On a blustery
winter morning, I shuffle my booted feet and rub my gloved palms together as I
wait at the light rail station in uptown Charlotte. The wisp of heat the
friction generates does not appease my body, which yearns for warmth. Even
under layers of warm apparel, I feel the frosty air seep in.
arrives and I jump into the carriage to find a seat furthest from the door. I
am returning from a job interview that did not go well. Normally, the half hour
train ride to and from uptown to my house is when I catch up on my reading.
Today though, my body and mind need to thaw first before I can focus on the
words of a page. After yet another failed attempt at procuring a job, my sunken
spirit matches the low, dense air outside.
around, at the sea of people who enter the carriage after me and scramble to
find spots. The huge tidal wave of scurrying humans subsides as most of them seat
themselves, relief writ large on their faces. Those that don’t find seats are
grateful just to be in a space away from the frigid temperatures and bone
chilling winds. Through a clearing in the crowd I see an oversized woman on a
wheelchair, not too far away from the door. She must be cold. All she uses to cover up is a thin yellow
sweater that she wears over a gaudy, floral blouse and purple pants. Her
sneakers look worn. She clutches a black drawstring bag in her bare hands that
appear wrinkled and dry. She’s probably homeless. How does she get by on days
like today? As if she senses my prying eyes, she turns to look at me, her
expression stiff. Embarrassed, I force a smile and quickly look away.
rides are often frequented by vagabonds. Maybe, that is why I immerse myself in
books. To avoid making eye contact with them. There is always an uncomfortable
tussle in my heart when I happen to glance their way. A tussle that swings
between wariness and compassion. There are some to whom life metes out an
unfair hand. They deserve our empathy. But what if a few seek the easy route? What
if the dollar I hand out to the disheveled man at the traffic signal is used to
buy drugs? In that case, does a gesture of momentary kindness on my part serve
him or cripple him? I do not know.
I pull out
my book, ‘The Life-Changing Magic of
Tidying Up’ by Marie Kondo, but my mind is drawn to the stranger in the
wheelchair. I look up from the page at her as she bends down to her side and
pets her dog, a pit bull that sits beside her. A creature I did not notice
earlier as I was busy trying to look away. The pit bull has on a thick olive-
green jacket with faux fur around the hood. The buttoned- up jacket, that is clearly
made for women, stifles his movements. He shakes with trepidation, like a crinkly
leaf on a blustery day. He is bitterly cold and maybe anxious from the ruckus
around him. The lady strokes his head with great tenderness and whispers words
that I cannot grasp amidst the noise in the train. “It’s ok darling…it’s all
going to be fine” are what my heart says she utters. I watch their interaction, spellbound.
up in my eyes. In all probability, the jacket is her most prized possession.
The rest of her treasure is in the drawstring bag. She loves her dog so deeply
that she is ready to forfeit her own comfort for his. I understand. I have a dog
of my own, Leo. He is the child I’ve come to rely on to make me feel significant.
On days like today when I feel inept, inadequate, Leo’s vehement licks and
vigorous wags tell me I mean the world to him. I matter.
The stranger is wise. She senses my penetrant
gaze and looks at me again. Our eyes meet and our souls connect. We have both
experienced unconditional love in this lifetime. I smile, a wholehearted smile that acknowledges
her presence. She grins wide. Her mouth is missing a few teeth. Her eyes dance
with warmth. The twinkle in them convey
the message that this is all she wants. An acknowledgement from a fellow
traveler that says, “I see you. You matter.”
I gazed into
the mirror, at my reflection, and let the vision from the eye that was open
fall upon the kohl lined one that was shut. The blue grey shades of the eye
shadow shimmered lightly on the canvas of my eyelid, bordered by the thick
black line of the eyeliner. ‘Nice. Someday, I will learn the art of creating
the smoky eye effect but for today, this will do.’ With both eyes
now open, I let my gaze wander over the rest of my face. Features had been
accentuated, blemishes hidden. The array of make-up products I had used had
done their job. All I needed to do was fill in the luscious matte shade of
burgundy on my lips. ‘Diva’ – an apt title for the lipstick I had chosen. As I
looked into the mirror for one last time, I certainly felt like one. Though I
must admit, I did not always embody this essence of being a diva. Discovering
this essence has been a journey.
The art of
make-up was one I had begun to dabble in only recently, until then I had been
defiant to the idea of it. The wisdom of the forties had illumined to me the
fact that the rebellious attitude towards make-up and fashion that I had harbored
earlier was a defense mechanism I had come up with to protect myself. Let me
tell you the story of how that happened.
You see, I am
dark skinned and very short and there was a time in the crazy teenage years when
I stopped seeing myself as the bubbly loving spirit that I was and instead wondered
if someone with a flawed complexion and as scrawny as me could be considered
attractive. It seemed unfair that while my growth spurt lasted a mere inch,
everyone else towered around me. And in a country where fair skin is considered
an epitome of beauty, it hurt to be dark. My family and friends loved me
unconditionally and cherished my presence. Not once made me feel less worthy
yet the conventional idea of beauty laid out by society had wiggled its way
into my mind. While MJ crooned “It don’t matter if you are black or white”, to
a young naïve teenager trying to fit in, it certainly did.
On one of
those days, in a desperate attempt to change at least a tad bit of my
appearance, I walked into a salon, also known as a ‘beauty parlor’ in my
country. I had never been to one before. Now I would say the name is a
misnomer. There is so much more to beauty than looks. But at that point in
time, to me, it resonated that it is the external fixing that is done to a
person’s appearance that miraculously enhances beauty. The ‘beauty parlor’ was
a home run salon owned by a matronly heavyset woman who had a couple of giggly
and chirpy girls to help her. It is a norm in my country, where every grown-up
person in your life is referred to as aunty or uncle and many a young girl as
baby. Aunty was perched in a cushioned chair with her feet resting on a little
black stool reading a magazine while one of the helper girls was massaging her
head. Her raspy voice boomed as she peered above her wide rimmed spectacles at
What can I do for you?”
I looked around the dinghy, rectangular room
with a makeshift changing area in the corner, a huge mirror and three rotating
chairs in front of it. There was a massage table against the wall at the far
end of the room. A waxy aroma that wafted across its span. A little cauldron
shaped pot rested on a ledge by the table. J K Rowling had not invented
Hogwarts yet – or else the scenario would be akin to a young Harry Potter
walking into Dumbledore’s office wishing to learn a spell that magically
transformed one’s appearance.
I replied meekly.
Come. First time doing facial?”
replied and proceeded to do as she said. I changed into a jaded cotton gown she
provided and lay down on the table, shutting my eyes tight. As she scurried
around for the next few moments getting products ready to apply on my face, I
waited agitated and uneasy.
her glasses and scrutinized my face closely.
“Tsk tsk… so
many blackheads… you need the gold facial. Expensive but you need it.”
I shut my
eyes, clenched my fists and held on. If I wanted to feel beautiful, I would
have to endure these experiences. While her stooges watched, she deftly massaged
my skin with what seemed to be layers of masks, rubbing them in, letting them
dry and peeling them out. Next, I was asked to hover my face steady, over a pot
of steaming water with a cloth covering my head so as not to let the steam
escape. It felt like my face was on fire. As the droplets condensed and dripped
down my face, I soothed myself. ‘Didn’t things
always seem bad before they get better. The sting from the steam would open up
my pores and rejuvenate my skin and I would glow just like those models in TV
ads.’ As the steaming ordeal ended, aunty asked me to lay back
down and brought a couple of sharp needle-like instruments. Terrified, I asked
her what she was about to do next.
worry. I must take out the blackheads no?”
pinched and tugged away at the blackheads on my nose, I felt excruciating pain.
Tears welled up in my eyes. I’m not sure if I had felt such animosity towards
anyone before but in that moment, I did and as she brought the tweezer to my
nose once more, I gathered every ounce of fierceness in my body and raised my
hand to slap her. I just wanted the pain to stop. She was quick to react and with
her large, jiggly arms, she firmly caught my hand and pinned me down. The
“Arre! Baby, this
much also you cannot bear? You want to be pretty or not? Then these blackheads
I have to take out. It does not look nice, no?”
I lay there, stark naked in my vulnerability,
desperate to wedge my way into the land of the glamorous, my mind spinning, It does not look
nice? To whom? To another who was looking at me? I had to go through all this
pain so that when someone else saw me, it would be a pleasing sight for them? So
unfair! Were there not enough puppies, daffodils and roses for the world to
feast their eyes on if they wanted to see something nice?
have to come back next month to remove the blackheads, ok? Otherwise no use, it
will come back.”
‘Huh? Whaaaat? I would have to go through this again? And again?’
I looked at myself for a few minutes every
morning and night and though the image was not perfect, there were certainly
less painful things I could do with my time, like reading a book. It was true
that I had wanted to fit into a mold that society had carved yet even after the
facial, even after the coaxing and cajoling of the skin, I didn’t feel any
different. Maybe my skin glowed, and there were fewer blackheads but otherwise
I was the same person as I was before this experience. That’s when the rebel
was born. There was a quiet defiance, a current of seething anger in my heart
for rules that defined beauty in society. I decided that I would stay away from
everything that changed my appearance externally, that the beauty industry was
an ostensible one. Looking good did not always translate to feeling good. I had
experienced that though I could not fathom what I must do to find my inner glow.
Fortunately for me, my husband cherished a sense of humor more than a sense of
style and I did not care to change. I was most comfortable in slacks and to his
chagrin – his t-shirts and he just let me be. When the kids came along, for the
longest time, I wore their presence as my accessory. Their spirit was an extension
of mine and I basked in it. I felt radiant. I was wrong to think that
motherhood is what makes one beautiful. I did not own our children and a time comes,
as it did for me, for them to leave your space and find their own. Being a
mother is just a role I played.
As I began to
fill in the void the kids left with questions – Who am I, why am I here, what
does taking care of oneself truly mean? There were other burning questions too
about faith, culture, values etc. The search led me to meditation and though
none of the answers appeared magically, there was a subtle change in the way I
responded to life. It took months, and nothing changed externally but I was
happy, for no particular reason. My heart felt warm and fuzzy, most of the
One night, as I brushed my teeth, I looked in
the mirror. I was still short, still dark and to add to it the aging effect of
mid-life hormones were conspicuous – streaks of grey, thinning hair and the
battle of the mid-riff bulge. Yet, I was ecstatic. That warm fuzzy feeling had eclipsed
all insecurities. I had brushed away layers of inadequacy just as valiantly as
I had brushed away the plaque. I was in my forties now and I loved, lived and
wrote from the heart. Nothing else mattered. Maybe, this is what it felt to be
a diva. To be fearlessly you.
And that, in
short, is my journey to finding true beauty.
awakening hasn’t broadened my sense of style. I still lounge around in my
sweatpants and hubby’s Superman t-shirt, but I am no longer averse to the idea
of dolling up on occasions. Today I was
getting dressed to do an author event. The excitement of doing something that I
loved combined with a dash of make- up made me feel yummy.
As I turned
around to step out of the room, my faithful little puppy wagged his furry tail
at me. Ah, he approved. He knew under the mask of the skin toner, primer, foundation,
highlighter and blush was the warm and funny spirit he loved.
I now know it
too. I have finally learned to embrace myself just as I am. I am a quirky woman
who graciously bore the pain of childbirth but is terrified of a pair of tweezers.
I am a diva!
This post was first published in Life Positive in Aug 2019. Republished with the permission of the editor.
My family moved to Charlotte five years ago from Pune,
India. It was a herculean move that drained every ounce of my energy. I left behind
a treasure trove of love and connections. Family I dearly loved and friends old
and new who filled my life with laughter. The village I created for myself there
was thriving. It was my silken cocoon. Breaking away from it bruised me all
over. Yet, it had to happen. It was a move we had made for the future of our
kids. Their happiness is more important than mine, I told myself.
At the turn of the millennium, my husband and I had along
with scores of IT professionals immigrated to the US. Both kids were born in
Chicago and had spent the first few years of their lives here. We moved to Pune
when my daughter was eight and son was four. To them, America was home and nothing
in India felt like their own. They lived as aliens in my homeland. Just as cruelly
as I was yanked from the soil that I had sprouted from when we relocated to
Charlotte, they had been forcibly transplanted into a foreign soil when we had
moved earlier from Chicago to Pune. Except that they were saplings then, tender
and supple. Even though they did not like it, they found a way to adapt. When
we moved to back to the US, they blossomed but I, on the other hand, stood as an
old oak would, rigid and resistant to the strong winds of change
For months, I would wake up every morning with a knot in my
stomach, uneasy, unwilling to embrace the day. There was a dull ache I cannot
describe, like a thin veil over my eyes that made my vision hazy. We bought a
house, my dream home but even that did not lift the veil away. I hung on by a
thread, the knowing that I had to get better for my kids. As a mother, I had
always taken the role of being ‘Annapoorna’ (the Goddess of food) very
seriously. What got me out of bed was a sense of duty to whip up healthy food for
them. The cooking did not bother me but a messy kitchen and a sink full of
dishes did. The cleaning overwhelmed me, and it is an area I struggle with to
date. It is an aspect I cannot handle alone, and I missed all the house help I
had in India. So, while putting out an array of dishes gave me transient
moments of happiness, they were soon overcome with the misery of cleaning. I
was in desperate need of an avenue that would take me back to a cozy bubble that
The family though settled in easily; like a fish does to
water. They were each in their own happy space. My daughter had her music and
books, my son had tennis and Lego and my husband, golf. I was lost. Maybe, it
was time to go back to work. I had a bachelor’s degree in pharmacy and had
worked in the industry for a bit before giving it up to be a stay at home mom.
The thought of going back to pharma though only made the knotted feeling in my
stomach grow tighter. The job and the industry repulsed me. I knew for certain
I did not want to go back yet I could not fathom what I wanted. The resistance
in my mind to the current situation reflected in my body too. I developed a
series of food intolerances which in turn exacerbated the feeling of
restlessness. The yearning to feel joyful and healthy again took me back in
time to my childhood days. What was it that had brought me unencumbered joy
then? Apart from the company of my friends, it was dancing and writing. I had to get back to it.
As if the Universe heard my pleas, one of those days when I
was hopelessly floating around, I came across a wonderful dance institute. The
teacher was starting a new batch for adults. It was a sign. I joined and at
turtle pace began to find my footing again. The dancing held the key to unlock
my heart too. When we had moved I was so full of love and longing for my family
and friends that I had shut my world to new friendships. No one could take the
place of my old friends, I had decided. The class though brought back into my
life the laughter and magic of genuine connections. My heart slowly opened wide
to snugly fit in my new friendships alongside my old ones.
The writing took a while to take off. What could I write
about, I wondered? Then, magically one morning I woke up with a poem imprinted
strongly in my heart. It was a poem dedicated to two of my dear friends who
were raising kids with special needs. These kids had always inspired me. They
had an unfailing ability to enjoy simple moments in life like a gentle evening
breeze, a plate of flavorful homemade food and a genuine smile. Moments that I,
despite being a fully functioning adult, had trouble appreciating. These kids
may have struggled with tasks that came easily to us but however hard times
were, they never failed to open their arms for a hug. I aspired to have the
clarity and appreciation for life that they did.
I penned the poem and that was the beginning of a journey
that has since brought a lot of richness in my life. As I continued to write
with the deep desire to discover what lay beneath the surface of those
turbulent emotions at the abyss of our core, I made connections with readers
all over the world. The veil then began to lift. Writing was an anchor that grounded me.
However choppy the waves around were, I understood if I held on I would be
safe. Nothing was more comforting than a blank screen that I was free to create
my art on. Somewhere along the way I discovered meditation too which brought
back the much-needed airiness in my life.
When we moved to Charlotte, I thought I was being a martyr,
sacrificing my happiness for the sake of my kids. Looking back, I see it was
the best thing that happened to me. It pushed me to corners I would have never
explored. And once I sifted through those dark turbulent emotions, I discovered
buried treasure. The nagging unsettled feeling that I labeled as bad set me on
an exciting voyage.
There is an old Sufi tale which goes like this. There was
once a poor farmer who lived with his young son in a beautiful valley. Out of
the blue, a fine-looking stallion walked into their farm one day. The envious
neighbors proclaimed he was lucky as he could sell the stallion and earn a
fortune. The humble farmer merely replied, “Good thing, Bad Thing – Who
The next day the horse ran away. This time the neighbors
hurried over to offer sympathy. “That’s too bad. You could have made so much
money.” they said. The farmer’s plain reply, “Good Thing, Bad Thing – Who
The day after, the horse came back bringing along with it a
few more horses. The neighbors once again lauded the good fortune of the
farmer. Again, all the old man could utter, “Good thing, Bad Thing – Who
Then, when the farmer and his son were out grazing the
horses, one of the horses kicked the young boy injuring him critically. The boy
was crippled for life. The neighbors moaned, “Who will marry your lad now? This
is very unfortunate.”
The farmer’s only reaction, “Good thing, Bad Thing – Who
knows?” Soon a war broke out in the area and all the young strapping men in the
vicinity were drafted to fight in the war. The farmer’s lame son was the only
one spared. The only comfort the farmer offered his sobbing neighbors, “Good
Thing, Bad Thing- Who Knows?” And so, life went on for the farmer.
Dire times often mask lessons that make us stronger. Our
relocation to Charlotte taught me that. So now when things don’t go my way, I
try not to think of it as bad. If I find myself battling a storm, I simply
clutch on tight to my anchor and ride the waves whispering, “Good Thing, Bad
Thing -Who Knows?”
The rays of the morning sun light up the world around us. We are five years old and dressed in cotton frocks. Yours is white with red straps and a smocking across the span of its bodice. Mine is yellow with black polka dots and frilly sleeves. We sit in a muddy ditch by the side of the tar road. What were our mothers thinking dressing us up pretty like that? We fill the little pockets in our sun dresses with jagged edged stones and smooth pebbles.
A hop, skip and jump later we are in the garden outside your house. The trimmed bushes and manicured hedges only lure us to pluck some of their leaves off. Our pockets are full, so we gather as much as our little hands can hold. We drop our loot in a nook by the edge of the garden and rush back to the row of trees that line the other end of your garden.
Every morning, a fresh layer of ‘Parijat’ flowers lies scattered on the ground all around the trees. The fragrance of the white flowers with bright orange stems beckons us. These night- flowering jasmines bloom in the stillness of the dark and leave the comfort of their branches when the first rays of the sun fall upon them. Neither our hands nor our pockets are big enough for these gifts from nature that lay strewn around us. So, we turn the hemmed edges of our dresses upwards and in delight, collect as many flowers as we can in our makeshift pouches. Backs crouched, we hurry back in a slow run holding our precious cargo, close to our bodies and hearts. Did we ever walk in those days? There was always so much to do, to explore.
Back in our nook, we put on a show, just for ourselves. This is Broadway at its rudimentary best. We play house and the first scene is of our family preparing a scrumptious dinner. You and I play multiple roles. and the loot we have gathered are used as props. The leaves are vegetables that we chop and sauté into an aromatic curry. The pebbles are naan that we bake, and the flowers complete the feast as a bowl of saffron rice. The stones are money and we have used it all at the grocery store. Our make -believe world is made up of the elements that truly matter to us. Food does, bills…they don’t exist.
Now, you are raising a family of your own and I am raising mine. Our lives are not as simple as the world we created at five. Bills and worries are a big part of it. You’ve taught me though to remember that I do need sunshine and nature to satiate my heart.
You & I…
The afternoon sun blazes in all its’ glory. We are ten and dressed in blue denim shorts and colorful tie and dye t-shirts. No more dainty frocks for us, we choose our clothes ourselves. As we get ready to play a game of lagori*, you stack the seven tiles up neatly in the center of the playground. We are on opposite teams. It’s your turn to break the tower of tiles. You take aim and throw the little red rubber ball right at the tower. ‘BAM’…You’ve done it. The tower crumbles. Your aim has always been so precise. I am the sloppy one, the ‘kaccha limbu.’ * As the tower falls apart, your team runs away from us as far as possible. Our team has to hit one of you with the ball now, before you can stack up the tiles again, to score points. I aim the ball and clumsily throw it at you. It grazes your sleeve, I think. ‘OUT’ I yell, a victorious grin on my lips. You shake your head in denial.
“NOT OUT! It didn’t touch me.”
“IT DID. I SAW IT.”
We get into our first major fight. You are the all-time lagori champion, the MVP of our ‘gali’* and get the benefit of the doubt. You win. Tears roll down my cheeks. I walk away to sit on the rock. A stony structure on the other side of our apartment building, our haunt. Despondent and alone, I vow to never play this game again. I find a twig nearby and begin to sketch stick figures in the mud. Just then you come along, with a little steel dabba* in your hand.
“Amma made gulab jamuns*, your favorite. Here, these are for you.” Your big, brown eyes look at me expectantly.
“Gulab jamuns! Yay!!!”
As the juicy sweetness of the spongy dessert fills my mouth, my heart dances again. What were we fighting about? I don’t remember anymore.
Now when we talk, we discuss the conflicts in our real world. Rifts with family members, bosses, jealous colleagues…there is so much to cope with. You’ve taught me though that sometimes the solutions are as simple as savoring the sweetness of a dessert. In tough times, I try to let the resentment in my heart melt into the sugary syrup of a gulab jamun.
You & I…
A gentle breeze brushes against us. The evening sun casts shadows that make us appear to be taller than we actually are. We are on a stud farm which belongs to your family friend. We are fifteen and dressed in jeans and pretty blouses, accessorized with dangling earrings and chic shoes. We are on a farm yes, but don’t we need to exude a sense of style wherever we are? We walk to the lake with Charlie, a lazy, yellow Labrador who belongs to the farm but has been inseparable part of our unit since the time we arrived here. We don’t walk very much as Charlie plops himself to the ground. 300m is his limit. We prod, push, even try to carry him but he does not budge. So, we stand rooted to that spot for a while. There is nothing much to do.
“I’ll tell you a joke.” you say, “Have you heard of the woman with three hairs?”
“No-No. Tell me.”
“There was once a lady who had three hairs on her head. She wanted to style her hair, so she walked into a salon. ‘There’s not much I can do’, said the exasperated stylist. “Ok, then just make a braid.” As the stylist began to do as she was told, one hair broke. “Eh! It’s ok. Just tie a ponytail” Unfortunately for the lady, the second hair broke too, when the stylist attempted to tie a ponytail. “Hmmm. Never mind then, I’ll just leave my hair open.”
We fall to the ground, in splits with laughter. Charlie raises his sleepy head and looks at us bewildered. Not sure if anyone will find this joke funny but we do. We find the absurdity of it hilarious. The world around us comes to a standstill. Only waves of our raucous laughter resonate for miles and miles.
Even now at times when I feel despair, I go back in time to that day…you’ve taught me to laugh at the ironical situations that life metes out to us..
You & I…
We are twenty. You touch up my lipstick and I tighten the clasp of your oxidized necklace. The night is still young as we dress in rustic ghagras and colorful cholis, complete with ethnic, chunky jewelry, ready to play dandiya-raas*. Raas -Lila was a dance that Krishna playfully indulged in with Radha and the gopis. We carry on the tradition today. For the nine nights of Navratri* we dance with friends in gay abandon. This year is extra special though because T is going to be at the dance. He is your first crush. As you turn to me one last time before we leave, your dreamy gaze says it all. ‘How do I look? Do you think he will like me?’ your eyes question.
‘Who wouldn’t? You are the best’ I beam in return.
As we head towards the venue hand in hand, I feel your heart pound in my sweaty palm. I tighten my hold over your hand in an attempt to soothe your anxious nerves and let go only when you when we see him approach. You dance with him well until midnight and then you and I talk about it until the wee hours of the morning. You describe his every gesture, his every nuance. I listen, lapping up all the itsy -bitsy details. I wish your love lasts forever.
I know now the tenderness of first loves do not last forever. You’ve taught me though to cherish heartfelt connections.
You & I…
Three years later. We are at the Mumbai airport. It’s 3:00 am. Your family is relocating to America. I am here to say goodbye to you. As I hug you tight, I try hard to fight back tears. I do not want the farewell to be teary yet it’s hard to fathom how my days will be without your presence. I feel your tears drop on my shoulder. There is only one thing that will keep us from breaking down.
“You remember the lady with three hairs” I ask, while I continue to embrace you.
And you giggle uncontrollably.
We part ways. I vow not to dwell on the void created by your absence but to celebrate the joyous moments of our friendship.
You & I…
Twenty-one years later, we are still the best of friends. You are 8000 miles away. We do not talk often yet when we do, it’s as if you have never been away. It’s a bond that will only deepen as the creases on our faces ripen. After all, you have taught me to rejoice the little moments of life. You’ve taught me to live life king size.
Parijat – Night-flowering jasmines
Lagori – a game played between two teams involving a ball and a pile of flat stones
Kaccha limbu – a weak player
Gali – narrow streets of a city
Gulab jamuns – a sweet made out of milk solids.
Dabba – a box
Dandiya -Raas – a traditional folk dance from India
Navratri – an Indian festival that is celebrated for nine nights.
Imagine yourself at the venue of the National Spelling Bee in Washington, DC. You are in the audience seated at the edge of your chair, palms sweaty, brows furrowed and heart thumping. The air is rife with nervous excitement. It is the final round and your child is up on stage with a handful of other voracious spellers. He walks up to the microphone in eager, confident steps. As a parent, all you can do for him is say a heartfelt prayer in desperation and hope that when the soft voice of the ever-smiling Dr. Bailly pronounces the word, it is one your child knows. What you want is for your child to win.
Except you are now told that this next round of the spelling bee is unconventional. Whaaat? The child must not only spell but also define the word. He cannot question the origin or the root of the word. There are no alternate pronunciations. The child is judged on the profundity of his answer. The stage for this round is sprawling. It is life and the voice that announces the word is not of the charming doctor, but it is the gentle voice of God. You still want your child to win.
“FUN” – the divine voice announces. Your child looks perplexed. Such a simple word? The clock ticks away and your thirteen-year-old child, initially hesitant goes on to describe his interpretation of the meaning of the word.
“Fun –F-U-N. It is a vacation with my family and friends to beautiful seaside locations. Fun is a trip to Hawaii or Bahamas.”
Ah- He did it, you think. Your shoulders relax, and a smile graces your face. Only to hear the dreadful bell go ‘Ding’. It’s not the right answer. Baffled, you look around to see the same quizzical expression on the faces of all around. Why is this answer wrong? You are deeply disappointed.
As the next finalist walks up, you wonder what the correct answer is.
“FUN” says the gentle voice.
“F-U-N. Fun is a grand party with dancing and singing and hmmm…plenty of food and drinks?” The child sounds nervous. He tries to put himself into the shoes of every adult in the room and answer and sees this is the most common way to have fun.
‘Ding’ goes the awful bell again.
As the third finalist walks up to the microphone, his grim expression indicates that he is giving this some serious thought.
“F-U-N. Success is fun. Success in academics or sport. Winning is fun” he quips when it is his turn. A ‘DING’ echoes in the hall once more.
Why are these wrong, you wonder? As you look around, confusion is writ large on the faces. Everyone is as perplexed as you are.
“Let me rephrase the question” the magnificent voice announces. Its’ sound deep yet gentle envelopes you with a warmth. “What makes you happy?” asks the voice and the spotlight falls on the fourth child,
“Getting a new video game makes me happy” the fourteen- year-old gingerly announces.
“Uh- I don’t know” mutters the child.
The spotlight moves to the next child. Smiling, he answers “Going to a waterpark.”
Before the child replies, an angry parent interrupts. “What’s going on? My child was not wrong when he said going to a party was fun. Nor was the other when he said a new toy makes him happy. These are kids, and this is what makes them happy. What’s wrong with it? I demand an explanation!”
“Let me ask you then… What is fun? What makes you happy and why?” the benevolent voice booms.
The parent yells, “A cruise with abundant food, wine and beautiful people! Why? Why? Because it lets me escape from the drudgery of my everyday life!”
“HEY! Can You tell me what You are up to? Are You playing around with us? Can you please just leave and let our kids go back to the actual normal game? This is the final and they have worked hard to get here. It’s no joke.”
“Relax,” says God, “A group of intellectuals is where I thought I could make my point. That’s why I am here.”
So saying He shines the spotlight on a three year old in the audience who is seated on his mother’s lap.
“Little one, what makes you happy and why?”
The little boy flashes a beaming smile. He knows. He jumps down from his mama’s lap and with his chest puffed and tiny palms fisted by his side shouts out,
“Playing with my puppy makes me happy because he makes me laugh.”
“What a wonderful answer! You see this child innately know fun is in the simple act of giving love. A very young child may not share a new toy but walk into a room and he will be the first one to run up to you to give you a hug. All you need is to be like them. Instead you spend the first few years teaching your children to achieve to find happiness and then, they like you spend the next few years trying to escape. Going on a vacation is fun if your intention is to explore a new place and embrace its culture and people, not if you are going to escape the life you created for yourself. Partying is fun if you party to celebrate togetherness not to hit the bottle to forget your problems. Success does not lie in accumulating trophies but in feeling joyful for what you have. It lies in knowing your worth and respecting the other. I’ll leave you now but, in my opinion, the child who understands laughter and connection are what brings true happiness is the winner.”
Wow! You have spent all your parenting life training your children to be adults. You now know you need to un-teach your children so the next time they are in the spelling bee on the sprawling stage of life where they must define fun, they have the right answer. They say, “M- E. Me – I am fun.”
This blog is four years old today. A journey that began on a whim on my 40th birthday with the urge to peek below the surface of those mid-life emotions and touch the fragile and tender core of my heart has brought much richness into my life. Heartfelt connections with all of you, a published book in partnership with my “chaddi” buddy fun filled opportunities like author events, reading to precious little children and learning the craft from other fellow writers. I have always loved to write but shied away from calling myself a writer until now. In this fast paced world where acronyms and emogees transport your thoughts at a lightning pace, you have taken the time out to read my wordy essays and have truly made me a writer. For every article I have penned, I have received beautiful personal messages. These words of encouragement are what keep me going. J K Rowling I may never be but I am now in a lovely space and I am where I am and what I am because of you. So thank you for being the wind beneath my wings as I dare to soar.
A couple of years ago, we were invited to a series of presentations by my son’s class in middle school. The children in the class had been divided into smaller groups of five and each group had to come up with ideas to conduct a birthday party for an eight-year-old in a budget of under $20. The presentations were very impressive. The kids had come up with delightful, thrifty ways to celebrate. Slideshows, venn diagrams, charts, convincing speeches – they did it all. Yet, after my son’s group had finished I was disappointed. It seemed to me that out of the two girls and three boys in their group, it was the girls who had put in the maximum effort. They did all the talking while the boys just answered a few questions. It seemed unfair that the girls had to do most of the work themselves.
After the presentations were done, I walked up to my son and the other two boys who were helping the teacher rearrange the tables and chairs in the room. Unable to mask my disappointment, I gently asked them why they had not helped the girls. “We would have,” one of them said wryly “if they had let us. They refused every suggestion we gave. So, what could we do?” My son shrugged his shoulders and defensively pitted, “At least we typed out everything… though it had to be exactly the way they wanted it.” Hurt, from my accusations, was writ large in his eyes. Just then his teacher walked up to me, “I really enjoy having your son in my class. He is one of the most responsible and helpful students I have taught,” she said, and hugged me.
Now I was thoroughly disappointed but with myself. This was my child. I knew him inside out. I knew he was such a helpful soul yet, the belief that women carry the burden in most scenarios was so deeply ingrained in my mind that I had jumped to the conclusion that the boys had not pitched in.
After the presentation, while I waited outside the classroom to pick up my son, I saw the two girls whisper into each other’s ears and then point to one of the boys in the class and laugh. They then made a snide remark and continued to giggle.
‘Nasty women!’ I thought, angry blood rushing to my head. On the drive back, I narrated the incident to my son. “Those girls are always mean to him, Mom. They make fun of the way he dresses. They think he has no style.”
“Well, doesn’t he stand up to them? He should! And you should have too, when they didn’t let you guys pitch in for the presentation.”
“He says his mom says to never fight the girls. You say that too! So, we just ignore the girls. Anyway, we already have an A in the class. This project didn’t matter so why bother?”
This was not right. It was never about the marks but the fact that the boys had been sidelined. These boys may not have been suave in the fashion sense or tough looking football players, but they were very good kids who deserved to be respected for who they were. In some way I felt responsible for what happened too. This was a very trivial incident, but it made me think. All these years I had taught my firstborn, my daughter, that there was nothing that she needed to shy away from because she was a girl. She could anything a boy could do. I had been super proud of the fact that she was one of the very few girls in her AP physics class in high school. Yet, until that day we had never spoken about respecting the opposite sex.
I wondered if in our times where abuse and rape made headlines every day, we were disseminating the information that this is how the equation always is? Were we stereotyping the men? We teach our girls to fight, to never succumb, but in our attempt to gain equality, were we planting seeds of superiority in the next generation? Not to disregard victims of rape or abuse. Perpetrators of these barbaric crimes must be severely punished to bring about change in society, so our girls can pursue their dreams unafraid. But there is a also a new generation of boys, like my son and his friends, who are respectful and responsible, and we need to look after their interests too. Equality is a delicate balance.
That evening, I found myself talking to my son and daughter about how even though it was important that they should not let anyone, whether boy or girl, treat them in a manner that disrespected them, it was also important to treat the people in their lives with equality and respect. At home or the workplace, they always had to leave room for the other to express. All things being equal, if my daughter ever went out on a date, then it was only fair for her that she pick up or split the tab (with her own money of course, not ours) and if she expected flowers and chocolates and the door to be held open for her, them it was perfectly fine if her partner expected her to serve up a plate of food for him. There always had to be a little give and a little take.
Growing up I felt the pressure from society with the expectation that girls had to nurture their families and prove themselves outside the home. I was very careful to not let my daughter feel that way. Both kids were expected to pursue their dreams and help with kitchen and laundry chores. Now, I wondered if my son felt a similar pressure. We expected our boys to be tough yet romantic, competitive yet chivalrous, protective yet accomadative.
As a mother, there was another issue that surfaced in my mind that evening. If in the future, my daughter relaxed and watched TV while her partner did all the chores, I would not think anything of it at all but if it was my son slogging and his partner was on the couch, it would pinch. So much for equality! I had to first learn to let go of my boy. It was not going to be easy but that was purely my problem. I had a lot of growing up to do myself.
Recently my nephew and his wife welcomed their first baby into the world. My nephew has been wonderful in nurturing and caring for the newborn. Midnight feedings, diaper changes, laundry, talking to the pediatricians, he does it all with pleasure and without being told to. What a gem! This is just one instance. If you have read thus far and know of any wonderful person who breaks the stereotype of misogyny and chauvinism, start a conversation in the comments below to let us know. There is a lot of goodness in the world, we just need to let it surface and acknowledge it so it will grow and hopefully, one day outnumber the evil.
Dedicated to my dear friend Chithra and her lovely son who will always be my son’s best friend, wherever he is.