Half Century Me

Another milestone birthday went by this year. I find words like ‘Milestone’ and ‘Deadline’ terribly intimidating. These words loom. They lurk. Other birthdays merrily skip in and out but milestone ones kick off their shoes, pour themselves a drink and wait wearily, weighed down by expectations of everything that ought to have been achieved by now.

A quick mental survey of my ‘achievements’ draws a blank. The word implies a fierce need that propels one successfully towards a goal. I like not knowing what comes next and life has happened with very little effort from me. It hasn’t been without hiccups and bumps but that’s the best thing about not having a plan. Everything is an adventure especially when I remind myself that neither the good nor the bad will last long.

My friends ask me what it feels like to be 50. I let that number sink in and swirl around a bit in my mind. It feels exactly like 49. But rather different from 39. Truth is, age is marked by more than just a date on the calendar. Sure, its aches and pains and a person in the mirror who looks increasingly different from the one in my head- but it’s also a process that has quietly played out while life has kept me distracted.

I started out with some trepidation. There was a lot about myself that I didn’t like and was certain that the people I loved would disappear if I blinked. My subconscious defense mechanisms against this was to either be cold and aloof, or be the exact opposite and be so agreeable as to never cause a ripple. I was yet to learn that finding validation in self because of how someone else sees me, is fickle business.

Its not that wisdom or maturity come with age. In fact, I was more mature at 22. My sister’s wisdom comes in alarming bouts before receding behind absolute faith in all things happy. But one comes into the world, a bundle of possibilities. Wrinkles and drool notwithstanding. Everything from then on serves to whittle and shape and polish till time finally runs out. Whether one chooses to gather wisdom from every nick and stub and experience, is an entirely different matter.

In my early 20’s, I was an expert on just about everything. The following decade, motherhood hurriedly relieved me of that belief. I set out with the rather pious air of the selfless, to raise my girls to be kind, confident and emotionally secure. Well equipped to take on an ever changing world. I was under the delusion that for this ambitious task, I had to be perfect by all traditional standards.

Naturally, the first thunderbolt of enlightenment was how little I knew and how spectacularly imperfect I am. Especially after my mother’s initial invaluable help where she had made it seem so easy and natural.

I followed all the rules and advices on parenting while struggling with the guilt of how monotonous and exhausting I found it all. It became clear upon some independent reflection, that the only way to do this was to do it my way, and to take it one day at a time. Forget spotlessly clean house and organized activities. Aim for small triumphs and simple joys- clean diapers, full tummy, happy giggles, unstructured play and lots of reading in bed. Anything that was the call of the hour.

Self discovery was a large part of motherhood and it taught me lessons far beyond anything to do with parenting. It taught me to break boundaries and to listen to my heart. To love, and later, to let go.

I realized that selflessness was overrated as well as misunderstood. In fact I have been incredibly fortunate to have the support and favorable circumstances to wander through life, landing exactly where I pleased, at all times. From not knowing what I wanted to be, to the revelation that one could be many things at the same time. Limited only by my hesitation and procrastination.

Life can be a thing of great wonder. Even though there is no magic formula to living it right. All anyone is after, really, is happiness. Just be kind, a little selfish, love a lot, use common sense and don’t let someone else’s experiences, opinions, prejudices or grudges hold you prisoner. Or be trapped in your own pettiness. Happiness is usually just a step away from an expansion of heart and mind. Even though it may seem elusive at times.

It is there in being around a person you love. It’s in rainy days and train journeys. In traveling to remote parts of the world. The sound of a voice. In music and memories. In careers and ambitions. Happiness is in the mere existence of a goofy old golden retriever. Happiness can also mean a selfie so enhanced, one doesn’t recognize one’s own self.

Whatever works.

It is now my turn to put into practice the concept to live and let live. To fit into a world that never stands still. Not everything about it is beautiful. But honestly, not everything was. It is my turn to observe and empathize with and be respectful of what I don’t understand. To educate myself about things that may be outside my comfort zone. To embrace change and not be afraid. I expect that of myself now the same way I expected that of my children then.

I don’t want to grow old lamenting that the world used to be a better place. As if it is somehow someone else’s fault, as if it isn’t nostalgia talking, as if we are not all in this together.

This birthday has placed me firmly over the hill, I’ve very certainly lived longer than I will. The thought is surprisingly liberating and the occasional pangs of guilt at not doing something phenomenal with my life, has gone blunt. There is a sense of freedom to throw myself into the little things I enjoy, that don’t need to be noticed or applauded.

What matters now is different from what used to. Intelligent conversations and a sense of humor has more appeal than a handsome face. There is beauty in imperfections. Great strength and value in my tribe of female friendships. Fitness, above all else. And love. Without it, there is nothing.

The threshold of autumn, my most favorite season, is just a few more miles down the road. It’s been a long colorful summer. Always strong and steady against heat and storms. Unlike the tender beginning blooms of spring, so sensitive to frost. Ahead, beautiful peaceful autumn. A burst of glorious color on the outside while preparing for the serene stillness of winter yet to come.

I used to tell my girls to ‘glance back’ when leaving a room and make sure they left it in as good a shape, if not better, than they found it. I think that applies to life on earth as well. Make your mark, make mistakes, have your fun but have the courtesy and integrity to clean up your own mess before you leave.

Knowledge, introspection, acceptance. I guess that is what turning 50 has meant. But I have only just got here. I need to put up my feet for a bit , and raise a glass to how fantastic it is that I have arrived. And remind myself to have my baggage in hand before it’s my time to glance back.

Going Cuckoo

“Time and tide wait for no man”- says Chaucer. My Cuckoo clock drives that point home rather gleefully.

Our mornings start with the dog reminding us politely that it’s time for her walk. Juliet is stingy with her barks. She reserves them for squirrels or unidentifiable objects such as a balloon or a plastic bag floating around in the wind or the occasional backside of an old woman bent over her garden.

Every morning, instead of barking, she rises noisily from her bed and does a series of loud downward dog poses. When we ignore that, she sighs in the manner of a tragic heroine. If that doesn’t work either, she starts shaking herself vigorously from nose to tip of tail. It must be a glorious sight to behold. That golden retriever hair, shining like spun silk caught in the rays of the early morning sun, descending soundlessly in every corner, on every fabric and furniture. I grimace a little even as I keep my eyes tightly shut.

The man, who is of a kinder and more selfless nature, gets up then. He softly draws the window curtains closed and tiptoes around like a ballet dancer while I pretend to be fast asleep. Over the years I have become an expert at that. I even snort a little just to keep it real. Nice even breaths and ears sharply tuned in to every movement and sound around me. I know exactly how many steps there are on the staircase and where the floorboard creaks the most.

Then I wait, morning after morning, never giving up on the hope that he would forget to wind the Cuckoo clock.

He bought that clock on a visit to Germany with his friends, a few years back. These are his childhood friends, who have remained close through many decades. Back in India, they used to go on trips often. But that was years ago, before they all ended up in different parts of the globe, before they became husbands and fathers and when dinosaurs roamed the earth. Discussion about another trip would come up often, but life kept tripping up one or the other and it kept getting put off. Until Germany finally materialized.

He left and I proceeded to valiantly hold down the fort here, using wit and wisdom in my temporary situation as single parent. Anyone who has a couple of teenagers will understand the challenge. In return, my expectations were humble. Some marmalade and chocolate, maybe a bottle of Eierlikor, the egg liqueur, and if he felt compelled to empty his pockets, a few kitchen gadgets, the likes of which you find nowhere else in the world.

He returned a happy man with a skip in his steps, a twinkle in his eyes, an empty pocket and a Cuckoo clock with a stamp of authenticity attached. Certified by the Black Forest Cuckoo Clock Association. There was a stampede of questions in my head. The most pressing one- there is a Black Forest Cuckoo Clock Association?? He read the incredulousness in my face as the joy and fascination I saw in his, and proceeded to explain, with tremendous gusto, the wonder of its mechanism. My eyes started to glaze over and I thought of cakes and fairytales. Also the thought- isn’t life noisy enough? Apparently not.

Now I chose to be a stay at home mom for all the usual reasons. It was hard for the first 8 years or so and then both my kids were in school. Monday mornings, to me, was everyone else’s Friday evenings. Happy hour happened at 9.00 am when I sat down with a cup of coffee, a book, and the blessed silence of a weekday morning. For a bit, I would forget the aftermath of the weekend and a house that somehow ended up looking like elephants had trampled through. Even the dog was aware of how essential this routine was for the continued sanity of an introvert. She would glare down every chirping bird before ambling over and curling up beside my chair.

The routine made off with much of the sanity once the cuckoo clock was hung up on the wall. Here was a bird that could not be glared down. That cuckoo would pop out to announce its presence every 15 minutes. Every hour, it was preceded by a musical march by a bunch of very small people who lived at the top of the clock. Quieter the day, louder the clock’s ominous tick-tock. I tried keeping the TV on but the bird was a stern reminder of time being wasted. I’m used to the many mild annoyances in life, some of which grow on you to become as indispensable as a limb. Such as eyeglasses and little sisters. This was not one of those.

I don’t wear a watch. I never have. Time, to me, is somewhat of a vague concept and I prefer it like that because it somehow helps stretch the present. Not anymore. The clock made sure I was aware of every passing second. I used to be the picture of composure when the girls got home from school. All ears and advice even if they didn’t ask for it. Now, they walked in and my eyes darted about frantically searching for a quiet corner. Trying to catch up with time was exhausting. My brain was spent questioning my purpose, my productivity and my relevance in the larger scheme of things.

The thing about life is that much of it happens in one’s own head. It’s all about perception. The other thing about it is that life, like water, rushes on. Filling up every nook and cranny, pushing till most obstacles give up, get dislodged and meekly sail along with the current. Usually because the universe has a giant boulder ready and rolled right up to the edge. Once it’s dropped on your head, what came before will seem like a wee pebble in your shoe.

When the pandemic broke out and quarantine began, there was an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. The dread of not being able to get to loved ones. For the first time in my lifetime, all of humanity had one common enemy. The world turned itself upside down and in the process, out fell some profound revelations. The oven is more than an extra storage space!! A virus is not nearly as dangerous as apathy. We have already established ourselves as a special species of superior intelligence. Now we know that we can’t be on the same side of any battle for too long. If the pandemic doesn’t kill us all, lack of common sense just might.

Besides the fear and uncertainty, there was also an expectation that life would change in unimaginable ways.

Weeks later, I can confidently confirm that mine has not. No new skills acquired, no new goals achieved, no grand novel completed, I remain the average cook, an observer looking in on life. Other than the fascinating mix of colors my hair has exploded into, I am more myself than ever before. No social commitments, no small talk, no products, denim, boots or bra stand between me and my most authentic self.

Meanwhile, time marches on. Tick-tock it goes, calm and steady. Stick with me and this too shall pass, it assures. Loved ones will be more than faces on a phone. Good days will be back soon. Happy hours of Monday mornings, a cup of coffee and a book, a dog that makes no noise and a clock that drives me cuckoo.

For God’s Sake

I am no expert on the matters of god and religion. My relationship with god is a bit awkward. Sometimes I don’t know if either of us believes in each other all that much. At other times I think He has more faith in me than I do in Him. Earnest deals have been struck where He has kept his end of the bargain and I haven’t. Others where He has been a no show thereby ignoring promises I have religiously fulfilled. Over time we have grown into the habit of giving each other a respectful amount of space. I don’t get into his business and if I am His business, he keeps it very quiet. Understandably. 

Does God exist at all? My dad once told me that as human beings, we are always on a quest, ever restless, looking for reasons and answers and anguishing over solutions. But there are times when it is necessary to have faith in something larger than ourselves. A bit of help in recognizing that some things are simply not in our control. That’s where God comes in, a superior being with a ton of patience, unconditional love, and a plan. This plan may or may not make sense to us at the time but by allowing ourselves to accept that, we give ourselves permission to set down a load too heavy and to just be. Secretly, I thought god sounded a lot like my dad. I found that comforting.

I am a restless human being too, though I have the attention span of a goldfish and don’t anguish over anything for too long. But as a child, I went through a phase of wanting to know for sure. I looked for signs and secret indications of the existence of God. The adults seemed completely convinced so obviously God had to be real. Devotional songs, the fragrance of incense and sandalwood, the routine of lighting the lamp at dawn and dusk, the quiet chants of prayers, all of this was very much a part of my world. I prayed sincerely and it felt good, it felt safe. It was familiar. God was everywhere. Pure as the thoughts in my head and invisible as the breaths I drew. 

That certainty didn’t last very long. Ironically, temples cured me of that. In fact, the bigger and more popular the temples, less likely I would feel the presence of God. However, the presence of perverts who targeted women and children alike in crowded places, were plenty at these big important temples. Lost in prayers and praises of a divine being that I couldn’t quite see, the grownups in my life were quite blind to many things right in front of them and around them. Under such circumstances, it was difficult to focus on God. Instead, I focused on people and as a result, temples taught me more about people than about God.

Many seemed to regard temple visits as their quota of good deed done. A personal tally with the almighty. A required amount of visits and prayers performed thereby earning a good pat and the right to be off leash to roam around and defecate on society. Some people had an aura of intense sadness that made me want to pray too. With them and for them. I prayed for the existence of a divine force who was listening. There were some who seemed to believe god belonged to them and them alone, yet others who were there because of their unquestioned faith, an undisturbed direct connection to the lord. There was peace around them. Or within them. I could never tell the difference.

Among them me. A bit of an intruder in any place of worship, my curious head crammed full of unasked questions. The grownups said that in the eyes of God, all human beings were equal. Clearly, human beings didn’t agree. I saw subtle prejudices all around, based on any and all differences, caste and religion and color of skin. Faith is a personal matter and I should respect that, I was told. If only everyone practiced what they preached. A man who prays is a good person, was the understanding. But I had met too many pious men for that myth to hold good. God surely casts his gaze on all of us, his creatures great and small, and sees one grand potential for goodness. But grownups insisted on seeing many gods and losing much of the goodness in the process of establishing that. 

Of course, I am now a grownup too. Educated and experienced in the ways of the world, I no longer have the wisdom of a child. I don’t have many questions and have learnt to accept, to compromise, to work out answers for myself. I understand much better now, the complexities of humankind. We thrive on problems, competitions and resolutions. There is no longer a need to fight for the common cause of basic survival so we look to our rifts, our differences, our many gods to first divide us so that we can then fight to stay united. We fall for the problems our politicians pretend they didn’t help create. Good and bad feed off each other just like progress and politicians. Necessary evils on the road to change without which society would be stagnant. 

As for God- I still wonder. This firm belief in a universal force larger and stronger and kinder and wiser has been our compass since the beginning of time itself. It has dictated every spiritual, social, political and moral aspect of our lives. The perception of God, altered along the way in accordance with the need of the time, has guided us as we bumbled along on the edge of chaos. Today, mankind prides itself in having come a long way from the age of ignorance. Yet in this age of logic, information and technology, we embrace the same notions and accept the same definitions of god. All the rituals and practices intact. 

Personally, I think there is a little bit of god in each of us, waiting to be discovered in the truest version of ourselves. And what we find within ourselves opens our eyes to what there is in people around. Usually the universe is quite fair and throws back at you what you throw at it. Sometimes it has a warped sense of humor and throws at us a few tragedies and the occasional Trump. But after letting us dangle for a bit it also gives unexpected joys and people who believe that right matters. A check and balance for everything. The demons of childhood has made me wary. I don’t trust easily, either man or god. But life has been kind and my problems, people sized. The evil I have encountered also helps me recognize ‘godliness’ everywhere. I walk among people who quietly go about doing good and feel blessed. 

But we continue looking towards the skies, seeking blessings from an almighty who exists because we believe he does. Where does this certainty come from? What inspires it? Is it in the whisper of a divine voice from above that I don’t quite hear, a presence that can only be sensed? Do we believe in magic and miracles because without it life would be without hope? Is it all an illusion created by artists of destiny, those exceptional story tellers who came before us? Is it really the object of our beliefs that keep us going? Or the belief itself? 

God knows. 

A Soul Awakening

“Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.”
– Anatole France

I didn’t have a pet growing up but always knew I was a dog person. I was ‘guardedly in like’ with all dogs I came across, willing to shower them with kindness and affection but on the ready to walk away if they turned nasty. Kind of like how I am now with people. I have vague memories of bringing home a stray and calling him Brownie, though I didn’t have the faintest idea how to care for him. Brownie because his hair was brown. It might have been white underneath, I didn’t have the chance to find out. When I came home from school the next day he had disappeared. My mom was suspiciously silent about the whole thing and my father distracted me with another Enid Blyton. I don’t think my sister was aware there was a dog.

Years later I gave birth to someone who was obsessed with animals. She taught herself everything there was to know about every animal on the planet by the time she was 5. I tried distracting her with sports and dance, but it was to no avail. Not because I don’t like animals. I’m your average run of the mill mother material, the kind who makes sure the kids have a full belly, a clean diaper, and if they must pick their noses, they don’t do that in the middle of a supermarket. The kind of mother who believes she’s doing a rather good job of it unlike the job she did trying to keep the house plants alive. You see, most living things don’t do too well under my care.

But the inevitable request for a pet became an incessant demand. So we got her a fish. She named it Killer. It didn’t last long and we got her a hamster. She named him Hamtaro. One day I found her searching for an eye because Hamtaro was missing one. I’m sure it was somehow my fault though I’m not sure how. Soon after, Hamtaro joined the house plants and the fish in a corner of the backyard. The child could not be thwarted. The wishlist kept changing and I found notes stuck inside my closet, the kitchen cabinet, on the TV. Once she asked for a bearded dragon and I imagined a fire breathing one perched on my roof. Turns out a bearded dragon is a large lizard with spikes, horns and smarts.

Now reptiles is where I draw the line and a smart reptile, my idea of a horror story.

It was a relief when she moved on to begging for a pet sheep, horse, koala, and eventually, a cat, bunny or dog. I got her one of each, the stuffed kind. She did not appreciate the humor in that. When I explained to her that the live kind stand no chance under my care, she insisted she would do all the work, that I just had to open the door to my home and my heart to the idea. Oh she was very good. Over the next five years she had got her father on board. Finally she decided a dog was all she needed to make her world perfect. My younger one takes after my sister and was probably unaware of the entire proceedings.

Like I said, I have always fancied myself a dog person. I started warming up to the idea though nothing would make me admit that out loud. I didn’t see a purpose to it. It was too impractical. We travel a lot- what then? Who would take the dog on daily walks? Who would pick up after the dog, because it wasn’t going to be me. Been there and done that with two little human beings, never going back. What about the expense? Will the dog expect to be entertained while everyone was away for the day? They had an answer to each of these questions except the last. To that, they just stared at me. Fair enough. I started to hesitantly dream of the ideal dog.

He would have to be a medium sized breed. A black/brown/white combination of colors, intelligent and perky eared. Maybe I would name him Pluto in honor of a cocker spaniel who lived across from us in Punjab, who I adored from far. If it had to be a larger breed then something majestic like a German Shepherd or a Doberman, loyal and courageous. He would be named Colonel or Shadow or Bagheera. Maybe Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A dignified presence by my side, my silent guardian. His upright ears and keen nose would pick up any scent of danger and his yellow tinged black eyes would narrow fiercely as he got ready to protect me from all harm. His booming bark would be heard for miles around and he would bite but only on my command.

The man brought home a Golden Retriever named Juliet. 

Switching tracks to reality took a moment and my dream dogs collapsed around me laughing uproariously. I watched Juliet bounding up the driveway, all jiggles and fluff. Her floppy ears flew up in the air and slapped back down on the side of her face every which way. Her face was set in the widest goofiest grin I’ve seen on man or dog. Something about the world- no, everything about the world seemed to make her very very happy. All 75 lbs of her came hurtling at me and it felt only right to give her a good cuddle. Underneath the cloud of fur she felt like a perfectly set pudding still warm from the oven. Colonel, Shadow, Bagheera and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle watched me turn to mush, sniffed in disdain and went poof.

Juliet was a fully grown 2 and completely, amazingly trained when she came to us. She is almost 8 now. Her first daddy made the obviously difficult decision that our family was a better fit for her. We wanted to honor his magnanimity of heart and decided not to change the name he had given her- Juliet Ramesh. Over time she has got used to being called by many names because in this family, you can’t go by just one. When I call out ‘Stinky!’ all three girls- the two legged ones as well as the four legged one look up inquiringly. Then there are names such as Sundari, Guggu Guvvie, Itsy bitsy that belong only to her.

There are guard dogs and service dogs and therapy dogs. Dogs who have important jobs to do. Not Juliet. She does not guard or protect, not in obvious ways. Her big brown eyes dance in joy to see people. She doesn’t bite- on command or otherwise. When you stick your hand in her mouth she freezes, or pushes it out with her tongue. She is a golden retriever and it is logical to assume she retrieves. Nope, not her. She loves to pick up anything we throw for her. Then she makes us run around in circles after her to get it from her. At least she gets half the job right. We tried the egg experiment. Golden retrievers are so gentle they can carry an egg in their mouth without breaking it. We put the egg in her mouth and she took off with it, a fat golden cloud, with the four of us after her, round and round the backyard till she was cornered. She looked at us puzzled then spat out the egg, at which point it did break. But she does get half the job done.

I have come to the conclusion that she doesn’t know that she’s a dog. Definitely not one that has a purpose. In the almost six years that she has been with us, she has barked about ten times. It has usually been at squirrels whose existence she takes great offense to. Then at old ladies. Not the upright ones. The ones who are bent over to pick up something from the ground. Derrières sans torso scare her. Especially the older ones. It is baffling. Her bark, on these rare occasions has been deep, booming and a thing of beauty. The squirrels scuttle away faster than light and the ladies either fall over or straighten up rather too quickly. But she always seems so comically surprised and bewildered by her own bark, they are quick to forgive her. The ladies, not the squirrels. We just stand there a little shaken, very apologetic and as proud as when the girls took their first steps.

I haven’t been very sure what her purpose is but there is a certain warmth in the house with her around. Warmth, dog hair and a great many squeaky toys. Coming home from anywhere, whether it be after a week away or at the end of the day or after the two minutes it takes to get to the mailbox and back- a grand welcome is always assured. I don’t think anyone is ever this happy that I exist. She seems to know when I am in a bad mood and comes ambling up. Her beautiful eyes speak volumes and she refuses to go away till I’ve petted away my grouse. I put her in costumes and tie up her hair in bows and she patiently tolerates all of my whims. She comes in handy as a pillow, a hand and foot warmer, the perfect subject to my stint at photography. I laugh, notice, feel, care and love more since she entered our lives.

She has grown older, the hair on her face changing from shiny gold to shimmery white. She sleeps a little longer and is a little slower. Her eyes light up with puppy mischief but seem deeper, wiser. I watch her going wild playing in the snow, diving in to get a mouthful, running around after snowballs. I know she will have a slight limp afterwards and she will come to me, a tinge of pain in her trusting big brown eyes. She will look at me, unwavering in her confidence in my ability to make her better.

Maybe I had it all backwards. Maybe coming to us was her purpose. To guard and protect her, mine. One half her job, the other half mine.

Even If

Even If
There are guns
And violence
There is hurt
And heartache

Even if
The sun won’t shine
Or the river runs dry
The land divides
And aliens reign

Even if
You see a child
Looking for her mother
Or a homeless man
In every corner

Even if
The music stops playing
And tears don’t stop rolling
A pall of gloom befalls
To a man’s slaying

The hope is still alive
The dreams they are to stay.
As a stranger holds a cold hand
As a neighbour wipes dry a child’s tears
And a fallen hero’s life you praise
For as long as the music still plays in your ears
I will keep writing my songs
And Love. There will be love.
Even if.


The beast in me

flag “The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away.”

As the Election Day draws closer, the alarm bells in my head get increasingly louder. There is no getting away from it. The newspaper, TV, Internet- the media is binging on the juiciest feast its bitten down on in recent times. So many aspects to this election that are contrary to all logical reasoning. But the brain is a funny thing. It resists, gives in, soaks up, readjusts till what was preposterous yesterday seems perfectly normal today.

Anyone familiar with that brilliantly disturbing piece of literature, ‘Lord of the flies’ would know exactly what I mean. Rich in symbolism, William Golding explores the transformation of a civilized bunch of kids stranded on a remote island and their rapid descent into savagery. Jack is a character in this who goes on to symbolize absolute evil. He is a bully who initially talks of the importance of rules that separate them from ‘savages’ and then leads his followers down a brutal path of violence and terror. In the modern world savagery can exist in many forms. Man is set against man in many ways.

I’m not a stranger to being at the receiving end of prejudices and misguided assumptions. Like many others of my generation, I belong to one part of India and grew up in another, lived half my life on one side of the world and the other on the opposite. Through all this traveling back and forth and all over the world, I was taught how important it is to observe, respect, adapt, assimilate. Realized quite early on that’s not a lesson widely taught. The south Indian accent, darker skin and difference in social etiquette constantly come under ridicule- Bollywood is an expert at this. I’ve heard North Indians being regarded as superficial, ignorant and culturally backward. I’m a South Indian who grew up in the north and when younger, was confused about which of these I should consider a personal slight.

Then there is the Western world and the East. Education and technological progress may have brought the world together more than ever before, but they also pick out and emphasize the differences. It makes it colorful and interesting that every individual is a unique result of his or her upbringing, and social, geographic, moral and cultural background. I’ve lived all my life very secure and rather smug in the belief that when it comes to attitude towards mankind in general, I’m a world citizen unencumbered by petty mental boundaries. These past few weeks are a reminder though that there is always a ‘Jack’ who exists among us in many forms – whether it be the potential for evil that is there in each of us or an outside force that lures it out. Either way, he becomes stronger each time he creates a beast.

Maybe there is a beast . . . .maybe it’s only us.”

Flipping through Fb posts took me to a video from the bizarre ‘Hindus for Trump’ event in North Jersey. Another of those ‘is this for real?!’ material that the brain eventually processed and is yet to get comfortable with. There were protesters from the Indian community holding up placards and Trump supporters fighting back. The video showed one guy in particular engaged in a shouting match with a woman protestor. It was alarming to watch as he got red in the face, threatening, screaming, snarling at her, mocking her gestures and accent, insulting her religion. I felt a bristling, an ugliness on the inside, a feeling of choking on something distasteful. Alarm bells…

While I don’t agree that offering the other cheek is the way to go, it’s a tricky thing to distinguish between true malice and sheer ignorance. So I took a deep breath and a step back. I put a leash on that beast and made him go back to sleep. Anger doesn’t help deal with someone who doesn’t realize that he has sealed himself up into a tight little can of ignorance. In fact it’s sad to see him isolate himself on such unnecessary divisions such as religion, nationality, color of skin, gender, and life choices. There are times when an offender simply doesn’t know any better and it is always worth the effort to try to educate him or her. Throw an alternate route, a different way of thinking out there and he may just decide to explore it. I’ve watched my dad do this successfully, numerous times with students branded antisocial elements. It takes commitment to society, patience and the wisdom to see beyond yourself. A prospect that will be increasingly difficult if a society believes that a civilized world can exist within walls.

The angry man in the video wants a better America and the placard holding lady believes that together we are stronger. Fair enough. Educate your children. Teach them the value of hard work, honesty, decency, kindness and common sense. Make them aware that there is potential for evil as well as good in each person regardless of religion, gender, color of skin or bank balance. Never accept anything without question- whether it be from your doctor, the interpreter of your God, or a public figure. The person who shouts the loudest will be heard but it does not mean he is right- someone else’s beliefs, thoughts and opinions need not become yours. If you were to judge someone based on their difference, switch the camera to selfie mode too occasionally – Maybe the change should start with you. You need not understand someone else’s way of life if it doesn’t affect you or harm others. You do need to respect it.

And finally- our forefathers have worked hard, fought for and dreamt of a future that is now our present. Let’s do no harm even if we do no good. Unfortunately, those are pretty much the two choices we have right now.


Curtain Call


I always thought of it as the awful terrible thing that happens to other people. Other daughters and sons whose grief made me tiptoe around my own fears. Sometimes I would decide to let the fear in and face it head on. The tears wouldn’t stop then and the sorrow felt so real I would tell myself I’m prepared. In the highly unlikely event of the unthinkable happening, this is how it will feel. That’s the thing about deaths and births. Nothing prepares you for it and nothing compares to it. You let it happen and you float along. Fight it and you drown. I know this because right now I am drowning a little each day.

One of my earliest memories is of a dusty pair of maroon leather shoes with tassels and a crowded sidewalk. I remember watching, fascinated, these shoes weaving their way expertly through what looked like a million pairs of feet ahead of me. Bobbing my head this way and that, I wanted to skip along faster so as not to lose sight of them but my dad held my hand tight. Every time I tugged, he held firmer. The shoes were getting away, tassels swinging tantalizingly. I looked up at my dad who was turning to my mom, she was asking something. His grip on my hand loosened a tiny bit for a very brief moment. I tugged harder, my hand slipped out of his, and I ran. The shoes were almost out of sight now.

Everything that happened after that is a bit vague in my mind, like trying to look out of a dusty window. The shrill sounds of vehicles honking and screeching to a halt, shouts from people and my mother screaming my name, lots of running. I remember arms reaching out and scooping me up and hugging me tight. It was my dad, his breathing all weird and his expression strange. I’ve heard that story recounted a number of times over the years about how my parents almost lost me that evening on a crowded street of Bombay. I wait to feel fear, anxiety, some recollection of it. All I remember feeling is a sense of certainty that my dad was right there. All I had to do was turn around. And he was, all my life, every time I needed him, always right there.

On good days memories feel like one of those lazy early morning dreams when you’re half awake yet still asleep. Bedtime stories before I could read, my dad reading to us every night. The books looking tiny in his big hands, the warm glow of our table lamps, the scent of his aftershave, the fabric of his dressing gown. Enid Blyton’s Mr Pinkwhistle and Mr Galliano’s Circus and collections of short stories. His voice deep and strong and then he would voice the characters making us giggle. I used to watch his face, his expression, he seemed to enjoy the stories as much as we did. Later when I could read on my own and my dad continued to read to my sister, I would put my book down to listen to him read the stories we both knew well. I was never done listening to him read. I’m still not done.

Grief is an undefinable thing. I’ve known heartbreaks and heartaches and sadness. But nothing like this big dark hole. It’s inside me and it surrounds me. It’s a filter which distorts the most ordinary day. I am that person who is obsessive about the ‘WHY’ of things. Always been sceptical, can’t seem to help it. I find it difficult to trust the effect until the cause is all sorted out. My father would tell me that there need not be an explanation to everything. Always trust your instinct, he would say, logic can take a while to catch up. He said some things are simply beyond our understanding but it’s all part of a larger picture. I applied that theory to many areas of life and he was always right. Except for this one thing I’m beginning to doubt- He also said the universe never gives us anything we can’t handle.

‘My father passed away’… I have practiced saying that to myself over and over. So that I can say that to the world without the words sticking to my throat. I tell myself that I’m coping really well. I watch my mother be brave and strong and try to learn from her. There are books on my table about grief management. Support comes from unexpected sources- words of strangers and kindness from people I have been out of touch with. Friends and family who are my pillars of strength. I feel my family’s watchful eyes on me as they quietly deal with their own loss. There has been laughter and fun and I plunge into life headlong. Weddings and travel, dancing and dressing up. Patches of time when everything feels normal. Like the quiet before the storm. Because once the door closes and I am alone, the gaping vacuum that nags at me- why hasn’t daddy called…grief is also this slimy cunning unpredictable thing lurking around waiting to pounce.

It takes a split second to remember that I’m never going to hear from him again. And then the long long list of ‘never’s pile up- it’s like a thousand explosions ripping through my mind and shattering the carefully stacked pieces of my heart. This time the universe really messed up and I am mad as hell. The relief of giving in to it surprises me and the force of it destroys me. It feels good not to have to pretend because behind those closed doors, no one is watching. My thoughts go in circles chasing after the ‘why’- there was still so much left for him to do. So much he had to teach, so much left for me to learn. I try to stitch together snatches of memories to create that larger picture he was always talking about- it’s been six months since he’s been here to paint it for me.

Much of our childhood was spent watching my dad bring to life a blank canvas. He used both hands with equal ease, he was ambidextrous. I wanted my hands to write and draw the way his did, I wanted him to be proud of me. But the left one refused to cooperate and although stick figures was all I could manage to draw, my dad never stopped saying how proud he was of me.The smells of paint, oils and turpentine used to be a constant in my house. My mom who needs cleanliness and order to be able to function, dedicates one room to ‘housing the mess’! Canvases in various stages of completion stacked against the wall and paint soaked brushes and rags lying around. Patches of paint on surfaces. It may look like chaos to the untrained eye but we knew it was a process, a necessity in the creation of art. Sometimes he would paint murals overnight and sometimes take months to finish a portrait to his satisfaction.

My father created a world for us that was extraordinary. If Dharma is a religion, he was a religious man who firmly believed in the inherent goodness of humanity. Even when someone proved him wrong through their actions, he was never angry, just sympathetic. Slights and slander simply amused him, always finding a way to understand the cause of negativity in someone. He was also deeply interested in other religions, he frequently quoted the Bible and discussed his understanding of Quran. He read extensively about Sikhism, Jainism, Judaism. I’ve only heard him speak with respect and reverence way back when ‘tolerance’ was just another word. He explained to us how religion was born when there was a need for something to hold people together, making me curious about those times. I have turned to him constantly to be reassured, to hold on to faith when humanity seems on the brink of extinction. Everything was uncomplicated and surprisingly simple the way he explained it, whether it was an interpretation of Art, a Shakespearean Play or a life issue.

I was 14 when he chanced upon a love letter from my classmate. In 14 yrs of life, my father had never once said a harsh word to me, never been angry, never lost his temper. When he said that he would like to talk to me, I had no idea what to expect. He asked me if I liked this boy and whether I had responded to the letter. I said ‘No way!!’, smug about that good girl halo, waiting for the pat on my back. After all, my friends were getting into trouble with their parents over their secret romances and clandestine meetings. He looked at me for a moment and said- BE KIND. I was stung that my father didn’t seem appreciative enough of my mature decision. ‘Do you WANT me to say yes?!!’ I asked defiantly. ‘Good lord, no!’, he laughed, his proper English most pronounced when making a point- ‘I don’t want you to say anything you don’t want to, or be anything you’re not. But your words have great power. It takes a lot of courage for a 14yr old boy to propose to a girl and what you say and how you say it will affect his self esteem. Possibly into adulthood. It’s important to be true to yourself but equally important to be considerate of someone else. Form your words carefully- be kind.’

That, most of all, stayed with me. I haven’t always been kind, ashamed to admit, but I’ve always been aware of the effect and importance of words. I was reminded of that on one of my recent visits, one monsoon day in Kerala. I sat on the porch with my dad watching the rain when the mailman stopped by. My father’s eyes lit up for a brief moment and then he said, more to himself, I suspect- Must be bills. No one writes letters anymore. I got myself a set of envelopes and paper as soon as I got back- a surprisingly difficult task, my dad was right, no one writes letters anymore! I wrote to him every Friday. I thought I was doing it for him but as it turned out, it became more for me. It took a week for the letters to reach him and I spoke with my parents every day. Yet there were things I found to say in the letters that I couldn’t have said on the phone. I took the advice of a wise friend and continue to write – I ask my dad if there was anything we could’ve done to make him stay just a little longer. I have many more hugs to give him. I don’t want him to know of the tears that come with each word, so just like he said- I form my words carefully.

My sister used to think him invincible. She isn’t the skeptic that I am. Even when I knew in my heart that he was getting ready to leave us, it never struck her that he wouldn’t make it. She went above and beyond and did everything possible to make him well. She was his little girl and I know that he’s never once let her down. I think he tried very hard not to let her down this one last time too. I watched him talk to her about her work and about the next trip that we would all take together.. He even dictated, off the top of his head like always, short pieces, interesting anecdotes and characters from his childhood in Bangalore, when it was under the British rule. I watched him make her laugh as we took turns keying it down. My heart hurt for her so much- I knew what was to come. The hideous sound of the wheezing oxygen machine a constant reminder and the struggle I could see in him, to keep breathing. But she chose not to dwell on that and he played along. Just like him, she too can, at will, choose to see only the brighter side of things.

I accompanied my Dad on a trip to Paderborn, Germany, a couple of years back. He was invited to speak at an International conference on ‘Global economy and World Religions’. I met him at Frankfurt airport and although I knew he hadn’t been in the best of health, it was a shock to see how frail he looked. Even walking seemed to be an effort. I wondered how he would be able to address the crowd, whether it was a good idea. But he was a proud man who never once admitted to being anything but ‘perfectly fine, thank you!’. With a smile. So I kept my worries to myself as he walked up to the podium and started to speak. His words were strong and steady, holding the audience captive and as I listened spellbound, I thought of the Plays he used to direct and the parts he used to act out. Usually a quiet and mild person, he transformed himself on stage. I had a strong suspicion that he was performing one last grand act, tricking his body into keeping up with his incredible mind. Later, I asked him how on earth he pulled off that fantastic presentation and he grinned- “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players..”

I laughed and he took my hand. ‘Besides, it helped to know that if I needed you, you are right here’

Always, Daddy. I’m right here. Staring at a father sized void in life in a world that’s been knocked off its axis. And the show will go on.

For the love of Mars


NASA’s recent Mars revelations have triggered a million ideas in my head so much so that insanity is not a distant thing. I am positive that my mental state will eventually dash all hopes of my impending travel to the planet. I’ve been designing fancy web systems, designing a co-existence plan for MARS inhabitants, putting together a framework for a MARS core team that is required for sustaining life, the list is endless.

 Now, should my fancy Expedia like travel system offer round-trip tickets between Earth and MARS, or should it be just one way to start with? It would be perfect if there are not too many options. For example, there will be multiple airport locations, not divided by political boundaries, but just by convenience. Pricing would all be the same no matter which airport. As one starts thinking, things get too complicated.

I’m not exactly certain that I’ll head that way in my lifetime, but I foresee a day when my progenies will. Should I start a Mars fund as I’m guessing the cost to travel will be steep, only affordable by the likes of millionaires and such? I am fully aware that countries are spending billions for research on the possibility of life there,  and I do hope the Mars committee is fair to all earthlings. After all, the hope is that we will all be one and the same once we land there. We start fresh and we do things right second time around.

Putting aside all the “earth-man” made complications; my underlying desire is for Mars to be ALL that Earth is not.

Without terrorists, without politically defined borders, without rulers, without polluted air, without roaches or rats- if you ask me, I could break into that famed Beatles number. But that’s just me, all I need is love, music and without a doubt, lots of chocolate.

Ramblings – A Day’s Worth

On my day-off

“You have the ability to turn my day around.” For better or for worse- As clichéd as it sounds and as much as I hear Ferris Bueller laughing his head off, l do think cozying up with you on the couch, eating take-out food while watching a random, well, a war movie is the perfect way to spend my occasional day off from work. It’s only been light years since this transpired to be. Much thankfulness for that. This day-off will be etched, forever in my brain Read more

“Valiachan” only to me-

Gautham, his uncle and aunt
Gautham Vasudev Menon- With his Uncle and Aunt

Wanting to write is a good thing. What sets that off is not necessarily a good thing. Today, it’s a lot of sadness. The last of the old frontier men in the family is gone. Yes, I would like to call them that. He was one of the best, actually. All of them led very simple lives. KMP Menon’s was filled with grace and dignity amidst some trial and tribulation. When a teacher goes on to become every student’s best friend, you know that’s an exceptional man we are talking about. Almost every post sent in by his students in the wake of his passing away calls him that. Soft, gentle, grace and dignified are words that come to my mind whenever I’ve met him too. My dad’s older brother, my earliest memory of him is a wedding in the family when I Read more