, my fate was sealed.

HH came into my life first via email, then phone calls. We shared stories, songs, quotations, book reviews, movie dialogs, quiz questions. The first picture of himself that he sent should have warned me about jolly times ahead when I saw a photo of an ageing movie star with the modest disclaimer that he looked better in person! Our first meeting was, to put it mildly, dull. The great phone conversationalist was tongue-tied. A true scientist, I called him to ask why. And once again, we were on track. Thanks to technology, I got to know more about him through text messages than eye contact. He joked, I laughed. I sang. He listened. We talked, shared, connected.

At a restaurant one afternoon, he sat across the table. A comfortable silence hung between us. A random thought, like a spider’s web, took root from thin air. “If he walks away from me now, I don’t know how I would handle it.” That moment I realized how much I had come to count on him. A part of me was tired of being alone. Strangely though, we lived in different cities then, bringing up our kids with our own support systems; we didn’t really have a pressing need to be together.

“I am not tired of being alone” he said. “I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Was that the proposal? I am not sure. All I remember thinking later was what I should have said.

“I don’t want you to marry me because you don’t want to be alone. I want you to marry me because you want to be with me.”

Sometimes my smart-alec brain is not fast enough. So the words remained unsaid.

And now I find myself at an important milestone. It is exactly six months since we tied the proverbial knot. I know more about HH (and as a corollary, myself) now that we live under the same roof.

He needs to play a sport everyday; I find solace in meditation

He loves to surprise me by walking in unannounced; I prefer to know if he will be late.

He can spend hours researching what I call “pointless trivia” and quotes Bertrand Russell -“there is so much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.”

I see him differently now. “That’s because I am not your boyfriend anymore” says HH, with his infectious smile.

I know why.

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”

–       Rumi

Once I broke my walls built of anger and covered in hurt, I didn’t have to look far. Love walked in without an invitation. We are bound together now, still unsure who asked first. But I have made a promise – to see, to be, to bear witness.


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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.