Starting Over

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


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What now?

This is the post I should have published first. The reason why I thought my life, which is strangely the same as anyone else’s but still very different, was worth writing about. And it had to do with an ad on Indian TV for jewelry.

I had been a loyal Tanishq customer long before I saw the ad – the one that shows a dusky bride walking to her wedding ceremony holding her little girl’s hand. As the bride and groom walk around the ceremonial fire, the groom picks up the little girl as well, including the child in the commitment to the new life with her mother. Not surprisingly, the ad made waves in the media and in urban Indian society. It was a wonderful visual, a great statement on the changing mores of Indian society that favored fair-skinned virginal brides for eligible bachelors of all ages. How wonderful for a woman to get a second chance, to be deemed worthy by a man who is willing to accept her child as well!

A friend sent me the link to this ad, soon after its debut in India. It reminded her of my wedding, she said. I had had a wedding ceremony the month before. My 16 year old daughter participated in it. So did my husband’s 10 year old daughter. It was the second time for both of us. And so we came together, each with a “plus one”.  Our respective families and close friends attended the event, blessed us, gave us gifts. We smiled for the camera, sorted through our material possessions and started a new life in a different country.

As individuals we knew what marriage entails, what we knew and expected of each other. In India marriage requires marrying the entire family, usually implying an acceptance of parents, siblings and varying extents of each other’s extended families. But in our case, this involved our children from our previous marriage as well. As we walked around the sacred fire, we solemnly took vows towards a peaceful life with each other, vows written for first-timers. What about our responsibilities to each other’s children? And to their extended families which do not include us? As we took seven steps together as husband and wife, we also had to step up to instantly becoming a step-parent. Was there any advice for that role?

As a child, the logical part of me always questioned what happened after the prince and princess stepped into the sunset hand in hand. There were no books then for the “happily ever after” sequel. As an adult I know there are innumerable books that offer advice now for happy marriages but I can’t seem to find anything to guide me in my personal situation. Undoubtedly I am older, perhaps a little more sensible, if not wiser but have very little experience to guide me through this phase of my life. A lifelong bookworm, I have looked to books for escape and enlightenment. The Chicken soup series provides some feel-good tidbits but there are no guidebooks for this first year of married life with a new spouse for an Indian woman.

After our quiet wedding we got down to the nitty gritty of starting over –  finding a new home, moving, getting the kids out of one school and into another, figuring out how to operate a household of four. Honeymoon, you ask? Even holding hands seems unlikely on most days. We go for family movies on Fridays, outdoor treks on Sundays and deal with schoolwork and homework on the other days.

My past unhappy marriage experience has taught me one important lesson – I must prioritize my relationship with my spouse if I want to build a happy family. And that seems the hardest to do.  Each of us prioritizes what needs to be done for the family and self and as we tick each item off the list, the hours in the day dwindle. Sometimes the only time we have together is the few minutes before we sleep, a time I would have spent reading a book.

Most days I feel bereft. All I seem to do is wait for the family that I sent off to school and work in the morning to come back home. I read, send out resumes, do errands. I write, I Skype. I do yoga. And I wait. Literally and figuratively – for structure and substance, for goals and guidance, for insight and inspiration, for enthusiasm and encouragement. I know that it will not be revealed to me in a momentary flash of brilliance. After all, the fairy tale took a while to get to the point of the happy couple walking into the sunset, but ever after is a very long time.

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Craving quiet

“Music is the space between the notes.”

                                                               – Claude Debussy

Children love to hear the story of their birth. And I was no exception. While the actual event of my birth was as momentous or uneventful as any other, the part that was of great interest to me, came a little later in the narration.

“People told me that giving birth to the second baby would be much easier” said my mother, “but for me all three of you took a long time to emerge. You specially. You were the chubbiest of the lot.” I was perhaps 10 years old when we talked about this the first time.  “Were you sad that I was a girl?” I asked, knowing the preference for sons that prevails in India. “I was not sad that you were a girl, but a girl’s life is a hard one. Looking at your smiling, innocent face, I felt a twinge that my little baby girl will also have to endure all that a woman has to bear in her life.” I didn’t really grasp the depth of that sentiment then, eager to proceed to the interesting part. “When I was a teenager, I once heard a neighbor sing a melodious song and I asked what raga it was. Ranjani, she replied. Even before I thought about marriage, I knew that if I ever had a daughter, I would name her Ranjani.”

I was named after a raga in Carnatic music. So was my mother. I loved this story because it made me feel special; the fact that I was in her mind long before I was in her arms, an inquisitive and demanding daughter. Growing up between two brothers in a society that favored boys, this fact built my self-esteem along with so many of my mother’s statements during my growing years.

 I didn’t particularly develop an interest in Indian classical music at a young age. But I heard a lot of it. First there was radio, then television. The cassette tapes made music more accessible to that generation. My mother sang often. Although not a trained musician, she had a lilting voice and was a quick learner. She was an encyclopedia of knowledge about Carnatic music. Each morning the chanting of the Vishnu Sahasranama or hymns sung in praise of the Hindu gods roused us from slumber. The day would then gradually fill with a cacophony of sounds of the busy metropolis that was Bombay.

 Many years after I left home, I turned to music at a time in my life when I did not find meaning in anything else. I found a suitable Carnatic music teacher in America, drove 20 miles for every lesson. I memorized the notes, repeated after my teacher and practiced. I talked about music to my mother. Much later, World Space radio came to India with its dedicated Carnatic music channel, much to the delight of my mother. Although we lived in different cities in India then, we discussed shows and artists, dissected the nuances of compositions, praised the melody and beauty of the words. We bonded over sound bytes. Our favorite game was “guess the raga”. She was much better than any app that could guess the tune from the first few bars as it played over the sound waves. My best memories in recent years include the two trips we made to Chennai during the December music season to attend music concerts that play daily all over the city, a veritable feast for music connoisseurs.

 While my mother and I bonded over many things, there were some things about her that didn’t make sense to me in my early years. We would travel by train during the summer holidays. The scenery would run by, dry and barren at places, lush fields at others. Occasionally a lonely house would be seen in the distance; a dim light in the middle of nowhere.

“I would like to live there,” my mother would say.

“Really? Why would you want to leave the comforts of city life to live all alone?”

“Sometimes I want to be quiet and be surrounded by quiet. It’s not possible with the three of you all around. Plus the noise of city life doesn’t give me a moments peace.”

I found it odd that the charm of living in a big city didn’t fascinate my mother. Why would you trade the glitz and speed of a metro for a place where you hear no sounds except perhaps the moo of a cow?

 Only later when the need for solitude arose as a nascent sigh within me did I empathize with my mother’s wish for some alone time. The parenting path is filled with activities, responsibilities and demands. Whether it is the tinkle of childish giggles, the laughter of kids horsing around or the clang of pots and pans in the kitchen, there is always noise. Sounds surround you, mark your day and clutter your thoughts. Getting away from it all seems to be the only way to experience quietness.

And in that solitude you find the energy that keeps you going, humming softly through the days that seem to never end, with errands that pile up just as you finish others.

Just as the cadence of music is made up of the notes and the spaces between them, life needs these periodic pauses to help us reflect and rejoice in just “being”.

Here’s to reveling in rejuvenating solitude, refreshing silence, revitalizing stillness. Image


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Defining home

Never make your home in a place. Make a home for yourself inside your own head. You’ll find what you need to furnish it – memory, friends you can trust, love of learning, and other such things. That way it will go with you wherever you journey.
                                                                                         – Tad Williams

Perhaps it was the TED talk by Pico Iyer about “Where is home?” or was it the article in the Straits Times about modern day nomads that got me thinking about what defines home for me. Now.

Unlike Iyer who although of Indian heritage claims to have not spent a day in India and can’t speak any Indian language, largely due to his upbringing in UK, US and his more recent long stays in Japan, I look Indian, carry an Indian passport and can speak (read and write) some Indian languages. In an international setting, while he finds it hard to answer the question of “Where are you from” for me it is simple to respond that I am from India. But the deeper question of “Where is home?’ is the one that puzzles me now.

I used to know where home was. For a long time it was the cozy apartment in Bombay where I entered as an infant and left as an adult. The same place where I squabbled with my brothers, scraped my knees and studied for exams. My mother would be home when I returned from school eager to narrate tales about my day. My grandmother would comb out her shining silver hair in the little balcony. My father would return tired from a hard day at the office. The walls stored the sounds of our laughter and bore the marks of our childish scribbles. It was the place that gave us roots and wings. Our physical refuge as we came of age. After my siblings and I left home, my parents moved into a larger apartment with appliances and conveniences, a little farther from the congested old neighborhood. The new place then became home. It did not have any of the associations of our childhood but it still was my emotional refuge. I memorized the new phone number, the number to call to chat, to cry, to celebrate and commiserate. Invariably Dad would pick up and after a few pleasantries, hand it over to Mom for a full discussion. School holidays meant a trip to Mumbai (the city had changed its name by then), any business trip ended with a weekend extension to spend time with parents. Home was where my parents lived and that was Mumbai.

I now live in Singapore. As I try to create a safe and loving home for my new family, I meet new people. And they ask, where are you from? It’s not country coordinates they are looking for but a city. A locus for not just my origin but an address that can help them place my personality, check if I meet the stereotype, identify my mother tongue, place my accent. So I say, Hyderabad, the place from which I boarded the flight to Singapore. That is the city where I have lived for a decade – the city where I bought my first (and only) apartment and sold my car. I established my consulting business, found a supportive circle of friends, watched my daughter grow from 6 to 16 years of age. The years were a trial by fire. I learnt to forge a new identity, built a life from scratch and survived the loss of both parents within a short span. But does that make Hyderabad my home?

Prior to that I lived almost 14 years in the USA. I went to graduate school, learnt to drive a car, got my first job and became a mom. I made friends with young mothers who supported my working life by generously offering pick up services and play dates for my toddler. I acquired a Ph.D., discovered my passion for writing and started practicing yoga. Over the years I became a permanent resident and more comfortable living in a country so far away and different from my own. I was happy to visit India and equally thrilled to return to the USA. But like the proverbial salmon, I always counted the days to my visits to India. Then it was the lure of “going home”, to be with parents in the physical and emotional sanctuary that made everything all right.

It is strange now – once again I am in a new country but am not eager to visit India. Even if I do get on a flight, where will I go? A young family of four rent the Mumbai apartment where my parents spent their last days. Ever since Mom died, I have made only day trips for business, no longer lingering in a city which always seems intimately familiar despite the obvious substantial changes.  While there are bits and pieces of business that still need my attention in Hyderabad, I feel no urgency to settle them.  The USA, which was my home for the second largest chunk of life thus far does not beckon. How then do I define home? Not just to the curious acquaintances but to myself? Where would I go if I want to go home? The place that makes me feel safe and grounded yet propels me towards growth, emotional and spiritual. A place of quiet, peaceful companionship where I can be unselfconscious yet feel special.

I have moved around, lived in 3 countries, travelled to many more.  Its great to see the world with fresh eyes, meet people, attempt to set roots, knowing that this is what I need to do now, not knowing if I will uproot the same in the short or long term. I have to create a “home” wherever I set my intention to spend a period of my life. Perhaps I had it all wrong before. I used to set my mind’s compass back to my past, to my parents, to physical coordinates. What lies before me is what is true. “Home” has to be where I am now, not because I have nowhere else to call home but because as Pico Iyer says,  “home is in the end not just the place where you sleep, but the place where you stand.”