A Letter to my Ammamma

Dear Ammamma,

For someone who was named Omana (meaning ‘beloved’), you had a rough life. Growing up as a neglected child with a distraught single mother, I imagine you craved the structure and security of a ‘normal family’. Was that what drew you and Baba together – the mutual need for a family?

Whatever the reason, I’m glad you both got married. I’m thankful you were my grandparents. I don’t suppose I ever mentioned it but as a child, I considered your relationship my ideal of a good marriage. Growing up with you meant that I didn’t feel my working parents’ absence as keenly or resent their jobs as much.

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I know that you thought Baba was the center of our collective affection but I don’t think you really noticed how much you meant to us. You were always there, tirelessly working to give your children, and their children, a sense of security. The first thing all of us remember when you’re mentioned is your legendary skill in the kitchen. You probably thought it was commonplace for women in your generation but that was far from true. Every meal you made was laced with love and still remains very hard to replicate.

You loved little rituals around festivals and we were scooped up into that enthusiasm. For Diwali, I remember carrying large trays filled with home-made sweets and savouries to deliver to neighbouring maamis. They were always made from scratch with not a shortcut in sight. Once delivered, the trays were promptly emptied into other vessels and refilled with more sweets and savouries from the maami in question. It went on in that manner as we delivered your goodies from one house to another.

Most Holi celebrations were spent with you meticulously scrubbing brightly-coloured, grubby grandchildren clean one at a time in the bathroom. I’m pretty sure each one of us required large amounts of oil and multiple rounds of shampooing to look like regular kids again. I can’t imagine what that did to your back.

The rituals weren’t just limited to special occasions. Lunch every day was a mini ritual of sorts. Four grandchildren sat cross-legged on the floor around a large plate where you served rice, curry, vegetables, curd and pappadam. You would mix the rice with curry and shape them into small balls, top them off with some form of vegetable thoran and place them in our outstretched little cupped hands from whence they were promptly stuffed into greedy mouths. We would sometimes talk about our day whilst doing this. You would listen to our silly childish experiences as if they were the only events that mattered. I distinctly remember one day I’d come home from school fighting tears because I had missed the chance to be the Head Girl for junior school (5th grade). I was passed over because my parents were relocating to Madras and I would be transferring to another school. Everything felt unfair that day and as I narrated my little-girl woes, hiccuping through tears, you both felt my disappointment as deeply as I did. I suspect only grandparents can do that.

You also made sure we got a healthy dose of discipline when required. I remember being admonished for taking a brush to my curly, unruly hair (the ritual was meant to be oil and comb) or for not concentrating on my daily Bharatanatyam practice. You expected more from me, both of you – academically and in terms of extra-curricular activities. Sometimes I wonder what either of you’d think if you saw my life as a 31-year-old now.

One of the worst parts of growing up is the mistaken assumption that life will wait while one sends that last e-mail or finishes that last item on the never-ending to-do list. I wish I had more time with you as an adult. I’m extremely grateful, though, that you were a part of my wedding. A couple of days before the wedding, I had been a basket of nerves over last-minute details. I feared the worst and there was nothing to do but go into foetal mode and bury my head in your lap. You patted my head gently in a reassuring rhythm and quietly told me not to despair. In retrospect, I think that’s all I’ve needed whenever I’ve felt anxious.

There’s one picture of us hugging on my wedding day which pretty much explains everything – all arms and fly-away strands of hair. No facial features visible, just a tight emotional embrace.

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Even when I saw you the last time a week before you passed away, the enthusiastic love hadn’t waned. I’ll always try to hold on to that memory of your eyes lighting up when you saw me. You almost lunged out of your hospital bed with your arms outstretched while I gingerly hugged you, afraid of dislodging the countless tubes. I suppose a grandmother like you wouldn’t give a hoot about being exposed to infection whilst kissing your grandchildren. We played a video message to you from Prakash. You tried very hard to speak back to the video, blissfully unaware of Mom and I trying to explain that it wasn’t a video call.

Your level of devotion to the family was rare. I’ve met very few people who kept that commitment unwavering despite some hard times. It requires a terribly resilient and forgiving heart, one that loves to laugh. And yet, on 9 January, that battered heart just couldn’t go on anymore.

From being a 15-year-old bride with breath-taking naiveté and beauty, you’ve made a long (and at times arduous) journey. I vividly remember stumbling across an old passport-sized photograph of a 16 year-old village belle version of you and being charmed.

There are many more memories lying buried in my mind. I’m sure they’ll resurface at some unexpected moment and tears will cloud my vision again.

I wish you could have stayed longer. I wish you could have met your great grandchildren. But you were overdue for a fresh start. I’ll look for you, instead, in a twinkling pair of eyes, an enchanting storytelling, a devout pair of hands folded in prayer, a pristine white sphere of melt-in-the-mouth rava laddoo, soft warm bear hugs, luxurious long hair, soft cotton sarees, unabashed noisy kisses and displays of unconditional love.

I hope we were able to show you at some point that you were the quiet, unflinching rock in our lives, the constant source of unconditional love.

Goodbye, beloved.

A Change of Heart

Originally this post was a long, bitter rant about how resistant we’ve become to an intelligent debate and our penchant for devolving into varied versions of sticking out your tongues when logical fails. Having been the recent recipient of sarcasm for having an opinion, I wanted to let it all out. But I’ve decided negativity is not going to be what this blog is about – there’s enough of it everywhere else.

I want, instead, to use this beautiful Sunday afternoon to sip some chamomile tea (our current favorite) and write about all the little energizing things that go unappreciated. Here are a few of my favourite things (a la Sound of Music)

  • A hot, comforting home-cooked meal (especially if my mum’s the one making it!). There’s nothing like it to perk up a crappy day.
  • Some extra lovin’ from the stray puppy I’m obsessed with (I seem to find one everywhere we live!). One particularly unforgettable one was christened Khujlee (the itch) by us – she was itchy the whole darn day. Madam’s sass was the stuff of legends and we loved her to bits.
  • Taking a break from being an adult and ‘vegging out’ on the couch to watch animation movies or cartoon shows (remember Looney Tunes?)
  • Books that are too irresistible to put down until they’re completely read
  • The hypnotic quality of the seaside
  • Babies and toddlers
  • Writing for the love of it
  • Music – the kind that transports you, invigorates you, soothes you
  • Uncomplicated people who exude positive energy
  • Dussehra, Diwali and Christmas
  • Decorative lights!
  • Ugly-sweatshirt-and-jeans days as well as sari-for-a-friend’s-wedding days
  • Conversations with the mister
  • Ideas!
  • Having friends or family come over for dinner or overnight stays (the chilled out non-critical ones)
  • Waking up to a sprouting seed in the garden or a ripened cluster of cherry tomatoes
  • A well-deserved Sunday nap after an especially tough week
  • A brilliant cup of filter coffee
  • Haunting a specific cafe
  • Catching up with an old friend
  • Random, feel-good karaoke sessions when home alone
  • A good movie – anything but horror, please!
  • Hearing Malayalam or Bengali or Tamil being spoken out of the blue

I’m sure there’s more but I’m too sleepy to think straight. Off I go to aforementioned Sunday nap. Have a great holiday season folks!

In Sickness and in health…

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Warning: This is as random as a post can get.

I’m every man’s dream right now (and hopefully you know me well enough to know this comment is dripping with sarcasm). In my jammies, sitting next to a bag of used tissues, snorting and coughing my way through work, listening to an endless loop of Disney songs for comfort. The electric kettle is used relentlessly through the day – green tea with honey, instant soup, hot water with honey, ginger tea with honey, plain hot water….it’s endless. Anyone who visits me around now will be served an endless barrage of soups through the day – pumpkin, carrot, peas, rasam, what-have-you.

In case you haven’t guessed yet, I’m enjoying the annual edition of…..drumrolls……laryngitis!! The voice is in mid-transformation stage. By tomorrow it should be up to squeaky/breathy/hoarsely male. How fun.

Everyone has an illness protocol. The husband’s protocol is get medicines, sleep, wake up to be fed by yours truly, sleep, wake up to clean up, eat, medicines, sleep, repeat. He’s quite an easy patient that way. No whining, no drama. Yes, I really got lucky with him.

I know plenty of people who really up the ante on the dramatic behavior when they’re ill. Ranging from simple attention-seeking to massive soap-opera type histrionics. The illness protocol for them requires an army of strong, well-coordinated, zen-like caretakers who can swat away yelling, screaming, insults with not a care. More often than not, these caretakers end up needing a long vacation after said patient recovers!

Mine usually ranges from a couple of hugs in a day to Whatsapp messages to check on me. If it’s a migraine, I don’t even need that – just food, medicine and a dark quiet room. I remember having food poisoning every semester in Manipal where I did my Masters. I felt most cared for (in that time) the year I lived with M. She kept food ready for me and watched over me without even being asked! Gives me warm, fuzzy feelings every time I think about it 🙂 If you’re reading this, thanks so much Manj. You were the closest thing to having my mum there – and that’s a compliment!

Another ‘sick’ memory I have was when Lady Diana passed away. I was undergoing a massive round of tonsilitis and I remember crying through the telecast of her funeral (yes I was that kid). Armchair parked in front of the television, a sobbing heap of phlegm and tissues. Lovely picture, ain’t it?

I wish I had a dog to cuddle up with, in sickness and in health. Over and out.

In pursuit of authenticity

masks-40963_1280How many times have we felt that a certain person was ‘fake’? Yet, how many more times have we put smiles on our faces when we’re raging inwardly? Or tried to express sincerity when what we wanted most was to be done with that situation or person?

As a content marketer I constantly see instances of brands putting on a charade in order to be the preferred choice. What I’m noticing now is that it’s just an extension of human behaviour. It took me the best of my 30 years of being alive to really understand why people ‘faked it’. To conform, to adhere, to fit in, to be accepted, to be loved.

The irony of that? Inauthenticity is very quickly discernible, like smoke from a fire. We are conditioned to immediately dislike and distrust people who aren’t being authentic. Even if the reality is that the lack of authenticity is caused by some kind of deep need or fear.

At some point I suppose we need to ask ourselves if it is worth being someone other than our true selves just to fit into another’s notion of ‘normalcy’. Were we given the gift of life to be slaves to opinions of those who don’t understand us anyway?

We are who we are, warts and all. We are saints and devils, faithful and dishonest, charitable and malicious, joyful and aching, certain and insecure, all at once. No reason to be anyone other than who we’re meant to be.

Making the connect

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Not too long ago I had to spend a few bored minutes at a store while the husband and I waited for the logistics of our television delivery to be figured out. Ever the product of this restless generation, I sought out the internet’s endless wonders to keep me occupied. It was then that I came across a very funny blog post written by one of my ex-students about me.

Those who’ve known me for a while know that I had once been an assistant lecturer at my alma mater for a brief semester. Although I needed to move on subsequently, it was an experience that opened my eyes to a whole new perspective. For starters, I wasn’t someone who was really expected to go into teaching per se. In fact, some peers even cracked up laughing at the very idea. But here’s the thing – I think I fared reasonably well at it. What’s more, I enjoyed the experience. For a young woman who’s spent all her life being labelled ‘shy’, ‘anti-social’, ‘quiet’ and even ‘cold’ and ‘arrogant’, it was a refreshing (slightly unnerving, even) challenge to be taken out of my comfort zone and thrust in front of classes of 50 or so young girls who were at the threshold of womanhood.

The biggest challenge, and consequently the most rewarding aspect, of teaching for me was to be able to connect to the students. There really is no other way of holding their attention. Having been on the other side, we all know there’s nothing worse than a teacher droning on and on and on without even bothering to check if we’re listening or understanding what is being said. Doesn’t the mere memory of those hours make you yawn uncontrollably?

I wasn’t the most experienced or accomplished lecturer. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been even if I’d chosen to continue teaching. One thing I was sure of was how much I disagreed with the current education system. Our current methodology is still too focused on telling children and young adults  what to think rather than encouraging them to think differently. Young people today are more than capable of memorizing what is in notebooks and then spitting it out onto paper to get high grades. I strongly feel it is high time that teachers began to think about what more they can bring to their students’ lives. Inspiration and mentoring are invaluable additions to bring to the classroom. Ultimately that is what separates a memorable learning experience from just any other session.

With the advent of the internet and easily available information, teachers need to realize that their roles have to evolve as well. It is more about lighting the spark today rather than force-feeding lessons. Helping young people discover their own potential is so much more powerful than bellowing out mindless drivel. In fact, the charming and hilarious blog post that my student had written really revealed what students remember about teachers and what gets filtered out in boredom.

I loved the time I had interacting with my ex-students. They are wonderfully quirky young ladies who are all capable of making their mark in this crazy, competitive world. Some of them are still sweet enough to reach out and say hi once in a while. It really makes my day when they do. It is a reminder of my own potential that I let myself be blinded to thanks to labels and judgment. More than that, it is a reminder of the pure joy that one experiences when one connects with another human being.

The Birthday Manifesto

The supposedly dreaded day is here – my 30th birthday. But honestly I really don’t know what the hype/fuss is about. Why must every person turning 30 quake in their boots and fear the day when old age “officially” hits? Such a waste of time and cognition.

Which is not to say that I don’t love birthdays. I love them as much as the next person and try to milk the opportunity as much as possible to get extra attention from the loved ones. The one day when I can be a brat and get away with it! 🙂

The last year has been a tough one personally. Too many weighty matters culminated at once and the result wasn’t pretty. But on the brighter side, I’m finding my old self again. The one that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about all the excessively free floating opinions. The one who is very sure of what she wants and knows that she will get exactly that, nothing less.

Losing sight of what matters is truly scary. Imagine your navigation system screwing up and showing you the wrong route. So you seemingly do everything you‘re supposed to but still don’t turn up where you intended. Talk about feeling/being disoriented!

What I’ve significantly missed in the last few years is taking time out to do the things I love or taking a minute to remind myself what I love about a certain thing or a certain someone. And I’m not the only one. I know there are enough of us out there who wake up in the morning and can’t remember why we’re going to work at all or why we chose the career we did or, worse, who we are outside of the tightly defined ‘daily routine for grown-ups’. Nothing like a reboot to set that right.

At the end of the day, it really is about cutting through all the crap we tell ourselves and others all day long. We’ve all got too many layers on for the world. It’s great to just peel away the unnecessary ones. Life’s too short to spend it pandering to others’ wishes and being unhappy about negativity that inevitably comes your way.

So in light of all the reflecting that I’ve been doing, a birthday manifesto of sorts seems to be in order.

I will:

  1. Write. Not just for clients but also for myself. I was watching Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara for the zillionth time the other day and one particular scene continues to make me squirm every time. The one where Salman Habib asks Imraan what he does and the latter eagerly says Ad Copywriter. The senior scoffs and says “Apne liye bhi kuchh likhte ho?” or something similar. I’m guessing that line would haunt any creative person who has gotten out of touch with what he/she loves about the craft. It made me realize that I terribly miss writing as a means of self-expression and self-discovery. So that’s that. Back to blogging it is!
  2. Make music. This is something that I specifically labelled as a ‘hobby’ and slowly forgot all about it. So I’m taking it off the shelf, dusting it and reclassifying it as ‘sanity creator’.
  3. Cook. Over the years I’ve got so much grief over what I cook, how I cook, why I cook or don’t cook that it has driven me up the wall. I’m putting a stop to all that and getting back to cooking for the love of flavors and the happiness that a home-made meal brings. Thankfully, the husband is a patient, wonderful person to cook for. Back to mum’s recipe book, it is.
  4. Reach out. Yeah I’m putting an end to that “I’m bad at keeping in touch” bullshit. Enough is enough. Honest efforts henceforth for those who genuinely value my company and want to hear from me (pure gossip-seekers excluded).
  5. Run. So I’ve always had this funny deep-seated urge since school days to train to be a runner. This probably sounds extremely surprising coming from a champion couch potato but I can’t explain it. It’s always been my Everest (considering that I’m extremely flat-footed). I’ve decided that I will get there one way or the other and I will do it now rather than later.
  6. Reconnect. Faith has always been a very very personal thing to me. Dictating that I should pray only in a certain way because I follow a particular religion seems like tyranny to me. Shouldn’t that be between my maker and me? I prefer to believe that my maker will hear me no matter how I choose to communicate. So yeah, the next time you want to tell me that I’m bowing my head wrong or not praying right, chances are that you’ll receive a tight smile and arm’s length distance for a while.

I will NOT:

  • Indulge Negative Nancies. While seeking me out for support and to connect is great, making me the target of your pent up frustrations, disappointments and multi-level political plotting is not. So unless there’s some modicum of respect coming my way, there’s no way I’m making time for energy vampires anymore. The door is firmly shut.
  • Get sucked into the Rat Race. The past year I’ve felt incredible pressure to keep up with the rest of the world. There’s nothing worse to make one feel crappy. We were all meant to be weird and wonderful, not desperately copy and compete. None of that for me anymore.
  • Try to please/ Worry about opinions. This one in particular has been a MASSIVE time-waster for me. Logically, though, it makes no sense. Why would you want people in your life who never seem to be able to accept who you really are? What you see is now what you get. Take it or leave it.
  • Criticize myself till kingdom come. Another horrible habit that’s kicked my ass in the last three decades. We put ourselves through so much scrutiny as it is and then go on to beat ourselves up for not “being perfect” or “having perfect lives like X”. Sheesh. Like Donna and Tom say in Parks and Recreation, “Treat yo’self!”
  • Settle/Compromise. Not in work, relationships or any other facet of daily life. How much time do we all think we have to just squander it away in anything less than what we want?
  • Allow fear to stop me.

So that seems like a nice, long, hopefully executable list for the decades to come 🙂 I’m calling it quits with all the bullshit that is in great abundance these days.

Here’s to more living, loving, learning and blogging!

On being nice

If there was one distinct instruction that stands out in my memory from childhood, it was ‘be nice’. No matter what the situation or who the person involved, just be nice. Don’t be short tempered, be more patient. Those bits of advice were probably meant in a certain context, but human beings almost never seem to interpret things the way they are intended. I realize now that I’ve ended up being nice when I’ve been seething with rage, helped out people who have sabotaged me and generally applied the advice in the dumbest ways possible. Not that I’m trying to imply that I’m saintly (far from it actually!). But I’ve been unfair to myself while trying to ‘be nice to others’.

Have you ever felt like you’ve been in a situation where you’ve done more than you thought you were capable of, only to have it end in major disappointment for you? What was the point of stretching yourself like that anyway?

In the past decade, I’ve met a lot of people who have made me feel like being ‘nice’ is the worst disservice you can do to yourself. It is confusing, time-consuming, stressful and meaningless at the end of it all. People are going to perceive and treat you in a certain way not just based on your interactions, but to a large extent also based on their understanding of life. So what is the point in trying so hard?

Not too long ago, I had a particularly bad phase where I just couldn’t get a balanced hold of things. I went far far out of my way to create a certain impression (or so I thought). Unsurprisingly, the whole damned thing went badly. I wanted to be considered as having a specific set of capabilities (which I now know I have naturally and needn’t have tried so hard) and have in all probability ended up being thought of as someone to be avoided.

At the end of it all, what bothers me isn’t the unfortunate perception that was created but the fact that I felt betrayed. There’s nothing worse than not being honest to yourself about who you are and what matters to you. I’ve always been a quietly passionate person. Instead, I became a loud, overtly emotional, slightly crazed machine that tolerated bullshit.

Maybe being genuine is way better than being nice all the time. To do things because you believe in them and not because that is what is expected of you.  To understand that no matter who you are or what you choose to believe in, you are inextricably a part of the cosmic fabric. To be fair to yourself and others, even if it means you aren’t welcomed with open arms. It’s the only way anything makes sense.