The Day we Became Parents

Childbirth is simultaneously magical, beautiful and terrifying. It is arguably the most unforgettable day in a woman’s life.
For me that day came exactly one year and six months ago.
The date was March 23, 2018. I had got admitted in the hospital the previous evening.
My doctor had announced a few days ago that the baby was ready to come out and since there was no sign of labor as yet, we would be inducing it. “If the baby’s decided to be lazy, lets show her who’s boss!” she had joked as I had let out a nervous chuckle.
And so it was that I found myself prepped, in hospital scrubs and laying on a hospital bed, tethered to an IVY drip while staring at a television set that was pumping out old bollywood songs as if in a half-hearted effort to rid me of the nervousness that had gripped my being. My husband sat on a seat close by, his face relaying the excitement while his fidgety fingers gave the anxiety away.
After a long wait, the junior doctor appeared and gave me a tablet to be placed under my tongue. It was the trigger that would jump start the labor pains. Nothing happened for a few hours. Somewhere between 3 and 4 am, I felt the first pangs of pain. A blunt tingle at first that slowly but surely escalated to an excruciating pain that is symptomatic of full blown labor. With my husband now by my bedside, clutching my hand, or rather allowing me to use his hands as the proverbial punching bags of my pain, we surreptitiously aided each other through these moments that felt like we were on a rollercoaster ride of out-of-control emotions. All we could do was ride out the pain, the wait and the anxiety together. He attempted to crack some jokes to distract me. I attempted to humour him with a half-baked smile or two.
Until I gave up and finally demanded that epidural that my mother and I had so fervently argued over. We had been told the baby would not make an appearance till noon the next day. I was convinced that no amount of comedy and finger squeezing was going to keep the erupting volcano of pain from retreating any time soon. A pain relieving magic drug at this point would be just what the doctor ordered. (pun intended).
Almost as soon as the epidural had been administered by way of two injections in my back, the junior gynecologist came around for a routine checkup and succeeded in creating a ruckus by declaring that I was now quite further along already which meant the revised ETA of the baby was now within the next hour. It was 8 am!
My heart began to pound in my chest like a hammer being struck repeatedly on a nail in the wall. From the expression on my husband’s face it looked like the hammer in his chest was perhaps a little larger and louder than the one in mine. My doctor was summoned immediately and in the mean time I was prepped to start pushing momentarily right here in the waiting room. There was apparently no time to whisk me away to the delivery room.
There was no time for emotional outbursts either. That would have to wait till later.
Right now we had to focus our collective energies on getting this tiny human out of me on this hospital waiting bed.
But the lazy baby had decided it had other plans.
When my doctor arrived in a frenzy, mirroring the alarmed expression that the rest of her team wore (no one was expecting this baby so early), everyone sprung into action as she commandeered the troops to get in position and for me to begin the pushing. The show had begun.
The pregnancy journey is unarguably a daunting one that climaxes as a baptism by fire towards motherhood. During this time, the choice of doctor for every woman is an important one. It is a choice that sees not only the professional qualifications of the medical practitioner being weighed and pitted against others but also in equal measure, the warmth, compassion, empathy and positivity being exuded by them and successfully managing to dispel pangs of panic that tend to arise. I had been lucky enough to be placed in the hands of a young, brilliant, no-nonsense, cut and dry reponses kind of woman who was completely in control of a room and every one in it. Dressed in young,quirky clothes and neon nailpolish that ostensibly drew me to her at a personally relatable level too, I watched as she barked orders intermittently while in the middle of patiently explaining reports, results and situations. A reassuring cocktail of relief and confidence washed over me.
So when she arrived and sat down next to me on the bed, her eyes expressing both urgency and warmth in equal measure, I felt like the relay race had started and I held the baton in my hand, the finishing line now visible in the distance.
Little did we know that our showstopper wanted nothing less than a grand entrance.
Minutes passed and suddenly the junior doctor pointed to the ultrasound screen that had been set up behind me. The doctor stared at the screen and suddenly the room was awash with a din of incomprehensible medical jargon being thrown around like a football between all the medical personnel. My husband was asked to leave the room which made his face turn a ghostly white. A little panic-stricken myself, I looked questioningly at the woman whose authoritative demeanor could put military men to shame. “The head is stuck. The heartbeat is dropping, we have to move now!”
That familiar drum in my chest began to beat again as the room was prepped to whisk me away to another room. I still had no idea what was coming next. She didn’t say so. But something in her voice and expression extinguished my panic and also the urge to ask more questions. The situation was under control and strangely excitement had overtaken anxiety. As my gurney was whisked away to another floor, a nurse calmly told me that an emergency C-section had been authorized as the baby’s heartbeat was dropping and so they needed to operate without further delay. I requested them to inform my husband who was still waiting for an update.
After what felt like an eternity in a waiting area just outside the operation theater, being fussed over by nurses, the doctor appeared again. I saw her explaining the situation at hand to my visibly nervous husband at the entrance of the room. He glanced over at me and I smiled to let him know that it was all going to be okay and there was nothing to worry about. I gave him a thumbs up and I saw him smile and nod back. But he didnt stop pacing up and down the corridor.
I knew he wouldnt stop till the very end.
What happened next was all a beautiful, magical blur. As my gurney was whisked away for a final time inside the operation theater, the team of doctors now dressed in hospital scrubs flanked me on all sides. The doctor apologized to me for not allowing my husband inside the room as there had been no time to prepare him to do so. I assured them that this was not a problem and they should carry on with the more important task at hand!
The anesthesia had been administered and soon I couldn’t feel any part of my body from the neck down. A surreal, most unforgettable half an hour followed wherein my doctor and I chatted about common people we knew that she had operated upon in the recent past while she began to open me up We could just as well have been two chatty women catching up over a cup of coffee. As time passed, I remember feeling very thirsty and with a dry mouth pleading with the doctors standing behind me to pour some water in my mouth. They laughed good naturedly and said they would get into trouble for doing that. But eventually I won that battle. Somewhat.Some water soaked cotton was squeezed in my mouth.
My heart was pounding harder in my chest. This time it was out of impatience. I couldn’t wait to see this little bundle that had so wholly occupied my body and mind for the past nine months. This little person that had miraculously taken shape inside me. A biological marvel of the human body.
At last, the sound of a crying baby filled the room. And my eyes brimmed.
As they whisked away this little vision in white to one side of the room, cleaned and dressed him, my brimming eyes spilled over.
And then they brought him to me near my cheek as the rest of my body was still immovable. Overcome with joy and something else I cant quite describe, I laughed out loud. He was finally here.
The emotional roller-coaster of the day took me for a last ride while I was parked in the recovery room.
As my husband’s beaming smile met mine we knew that just like that, life as we knew it was over. It was time to step on a new roller coaster. This one was going to be one hell of a ride!
.

Much Ado About Marriage

She opened her bleary eyes when the cat, all seven pounds of squirming flesh, climbed onto her belly. Squinting into the sunlight streaming in from the open window, she discovered that she was now the weary possessor of a pounding headache, and at some point, had managed to lose both a tooth and a spouse.

Running her fingers lazily through the cat’s thick, soft fur, Mira lay back in bed and let the defiance of her body to move an inch triumph over her acceptance of the morning and the memory of the past twenty-four hours. While her head pounded, it was not a patch on the way her heart hurt. As she glanced to her left at the empty bed next to her, a tear streamed down her cheek.

Mira and Dhiraj Chowdhary had been married for eleven years. To say that it had been a smooth ride throughout would be a gross miscarriage of the truth. Nothing about the union of these two people had been ordinary, right from the beginning. A little over thirteen years ago, a young, eighteen year-old Mira Malhotra (at the time) had been driving home from her best friend’s place in Bandra in Mumbai, enormously hungover after a wild party. All she wanted to do was douse herself in big cups of coffee and dollops of ice cream and get in to bed in the hope of extinguishing the beating of hell that her head seemed to be receiving mercilessly.

Instead, as if on queue, her car began to sputter and then the engine shut off and the car came to a stop by the side of the road. It was 8 AM in the morning when the skies were only just beginning to reveal the first rays of the rising sun and the roads were largely empty.

Just when she had finished groaning and pacing up and down wondering what to do, her knight in shining armor pulled up next to her in a shiny motorbike to save the day.

The rest as they say, was history. Dhiraj Chowdhary fixed a broken down car one morning, unaware of the fact that this act of kindness was to earn him a girlfriend and eventually a wife after a two-year long dating period.

The wedding affair itself had not been without its fair share of obstacles. To begin with, Mira’s orthodox parents had not been the most approving of her choice of spouse. The motorbike-riding, long haired and unshaven Dhiraj whose under-whelming job was as a Car Salesman had not found any favors in the Malhotra household. But the adamant and deeply-in-love Mira’s decision had prevailed and the begrudging senior Malhotras had been left with no choice but to surrender to the whim of their only child.

As Mira reflected on their beginnings on this bright sunny morning, the light seemed very different. As if suggestive of the devastation that had taken place this weekend and a final blow to the happier light in their relationship’s formative years.

It all started with Dhiraj’s perpetual habit of forgetfulness that was the epitome of irritation these days in Mira’s life. For the past year her husband, not the most organized of human beings, had started to forget a lot of pertinent, though seemingly minor things that had begun to irk Mira. From forgetting to pick up the flowers she had ordered to forgetting to get the groceries, or simply forgetting to call the plumber, they mostly resulted in only minor upsets but the number of these upsets had been going up and in recent times, had resulted in many an argument and even larger shouting matches.

This weekend, however, had been unforgivable. It was Friday afternoon and their five-year-old daughter Diya was at school while Mira was busy with important work meetings. Being an architect, she was immersed in two big projects simultaneously. Dhiraj had promised to pick up their daughter from school, drop her home with the babysitter and then run and do the groceries for the party they were throwing later in the evening for Mira’s birthday. Mira was looking forward to the end of the week after an unusually exhausting few days.

She was on her way to a client’s office at the other end of town when she got a text from Dhiraj. “Heading out to meet some of the guys for some tennis. Will pick up Diya after.”

She glanced at her watch. There was time. “Okay”, she replied and got back to work.

Two hours later Diya’s phone rang in the middle of her meeting. It was Diya’s school. School was over and no one had come to pick her up. She was crying. Diya glanced at her watch again. Dhiraj was a half hour late. “We will be there soon!” she promised and hung up. She tried Dhiraj’s number a few times but there was no answer.

She panicked. “I’m so sorry but I have to run. Can we pick this up later?” she pleaded with the client who was looking visibly unhappy. She flew out of the building, got in her car and raced towards Diya’s school.

A rage was building inside her. She knew she couldn’t think about it right now or it would explode.

Picking up and consoling a howling Diya forty-five minutes later, Mira reached home. Furious now, she left Dhiraj many messages and then went for a long shower. She suddenly remembered the groceries. As she picked up her car keys again, her phone buzzed. It was a text from Dhiraj. “So sorry! Got caught up with something, hope you managed to get Diya. I’ll do the groceries on my way, leaving now.”

She replied with a simple, “Don’t bother.”

The rage inside her had grown and turned into a seething ball of fury. Mira could, for the first time, feel the languishing thread that had become her marriage and she knew if this continued, the thread would snap. But she couldn’t let her parents have the last laugh. This was her choice and she had to somehow see it through.

The evening passed in silence when Dhiraj finally got home. He followed her around the house like a puppy trying to apologize and explain that his friend needed some urgent assistance which had been the cause of the transgressions of yesterday but Mira was too angry to even look at him, let alone respond. Eventually he stopped trying.

When the guests arrived, Mira and Dhiraj behaved as if nothing untoward had transpired in the last twelve hours but they avoided speaking to each other as much as they could.

The next morning Mira was woken by the sound of a phone call and Dhiraj’s voice murmuring into his phone. He hung up briefly and came and sat next to Mira on the side of the bed. “Babe, I’m so sorry for yesterday. I will make it up to you, I promise. I’m just going for a run. Will be back soon.” He kissed her on the forehead. Mira nodded without meeting his gaze and pulled the sheets over herself again. She was tired and drifted into a deep sleep again.

Her phone rang again at 12 noon. Diya had come into her room with her dolls and climbed on her stomach. Kissing her daughter on the cheek, she answered her phone. It was her mother. Her father had had a heart attack and was being rushed to the hospital. Her heart pounded in her chest and she lost her voice. She managed a muffled “I’m on my way” and hung up. Grabbing Diya, she hastily put on her shoes, grabbed the car keys and dialed Dhiraj’s number from the car. No answer.

The anger from the previous day returning, she flung her phone aside and kept driving.

In the hospital, she barged into the room that had been allocated to her father, with Diya in tow.

Seeing her father strung up to what looked like a gazillion tubes, his body looking unusually frail and different, Mira couldn’t help herself. She broke down and cried. As her mother leant forward and hugged her, she gently asked, “Where’s Dhiraj?”

I have no idea, Ma.” And then she cried some more.

He’s going to be alright, darling. Don’t worry. The doctors said he will be fine.”

They all spent the whole day together in that hospital room, sitting in silence while her father rested. The doctors wanted to keep him for observation for the night.

Mira returned home at 5 PM in the evening with Diya. As she walked into the house she saw Dhiraj sitting in the living room, legs crossed nonchalantly, loudly discussing football with a buddy on the phone.

Something inside Mira, like the thread that had reached the final, frivolous sliver of its strength, finally snapped.

Shutting Mira in her room, she came back to face Dhiraj who had now got off the phone and was asking her where she was.

I want a divorce.” With a calm voice she delivered the blow as she set about picking up Diya’s toys from the floor and packing things into two suitcases.

What are you talking about? Come here…lets talk…..”

Don’t touch me and I don’t want to talk! Because you are never around, Dhiraj! Do you even know where I have been today? Do you even answer my phone calls? My father had a heart attack!”

Mira had unleashed her fury that had manifested itself in the form of screams that were emanating from her entire being, not just her mouth.

A shouting match ensued that only reaffirmed the fact that there was no room for course correction. There was no coming back from this space, this ugly turning point in their marriage. No matter how much Dhiraj’s screams of defense turned into pleading sobs for second chances and empty promises in the heat of the moment, it was all to no avail. Desperate to make her see reason, he clasped her arm tightly and tried to pull her towards him. “Just listen to me, damn it….” But Mira was quick to respond and pushed him so hard that he fell on the glass table that shattered on the floor and took him down with it.

In a rage of his own now, Dhiraj bounced back up and instinctively, delivered a fierce blow on the side of Mira’s face. The blood rushed out instantly.

Shocked and crying now, Mira stared into Dhiraj’s eyes for a long time before quietly turning around, packing up some of her clothes and Diya’s belongings, picking up her daughter and walked wordlessly out of the house. This time Dhiraj did not stop her.

Jolted out of her thoughts of the events of the weekend by her parents’ cat who had now decided to jump off her belly and run off, Mira looked around her childhood room in her parents’ house where she was living for the time being with Diya.

Yes, the light in her post-war world felt very different from the light that used to stream into their own, loving home, pre-war. It was lonelier now, and less sonorous.

The pain in her gums returned as she was reminded of the tooth she had lost as a result of the blow to her face by her husband’s hand. Her husband had hit her!

She couldn’t believe that any of this was real. And yet here she was. Her parents had been right all along. She had lost and they had won.

As she finally heaved herself off the bed, she crossed a side table that held a framed picture of Dhiraj and her on their wedding day. How happy they looked.

She removed the picture from the frame, tore it in half and threw it in the bin as she made her way out of the door.

 

Much Ado About “Bhindi”

It’s one of the few vegetables that my siblings and I did not dramatically resist eating in our childhood. In fact, to my delight I was to learn the many different ways in which this green queen of Indian vegetables – Lady Finger as it has been christened in the English language, could be cooked and eaten. The dry, fried, uncut version was always my favorite.

My cousin, a devout foodie and very particular about the way he likes his food cooked would insist upon the “Judi Hui Bhindi.” (The uncut version) My husband, however is a staunch fan of the traditional cut style.

Having admittedly never really cooked anything but pasta and Maggi noodles before marriage, my novel adventure down this path of Indian cooking commenced with this very vegetable. My husband’s work moved us many miles overseas to Germany where while the sausages were delicious, our Indian khaana called out every so often. It became clear that I would have to get on board this train sooner rather than later. And so out came the YouTube videos and before we knew it, we had declared Bhindi easy to cook. After the first burnt attempt, of course.

We now live in the UAE where the luxury of part time cooks comes as easy as the ‘desi’ population. So it happened that Mr. Singh ( ‘Maharaj Ji’) as my elderly Rajasthani cook is reverentially called began to grace our kitchen once a week.

We had soon grown attuned to each other’s ways and I would promptly do my grocery shopping in time for his weekly Sunday visit. One day, he called me to the kitchen. Ninety percent of the Bhindi I had purchased had been placed in a plastic bag and placed prominently in one corner. The remaining frugal amount was on the chopping board which he was staring at with a pensive frown.

On seeing me, he let his frustration loose verbally.  Apparently I had purchased Bhindi incorrectly. My mouth fell open as he proceeded to curtly reprimand me on the faulty Bhindi that in his opinion was now a waste and was going to make its way to the trash. Using his index finger he animatedly began to explain to me how I had not tested the tip of each Bhindi adequately enough.

My insistence that I had indeed, tested the Bhindi was met with an expression of visible disbelief.

And so it transpired that after another similar chiding session and having to witness another ruthless “trashing” of my hard-bought Bhindi, I decided to hand over the stressful task to the great Maharaj himself. He was now to buy the Bhindi on his way each time we wanted to eat it.

Just when I was crossing off this line item of domestic stress from my list, content in the knowledge that this was no longer my problem, he called me promptly one day from Carrefour, one of the larger grocery store chains to announce that from the mountainous heap of Bhindi that Carrefour generously offered its patrons, not one piece merited a purchase.

Perplexed, I dared to ask, “Are you sure? Not even one?” and I almost bit my tongue when I was berated once again on the importance of buying “the best” Bhindi and how any compromise on this topic was unacceptable.

We ate Gobhi instead of Bhindi that day.

Bhindi continues to be a staple in our meals. And the great ‘Maharaj’ continues to be a staple in my life once a week. At least the Lady and all her Fingers are being vetted by the Lord himself!

Of Hill-station friendships

High up in the foot hills of the Himalayas, perched atop winding roads and steeped residential hill dwellings is the town of Shimla where my grandfather had rented out an apartment in a building owned by the Cecil Hotel many moons ago.

This apartment was our home away from home (Chandigarh), for many years during the school summer holidays. From the mall walks to the horse-back riding that would make our day – my siblings and I having picked out our favorite ones by name – to even catching glimpses of the relentless monkeys trying to steal bananas from our kitchen, it was a sort of hall pass to heaven for us.

My parents soon befriended a retired army Colonel who resided in the neighboring apartment. He came up to Shimla often and stayed here with his German Shepherd, Buddy. Needless to say, Buddy found himself some enthusiastic company in three eager, inherently dog-loving children next door and every morning the front garden would come alive with us chasing him while Buddy would show off his perfect training while playing Catch.

The magnanimous Cecil hotel loomed large across the road from us. Our building was annexed to it through a cavernous underground tunnel. Having read enough Enid Blyton adventure novels, the prospect of venturing through this forbidden tunnel was the epitome of temptation as far as a curious thirteen-year old was concerned.

One day there emerged from the stairs going down towards the tunnel, a young girl, about my age clutching a raggedy doll with all her might, accompanied by her guardian. It was love at first smile.

Soon I found myself having surreptitiously ventured down the stairs and into her home which was located in the basement, just a stone’s throw away from the end of the stairwell.

Henceforth, we were inseparable. The parents, now in the know, had sanctioned supervised visits and our friendship blossomed. I do not remember her name but I will never forget the image and often, the whiff of memory of the time, the place and that grinning raggedy doll.

The adventure of the tunnel was soon forgotten and the days began to fill with the newly acquired “buddies”. Both Buddy the dog and the girl with the raggedy doll became our friends in the hills, just as the Colonel become a friend and confidante for my parents.

And then one day our affair with the hills came to a halt and before we knew it, so did our childhood.

Eighteen years later, I am filled with pangs of nostalgia not only for the cool winds, the mall road walks and the horse -back riding that is now so etched in my childhood memories.

I am also reminiscent of those brief friendships with strangers that remain a large part of these treasured memories of adventures up the hills that feel like they occurred in another lifetime.

Sometimes it is strangers that make a difference to our lives without even knowing it. Sometimes it is those close to us who become strangers before we even realize it.

Perhaps a trip up the hills once in a while can reaffirm our belief in life and its people while we breathe in a different kind of mountain air.

The Lesson

He was my hero. And I was convinced he was immortal.

That morning I went to his room and sat with him while he prepared for his breakfast of milk and porridge. He stared into the distance while he ate, slowly. A sudden cough broke the silence and as I leaned forward to help, it felt like something in the room had changed. I looked closer at him and I felt my stomach churn. I couldn’t breathe. My grandfather had turned snow white.

He was gone.

For 14-year old me, the lesson was learnt in profound grief – even heroes fall sometimes.

Punjabi and Proud

(Published in The Tribune , India)

I was on a flight back from London to Delhi a few years ago, on my way home to Chandigarh. Not one for idle chit chat on long flights, I settled in with my book and the excitement of going home for the holidays. (I was a postgraduate student at the time in the UK).

As our readiness for departure was announced and I was giving myself a mental fist-bump for being the proud owner of an empty seat next to me, an ample-bodied, turban-clad ‘paaji’ came and perched himself on the empty seat. With a sinking feeling, I silently prayed that my neighbor shared my fondness for a silent, peaceful journey.

Alas, no such luck. ‘Paaji’ presently introduced himself and that was the end of my reading. Dan Brown would just have to wait a little longer to reveal to me what buried secret Robert Langdon had just unearthed.

“Tussi Kithon?” he enquired after my home-town.

“Chandigarh”, I replied. “Tussi kithon?” I decided to humor him. After all, there was no escaping the Punjabi prowess of persistent small talk.

“Ludhiana. Oye, Chandigarh!” His face lit up and before I knew what was happening, he had called out to “Jassi and Pinky” seated at the front of the cabin, across from us, evidently forgetting that it was a public space. In a frenzied diarrhea of words, he relayed to the family that a fellow Punjabi had been found and the hoots of applause followed suit.

But I couldn’t help smiling. You can take a Punjabi out of Punjab but you can’t take Punjab out of a Punjabi. Even on a 7-hour long Virgin Atlantic flight from London. Under the mask of embarrassment, I was proud.

Some more animated chit chat ensued that revealed that the enormous Paaji family were residents of Canada and were on their way home for some “sarso da saag te makki di roti” time.

I suppose that was another thing we had in common. Punjabi food was irreplaceable.

By the time the captain announced our descent towards Delhi I had been showered with a generous helping of laddoos and an invitation to their house in Ludhiana. I thanked them profusely and proceeded to reciprocate their hospitable invitation. I felt like I was home already.

We talked some more and he asked me about my plans after my studies. I reluctantly conveyed my desire to get a job in London, though it was laced with a confusion of what it was I really wanted to do. He said everyone figures it out eventually and it would come to me too.

Paaji, in a revelatory mood, confided that Canada may have been home for many years but Ludhiana was where his heart was.  As I reflected on this, I realized that we were no different in this – he and I.

I have been living away from home for many years too. I have met some wonderful people and been acquainted with myriad cultures and traditions but nowhere in the world can one match the hospitality of a Punjabi family.

If you are a fellow Punjabi, you qualify for a free laddoo and a heart-warming story. As I de-boarded and bid Paaji and his family adieu, he handed me a slip of paper.

“God bless you”, he whispered in Punjabi.

With a full heart and a lingering smile I walked away and glanced at the slip of paper.

In a penciled hand, Paaji had written his address in Ludhiana and at the bottom, three words:

“Sada Safal raho.” (May you be successful always.)

An Ode to a City that will always be Home

It was just another Saturday. At least, it started out that way.
After a lazy afternoon of beers and banter at the magnificent St. Regis Hotel that faced Saadiyat island’s inviting sandy beach, accentuating the stunning blue of the ocean, some down time on my couch seemed like the perfect next step.
While I headed home to snuggle into my couch in front of the TV for a while, the boys (my husband and his friend) decided to keep the beers coming and make their way to another bar. I decided to catch up with them a little later.
After a much-needed siesta and recharged for a night out, I got dressed and left for Coopers later in the evening, a popular weekend bar in the city. As the taxi began making its way, weaving through Saturday night traffic, that familiar nostalgia swept over me again and I let my thoughts wander to the city that had been home for the last two years and the friends that had become family. Night outs without our motley group would never be the same.
Munich had been our home for the last two years before we moved to Abu Dhabi early this year. We adjusted to our new reality with new dreams in our eyes but heavy hearts yearning for the old friends who had been left behind. A large gang of impressively mixed and diverse nationalities, each with their own unique traits, backgrounds and lifestyles, stories and struggles, wit and wisecracks that defined each one of us, and yet all miraculously fit together like pieces of a large, global puzzle. One big happy multi-national family. The thread that bound us together had the same name in every country, religion and culture. It is called Friendship.
Love and friendship – words that are being trampled on today by hate, violence, murder and blood baths – an escalating satanic epidemic that seems to literally be sweeping across the world city by city and in a spate of horrific acts, felling men, women and children faster than the fall of dominoes.
It has already become hard to open one’s twitter account or news site without noticing that the number one trending item almost every morning is a city that had just been attacked. The body counts are going up and the fabric of humanity seems to be withering away, one gunshot or stab-wound at a time.
The taxi pulled up with a sudden stop outside Coopers and pulled me out of my reverie.
I could hear the din of the music from inside the bar. It sounded great and my spirits lifted a little. A little song, dance and liquid courage was just what I needed.

As I entered the bar and made my way through the crowd, the DJ blasted a familiar tune with ample bass and the bar had transformed into a club, packed to capacity. I found my husband and our friend who was visiting from Munich at the bar and joined them. Ready for a great night and having ordered a cocktail I flippantly picked up my phone to browse through it quickly for any important messages before I retired it in my handbag.

That’s when I saw it. And I felt my heart stop.
“Shooting in Munich shopping mall, 7 dead”
A teenager had shot and killed 7 people in Olympia Park shopping center and wounded several others. The shopping center was just a few kilometers away from where we had lived. I had a lump in my throat the size of a peach. It was suddenly hard to breathe.
I looked up at my husband who had just read the same piece of news and was staring disbelievingly at his phone. We were still shaking our heads in shock when the second shoe dropped a few minutes later.
“Firing heard at Marienplatz metro station in Munich”
Even in that crowded bar with piercingly loud music and swarms of people around us, the three of us were suddenly alone and grappling with the weight of this news. The city that gave us its all, the city that unflinchingly opened its doors and its hearts to the thousands of migrants and refugees that flooded its streets, and was going to be ‘home’ for us for far longer than it really was, had become today’s victim in the on-going game of violence and terror. We didn’t want to believe it was true.
The three of us sat at that bar sipping our drinks in silence and at a complete loss of words while the world around us danced to the DJ’s tunes. We couldn’t join them and we couldn’t leave. The tears came to me without warning as the body count increased to nine and as I wiped them away, we raised our glasses to the city that taught us the value of love and friendship, surpassing countries, cultures and color of skin. The city that gave without expecting anything back and brought countries together by knitting their people together as one family.
As I watched the people around me having the time of their lives, so many people together in one big room, ushered in by their love for music, friendship and each other, I wondered about those who converge together around the world in a similar way, with the common deep-rooted desire of spreading hatred and death. Perhaps their DJ, their song and dance is a different one.

Just before we finally decided to call it a night, we raised another glass – to the families of those who had lost their lives – for their loss may be insurmountable but the city of Munich will mend their broken hearts and help them to learn to love again – within its borders and beyond.

Are you Indian or Pakistani? Why it shouldn’t matter

(Published in Dawn: http://www.dawn.com/news/1256207/are-you-indian-or-pakistani-why-it-shouldnt-matter )

Born to a Hindu father and a Sikh mother, I grew up in a family that embraces multiple religions and beliefs. Every Gurpurab(Sikh festival), we would go to the nearby Gurudwara to bow our heads and every Janmashtami (the birth of Hindu deity Krishna), we would go to a Hindu temple.

I wouldn’t say that we were a deeply religious family — perhaps what I grew up practising was just a function of what trickles down the familial hierarchy, spanning generations, and eventually catches up with you.

Stories of the eleven Sikh Gurus, the Mahabharata and theRamayana — that were a mandatory part of our academic curriculum right up till middle school and the idea of God and him ‘watching us’ — formed the premise of my moral upbringing and education in my formative years.

Having grown up with an amalgamated idea of God, the hard-hitting realities of different religions and religious wars that are rife today were things that eluded the conspicuousness of my daily life, like background music.

I hailed from what is today the ‘Indian Punjab’ (even though my grandparents are originally from Lahore). I didn’t have much interaction with Muslims, perhaps because there were very few to be found in my school.

It was not until I joined the University of Nottingham in England in 2007 for my post-graduate studies did I have the opportunity to befriend many Muslims, not to mention also reside in the same student halls with some of them.

Anyone studying abroad will tell you that one of the most exciting and enriching experiences is the hordes of expatriate students you get to interact with — people from all parts of the world whom you meet and live with under one roof, and ostensibly learn so much from about new cultures, traditions and lifestyles.

One of the very first people I met in my postgraduate student hall was a boy from Lahore whose sense of humour was as alarming as it was a riot.

Very quickly, he became an in-house entertainer for the entire building. Owing to the obvious overlap of culture and languages between us, we soon became fast friends and as it turned out, were also in many of the same classes.

A prankster, he would often find himself in a pickle with our house wardens who made it abundantly clear from the beginning that they were not his fans.

It made me like him even more. I would often have long chats with him and another Muslim girl who had moved in two doors down from me on my floor. We would converse on politics, Kashmir and India-Pak conflicts. Their views and sentiments, I found, were mostly aligned with my own.

He would say, “It’s the political parties and governments in power on both sides of the border that are spewing most of the trouble. My friends, family and many common people, like us, often discuss how sad it is that we harbour an unnecessary hatred towards those who are fundamentally our own.”

She would nod in agreement and then laugh and say, “Your Bollywood movies have made me fall in love with dancing around trees.”

To which I would respond,” You have Fawad Khan!”

If only these were the kind of conflicts both India and Pakistan had to spar about…

I cherish those memories even today while day dreaming at the back of a taxi in Abu Dhabi, where I live today.

I am snapped out of my reverie by my taxi driver Ajmal Khan who asks me: “Madame, you are British?” (Something I get to hear a lot here, including all those who are fair-skinned)

I smile and reply in Hindi, “Hindustani hoon. Aur aap?”

After a shocked silence, he quips: “Pakistani. Ek hi baat hai na lekin?”

This is common in Abu Dhabi. Most of the taxi drivers are from India, or Pakistan. They are also the friendliest.

An appeal for Indo-Pak peace

Recently a video has gone viral on social media, stunning everyone who has watched it into introspective silence.

In the video, a young girl named Gurmehar Kaur from Jalandhar, Punjab — who lost her father at the tender age of 2 in the Kargil War — has implored the governments of both India and Pakistan to stop bloodshed and hatred-spreading one-upmanship and resolve problems once and for all.

Through a series of placards, Kaur conveys how she hated Pakistan and Muslims whom she blamed for her father’s loss. It was her mother who made her understand that it was not Pakistan that killed her father, but war.

I’m reminded of an incident that took place at my university one busy morning in 2008.

We were in the midst of our morning routine of rushing to get ready for class when we learnt that a Muslim student at one of the campuses of our university had been arrested for using the computers on the premises to research topics relating to terrorism and extremist outfits.

The boy was put behind bars for about a week, while investigations were carried out. He was later released after it became clear that he had downloaded the manual for a thesis he was writing for his course which had no connection with terrorism.

I remember how I feared for my own two Pakistani friends, even though the incident was far removed from them. The gravity of that situation brings me spiralling back to the flawed perception rife today of how terrorism is associated with Pakistan.

In equal measure, it is immensely unfortunate how religion becomes a tool for misuse. From the Muslim beef-lynchingepisode in India to the Hindutva hue and cry rampant today to the BJP’s insistence that Indians must shout ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’ as evidence of their patriotism, it is incidents like these which give birth to societies, governments and countries that may very well be on their way to full-fledged fascism.

Instead of this overt display of nationalism and hate, why can’t we reconcile our differences?

Isn’t it time we listen to Kaur and become ambassadors of peace ourselves?

Pink is for girls and blue is for boys: Another stereotype for the bin

(Published in SheThePeople: http://shethepeople.tv/pink-is-for-girls-and-blue-is-for-boys-another-stereotype-for-the-bin/ )

Quite literally since we were born, our minds have been conditioned to absorb the many differences and stereotypes inherent in our societies today when it comes to gender.

If its a girl the room must be painted in pink, right from the onesies to the blankets to all the dresses and toys. Similarly if little Junior is on the way, his room must be painted a baby blue and wallpapers of fire trucks and cars must line the walls. If this continues, will we ever see the return of neutral colours?

I don’t yet have kids of my own but the closest kids to us (also literally as they are down the street from us) are my sister-in-laws two girls aged 7 and 3 – fast going on 17 and 13 respectively! Contrary to most young girls at that age, it isn’t barbie dolls and frilly dresses they have any interest in but rather racing cars, cricket and the colours black, red and green alternatively. In fact, the only ‘girly’ interests they have so far is in dance – ballet and bollywood to be precise. And of course, there was no escaping the ‘Frozen’ princesses stage.

Today themed birthday parties and celebrations for children have become commonplace with no holds barred on the decor and opulence at the event and no stones being left unturned to fulfil every fairytale their own princesses dream of and their little ‘Tarzans’ demand. Even today the boys will be found in a different part of the room having their own party on the side while the girls in their frocks and magic wands parade around the pink tiered cake and follow the belle of the ball around who has even been presented with a sparkling crown to set her aside from the rest. It is because of this blatant fine-tuning etched in their minds from day one that the idea of breaking away from convention and adopting hobbies and interests designed for the opposite sex only that frequently comes under the scanner today.

According to Lise Elliot, Author and Associate Professor of Neuroscience at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science, these gender-specific divides have adverse effects on developmental growth and aren’t always a good idea. Limiting boys and girls to that one colour, that one hobby or toy and also particular behavior limits their thinking, purview of knowledge and eventually even ambitions. Elliot suggests an interesting counter measure – to buy toys and play things that are deemed fit for the opposite sex by society today – like Legos and building blocks for girls to enhance mathematical intellect and a pet such as a dog for boys to teach them to be more nurturing and caring like their female counterparts.

My 3-year old niece today associates smoking, alcohol, snoring and even drinking coffee with men. “Papa is having coffee because he is a boy.” Because she doesn’t see any one else in their house having coffee. Her mum has tea so tea is automatically “for girls”. They internalize everything they see and hear right from when they are toddlers.

But isn’t it time we break them away from the metaphorical moulds of pink and blue we have sculplted them into and let them choose the colours and interests they want to pursue for themselves? Yes, it is true that the ‘ pink and blue’ colour spectrum makes it easy for new parents to plan and organise their pre-natal lives in ease but why can’t the walls be painted a yellow or a green? Why not neutral? Keeping it neutral teaches a child from day one that boys can like pink too, that girls can play with blue trucks and wear trousers without being scorned or bullied in school to stay within their ‘girly limits.’

What we don’t realise is the consequences this seemingly trivial talk of colour change can have on a child’s entire developmental growth, perception of the world and behavior towards others in every stage of life. The idea of girls liking pink or only dolls and frocks gives birth to the wrongful stereotypes of women being incapable of many other tasks and skills such as excelling in math, science in school. Many teachers even today prefer to turn a blind eye to a girls contribution to an intellectually demanding subject vis a vis that of a boy. Similarly, if a boy is found playing with a doll or a pair of high heels, for example, the parents themselves will rush to pull these ‘girly’ toys away from him and thrust the G.I Joes and superhero figures towards him faster than the blink of an eye. This boy will inadvertently grow up to be scornful and condescending of girls and their ‘silly pink play things.’

Our country today hosts many such examples today of men and women and their disposition towards each other due to the very limiting fabric of the foundation on which they have been brought up. Our womensports teams – be it cricket, hockey or any other sport get barely a passing mention in tabloids and the social media chatter today whereas the colour of Virat Kohlis eyes or how quickly Dhoni coloured his salt and pepper beard becomes front page news. Why? because women aren’t supposed to play a sport. It’s not a pink barbie doll. It’s a boy’s play thing. Those who do make it to the tabloids winning accolades in their fields like Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal work that much harder to earn that bit of respect whereas flick of the wrist and the ball over the ropes gets people talking about that male cricketer for weeks. And then theres those like Mary Kom with a passion for a purely ‘male’ sport like boxing who struggled from day 1 to get anywhere near where she is and that too a filmstar had to emulate her in a movie to really bring her in the limelight that ironically, Priyanka Chopra bagged more than the real superstar herself.

The story in the common man’s household is no different – rural or urban. Men are still being showered with more affection and importance and tasked with what they perceive as tasks within the capablities of men only while women are still pushed towards household chores and frivolous duties – even education for many rural households not an effort to be wasted on them. The problem is rooted much deeper spanning generations of poverty, lack of education and misogyny.

As Eliot observes, the most wecan really do is to try and level the field for both genders from day one. Let your daughter pick up a hockey stick. Let your son play house once in a while without rushing to ‘right’ this perceived wrong. The sooner we realise that there is no wrong in what a child wants to play with and the only wrong is our own in limiting their outreach, the sooner we see them grow into individuals who believe in the idea of equality.
Pink and blue aren’t the only colours in the spectrum. Teach them the beauty of each one.

An open letter to my 30-year old self

(Published in Times of India : http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/shaira-mohan-blog/an-open-letter-to-my-30-year-old-self/

Dear 30-year- old me,

A week from now you will bid a sad goodbye to your 20s and cross the threshold into the first day of a new decade in your life.

There is always much hype around entering a new decade and leaving behind the old. Its a chance to look back at the last 10 years and reminisce about all the work done, goals met, friends made, friends lost, places travelled, things learnt and every decision, every turning point and every step taken that has brought you to this very spot with the next rung on the ladder around the corner.

But often we forget to think about the things we have learnt along the way – things we pledge to remind ourselves to not change and keep doing or do differently in the future but forget to open those reminders when the time actually comes. So here’s a list of things I have noted down for you so that you can refer to these notes as you brace yourself to embrace the new decade with its own brand of ups and downs to come.

Starting (or re-starting) a career at 30 is not a bad thing either:
Yes, you got married and then moved around so much that the airport became more of a home than your actual house. (which has also been changing a lot). And that initial fear of flying has now become a faint memory. In the process the career you set yourself up for took a hit somewhere. But something great came out of it too. You travelled so much and saw some exotic new places that you may never have been able to. Your passport pages look very impressive and you also discovered a skill you never knew you had – you can write! So you took the time to chase that new-found skill and hone it further. And you got on that yoga mat and did your mind and body a great favour too. Now you plan to join the work force again. And you will own it. Don’t forget that many successful people today changed entire careers much later on and reached where they are today. Age is just a number no matter what people may say.

Change is a good thing :
You held on to that job, that friend, that thought process like it was the holy grail and the idea of anything different was unfathomable. But you finally accepted change and took the leap. And here you are—happier and more fulfilled than ever. Change is a good thing and always will be. It’s the only thing that should be constant, as they say. So never hesitate to take that leap.

Age really is just a number:
Coming back to that, it’s true. Yes time passes us by faster than the blink of an eye but do we start doing things differently just because the number of years we have lived changes every year? No. What we do it to add to those things int he attempt to add more meaning, more experiences and try new things. By that logic we are only getting younger! Mind over matter. There is nothing you can or can’t do that needs to be checked off the age-appropriate list. Don’t let age get in the way of your dreams. They can come true now.

If you aren’t married by now, the sky will not fall:
Its our typical Indian mindset. “Beta, you are almost 30! When will you get married? All the ‘good’ boys will be taken.” Firstly, stay as far away from these nosy aunts as you possibly can. Or at least these conversations. If you find yourself cornered with nowhere to go, just say “Aunty abhi toh party shuru hui hai!” And then observe shocked reaction before making your victorious exit. On a serious note, remember that while you chose to marry a while ago, many of your friends are not as yet and are being hounded by such aunties. Remember to be there for these friends. Remember to remind them that people like to talk and always will but they need to not get bogged down by such conversations and allow themselves to take the stress. Stress gets you nowhere. There is a time and place for everything and marriage and babies fall under this category too. No one should ever be forced into the idea of marriage. Or the idea of anything for that matter. One has to arrive at these life decisions themselves.

Don’t be a ‘yes’ man (woman), you can’t please everyone :
And you shouldn’t have to. You went through the motions from being a gullible teenager transiting from school to college life and clumsily waded through the slew of heartbreaks, deception, losses, disappointments and hardships and finally crossed over to the 20s that saw you somewhat more confident but not quite. As you progressed up the 20s ladder, you learnt how to and how not to deal with people – people at home, at work, at social gatherings, friends, those who pretend to be friends and so on. You learnt to say no. You learnt that its okay to disappoint one person and please the other. The guilt is something you may not have learnt to shake off just yet but you learnt that its okay. Most importantly, you have now learnt that you have to hold your own and have your own opinions to voice. And that those opinions will hurt some people and make others proud. But you will not say yes to everyone. There’s no need to feel bad about it.

Don’t expect the world from anyone, it only hurts you:
They say those closest to you are the ones who let you down the most. But if you look closer, that’s because its those that are closest to you that you expect the world from. You expect them to drop their own lives and come running to be a part of yours as and when you please. You expect good outcomes always and hence get your heart broken when things don’t work out the way you had envisioned them. Quit the expectations altogether. Expect but don’t expect the world. As you climb the rungs of the 30s ladder, this will hit home harder than you can imagine.

Don’t let the world’s expectations of you ruffle your feathers either:
Those same annoying aunties who ask you about marriage will also be the ones to sit you down and ask you about babies. And why there isn’t a brood of little hybrids of you and your husband strutting around already. Again, smile and walk away. The inevitable pressures holds we climb into in various stages of life and also various stages in our careers take a hold on us as we struggle to fulfill someone else’s dreams and expectations of us. There is absolutely no need to trip over your own feet trying to desperately meet each and everyone’s expectations. And you need to stop caring about what others think all the time. Do what you can and what you feel is right for you. The rest of the world will just have to deal with it.

Start putting yourself first:
Continuing from point 8, its time to stop thinking only about others and look long and hard into that mirror. How can you help you first? Eat healthier, cut out the junk. Exercise regularly. Pamper yourself with that massage or pedicure frequently. You aren’t going to be a bad wife, mother or daughter if you think of investing in yourself more. Take the time to read that book that is lying neglected on the book shelf. Go watch a movie with some girlfriends during the week. The world won’t end if you do.

Have fun! 30 is the new 20!:
They used to say life begins at 40. Well I have news for you. Life began a long time ago. You are living it right now. You are young with so much to give and get in return. Don’t waste a minute of it thinking of ‘buts’ and ‘what ifs’. Try everything. leave nothing out. Be crazy but also be careful. Be more responsible but let yourself go once in a while. Make time for friends but make time for parents and grandparents too. Be kind. Love and forgive.

Love,
29-year-old me

P.S.— This is important. Don’t lose who you are and become someone else. Every day will bring new experiences. But you must remain the same.