Starting Over

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


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About books

last lectureThe story behind one book that sits in my bookshelf is a mystery.

“The Last Lecture” by Randy Pausch seemed to mysteriously appear among my books one day. I remember packing up all the books from the home I had rented for five years and unpacking the boxes in my very first apartment. I was thrilled to finally live in a place that legally belonged to me. The book seemed to be a bonus from the universe, a welcome gift for a momentous occasion.

While many have watched the lecture on youtube, I read the book first. I shared the book with DQ when she was fourteen, not sure if it was too morbid or too preachy. She read it like many of my other recommendations. And I know it made an impression on her.

Why do I like the book?

  1. Randy’s gratitude and humility

I won the parent lottery,” he says right at the beginning, grateful for his luck at being born to his parents and their impact on his life.

One particular line that DQ often paraphrases, taking a dig at me, is something Randy’s mother says after he gets his Ph.D., “This is my son. He’s a doctor, but not the kind who helps people.”

  1. Randy’s intense desire to influence his students and his children

When DQ pushes back after I repeat the same instructions or advice ten thousand times, I feel like giving up.

Then I quote from the book –“When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.”

I want her to know I will not give up on her. Ever.

  1. Randy’s faith in humanity

Some days it seems that everything I do is wrong – nothing seems to bring about the desired result, no one seems to care. At such times, Randy’s words help.

If you wait long enough, people will surprise and impress you. Almost everybody has a good side. Just keep waiting. It will come out.

To me, the book serves as a reminder that I don’t have to wait till the end to figure out the lessons from my life.

By examining my life as it happens and writing it down, I am trying to leave behind a legacy for my children after I am gone. It is my way of doing what Randy emphasized: Kids- more than anything else-need to know their parents love them. Their parents don’t have to be alive for that to happen.

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Appreciating the written word

I haven’t felt like this in a while, the familiar after-effects of bingeing. Sated, like a python that has swallowed a large prey. I sit still, digesting and assimilating the contents. I am reluctant to move, preferring instead to stew in the juices that have spewed forth in response. I breathe deeply, trying to nourish myself on this feast.

I am in the stage that follows a reading binge. I did that a lot when I was a kid. Spent many solitary hours each day to finish a good book. Even today, ideas of others, made incarnate through words, with beautiful language, ignite my metabolism and saturate my thoughts. Many of the books I read attempt to answer existential questions, other kindle more enquiry. I can’t see it, but books stimulate neurons that connect, reflect, radiate and reinforce new ideas. Another level of consciousness is born.

As a child, there were times when I was happier in the company of books than people, not because I didn’t understand people but because I understood the world through books. The world was larger then. Books were the road and the aircraft that whisked me away. No one in my family had left the shores of India. The English language books I read talked about places that I could only imagine, times that belonged to the past, people who had blond hair and blue eyes, wore hats, ate scones, owned slaves. I read comics and classics. Murder mysteries and romance novels. I loved Scarlet O’Hara, Sherlock Holmes, John Galt and the town of Macondo. Sidney Sheldon, Agatha Christie, V.S. Naipaul and Enid Blyton equally enthralled me. My reading binges made the scorching summer holidays bearable. I measured a good school break in terms of number of books I read. Finish one. Start another. A mantra that worked.

Growing up demands sacrifices. Life has a way of sneaking up on you, diverting you with visions of pleasures you could have once you get a job, a promotion, a husband, children, a home theatre, a dream holiday and any number of gadgets. It’s all good stuff but I had traded my uninterrupted reading marathons for a regular grown-up life. Reading affords me a joy like no other. I don’t read in order to be instructed but I have to admit that books have been my deepest influence. Life lessons come from living and books provide those in a compact form, within the pages of a bound volume.

I finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s Signature of All Things today, all 880 pages of it. A grand novel that moved slowly but kept my interest going. A lot happens, very slowly. Not a racy page-turner but a book that haunts. I feel sluggish. Heavy with the weight of ideas, with the results of the author’s research, the depth of scientific enquiry and insight that is necessary to bring forth such a book. I remember feeling exhausted after I read “Gone with the wind”, confused by Ayn Rand, and impressed by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Like a sweetheart from long ago, books can evoke feelings that are hard to define, not entirely unpleasant or complicated, they appeal with a hint of nostalgic charm.

As a reader I admire books and their authors. As a wannabe writer, I feel inadequate. There are days when I feel there is nothing left to write, all the great writers have written before me. On other days, I know I could never say the same things as well as they have. But reading is the prelude to writing. And appreciation must precede attempt. The key is to stop and watch. Watch and admire. Admire and learn. What we appreciate, we tend to imitate. The beauty of creativity is that it is impossible to duplicate the talent that belongs to another. While we may strive to write like an author we admire, our inimitable essence tends to shadow everything we create.

My mother and I attended a music concert many years ago. It was a beautiful rendition of a traditional song. “I wish I could sing like that. I wonder what it will take for me to get there” I said aloud. “The fact that you can appreciate this music is the first step. There are so many who cannot see the beauty in this, and you can. With this first step of appreciation, you can move towards your goal” she replied. I thought about it then. I understand it now.

On the days I am paralyzed by self-doubt, there is one sure way to get moving. I make sure I read. And I ensure I appreciate. Thank you Mom.

A parent is inexcusable who does not personally teach her child to think – Elizabeth Gilbert in “The signature of all things”


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A Mom who reads

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“You don’t need to check out every book in the library. They will keep it safe for you while you finish the ones you already have at home” admonishes HH when he sees the piles of books on the sofa, dining table, bed! I know I can always go back and get the books one by one but then, how can I experience the joy that having books within reach brings me?

I am a girl who reads. I love that blast of cold breeze that instantly chills me as I walk into my neighborhood library, taking shelter from the harsh afternoon humidity. My eyes take a few second to adjust to the dim interior though it is only a response to the sun’s glare. I feel soothed, as if I am sipping a refreshing cool drink although there is no food or drink allowed inside the library. Its the sight of books that calms me, rejuvenates me and recreates in my mind the endless days of my childhood where I read everything I could lay my hands on.

I have always been a girl who reads even though there were no public libraries in Mumbai where I grew up. But I always had access to books. I read everything in the modest school library, borrowed shamelessly from friends whose homes were virtual treasure troves of books, secretly read Harold Robbins that lay around my grandparents home, probably being read by an aunt. While there were no official-looking libraries, there was the local store which traded old newspapers and magazines and lent paperbacks for next to nothing. The store had entire collections of Nancy Drew, Famous Fives and all the staple English books, many of them authored by Enid Blyton in the era preceding Harry Potter. My brothers and I fought over who got to read the Tintin or Asterix comics first. We narrated the funny bits to each other and to our mother as she cooked dinner. We then traded up to Sidney Sheldon and Jeffrey Archer. As I gravitated towards Mills and Boon and Danielle Steel, I veered away from the reading tastes that I had until then shared with my brothers. Reading habits marked my age, ability and personality. It tracked not just my tastes, but my maturity. It held my hand and illuminated the coming of age wonder years. Books were my friend, my guiding light and solace. And continue to be today.

I am a girl who reads and therefore considers access to the public libraries one of the greatest pleasures that life in Singapore offers me. The library closest to home is located in the mall at the metro station and has a limited selection. My favorite is the regional library which is 4 floors of book heaven. I love everything about it; the rows of neatly arranged, precisely labeled and accurately identified books, the long glass windows lining the walls with desks, chairs and thoughtfully provided outlets to plug in your laptop; a separate enclosed “quiet reading area” furnished with comfortable sofas where you can safely browse or drowse. And if you need a break or a bite, a café is located just outside.

I am also a girl who writes. I spent a productive afternoon at the library last week. I finished reading the last few pages of a book and then opened my laptop to write in that strange quiet of shared solitude in a public place. I was afloat in a stream of imagination with words as my oars to navigate the streams of thought. I had been feeling adrift in this new country with no friends to hang out with, to vent or to venture. But the library felt like home, the books like old classmates that I had missed while we had both been busy doing other things. Now I have them within reach. Like the ones closest to you, these books will support me, watch out for me and be there to provide their infinite wisdom when I reach out to them.

Every girl who reads wants her children to read. With DQ it was easy. She chewed the small hardback books I got initially, the ones with pictures and alphabets. She eventually learnt that books were meant for reading and provided food for thought. I used a book to teach her about puberty. I gave her “The Alchemist” when she floundered. I shared my love for music with her through “The Music Room”. When I don’t want to preach, books provide the medium for communication. When I want to share a poignant moment, I read her a poem. I am with her not through my words or my writing but through the writings of others. There is always a book by my bedside. She is free to read anything I read and quite often I insist that she read something that has moved me.

How to get a girl to read? That is what I wondered when I found that Princess hardly reads for pleasure. Like many of her friends, she prefers watching movies and shows on a screen, whether it is a movie theater, television, laptop or ipad. A plain flat paperback with no pictures and action is like a nerdy girl with glasses in a roomful of swimsuit models. Talking about books didn’t help, talking about people who read didn’t work either. She loved Harry Potter movies but didn’t show any inclination to read the books. So I gave up. She accompanied me to the library sometimes. Watched me read voraciously. Asked me what some of the books were about. She saw me read out a stunning passage to DQ. Or discuss a point with HH. And one day last week, she picked up Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief from DQs collection and started reading. She took it to school, read it on the bus, read it during dinner and has it by her bedside. She is now onto the third book in the series.

What more can a Mom who reads ask for?