Tag Archives: desi lens

My “March” With My Mother’s Life

Self-quarantined in my bedroom in San Jose, I pen down my thoughts about a time that will be forever etched in my memories. It is a journey between India and the US during a time when borders were getting closed, schools were reinventing themselves online, social fabrics were getting challenged, and loved ones were lost to a pandemic.

On Feb 23rd, I got a call from my father that my mother is in an ICU in a hospital in Kolkata. My mother, aged 69, is a Lupus survivor and in recent years, she had her bouts of cardiac and respiratory incidents. I thought she would manage this one also. But by the first weekend of March, her condition seemed to deteriorate and I decided to travel to India. This was also the first weekend that the coronavirus was moving its way into silicon valley. People started to hoard things. I could not find a thermometer and there were long lines and fights for parking places in supermarkets. I did some essential shopping for home, bought a direct United SFO – DEL ticket, imparted a list of instructions to my 12-year-old daughter, bid goodbye to my wife, and boarded the 15 hour flight.

Corona was on the periphery of my thoughts …. I had other things to worry about. I reached Delhi in the wee hours of March 4th. India had not started screening incoming passengers yet –  not for flights coming from the US. I came out of T3 and walked 10 minutes to the newly created T2 to catch an Indigo flight to Kolkata. In the next 2 weeks, my dad and I shuttled daily to the hospital during visiting hours to catch up on my mother’s condition, which was not getting any better. Her sufferings and pains were hard on me emotionally. Corona was slowly coming to Kolkata. Masks were seen everywhere and hospitals were doing a good job of cleaning and providing sanitizers. I started avoiding elevators and used stairs to the 3rd floor ICU. I bought a mask for my father and made him wear it.

My early mornings were spent WhatsApping with my family and friends back in the USA. The changes in the Bay Area started slowly but suddenly picked up by the 2nd week of March – remote working, schools closed, 40 minutes line to check out groceries.  And, then came the “Shelter in Place” order on March 16th – an (almost) lockdown of 6 counties of the Bay Area/Silicon Valley. I was concerned about my family but was also comfortable, as my close groups of friends were supporting them in every way possible.

I lost my mother on March 17th. By then we had moved her to a different hospital and she was on Ventilator life support for the last 5 days. We lost her to a Sepsis Infection (an infection that flows in the bloodstream) caused by a bacteria “Burkholderia Cepacia”. She most likely acquired during the long ICU stay in the first hospital but it was undetected. It was too late by the time we moved her to a different hospital. I did not say the last goodbyes but I wished on her bedside that she is freed from her pains.

After the cremation, we planned for the rituals of “shraddha” on March 26th. And then the arrived on March 19th that India is stopping international flights starting March 22nd. We made the difficult decision to complete all the rituals in the next 24 hours. Surrounded by my extended family in Kolkata, we offered our last pranam to “Maa” and I hopped on the last Air India flight ( KOL – DEL – SFO ) leaving India.

Corona cut short the time I wanted to spend with my father during this difficult time. The ride from the airport to home was eerie as I started assimilating the changes that happened during my absence of 3 weeks. Empty roads, silent parks, supermarkets rationing eggs, bread, and paper products and meeting friends over hangout and zoom. I decided to quarantine myself in one room of my house to protect my dear ones as there is a slight risk of my getting the virus due to my travel in long flights and the transit area of busy airports. It has been 7 days now in my room and 7 more days to go ….

The image which is still stuck with me is related to the most prized commodity of this new world – ventilators. It is still pumping oxygen in the still body of my mother ….


Featured Image by Bharatahs and license can be found here.

When Wishes Come True

Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!

This popular phrase attributed to the Aesop’s fables came to mind as my workplace scrambled to put measures in place to implement new directives issued in light of the Coronavirus situation last week. 

Finally, my long-held wish to work from home was coming true. Yippee!!

I had first toyed with the idea of requesting my boss to let me work from home more than twenty years ago. I was a young mother then, enjoying my first job as a research scientist.

It was the best of times. I loved my job, my home, even the short ride to work. It was also the most precious of times. My long to-do list refused to shrink despite the many items I crossed off each day.

If only I could get one day a week to work from home – I could fold laundry while answering emails, attend calls when my toddler took a nap, and get dinner started in the precious minutes salvaged from the daily commute. And just maybe, have those extra minutes to chase butterflies and hang out in the playground with my child.

It was my first job and I worked in the laboratory most days which meant being tied to the physical location. As expected, my request was denied. 

The following year I received a promotion which added managerial responsibilities to my job description and reduced dependence on lab work. My duties now included supervising the people who reported to me. In the pre-Skype/Zoom days, this could only be done in person. Again my request to work from home one day a week was denied. 

For a short period during the decade I spent in India, I was self-employed. This was the only time I worked from home. I felt I had overcome the tyranny of the clock, choosing to work during my most productive hours of each day. 

As a consultant, I did not have one boss, I had many. Early morning flights, late evening calls, and impossible deadlines kept me on my toes. I didn’t mind. I could extend a business trip for a short excursion to a nearby resort or even slip away to watch a matinee move on a weekday depending on my schedule. This flexibility and freedom came at the cost of a monthly paycheck but it gave me control over the most precious commodity – time.

The quality of our work life is determined by the work culture of the place we live in. Despite having worked in large corporations in the USA and India, after the relative freedom of an independent consultant’s life, when I moved to Singapore and landed a full-time job, I found it difficult to get back into the groove.

My commute on air-conditioned trains and buses, although civilised and comfortable, took away almost two hours each day and drained my energy. When health conditions added to my daily fatigue I once again started praying for respite in the form of the occasional option to work from home. 

My prayers were finally answered in response to the Coronavirus outbreak. 

Except for one caveat. My family members had also been mandated to stay home.

Instead of having the house to myself, I moved from room to room with my laptop in search of a quiet location with a comfortably cushioned surface to attend to work. The family had the same exact thought. All four of us scrambled to sequester to the guest room, the only room with a formal desk AND good internet connectivity.

With technology enabling online classes for the kids, and phone calls to people locked down in their homes but scattered across various continents and time zones, the house was constantly buzzing with activity. It might have been easier to designate each bedroom as Meeting Room 1, Meeting Room 2 indicating times that demanded silence from co-workers, in this case, family members.

Laptops and phones were constantly being charged. Everyday at least one person madly searched for their earphones, yelled at others to keep quiet, or interrupted important calls with trivial questions. We clearly needed a written standard operating procedure for household interactions during pandemics.

Another hazard of working at home is the lure of an afternoon nap. To resist the temptation, I avoided the master bedroom completely. 

The kitchen, on the other hand, had no such restrictions. This led to a severe drop in quantities of junk food which qualifies as “essential” during such times. I made a note to add unhealthy snacks to the pandemic preparation list, in addition to toilet paper. 

Naively assuming that ordering online would take me a few minutes, I logged on to my favorite shopping website to find that it had crashed owing to surge in demand. A task that took me a few minutes once a week now turned into an obsession with hourly checks to find an open delivery slot. 

Another irritant was my phone – reminding me of the number of steps that I had not walked this week. On most weekdays my commute and a short post-dinner walk helps me complete my target of 10,000 steps fairly easily. Not so during this week. It’s 4 p.m. and my phone shows 475 steps for my daily count. 

I look forward to a nice long walk in the evening but the rain gods have different plans. There’s thunder and lightning, a heavy downpour that looks pretty from the comfort of my living room which has a pleasant green view that becomes particularly striking on rainy days. I sit with a cup of coffee and brownies (baked due to popular demand) to watch the sight, aware that less walking and more calorie consumption is probably not in my best interest.

Coming back to work, it is getting done. Not as efficiently as when I am in the office, but enough to keep the wheels churning at a time when every project timeline and priority has been turned upside down. 

The chaos within and outside the house mirror each other. In one week, we have made one run to the emergency room (for a sprain which luckily was not a fracture), a couple of runs to the grocery store, and several long walks on wet walkways at night.

I miss my colleagues though. For the interim, we are all stuck at home whether we wished for it or not. Unlike me, some of them have a harder time as single parents or with little kids who don’t take easily to staying home. We communicate through whatsapp groups – sharing forwards with scary news and dire data, funny jokes and silly strategies, hoping to get through the next few days (or weeks).

All we can do now is keep our fingers crossed. And perhaps make a new wish. For things to go back to back to normal. I just hope this wish is granted soon. Going back to the office no longer sounds banal, it could quite possibly classify as an adventure.

Desi Roots, Global Wings – This is a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, former resident of USA and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

Wrestling to Become a Flautist

Every life is a story waiting to be told, if somebody is ready to listen. 

The life stories of men and women we admire and seek inspiration from, help us find life’s lessons and solutions to our own problems. 

The little I had read about Hariprasad Chaurasia told me that his was a story that, if unravelled, could help show the way for many who wished to chase a dream, regardless of age or calling. Chaurasia is considered one of the world’s most loved flautists. In India, he has been given the title of Padma Vibhushan, the country’s second highest civilian honour. I had yet to know that his journey had not been an easy one.

All I knew about Hariji was that he had played the flute in countless Hindi film songs spanning the 1960s and ’70s. And that today, he is well known for his classical performances, which enthrall audiences from India to Japan, California and Brazil; once a year he vanishes to Europe and holds classes at a music school, where he teaches Indian classical music on the flute to groups of Western students. 

I decided to write his biography but to my dismay I discovered, there were already two books on the flautist. One of them by a student who had moved closely with Hariji and recorded facts and milestones in great detail. 

So, what could I write that was new? 

Turning a perceived disadvantage to my advantage I realised I could use the published biography as a background. It was like having a thorough research assistant’s notes presented to me. Realising that biographies of classical artistes have limited appeal among younger people, I staked my hope on a new format for the story. A format that, in keeping with the shorter attention spans, the power of the visual over the written word, and the newly rediscovered love for listening to stories, would entertain and beguile with pictures to tell the tale. It was a risk, a format that may come apart if not held together well, but nothing ventured, nothing gained.

The story itself was fascinating, I realised. Unlike many of his contemporary musicians, who were born into traditional gharanas where the musical heritage was passed down through generations, Hariji’s legacy was wrestling. A skill that his wrestler father, renowned for the power his limbs could wield, wished his son to follow. Destiny led him to music – from learning vocals to taking up the flute. The radio became his teacher. And so, step by secret step he moved up the scales of musical learning, secretly playing, listening, even as he exchanged the thrashings he suffered in the wrestling pit to the tedium of a clerical job.

How he joined All India Radio and went on to becoming the Hindi film industry’s highest earning flautist and why he decided to give it all up to learn classical music from the reclusive wife of Ravi Shankar, Annapurna Devi, forms the rest of the story. But the taste of every pudding is in the eating. Here is an excerpt from my book, Breath of Gold: Hariprasad Chaurasia.

*****

An Interlude

London. 1966. It is a strange world he finds himself in. For one, he is cold. His hands are cold, his fingers too, as is the tip of his nose. Worst of all, his flute is not warm and responsive to his touch, but feels cold. He lifts it to his lips, blows tentatively; the sound comforts him, it is almost clear as always, except for the slightest hint of a hiss. Perhaps if he wraps the flute up in a woollen scarf, it will feel better . . .

He looks around at the hall he is to perform in. It is huge, and impressive. He has already been awed by the building’s façade, but the semicircular seating inside, with tiers that rise one over the other in a widening arc, is like nothing he has seen before. He does not know if all the plush seats will be filled—there seem to be so many! He supposes it must be some thousands. (The actual number is 5267.)

His recital is part of an evening of dance and music. He has been asked to play for twelve minutes.

When his turn comes, the audience welcomes him with applause, as is the custom in the West. It warms his heart. He has decided to play a simple raga, knowing that the time allotted is not enough for anything complex. He looks into the dim interiors of the space before him, settles down, signals to the tabla player accompanying him, and closing his eyes, blows into his flute.

‘When I play, I close my eyes, because then I am playing only for God.’

For the stretch of time that follows, he is aware of nothing except his music. He could well be sitting by Draupadi Ghat in Allahabad. Tabla and flute play in tandem, then together, in perfect sync, and listening to the music, the audience is in thrall. It knows it is in the presence of a true master.

When the recital ends, the clock shows that it has lasted twenty minutes. But the audience does not mind. It calls for an encore.

Flushed and happy, Hariprasad stands in the wings, waiting for the applause to stop. Someone pushes him on to the stage, telling him to take a bow. He stumbles out; then, walking up to centrestage, bends low in a namaste.

It is much later that he realizes the magnitude of his achievement. Not only has he performed at the Royal Albert Hall, London, coveted venue of every performing artiste across the world, but the audience of British and Indian listeners boasted celebrity performers, including Yehudi Menuhin, the world- famous violinist.

He celebrates by buying gifts for Anuradha. Perfumes, which, in those days, were not available as easily as they are now, in India. 

*****

I rest my case. In these times that test us sorely, it is possibly a good idea to immerse oneself in another time and space. Music and books offer that. This book combines the joys of both. 

Sathya Saran edited Femina for 12 years. She is now Consulting Editor with Penguin Random House and a full time author. Her books include fiction, essays, and biographies of cinema greats linked to music. Her most recent publication is ‘Breath of Gold: Hariprasad Chaurasia’.

Ageism is the New Sexism

Ageism is the new sexism that women start facing as early as 30

When I decided to write this article, I swear the inspiration came from an honest place. I turned 30 a couple of months ago and I have had a series of epiphanies induced by the people around me and their invasive commentaries on my life choices in the past few months. At first, that is what inspired me to pen my feelings down.

But to my surprise, there are more than 135K #turning30 posts on Instagram and almost all the top, as well as recent posts, are from women. So, this post is not going to be a personal rant anymore. I am forced to think that in the eyes of the society, for women, is turning 30 an achievement or is it some kind of a (biological) alarm? I don’t understand what it is but one thing is very clear from the thousands of posts on social media and numerous blogs on the internet, and not to mention the mausis of Indian mohallas– turning 30 is supposed to be some sort of a big deal. My question is why? 

Pop culture and its influence

I am a huge Friends fan and data proves that so are millions of other people all over the world. So, I am hoping this analogy will work. 

One of the reasons, they say, why Friends is still relevant is because the characters seem real and the audience resonates with them. Interestingly, all Friends characters had no clue where their lives were headed when they turned 30. Joey had an unstable and barely successful acting career and a series of flings but no serious relationships. Rachel was just starting in her career sorting hangers at a store after resigning from waitressing, Phoebe was a freelancing masseuse who had never had a serious relationship. And, don’t even get me started on Ross- divorced twice with major intimacy issues. Chandler and Monica were the only ones who’d found each other in their early thirties. 

British songwriter Lily Allen talks about a woman approaching her thirties in her song “22”. She sings: “It’s sad but society indeed says her life is already over, there’s nothing to do and there’s nothing to say.”

While this song is barely a decade old, the notion of a woman’s life being over at thirty sounds archaic to me! In fact, I believe that our lives only start by the time we turn thirty. Think about it, we spend our 20s finishing college and trying to find employment. So, how is it fair to say that a woman’s life is over at 30? Or, even to expect that she should “settle down” by that age?

So much for changing times and progressive societies 

We all like to believe that times are changing and that we live in a better and progressive society, but is that really true? 

The advocates of “everything is a bed of roses” will pull out studies comparing the lives of women in their 30s during the 1960s versus women in the present day, to show how women above thirty are now “allowed to go out, have fewer children and even pursue a career”!

But is that real progress? Did you know that it was as recent as 2015 when for the first time, married women were better educated than their husbands? But despite that fact, 72% of the time, a wife earns less than her husband of the same age.

However, instead of focusing on real issues like gender disparity, wage inequality and lack of opportunities in the employment sector for women, society likes to focus on “things a woman should do by the time she turns 30”.

I chanced upon hundreds of articles about women turning thirty. From “are you eating right”, “do you have the right wardrobe” to “did you find yourself a husband” to “here’s why you should bear a child right now”- I found a range of “knowledge imparting” articles. Funnily enough, I could barely find articles advising men on marriage, fatherhood or ageing.

Present Day

From the pressure of being married by this age to the constant reminder of the (oh so annoying biological clock) – the stereotypes associated with women approaching the age of 30 are archaic and need to go away.

I want to believe that we are a “woke” society outside of the virtual walls of social media feeds as well. I want to be able to decide things for myself. And, I definitely don’t want strangers advising me on my personal life and how I should be entirely dedicated to procreation because I am 30 and “it is already too late”!

Can we please stop with all the ageism and sexism, and let women just live their lives; or is that too much to ask?

Surabhi, a former Delhi Doordarshan presenter, is a journalist based in Singapore. She is the author of ‘Nascent Wings’ and ‘Saturated Agitation’ and has contributed to more than 15 anthologies in English and Hindi in India and Singapore. Surabhi’s work has appeared in various publications in India, Singapore and around the world. Website | Blog | Instagram

 

Dance Lessons Bring Romance to a Midlife Marriage

As a single mother with a teenage daughter, when I decided to marry a widower with a daughter, I knew what I was getting into. Or so I thought. From one half of a mother-daughter duo, I became the key piece of a puzzle which held four very different people, all wary and a little apprehensive about this new midlife adventure that Aditya and I had jumped into. 

There was much to be learnt, both inside and outside our home. Moving from India to Singapore meant, among other things, giving up the luxury of driving our own private cars and relying exclusively on public transport in a tiny but super efficient metropolis far removed from the chaos of India. The girls entered a new school, skeptical about making friends, and nostalgic for the familiar faces they had reluctantly left behind.

Inside the home, I bore the brunt of figuring out meal plans and food preferences, sleeping habits and unique quirks of my new family. My hopes of finding a job started fading after a few months. Even as I ranted against the unfairness of the job situation, the most frustrating part of the early months of our marriage was the lack of private time between Aditya and me.

At home, we hesitated to hold hands in front of the kids, unsure of what they would read into such gestures of affection, given our conservative Indian outlook and upbringing. I missed the one on one time that we enjoyed during our courtship through late night phone calls. We would say goodnight after sharing stories about our day and making each other laugh. My idea of a happy marriage involved a spouse who would be my friend and confidant, my buddy and my muse, my better half who would make me want to be a better person. 

Our daily life however, was buried under to-do lists and spreadsheets, our schedule filled with meetings at the school and appointments at the immigration office. All of our conversations centered around the home or kids or finances. 

Perhaps I was wrong to want romance in a midlife marriage. Candlelight dinners and walks on the beach were only for the young, not for couples with bills to pay and homework to supervise in the first year of marriage. But a part of me still craved alone time with my new husband. 

As newly-weds didn’t we deserve some time to find an equilibrium with each other before being inundated with family priorities? 

One day at the library I found a flyer announcing ballroom dancing class at our local community center.

“Let’s sign up for this,” I suggested, hoping it would give us something to do together while providing an excuse and a focus away from the kids. Aditya agreed. 

On the first Thursday evening, I waited eagerly for Aditya to return from work. Although unsure about the dress code for such an activity, I knew comfy shoes were required. I convinced Aditya to not change into his usual home attire of shorts and t-shirt. We took the bus to the community center and found our way to the dance studio on the third floor. 

The spacious room with floor to ceiling mirrors on two sides of the large, smooth, rectangular floor looked intimidating. The registration sheet showed at least ten names but we were the only couple to show up for the class. The instructor, a tall elegant gentleman dressed impeccably in formal pants and long-sleeved black shirt, looked as if he would have been happier had we not shown up. 

In spite of his misgivings, the agile instructor tried to teach us the basic waltz three step.  One-two-three. One-two-three. One-two-three. He paired up with us, one by one, to demonstrate. We were happy to be led and tried to follow. Soon he asked us to pair with each other and repeat. 

Despite our best intentions we were unable to complete more than two ‘1-2-3’ counts without stepping on each other’s toes or bumping into each other as we navigated the corners of the room. On the way back home, we laughed at our feeble efforts but sincerely showed up each subsequent week. At the end of the ten-week session, there was no discernible improvement in our technique. We continued to hobble around the dance floor like disjointed robots but we optimistically asked the instructor,

“When does the next session start?”

“I will call you,” he replied wryly, not impressed by our enthusiasm.  

 After ten weeks of missing cues, not getting the rhythm, and stepping on each other’s toes, we were forced to conclude that we were no Fred and Ginger. Our dance lessons, in addition to making us laugh, did teach us a few valuable lessons – how not to step on each other’s toes, literally; how to leave behind our disappointment with our lack of progress at the studio, and how to laugh about our two left feet. 

Our joint effort towards a common goal was all that mattered. By providing a relief valve from the stress during the early days of our experiment of a second marriage, the ballroom dance lessons served a purpose – of allowing us to lighten up and let ourselves some slack. Who said we had to get everything right? 

Five years later, on a family holiday to Alesund, Norway, I paused midway on a hike to Sukkertoppen hill, not sure I could make it. Suddenly, a familiar hand appeared. With his lean build and athletic frame, Aditya could have easily raced ahead with the kids, but he had stayed back to check my progress. I took his hand. 

Sometimes he walked ahead to check the best path. At other times, he walked besides me. We moved, not in unison, but in response to each other’s unspoken prompts until we reached the summit with its breath-taking view. Did the dance lessons help? I’m not sure. But romance in midlife, that’s a different story.

Desi Roots, Global Wings – This is a monthly column focused on the Indian immigrant experience

Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, former resident of USA and now lives in Singapore with her family. She is co-founder of Story Artisan Press and her books are available on Amazon. She is presently working on a memoir. Medium | Twitter | Facebook | Blog

Thanks to 7 SeTh and Alex Iby on Unsplash for the images.