Starting Over

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

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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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Stepping into fashion


“The ugly shoe is in” stated the article in the newspaper this morning. A picture of sensible Prada sandals accompanied the text. Hallelujah!!

The impossible has happened. Something I have been wearing happily and advocating zealously is finally in fashion!

Comfort above couture has always been my mantra; one that I have held on to steadfastly since I was a teenager and continue to do so now as a mom to a teenager. In my twenties when I had a body that (in retrospect) was worth showing off, I covered up in turtlenecks and sweaters in the Washington DC winters. By the time I moved to sunny California, I was pregnant and have sported the baby bump remnant ever since. I wore cool cottons in the dry heat of Hyderabad when I moved back to India and now in sultry Singapore, I find myself wondering about appropriate attire.

I know I am not alone, but I surely belong among the world’s minority of women who have access to information about fashion but choose to completely ignore trends, top buys and must-haves that are routinely posted online. I stay away from skinny pants, stilettos and short shorts. The language of fashion is as foreign to me as … Greek.

In Singapore the women are petite, the colors bright and dresses skimpy. Business attired women ride the metro alongside aunties in saris, young girls with sequined hijabs covering their head and the elderly in loose clothes. The buses are freezing death traps at night when the riders are few but being outdoors during the day is like stepping into a brilliantly lit oven. I am home most days, trying not to turn the air-conditioner on, in a futile bid to be kind to the environment and the electricity bill.

The hot, dry spell of the last few weeks sent me to the famous Orchard Road shopping district yesterday, to find suitable clothes to survive in Singapore. HH insisted and a girlfriend agreed to “update my look” – whatever that meant. I spent a few hours in air-conditioned comfort in spacious stores with attentive salespeople. As I made my way through Robinsons and Takashimaya, I was fascinated by the $500 umbrellas, blinded by diamond studded clutches and amazed by lingerie whose price per square inch would rival New York city apartments on a price per square foot. I ruffled through the racks at H&M and Mango and quickly exited Forever 2l, before they spotted me as being well over the age of their target customer segment.

I don’t know whether it was the price or the merchandise but I came home with a solitary black sweater, a staple addition to any wardrobe without looking any different for the effort. In some ways I am more confused now than when I launched the campaign for a new look (even a store named New Look was of no help). However, I feel no different than on my previous attempts to change my way of dressing. The rub between what people think I should wear and what I feel comfortable in has always been irritating if not downright uncomfortable. Add to that the gentle messages by mother nature as you age. I can choose to ignore the hints and fall prey to those who say, “Come on, with your figure you can carry off this outfit”. I have bought clothes ten years ago that still fit me but do not befit me. And now I don’t want to accumulate stuff that doesn’t feel right.

I would rather be comfy than cool. I like natural fabrics and earth colors. I go for no-frills, clean linear cuts. I feel calm in cottons and prefer a dressed-down look that also covers me up. I need clothes that radiate the inner serenity I am trying to cultivate, not attire that grates. Added to all these requirements is my conservatively brought up in India frugal mentality that requires shirts to have sleeves, pants to be loose and skirts to be long. No wonder I have a hard time finding clothes that fit the bill (pun intended).

When it comes to shoes, practical and versatile are my favorite adjectives to describe the footwear that I own. The national dress code in Singapore considers flip flops acceptable in most places. As a family we own multiple pairs of flip flops but I favor my good old adidas sandals. My toes love the ventilation and the rest of my foot is grateful for the comfort. My daughters think they are hideous. I seldom shop in fancy shoe stores, just as I seldom check out the latest gadget or gizmo. If I have a laptop and a phone that works, I am a happy camper. I don’t need to sport the newest version. Same holds for clothes and shoes. If my answer to the question of whether I am comfortable using/wearing these shoes/clothes is yes, I am pleased. And when sandals like the ones I normally wear make it to the top of the fashion news, I am astonished. Its high time the world came around to my way of thinking.

Even when the trend moves on to something else as it inevitably will, you can count on one thing. I will still be wearing my ugly sandals, perhaps Prada.

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My mirror and me

DQ and I attended the university open house yesterday. A scorching dry day in Singapore, filled with the expectation of a much needed rain shower. Thousands of youngsters milled around the information booths handing out brochures and balloons, information and ice-cream, facts and freebies. Loud music buoyed the palpable atmosphere of eager anticipation. Smiles and laughter punctuated the hot afternoon as prospective students did the rounds of the booths while worried parents milled around the financial aid station. DQ and I took the campus tour bus. We added brochures to our goody bags and took selfies with our balloons. We switched moods, sometimes she worried about what was ahead, I laughed at the kid dressed in an oversized mascot uniform. Sometimes I wondered how my tiny newborn had transformed into this budding woman and she seemed jubilant, mouthing the words of the song playing around us. At times, we were both silent, contemplating our own thoughts of what this moment meant to us.

How can I not get sentimental at such times?

My child is my mirror. I should have recognized this truth the week I brought DQ home from the hospital. My mother had come to help me for a few months and one day she stepped out for a few hours to visit Monterey with a cousin. I was left alone with DQ. She fussed and cried inconsolably. I couldn’t tell if she was hot or hungry. Cuddling her didn’t help. Leaving her in the crib made it worse.  With each hour I got more agitated and she in turn became harder to manage. I was in tears, feeling helpless and incompetent when my mom got home. Seeing her, I relaxed and handed over my wailing infant to her loving arms. And from that minute, all was well. DQ became quiet and took a nap. I wept with joy and took a shower. At that time I thought it was mom who had made the difference. Over time I realized that it was my frame of mind that DQ as reflecting, ever the eager untainted glass to show me my inner terrain.

I don’t stand in front of a mirror for long. It shows me gray hair and wrinkles, proof of the years that have passed; years during which I was too busy to appreciate my firm body and unlined skin. I gaze more often at DQ and her transformation. As she rehearses the speech she has to make at school tomorrow, I see her toddler-self trying to reach the bowl on the kitchen counter repeating “stoberry”. I drove her to play-dates not so long ago, now I worry about her going on dates. From focusing on looking presentable, she now focuses on her upcoming presentations. Her growth curve and my timeline are intertwined. But her outlook is not always mine. I am flattered when people say we look alike; she hates the comparison. People ask her if she will pursue a science education, like me and I know she will not. Just as I can’t make my image in the mirror to look like a younger me, I can’t make DQ become a second-generation avatar following in my footsteps. And I don’t want to.

My mirror doesn’t show me what I want to see but what I need to see. So does DQ. Today I am a person who is excited by learning; the prospect of expanding my outlook, which enhances the anticipation of new experiences. DQ seems hesitant. In her I see myself, more than two decades ago, in a new country, figuring out the next steps for graduate school. A little shy; extremely skeptical. I worried about fitting in, being understood, meeting expectations. The opportunity for pursuing higher education in the USA kept me going, the challenges of finding my place in a foreign system kept me engaged and I am forever grateful for that experience. DQ is at a similar threshold now. Looking at the sea of bright faces, hardworking Singaporeans of many races, vying for a seat in a prestigious institution. Not sure of her place in this system, wondering if she can keep up with the high standards.

DQ mirrors my own doubts at finding myself in Singapore subsequent to my choice to marry again. She just followed me. But I am excited to be here. I love being in a place of education and yesterday was no exception. I would like her to catch the contagious enthusiasm that pervades colleges and universities, its irresistible, wave of youthful optimism. I want to tell her what a wonderful time of her life this is, how easily she has found herself in a place where she can choose her course of study in an excellent academic environment, how she must count her blessings. But I refrain.

The best way to change what you see in the mirror is to change yourself. So I allow myself to be carried away by the exuberance of the surroundings, by smiling so much that my face hurts, by feeling excited and peaceful at the same time.

And I see my mirror doing the same.

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Tap for entry

“Living abroad facilitates treating life as a spectacle.”

                                                         Susan Sontag

He gave it to me the day I landed in Singapore. “Keep it with you at all times” he said, a little sternly. It looked like a cross between a ticket for admission to a theme park and a regular credit card. It had the letters “ez link” on one side.

“What is it?” I asked.

“You’ll need it to travel here. It works on buses and trains. It has other uses too.”

He showed me how to enter the bus from the front door, tap the card on the reader, observe the $ value at entry and then again upon exit where the fare for the bus ride was mysteriously deducted.

When the weekend ended, he left for work. I put the card in my wallet. It was my constant companion from the time I got on the first bus and went for a ride. The bus went past the spiky dome of the Esplanade and the impressive towers of Marina Bay Sands. The Singapore flyer inched along in its giant orbit providing a grand view of the waterfront.

I loved my little blue card that wasn’t a debit card but had money, wasn’t a credit card but had value; the little blue card that was my ticket to independence. As I continued my forays into the corners of the city-state, the value on my card kept dropping. I worried how I would manage the next day. He noticed. He took the blue card and gave me a black and white one that had “Passion” printed in a wild font on one side.

“It’s an auto top-up card. You don’t need t worry about it running out.” And much to my amazement, each time the value dipped to less than a dollar, it once again climbed up to a reasonable number, invisibly blessed by the bank account to which it was linked. So I used it more. Like my brain, the more I used it, the more uses I found for it.

I could borrow books at the library with it – books that comforted me with their familiar heft and transported me to other worlds. Now I was literally and figuratively a traveler in a foreign country. I explored unfettered.

I could get discounts at movies with the Passion card. I signed up for classes at the community club. I bought bread from the vending machine downstairs. I earned points while shopping for groceries.

One day I realized I didn’t feel new here anymore. Or was it Singapore that wasn’t new to me? With that realization came a twinge of regret. For the gentle swoosh with which I had transitioned from seeing what was before me as “foreign” to “familiar”. For the loss of innocence that accompanies familiarity. For the disappearance of naiveté that is necessary to immerse yourself in the experience of living in a new country.

While travel is exhilarating, it takes time to learn the nuances of a new place.  Two decades ago I lived in a semi-permanent state of wonder at the magic of ATMs and automatic car washes when I moved from India to the US. The world has since then indeed become smaller. With the advent of technology and its reach, the world is more similar than different. While connectivity has given us many advantages, it has robbed us of the simple pleasure of discovering something first hand. The joy of truly widening your eyes at an unexpected scene, the delight that opening your hearts to novel experiences brings.

As I attempt to put down roots in Singapore, I hope to preserve that child-like curiosity and tell about it in my “Settling in Singapore” series of essays.

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The Sweet Life


It’s a rainy Monday morning. The children have left for the day, so has my husband. The clouds hang low across the trees on the hill in the distance, caressing the uninterrupted greenery on the horizon. I sit with the newspaper on my lap. My maid hands me a hot cup of tea to start my day. Bird calls surround me while a cool breeze blows in through the kitchen window. I look out the balcony and see the clouds playing hide and seek amidst the treetops, moving aimlessly together, and then apart, unsure of the plan for the day ahead. Like me.

 “It’s mid-February oready” – as the locals say. Four months since I moved to Singapore – this multicultural oasis that is now home. It has been a time of transition for the family and not just in the “we just moved here from India” sense. My husband and I, through our decision to marry, are in the process of building our blended family. We each had a daughter through our previous marriage and now we are four in a new place, a new job for him, new schools for the girls and of course, a new family of our own.

 It feels a little strange, not being a single parent any more. There is once again, a spouse, another adult under the same roof to share the days’ details – like the leaking sink or plans for the weekend. It is reassuring to not have to worry about paying the rent or running out to a full-time job to keep the home fires burning. It feels wonderful to have full-time help at home to take care of the mundane chores that form the bane of every housewife. For the first time in a long time, I am free to pursue my dreams, with time on my hands and no impending worries about the future. I have the support that I have craved – physical, material and emotional. I have in front of me days of unstructured time when the girls are in school, with no other distractions, time in which I can do exactly as I please. In short, the life I have always dreamt of.

I practice yoga every morning. Then I read. Or write. I look out the window and see a beautiful blue bird fly by. The monkeys that live in the nature reserve behind our condo seem particularly busy; single-mindedly climbing the flimsy barrier that supposedly protects the humans. There is a flash of red in the trees, some flowers sprouting in search of an early spring in a city that ostensibly has no seasons. The lawns are brown. We haven’t had a decent downpour in weeks. There is a slight haze, perhaps from all the particles floating around without the rain to push them to the ground, or is it from the brush fires in nearby Indonesia?

 A day like this would have been a holiday during the years I worked at a full time job while raising my daughter. I would hurriedly scribble my thoughts at night after the house was quiet. Now I find myself wishing for a busier day, a fuller life. The highlight of a well-spent day is in the dinner that I cook, scouring the net for recipes that will appeal to the varied palates and picky eaters at home. I can’t recognize this domestic goddess version of myself. I feel like an impostor. Will the real Ranjani please stand up?

 What is it about the human condition that always looks at what else, not what is? Is this striving a precondition of living or a conditional response to an ever-moving, grabbing lifestyle that we have taken for granted? I have been given the greatest gift of all, the ability to introspect, and time to do so. Outwardly it appears to be a time of transition for me. It is also one with the added blessing of these quiet moments to go within. I can choose how to make them meaningful. And I decide to follow Mary Oliver’s “Instructions for living a life”

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.


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.”