Starting Over

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

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Picture book series

"The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself." Anna Quindlen

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” – Anna Quindlen

Work in progress

Somewhere in a lodge in Washington State, USA

May 2010


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Growing in a spiral

diffuse coloured linesWasn’t it just last week that I waited for the phone call that would get me a job interview?
And last night when I thought DQ would never sleep through the night?
Wasn’t it recently that I wondered if I would ever feel comfortable in this new country?

Yes and no.

Yes, because more than two decades ago, I was a young adult in a country almost half the world away from my homeland. Some years after that first jolt of having migrated to the US subsided, I waited eagerly for my first job interview, eager to start my career. Somewhere along the way DQ grew from a colicky baby to a grumpy teen.

No, because while I still grapple with the same questions, the context has changed. In Singapore, my new place of residence, I feel like a visitor. Trying to settle here, I am still waiting for the dream job to materialize. I continue to worry about DQ sleeping through the night these days thanks to wifi, iPad, phone and other gadgets.

Isn’t life supposed to be linear? Aren’t the milestones that we once passed, not supposed to show up again? When will I reach my destination? Is there one?

I remember a short inspirational essay titled “The Station” by Robert Hastings on the wall above my desk in my lab. It was a small piece of paper, old and yellow, typed in the common but insipid “Courier” font, stuck with tape. I had inherited this legacy along with the desk and its contents – pens, cans of Coke and candy wrappers. Days in graduate school were long; coursework, exams, inconclusive experiments, unending research. Like my fellow students, I focused on getting out of school, landing a high paying job, a salary, a car, the American dream. Getting our degree was our ticket to the wonderful life that awaited us, if only we could hurry up and finish! The words above my desk helped sometimes by offering a perspective; at other times it was just a trite piece of philosophy neatly packed into a few words. “Relish the moment” was the key message. The true joy of life is the trip, the final destination is a mirage that takes away from the present moment.

The train metaphor was an apt one at that stage of my life. In many ways, my train had just departed from the station and I could see all kinds of wonderful things. It would take me to unknown places, provide excitement and pleasure in so many unimaginable ways. I graduated, started working at a big company, became a mother, I traveled, I started my own business. I tried to “relish the moments.” The significant ones, the good ones, are frozen in memory, like insects in amber, to be admired in the future. The important ones, not necessarily pleasant ones, I try to gloss over.

A journey by definition is movement, a decisive moving away from the starting point. The purpose is to travel beyond the known limited perimeters of your life as you know it. Today I feel that my life is either going in circles or I am passing the same mile markers again. Am I lost or stationary? I am no longer on a train. I am standing still in the middle of a carousel as the same horses pass by in rapid succession.

Just when I think I have crossed certain milestones in my life, I find the road ahead looks more or less similar – paved with obstacles, dilemmas, triumphs and losses. If the journey so far has taught any lessons, it is that life is not linear; it is cyclical. A phase that seems to never end, does end. A new one begins almost unnoticed; sometimes an old pattern repeats itself. Stations come and go, some new and exotic, others familiar and fulfilling.

We are not going in circles, we are going upwards. The path is a spiral; we have already climbed many steps.”
― Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

By climbing many steps of this spirally unfolding life, I have discovered the ephemeral nature of achievement, satisfaction and pride. The purpose of the journey extends beyond the uncovering of external riches to unearthing the treasures within – peace, grace, wisdom.

The lessons I thought I had mastered are still incomplete. The journey continues.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
– T. S. Eliot


Wish I had written that

Pico Iyer is a journalist, novelist and travel writer. His writing particularly resonates with immigrants. While his unique multi-cultural upbringing forms the lens for his writing, I have appreciated his honest reflections on “home” in today’s globalized world.

A few sentences from “The Global Soul – jet lag, shopping malls and the search for home.”

The country where people look like me is the one where I can’t speak the language, the country where people sound like me is a place where I look highly alien, and the country where people live like me is the most foreign space of all.

I’ve grown up, too, with a keen sense of the blessings of being unaffiliated; it has meant that almost everywhere is new and strange to me and nearly everywhere allows me to keep alive a sense of wonder and detachment.

I exult in the fact that I can see everywhere with a flexible eye; the very notion of home is foreign to me, as the state of foreignness is the closest thing I know to home.

The link to the TED talk:
Where is home? – Pico Iyer

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Travelessence – San Francisco

sfo bus tour 039
Seven years after I left the San Francisco bay area, I went back for a holiday. DQ had been curious about the place where she had spent the first few years of her life, most of which she could not recollect. I was ambivalent about returning to a place which held great significance to me. I had become a mother and embarked on my first job there. But going back meant revisiting the place where I had been a part of a family unit with DQ and her dad – a unit that didn’t exist anymore. I wasn’t sure if I was ready or willing to face any residual demons that might reside in the streets of San Francisco. I wrote this some years ago. The lessons are worth remembering.

For most people, taking a vacation means leaving home turf and the associated work/chores/monotony and visiting an exotic location with a hectic daily timetable of things to do. I have always felt that the act of being on holiday, which implies a state of leisure is totally contradictory to the goal-oriented touristy approach that we take when we are in a new place, armed with cameras and water bottles. An easy solution would be to take a break and visit a known place, a location where the sights are not exactly new but familiar and welcoming, with no rush to be everywhere at the same time. Our San Francisco trip fell into this category. We had lived here before, the major tourist attractions still needed to be seen but there was no long to-do list. In theory, it was the perfect holiday getaway. In practice, it was another story altogether.
sfo bus tour 078
We checked off the essential tourist activities including
• Golden Gate Bridge
• Lombard Street
• Fisherman’s Wharf
• Cable Car Ride
• Museum (California Academy of Sciences)
• Aquarium (Monterey Bay)

What I had on the list in addition, were multiple business meetings including dinner with former colleagues and visits to the homes of friends who still lived in the area. I also wanted DQ to try some new activities and she attempted bowling and rock climbing with different degrees of success.

While it feels like a lot was accomplished, if you look at it from the perspective of a tourist who had seven days to spend in the Bay area, there was so much more we could have done – Half Moon Bay, Point Reyes lighthouse, Sausalito, Angel Island, Alcatraz, Berkeley and Carmel… the list is endless. The San Francisco bay area is truly one of most scenic places to visit and like a gourmet meal which is delicious; it always leaves you wishing for more. There will always be more meals in the future.

The way to hold on to an experience is by savoring each tasty morsel as it rests on your tongue, not focusing on the previous such meal or anticipating the next one. At many times during this week, I had that feeling. Moments which were complete, discrete pieces of happiness, not yet falling like jigsaw pieces into the complete canvas of my life, but each holding the promise of more, if I would learn to find them.

I remember the moment we reached the top of Crooked Street after climbing up 3 steep blocks from Van Ness; and the instant before taking a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory, framed by generous clear skies untouched by the notorious fog. Perhaps it was in the few minutes we waited for the Hyde-Powell cable car as it was manually reversed, taking bites from the decadent Ghirardelli brownie ice cream sundae when I felt light as a dandelion blown free from its stem. I was suspended in mid-air, free from the burdens of past unhappiness that had lurked in the corners of my memories of this beautiful place where I had been fortunate to live. My fortune lay in my experience of both the natural beauty on display round the year and in the contrast provided by the dark days I had seen, illuminated occasionally by the bright spots that had been my life here for over 6 years.

In the final analysis, it was a great vacation. I had ventured out into the known. I came back; not quite whole, but a little more complete. Sometimes we fear what we know, more than what we don’t.

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Travelessence – Spain

spainI have a dream, a small wish really. To buy a world map. A large one. One that I can hang on a wall in my home. With little stickers, I want to mark the places I have visited. Red stickers for places I lived in – Bombay (before it became Mumbai), Washington DC, San Francisco, Hyderabad, Singapore. Green for places where I was a tourist – Rome, London, Sydney, Paris, Barcelona, Bali. Yellow for the ones that beckon – Turkey, Bhutan, Greece, New Zealand.

In this series, I would like to share with you, my thoughts on some of the places I have visited – exotic locations, religious pilgrimages, family holidays, business trips and outings with friends.

The first essay is one I wrote on a business trip cum holiday with my good friend, Anupama to Spain in 2012.

We were strolling along La Rambla, the most happening part of Barcelona, ice-cream cone in hand, passing shops selling souvenirs, juices and trinkets. We had arrived from Granada a few hours earlier. The large poster announcing a series of concerts at local basilicas displayed at a travel information kiosk caught our attention. A long list of performances were scheduled for the months of October and November at various spectacular locations within the city. There was only one that we could possibly attend, a Spanish guitar performance by Manuel Gonzalez that would begin in a couple of hours at a church that appeared to be located within walking distance of La Rambla. Did we have a list of places to see, things to do, eat, shop and admire in Barcelona? Of course we did. But the best experiences happen when there is a change in plan. We booked tickets for that evening’s performance.

We barely made it in time to the Basilica Santa Maria del Pi, a beautiful church built in the Gothic style of architecture. The seats were almost full with a low buzz as people waited for the artist to arrive. At exactly 9 p.m. Manuel Gonzalez, a distinguished looking man appeared on stage with the Spanish guitar and started playing. We had a program brochure in Spanish listing the pieces to be played. But it did not matter what was written or announced, the music enveloped everyone in that room.

The wonderful acoustics of the monument, the ambience of the location, the time of day and the mastery of the artist over his instrument, I am not sure if any one of this was responsible for the temporary bliss that overtook me as I found myself immersed in this wonderful music. If I closed my eyes, I could have sworn that the sounds emanating from the stage were from a piano, or was it the drums or a saxophone perhaps? The artist was highly accomplished in taking the instrument to its limits of creation.

Music, particularly instrumental music has the ability to transcend barriers of language fluency, accent and articulation to make a connection with the listener. As a person familiar with Indian music, I am always looking to connect with something I already know – the instrument itself, the raaga, the movie, composer, artist. I try to compare it with something I have heard previously, see if I remember the words. The pure joy of the moment gets diluted by tricks of memory. Here none of my past knowledge mattered, a simple melody, a succession of notes, a series of tunes registered in my consciousness. And filled me up.

Spain as a country seems immersed in music. Whether it was the banjo player outside Puerta de la Justica at Alhambra, or the guitarist in the sunny square near the Alcazar palace in Seville, or the unusual music created by a strange instrument called the “handpan” outside the cathedral in Granada, they all created haunting melodies, some sang words that I didn’t understand but could probably guess, while others just struck a chord in my heart, completely bypassing my bossy head.

As Mark Twain said, “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”. With each day that I spent in beautiful Spain, struggling to communicate my need for vegetarian food or ask for directions to the toilets or enquire about train timings, I felt less uncomfortable at my “foreignness” and more connected to total strangers who showed the way or happily took photographs when asked. I read somewhere that it is important to “Travel more. Getting lost may help you find yourself”. Isn’t that the purpose of all journeys, if not all travel?


Embracing change


“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.