Starting Over

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

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What will my daughter eat today?

IMG-20140405-WA0002My mother would ask me this question on Sundays. I must have been thirteen then; still a child who loved to be treated as special, almost an adult who wanted to make big decisions. The line was plagiarized from a TV ad for a popular brand of oil but I loved repeating the routine with her, one that ended with both of us smiling. She would then proceed to prepare my favorite food. The heat of a kitchen in Mumbai in the month of May dissolved against the sweet juice of the alphonso mangoes that were in season. I would peel off my wet school uniform on rainy monsoon afternoons and bite into fried onion pakodas. I learnt to make dosas and fry pooris in my mother’s kitchen. I would munch on nuts from the countertop as I told her stories of my day. Sometimes I would chop tomatoes or roll out the rotis for her. She would wipe the sweat from her brow with the edge of her sari. I would hug her regardless of the humidity that discouraged human contact.

What is it about food that stirs up so many feelings? Not just memories.

Is it the fact that eating is one activity in which we use all our senses? As I pick up each morsel, it carries with it not just the flavor which the tongue seeks but the sight that makes it irresistible, the sounds in the kitchen when its prepared, the aroma of spices that hover in the air and the texture of the food as it moves in my mouth. Each of these sensory experiences contributes to the overall joy of eating. Later, each sense brings forth its recollection, hidden deep in its archives as individual entries. Each sense holds a piece of the puzzle that when recalled together creates an entire memory, like a rerun from an old TV show that takes you back in time many years later.

I was a troublesome little kid when it came to food. Not eating much, always in search of the perfect bite. My dad used to say I ate air, referring to my tiny appetite. I liked to eat, but I wanted every bite to be perfect. No half-cooked, unevenly salted, unappetizing looking food for me, thank you very much. Almost as snooty as a food critic, I would take second helpings only if there was perfection (perfect for my palate of course). I ate my vegetables but I craved sweets. I was game to try new stuff but took refuge in comfort foods. I showed no interest in learning how to cook although I was a competent sous chef. “She will learn cooking when she needs to. She will learn quickly like she learns other things. Its not rocket science” said Mom, when others asked her if I had been trained in the kitchen arts.

I didn’t really like to cook, even when I had to. I chose to make simple stuff that was quick to whip up. I prided myself on my ability to put together a balanced Indian dinner made from scratch in 45 minutes. Until DQ came along.

She didn’t like milk (to this day), ate only fruit and lingered for hours (at least seemed like it) over every meal till she turned eight. Friends suggested I feed her food that kids liked, pizza and fries, pasta and burgers. But even that was not enough incentive for her to eat at a reasonable pace. I chose to stick to offering her healthy vegetarian food but in my quest to make it more attractive, I started doing the unthinkable. Looking up recipes!

I learnt to make quesadillas with broccoli, bruschetta and veggie wraps. In an effort to expand her palate, I broadened my culinary abilities. And over a period of time, DQ became more open to eating regular food and has turned into what I call a “food purist”. She enjoys every bite, appreciates what is cooked and occasionally shows an interest in how it is made. She continues to be the one to finish last at any meal earning her the nickname “Tuas” – short for two hours, the average time spent on a meal.

I think I breathed a sigh of relief too soon because now I have Princess, who thinks vegetables are an unnecessary evil and has vowed to stay way from them unless it is a matter of life and death. So my quest has started anew. This time armed with the limitless wisdom of Google, I am once again on a search for new and exciting ways to camouflage essential food groups into interesting creations. We make bean burritos, corn and cheese sandwiches, paneer parathas, and creamy mushroom pasta. I ensure there is an endless supply of fresh lemonade and banana nut muffins. Every meal has to sound exciting and please the picky eater as well. Progress is slow and changing eating patterns takes time. I know. It has taken me four decades to be classified as “not fussy” when it comes to food.

It bothers me sometimes, this focus on food. We don’t live to eat. We eat so we can nourish our bodies. We need a healthy body to progress in life, literally and otherwise. Making it the highlight of my day feels like I am settling for less. I should be doing more, or at the very least, doing something else, growing my brain in so many directions. Planning and cooking a meal seems almost too trivial.

cupcake with candleWe have friends coming for dinner. Princess wants to know what I am planning to make. She enthusiastically beats the eggs, sugar and butter. DQ offers to help frost the carrot cupcakes. They linger in the hot kitchen, adding to the noise and mess. DQ wants to use the pretty tablemats. Princess takes the plates and glasses to set the table. They take pride in their creation, eat enthusiastically and share stories at the dinner table. I observe my family and have my epiphany.

I am not preparing a meal. I am creating memories.



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Happiness is….


Drama Queen (DQ, who is now 16) must have been about four when she asked me,

“Amma, did you ever want to be a dog?”

She was a huge fan of Clifford, the big red dog cartoon on TV and had watched a show in which the little kid imagines life as a dog. An ardent dog lover then (and now), we were having this conversation on our way back from day care. The Los Altos hillside looked green and graceful, as I pondered on an appropriate response.

“No, but when I was a kid, sometimes I wanted to be a boy.”


“I had two brothers and I felt life would be more fun being a boy, doing boy stuff, I guess.”

I turned around to see her scrunch her face in concentration in the blue car seat. She was quiet for a few minutes before she knocked me over with her reaction.

“But if you were a boy, you could never be my Mommy.”

Getting into “mommy school” probably has been the toughest educational experience in my life, notwithstanding my Ph.D., which in retrospect can be called a cakewalk. I know I am not the only one who says this. The not-so-fun part of motherhood is in knowing early on that you will never graduate from this institution, which is as old as humanity itself.  The daily grind of mothering that begins with breastfeeding and diapers continues into constant supervision of meals and homework and unending arguments about friends and Facebook. It is a course of study that only underscores what you already knew the minute you held your baby in your arms – once a Mom, always a Mom.

Working full time with a small baby left me with very little bandwidth to enjoy the big moments. But we found happiness when we stopped to appreciate the small, uncomplicated moments together.

Happiness is….watching a snail on a sunny afternoon with your toddler.

Happiness is ….counting the colors of the rainbow after a brief rain shower.

DQ and I have both grown together, the years filled with toothless smiles, cheeky grins, hugs and laughter giving way to pimples, cramps, boys and non-specific teenage angst. The baby with a round face and stubby nose has morphed into a gangly teen with a perfectly oval face and a sharp nose. People say she looks like me but she doesn’t. She stands shoulder to shoulder with me, looking like the girl I wished I was when I was 16. She already exudes a quiet confidence, grace and sense of self that has taken me years to develop. She can do stuff that I can’t. She swims effortlessly and loves the feel of the wind in her hair as she bicycles down slopes. When she insists on shopping for new clothes, again, patiently trying on outfits, I know she didn’t learn this from me. When she enthusiastically gobbles up sickly sweet cupcakes I see a tiny reflection of my sweet tooth. She exasperates me with the number of hours she sleeps when she should be studying. The phone is glued to her hand and when its not, there is an iPad at her fingertips. And did I mention, fingernails dipped in brilliantly colored nail polish?

When she is nice, we discuss her day at school, laugh at her weird dreams and sometimes, boys. When I am nostalgic I remember that she was really good with naps but was a fussy eater in her toddler years. We drool over “hot” movie stars and play the same song over and over to get the words just right. She doesn’t borrow my shoes any more, they don’t fit her “giant” feet, a sore point over mistaken genetic selection. I share my love for books with her, forever pushing a suitable selection her way. She configures my phone and thinks I am cool for not wanting to “friend” her on Facebook. There are unreasonable demands at times but tears are rare.

I watch her closely, trying not to crowd her. I am always unsure whether I have got the balance right, allowing enough freedom with its consequent responsibility without sparking a teenage rebellion. We argue occasionally but hang out together more. I nag. She bickers. I bake. She eats. And once in a while, she gives me a giant hug. The “thank yous” are few but heartfelt and unexpected. DQ has been my anchor, my one constant during the years it was just her and me, when her dad and I parted ways. We continue to define happiness in the small uncomplicated moments together.

Happiness is….getting piggy-back rides from your daughter in the swimming pool

Happiness is ….sharing a vanilla cone on the beach after sunset

And now, in a new country, with a stepfather and stepsister, she is once again the rock on which I rest when I feel jittery. She made me a birthday card shortly after we moved to Singapore. It simply said “Home is where Mom is.” It’s probably a cute phrase she lifted from the internet but it shows me that she still binds her coordinates to mine, no matter where my journey takes her. I didn’t imagine my life taking this detour but I was strong for having a daughter to hold my hand. I don’t know how life will unfold but I now have another one too. The big questions can wait. I know this for sure. All I need to do is find happiness in the small, uncomplicated moments.

Happiness is ….. having two daughters!

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She held my hand as the flight took off, but a little too firmly. She put her arm around my neck, tight enough to choke me. She squeezed and pinched and laughed when it caused pain. “That’s what the relationship between a stepmom and stepdaughter is supposed to be like” she giggled, looking out of the airplane window at the lights of the city she had grown up in becoming tiny specks.

We were on our first flight together towards Singapore where we would start our life as a family – she and her dad, my daughter and me.

“Hold on” I said to my new stepdaughter (who was later conferred the title of tween Princess). “ All the books I read said it was the step mom who was mean to the girl, not the other way around. This doesn’t look like Cinderella to me. Are you saying our story is going to be different?”

She smiled but didn’t reply.

“We should find a new name for our story.”

“How about Pinderella?’’ she ventured, with the diffidence of a ten year old who wasn’t sure about the turn her life was about to take.

And thus began the story of our life.

When my husband, HH (short for His Highness on account of the girls being named, Drama Queen and Princess in chronological order; or Handsome Husband, which is what he secretly wishes to be called) and I decided to get married, we braced ourselves for exciting times ahead. And five months later, it has been all that and more.

Becoming a mother is a unique and universal experience.  Each woman who has given birth can attest to the contradictory feelings that motherhood sets off in us after months of pregnancy. While multi-tasking like never before, you feel inadequate. While dealing with the strength of maternal instinct, you grapple with vulnerability where your child is concerned. You love fiercely, live fully and revel in the maze of motherhood. A large part of motherhood is based on instinct, honed by the special relationship you had with your biological child in utero. How then to prepare for mothering a child who is now yours but who did not, as Kahlil Gibran puts it “come through you”?

Being a stepmom is tough and it begins with the title itself. No matter how old the child is, or who has been the primary caregiver, you are the one who starts with the wrong title. I never liked that term, with all its negative connotations, assumptions and behaviors.

Princess calls me “Ma”. I call her “my little girlie” when she is good and “Pinderella” when isn’t. She tells me about school as she sits on the kitchen counter while I cook. She sulks when I ask her to clean her room and makes faces when she has to eat veggies. I comb her hair. She teaches me how to swim. I ask her about her friends in the new school. She enquires about my job hunt. She borrows my sandals. I take her shopping. We bake sometimes. And talk for a few minutes each night before bed. She is learning to share her dad with me. I am trying to see how best to help her turn into the bold, brave, beautiful young woman I know is hiding below the tantrums and tears that have been her coping mechanism thus far.

One day on a bus ride, we both observed a little baby, busy playing with his toes, the pacifier, a rattle and his mother’s hair.

“What did you want Drama Queen (DQ) to be before she was born, boy or girl?” Princess asked.

“I knew I would have a daughter” I replied.

“What did you want me to be?” she asked, tongue-in-cheek.

I was speechless.

I had always hoped to have another baby, a sibling for DQ. But life did not grant me the chance to have a biological one. Instead I was handed this child, many years after I gave up on that dream. I was not given the luxury to choose. It was a package deal, a husband plus his child. I embraced them both. This time around, I am learning to expand my heart further. Once again, a wife; once more, a mother.

The day after we got married, we visited the home of a childhood friend. His kids were friends with Princess just as their dad and HH had been all these years. The grandmother of the children was home that afternoon. HH introduced me as “Princess’ new mother.” I smiled in relief.

I will take the title of “new mother” for a while, until its time to graduate to just “mother”.

As Gibran says in “The Prophet”

“Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you.

And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,

For they have their own thoughts.

You may house their bodies but not their souls,

For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.

For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.”

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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