Starting Over

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


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Picture book series

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The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship. William Blake

September 2011.
On a holiday with girlfriends.
Shillong, India

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Embracing change

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“Change is one thing. Acceptance is another.” – Arundhati Roy in The God of Small Things.

Once upon a time, I was happy to define myself within the context of my relationship to others – a daughter, a sister, a wife. I knew my place in the world. I did things as well – for a long time I was a student, then a research assistant and later employed as a scientist. Doing things filled my hours, kept me engaged and intellectually stimulated. I learnt new skills – to drive, to sing, to write, to teach. Learning brought me joy, opened avenues of freedom, of expression. I had experiences that shaped me – becoming a mother, starting my own business. These adventures added depth and meaning to my life. I experienced loss – of my first marriage, of both my parents. I fell. I pulled myself up again. I acquired things – a home, a car, gadgets. Life was easy.

Somewhere along the way, I felt complete. Content. Stable.

Stability is good. Addictive too. As I stood poised in that bubble like a tiny ballerina in a snow globe, I knew that any movement could tip me over, drop me over the edge of my comfort zone. So I did what a rational person would do in a similar situation – I look a leap. Away from the familiar into another country; to build a life with a new husband and family. I left behind the symbols of the independence that I had cultivated in order to pursue a fuller life. I am a trailing spouse now. Trying to establish an identity within a new context. Believe me, its no fun.

I chose change. Change is a strange beast – quiet and insidious at times, quick and cutting at others. Change doesn’t take on a starring role but is a quiet catalyst causing upheaval without much ado.

rock faceThe effects of change can be subtle, like the carved facades on rocks, hewn by invisible hands over centuries. And then there are changes brought about by cataclysmic events, sudden and momentous in occurrence and consequence. No matter the cause, change is inevitable, whether it crawls or crashes over you.

I stood on a soft sandy beach in Phuket, watching the sun dip lower in the purple sky. Clouds casually painted by a divine hand stood witness. Surfers rose on the swelling wave and fell unceremoniously a few seconds later. Sandcastles melted away with the tide, washing away a hard day’s work. A tiny island interrupted the infinite line of the horizon, a persistent blip, small but firm. Trees grew upwards and outwards from chiseled rock faces, against all odds. How many years did wind, water and air dance along these shores to get this done so perfectly?

I marveled at the unchanging but ever moving waves crashing against my feet knowing how this island paradise had borne the brunt of a tsunami a few years ago. Many tourists died. So did the island people who depend on tourism for their livelihood. Buildings collapsed. Entire stretches of beach disappeared. How quickly things had transformed with nature’s fury? The beauty of the coastline that lay before me was not the same a decade ago.

Human life imitates nature so closely. Change happens, whether we choose it or not. Where I am today is the culmination of a series of decisions, some initiated by me, others where I followed. When I lead, I am more willing to put up with the ups and downs of the transition, patient and tolerant as I wait for things to settle down as they invariably do. But when I follow, I am irritable and moody, alternatively passive and pushy. In a word, unhappy.

I watched the purple clouds engulf the sun in the soft twilight. A crab scurried away hurriedly as the water receded. Nature is not immune to change, she is just in tune with it. Her wisdom encompasses the daily ebb and flow. She accepts change in whatever form it shows up, gentle erosion, fiery explosion or instant inundation.

I walked in ankle deep water. A stray dog kept me company. It’s not the change that matters, it’s my response to it determines the tenor of my day. Change is inevitable. I am a product of all that has changed in my life. Having come thus far, I will ride each wave. With grace, just like Mother Nature.


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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?