Starting Over

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


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My husband is (not) my best friend

“Who is your best friend?” I ask.

“My husband” answers a good friend whom I have known since we were 10. It’s easy for her say this confidently; she is the one who has a 25th anniversary party lined up this weekend.

Another friend who completed one year of marriage a few months ago has a different response. “My husband is not a friend,” she says. “He is my husband, he doesn’t have to be my friend.” This is a woman whose first husband was a friend, a colleague who then became a spouse and later, an ex.

“Is it necessary for your spouse to be your best friend?” she counters.

I don’t know. It would be nice if he was, is what I am thinking, although I don’t say it aloud.

I have no BFF. I have many friends.

I have friends, who once sat next to me on the school bus, wearing the same blue uniform and shared their candy.

I have helpful friends, who were once my neighbors, who collected my mail and watered my plants when I traveled.

I have good friends who used to be coworkers and suffered similarly with deadlines and bosses.

I know there is friendship in families, the kind related by blood.

My mother brought me into this world and has been my biggest influence on how I see it today. We started with a typical parent-child relationship; she said, I did; I rebelled, she nagged. Once I grew out of my teens, she moved from authority figure to adult, I graduated from child to friend.

My older brother drove me around in his tricycle when I was two. My younger brother taught me to ride a bicycle. I developed social skills and practiced basic survival techniques, trying to hold my own between two boys under the benign supervision of our parents. Today I connect with my brothers because we are friends.

I have gained family from friends too, bonds forged by tears and tribulations.

A friend welcomed me into her home when I left my (ex) husband’s home. Another drove me to doctor’s appointments when I couldn’t do it on my own. Other moms picked up my child from daycare on days I had to work late.

What about the relationship between a husband and wife? We are family. But are we friends? Is friendship essential in a marriage? Is it even necessary?

A part of me thinks it is. Of all the people who came into my life, either as family or through other means, I have chosen to cherish the connections that endured beyond our initial reason for meeting. Erstwhile classmates, colleagues and neighbors continue to merit attention because we are now friends. For an association to endure, friendship seems key. Shouldn’t the same hold true of marriage as well?

Beyond the initial attraction and euphoria, sleepless nights and long discussions, a spirit of openness and vulnerability that underscores a deep friendship is important. A friend need not know all your secrets; he needs to accept you knowing that you have them. A friend may not share your enthusiasm to run the marathon but will show up to cheer you along the way. A friend doesn’t need you to stay the same as when you first met, he holds your hand as waves of change cascade on you.

My husband takes off from work one afternoon to watch a movie with me. I gamely attend his office parties. He puts up with my whiny self. I let him have his space when he is in one of his moods. We discuss our shared goals and debate the best way to reach them. I hope he will continue to accompany me on our nightly walks, even if I slow down with age. I would like us to take selfies as we do now, regardless of the wrinkles and lines we accumulate. Looks like friendship to me.

twin-spiresWe have been married for a year now. My husband is my friend. Does he consider me one? Maybe. Does his ambiguity bother me? Yes. But I try not to mind. Like other lasting friendships, this one will take time.

For a marriage to endure, friendship is key. Until our friendship matures, I have to endure.

To answer my own question, my husband is (not yet) my best friend.

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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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If the first lady can do it, so can I

I wonder how she does it. Who you ask? Michelle Obama. While the world may focus on her enviable position as first lady, my question is a more prosaic one. How does she manage day after day, to be in the limelight, not for her credentials as a Harvard-educated lawyer but as the wife of the President of USA?

The newspapers are busy comparing the first ladies of USA and China, now that Michelle Obama and her daughters have landed in Beijing. Madam Peng Liyuan, the wife of Chinese President Xi Jinping was a well-known folk singer before her husband rose to prominence. Michelle Obama was the primary breadwinner of her family as her husband worked his way to the Oval office. Today these once formidable women, have chosen to take a step sideways to stand as spouses besides the world’s most powerful men.

I wonder how they truly feel. Was it hard? To give up work that you were good at, a career that you enjoyed, an identity forged as an independent woman to take on life in the public eye?

I know how hard it is for me. Ok, ok – so I am not married to a President and have only seen the Istana in Singapore from the outside. I was no celebrity but I felt a tug as I moved to another country after I married HH. For many years, both in the USA and in India, I had work I enjoyed, friends to hang with and a life that was predictable. After working full time when DQ was little, I had managed to carve out a work life balance in India that made it possible for me to earn enough to support a comfortable lifestyle and have the freedom to pursue other interests.

I do appreciate the comfortable life I have today, taking primary responsibility for my home and family. I have the luxury of spending quantity time with my girls and enough energy to ensure that it is also quality time that we spend together as a family. I am grateful for not having a crushing commute and a competitive job. But I hate marking “housewife” under “occupation” when I fill out forms. It irritates me when my thoughts focus on what to make for dinner tonight instead of deadlines on projects. I hesitate to have long chats with friends knowing that there was a time when “I am on a call” meant it was work-related. I get really upset when DQ mutters, “Dude, you need to get a job” after a particularly inquisitive conversation with her about school.

What I miss is the focus that work brings to my day. It gives me a legitimate outlet (which also pays me) for the high intensity churning that my brain indulges in, night or day. Having tuned my body mechanism to operate at full capacity all these years, shifting into lower gear seems counter-intuitive. Life may be in neutral but there are days when I feel like it has moved into reverse gear. I accomplished more when I was busy. I have not just done away with lists; procrastination has become a way of life.

There are pictures of Michelle Obama with Madam Peng, discussions about their outfits and roles at this historic meeting in China. Their responsibility is to look good, send out feminine vibes, build soft ties with the countries they visit and provide perfect photo-ops. One article even called the wives of politically powerful men “accessories”. Does it hurt when people judge these women who are capable of more for making personal choices that have now cast them into symbolic roles of first ladies?

I don’t really have a right to ask. I found myself judging the stay-at-home moms in my neighborhood soon after I moved to Singapore. While I was home too, I justified my time as a legitimate gap while settling in with my new family. And yes, I was actively looking for work. I would be gainfully employed in no time, that’s what others said. That’s what I said to myself, as the weeks became months and the job trail didn’t look as if it was leading anywhere. I still consider myself a career woman even though I attend yoga class on Friday mornings, go to the library on Wednesday afternoons and meet a friend for lunch on other weekdays.

Last week, one of the moms enquired about my job hunt. I confessed that it wasn’t going too well and I feel a little depressed sometimes. “Don’t get depressed. Talk to me when you feel blue. I have been looking for a job for two years and have only recently made peace with staying home after 18 years of working at a job I loved.” I was shocked and humbled. Here I was, turning my nose up at the women who stayed home, not knowing their story, while they had been welcoming, inclusive and supportive without prying into the details of my life. As a group they were kindred souls, as individuals they had their unique stories. I felt I didn’t fit in because I had labeled myself “working professional”. I wasn’t willing to accept this homebound version of myself. They weren’t judging me. I was. I had made a choice but was not embracing its consequence on my career gracefully. It was time to do so.

I still don’t know how the first lady does it. But she seems to be enjoying this time of her life, using her presence at the podium to take on issues that she cares about. She has chosen this role and essays it perfectly. All I can hope for is to move through my life with the same grace.

Don’t struggle so much, the best things happen when not expected” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez


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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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First Valentine

Valentines day cake

I am completely lost. Its Valentine’s day today and I have no plans. Don’t get me wrong, I have a date but no plans for THE DAY. There are enough helpful hints in the print and digital media about the obvious and the subtle ways in which to impress your date on this most romantic day of the year.  But nothing I have read so far seems remotely right. You see, this is my first Valentine day with my new husband.

In my teens, I considered the notion of devoting an entire day (and perhaps a month’s wages) to celebrating togetherness in a couple to be romantic. In later years, the pragmatic me regarded the day as a contrived excuse to atone for all the mishaps of the year. After my divorce, the cynical me dismissed the idea entirely as a commercial exercise fueling materialism.  But now as I anticipate the day with my spouse, I wonder which of those selves that I have evolved into over the years will dominate.

A part of me wants to do something special. Mark the day in some way. Dinner for two sounds perfect, but what about the kids? Breakfast in bed? But its a weekday! A gift perhaps? Too trite. Flowers? Too cute. Chocolates? Too sweet. A night at the Ritz? Too expensive. A party? Too crowded for our taste. What then? All of the above symbolize the public celebration of love between a man and woman. And falling short on these socially acceptable displayed modes seems to be huge personal failure of some sort.

I am still looking for ideas that don’t fit traditional expectations but will communicate my feelings for the wonderful man who is now my husband. Is it the little girl in me enamored by prince charming who wants to ensure a happily ever after second time around? Is it the hopeful teenager scouring the net for love poems? Or the young woman who wished she had a secret admirer who is looking for the perfect gift?

I am not sure what my husband expects. We have both been married before. At our age, we have had our share of shattered dreams and heartbreaks and survived them sufficiently intact to try again. It doesn’t help that we belong to a generation in India who were brought up in stable families but have witnessed the collapse of this structure in our own generation. There are no relevant role models to rebuild a happy family with a second spouse and step-children involved. To add to the mix, we chose to move to another country to start over.

Life sure is interesting. Having always been a working woman, I am struggling with the unfamiliar tag of a home maker. I am trying on the identity of a wife and mother to two girls. My husband has taken up a job with a different work culture. The girls hitherto used to being an only child and the center of their respective families universe are now wrestling with the reality of having a sibling at home and new friends in a school in a foreign country. As we all hobble along alternating between harmony and frustration, the best we can do as a couple is to hold on to each other while we figure out our way as a family.

The only certainty is that things will change. We will get more comfortable together, the girls will grow into young women and seek their own future and we will watch them soar. It will be just the two of us at home, me reading a book, him watching sports on TV. It will be two for dinner. Breakfast in bed won’t be so hard to organize. We will go on holidays without too much advance planning. We will hold hands as we make two sets of footprints in the white sand of an exotic beach.

Maybe fairy tales do come true. In life as in the story, there comes an opportunity to walk into the sunset with the person you love. It doesn’t matter if the chance comes second time around.  And to honor this prospect, I want to do something special for my husband to acknowledge Cupid and his errant arrow that struck us.  On this, our first Valentine’s day as a couple, it is not the worldly-wise woman who knows that the road traveled alone is harder who wants to appreciate her fellow traveller but the eternal optimist in me who seeks to express her gratitude for each day we have together.

Happy Valentine’s Day, my dear!