Tag Archives: ranjani rao

What Women in STEM Need

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

As I mark an important milestone in my scientific career, I notice that not much has changed since the time I joined the workforce making my goal of staying in the workforce sound like an achievement.

Recently I completed twenty-five years as a scientist. Not surprisingly, I remembered my first day at work, eager to reap the rewards of my hard earned education that had begun in India and culminated in the US with a Ph.D. As a diligent student growing up in urban India in a family that valued education, I had pursued a science education, unaware of the challenges of being a woman in STEM.

The young are optimistic and naive. I was no exception. My ambitions were modest. I hoped to contribute to the field, make a small difference to people’s lives, and derive satisfaction by doing meaningful work.

Today as I look back through the lens of hindsight, I can confidently report that I have achieved one solitary (and far from lofty) goal. Despite many obstacles, I have continued to remain in the workforce.

A foreshadowing of things to come

On a beautiful sunny January morning when I reported for duty at a pharmaceutical company in California, I had to sign a form agreeing to ‘promptly’ disclose pregnancy, a procedure that was mandatory for all female employees. It was supposedly to protect my unborn baby from potential harm, since my work involved chemicals of unknown toxicity. Although loathe to admit that I was already in my first trimester of pregnancy, I acquiesced. 

With that auspicious beginning I embarked on a career which has spanned three countries – USA, India and Singapore. I have been employed at multinational companies and research institutes, run my own consulting business and taught at a university. I have travelled alone for work to Switzerland and Malaysia, and visited state-of-the-art facilities and hole-in-the-wall operations. I have attended meetings with corporate bigwigs and worked with non-profit organizations.

Although much about the world has changed since I began my career, certain fundamental aspects about STEM fields, particularly as it relates to women, have stayed the same. The UN has declared 11 February as the International Day of Women in Science as a way to draw attention to the gender imbalance in STEM fields. However, as per the World Economic Forum, women are still excluded from participating fully when it comes to careers in STEM.

Why are women deemed to “not fully participate”? 

I looked back at my own career for answers. More than public role models who graced magazine cover, private interactions within my immediate circle made a greater impact on my fledgling career. In the era before the internet became the main source of information, before influencers channeled public opinion, I sought inspiration from fellow women scientists. 

My youngest aunt, the first person in the extended family to pursue a science education, a female professor at my university in Baltimore, and women colleagues at my workplace were my de facto advisors. They served as sounding boards and working examples who also provided valuable practical advice.

“Don’t give up your financial independence.”

”Adjust your job role or work part-time if you’re in a bind, but stay in the workforce.”

“Always lookout for opportunities for advancing in your career but also for ways to reduce your stress.”

“Don’t try to be a superwoman.”

While I appreciated their encouraging words, aware that this was not standard career advice offered to men. In a fair world without gender bias and discrimination, I would be paid on par with my male colleagues, and have a similar successful career trajectory. In reality, I was constantly firefighting to find alternate ways to manage my career and accommodate life changes including marriage and motherhood.

To make a difference, you need to run the long race

Almost a decade ago, I was asked to speak to a girls-only science college in Hyderabad on the occasion of the centennial celebration of Marie Curie’s Chemistry Nobel Prize win.

“I am not a chemist,” I demurred, surprised at the request, feeling awkward and grossly under qualified, although by then I had worked in two countries.

“We would like you to inspire the young women,” the principal insisted.

What could I say to a new generation of women scientists preparing to enter a field where the stakes were certainly not in their favor? 

I spoke of dreams and hard work, of opportunities and failures, of constant learning and self-belief. But I also spoke of my own experiences. I had experienced miscarriages and migration, divorce and displacement, bereavement and loss, but at every crossroad, I had asked myself one question –

What is the smallest change I need to make to keep my foot in the workforce?

At one point I had moved to working fewer hours per week, at another, I had signed up for a course to add new skills to facilitate a lateral change. From moving closer to my workplace to save time, to paying more for better quality childcare and finally, going from a full-time employee to a freelance consultant, I had reinvented my work life repeatedly to suit my changing lifestyle.

It is not about the fame

While I would like to think that times have changed, they really haven’t changed that much.

While I enjoyed watching the popular show Big Bang Theory in which two major female characters were shown to be scientists, I was surprised by a tweet depicting Flavia Tata Nardini, co-founder of Fleetspace Technologies, standing behind a podium with an infant in her arms and a toddler by her side, delivering a speech to high school girls, made an appearance. The former had more viewers but the latter was a true representation of a woman’s work life.

For a brief moment Indian women scientists at ISRO received recognition for their role in successfully sending a satellite to orbit Mars. But many more women who have made major scientific contributions continue to be routinely eclipsed by the familiar visages of their pop culture celebrity counterparts. 

Most women falter in the face of what may seem like trivial issues – reliable daycare, financial support, flexibility. In recent essays in the Working Life column of the American Association of Science website, women researchers and faculty spoke about struggles with miscarriages and work-life balance, about taking time off to care for sick parents, and about their inability, as a single parent, to travel to conferences outside their city to present papers without resources or backup support. Many, or all of these issues have a direct impact on their professional prospects and career trajectory.

It is not surprising therefore to find women dropping out in large numbers from STEM careers. It is shocking that women endure at all. 

Against this backdrop, having achieved my solitary goal of not dropping out of the race seems like a great achievement. Perhaps I was lucky. From a supportive (male) boss who offered me flexibility when I returned to work after eight weeks of maternity leave to parents who stepped in whenever I had a crisis, from the kind lady who watched my infant to a close-knit group of friends who jumped in at short notice to assist in various ways, I am indebted to an army of silent supporters.

In a bid to pay it forward, along with a colleague, I helped lobby for and set up a daycare center for employees at my workplace in India. I went on to hire young mothers on a flexible, work from home schedule in my own business. I continued to mentor and remain available to my students for guidance long after they graduated. 

Change happens at its own pace, despite our impatience. Until then, I refuse to despair. 

By continuing to maintain my tenuous toehold in the workplace, supporting initiatives like the  Life Of Science project and writing about my experiences, I plan to continue championing the cause of women in STEM.


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

Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Looking At The Brighter Side Of A Pandemic Year

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

In December of each year, my family sits around a glass jar for our annual appraisal ritual. The ordinary jar purchased from Ikea and previously used for storing mango pickle, contains notes and index cards, quickly scribbled and dropped in by each member of the family at various times during the year. It holds the trivial details of our individual lives and serves as a short term repository of our collective memory, before they are transformed into our annual family newsletter.

The four of us sit cross-legged on the carpet and take turns to pick out one short hand-written message each. We read it aloud and hand it to the person who has written it. Every message captures an event, accomplishment or significant moment, typically documented soon after it happens, and narrated in a format that represents the different personalities of each family member. 

Messages come in various formats and lengths. From a cryptic “No more Hindi exams” (younger daughter) to tweet-sized “Yayy, landed my first paying internship, can’t wait to spend it” (elder daughter) to longer ruminations – “went on weekly treks, played squash twice a week, and swam everyday for 16 weeks”(husband). Mine read like tiny letters to myself, annotated with a date, sometimes a listicle, and always a signature.

It’s a fun way to close the year, reminiscing about small things we had forgotten about because memory suffers from the recency effect and life has a way of expanding the once-in-a-lifetime kind of moments while obliterating ordinary ones. 

In years past, our newsletters have captured memorable moments like skydiving in New Zealand, watching an unforgettable sunset from a beautiful hotel in Santorini and spending a night in a tent in the Serengeti. Individually and collectively, we have challenged ourselves with yoga teacher training at an ashram (elder daughter), climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (husband), launching a book (me) and obtaining scuba-diving certification (everyone but me).

The husband glues together these disparate, often sparse notes with his wacky sense of humor, adds a few choice photographs and sends it to our large group of extended family and relatives. We receive heart-warming feedback from our readers, usually mentioning our fabulous travels and overachieving tendencies. The exact reason why we dreaded gathering this year for an annual ritual that we all used to look forward to.

How could we put together an interesting writeup for a year that has ‘pandemic’ as the word of the year?

Our jar, not surprisingly, was almost empty. A few notes from the first two months reminded me of the successful launch of my book in Hyderabad back in January. And the pleasure of watching ‘Little Women’ in the movie theatre with my daughters. There hadn’t been much to report for the rest of the year. Travels to Bhutan and Europe had been cancelled. Plans for a party to mark the elder daughter’s college graduation had been put on indefinite hold. Diwali gatherings had not materialized. We hadn’t seen family members for months. In fact, even familiar faces had become hard to recognize while hidden behind masks. 

We had not only missed splashy outings but also the simple joy of sitting across with a group of friends. We had witnessed job loss, deferred dreams and positive Covid cases within our inner family circle. We had conveyed condolences to friends whose loss had been compounded by their inability to say goodbye in person. Thanks to unsatisfactory work-life balance I missed a highly anticipated live-streamed wedding that I had hoped to attend in person. 

The list of all the things wrong with the year was long. Finding something to celebrate was going to be tough. But treasure lies exactly where you least expect to find it.

At the bottom of the jar, we found four little gems that we had forgotten about. In response to an NPR post back in May, I had convinced my family to participate in a group project – to create a “quaranzine” – a record of pandemic life. It was suggested as an activity to engage little kids by asking them to respond to certain prompts with words and pictures. 

My teenage daughter and her older sister rolled their eyes but good naturedly brought paper, pens and color pencils. Each of us created a mini-diary capturing our version of the life we were living. We didn’t share our creations with each other then, so when we pulled the booklets out months later, they looked like little time capsules.

Our responses to the prompts like “what was the hardest thing about pandemic life”, “what had changed the most”, “what was most surprisingly delightful” were unique to our stage in life. I tried using fewer words but failed in comparison to my younger daughter whose one-word responses accompanied by cute cartoons spoke volumes.

Despite our best hopes, the end of 2020, had not brought an end to the Covid-19 ordeal. Our lives are still curtailed. Although we had no great outer achievement to share, we had all grown. By adopting new exercise routines, demonstrating interest in new hobbies and even embracing existing technologies such as audiobooks, each of us had progressed. We couldn’t host large parties, but we had made small contributions to our neighborhood. Like in previous years, we found that we were not the same people we were at the beginning of 2020. 

Our newsletter project taught me the true value of tradition. The simple act of gathering for a common purpose gave us exactly what we needed during these trying times, faith that even though we may not know what the year ahead will bring, we will grow, individually and together, as a family, and as a community.


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

 

We Called Them Blessings

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

The word ‘privilege’ that has become popular in debates and discussions worldwide, reminded me of an old quote. 

The hardest arithmetic to master is that which enables us to count our blessings.

This quote by Eric Hoffer appears in my autograph book, a relic from my school days in Mumbai. Amidst pages filled with colorful drawings, and silly messages from classmates, these words, neatly copied out by a soft-spoken nun who taught math, looked incongruous, but apt. 

I grew up in a small apartment in a suburb of Mumbai. Our multifunctional living room, filled with conversations and laughter during the day, would transform into a bedroom at night. The space where my brothers and I watched TV, played and argued, was always noisy. Whenever I whined about the lack of quiet, my father would tell me about how he and his eight siblings studied under a street light. Even as a young girl I could sense that a room with adequate lighting, if not ambience, was a definite step up.

When I was ten years old, a new girl joined our class. Petite and soft-spoken, Bina was the second of five siblings in a family with a difficult financial situation. The charitable arm of the community to which she belonged paid for their tuition and books. In return, she was required to earn good grades to ensure funding for the subsequent academic year. Bina’s diligence and good cheer made me less inclined to grumble about the hand-me-down textbooks that I received from my older brother.     

In my teens, our apartment was upgraded by enclosing the fairly large balcony that bordered the living room. With the addition of an antique desk, installation of a wall-mounted fan and a table lamp, the rectangular room became a study. And the quality of my student life improved manyfold.

The living room was no longer flooded with morning sunshine but the new sliding glass doors of the balcony helped keep out the dust from the adjacent plot. A narrow abandoned stretch of land overflowing with litter, weeds and stray dogs, was being developed into a new apartment building. 

Among the workers who toiled day and night was a young girl about my age, who carried freshly-mixed cement in a shallow metal tray held atop her head. A coil of cloth protected her scalp from the heavy load. When our eyes met, I responded to her open smile with a wave. I felt compelled to connect with her, despite warnings to stay away from the bustle of a construction site.

‘Shobha’ although a few years older, had never been to school. During our summer holidays, two friends and I taught her to write Hindi alphabets using a small black slate and a piece of chalk. We brought her snacks, a notebook, and pencils. She enjoyed spending time with us, probably more as an escape from her hard life, than from a desire for education. When the building came up, she left with the crew, having learnt how to write her name. 

Urban poverty was real. Inequality was an inescapable consequence. It was impossible to not acknowledge the benefits conferred on me by the accident of my birth. For every pretty shoe or school bag I coveted, I could always find someone who was happy to receive my outgrown clothes and dog-eared books. 

Years later, as a graduate student in the US, I was surprised to find that some of my peers were the first in their family to go to college. My eyes had been trained on the wide range of opportunities available in America. Inequality, although not as visible as in India, was an unacknowledged reality. 

Time changes many things, including vocabulary. 

In today’s parlance, would my childhood, which I considered modest, be classified as ‘privileged’? The dictionary defines privilege as ‘a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available to a particular person or group’. 

Every child has the right to be educated. Yet, not every child receives education. I learnt this lesson early on. 

With no accumulated wealth or ancestral property, my parents decided to invest in quality education for their children. By opening the gate to learning, they put the key to a better life in my hands. 

My ‘privilege’ was not the schooling but the recognition that the opportunity itself was a gift, one that I should not take for granted or frivolously forfeit. By diligently applying myself in school, I participated in building the foundation for my future.

Was I blessed? Fortunate? Lucky? Entitled? 

The words being tossed around in the debate over privilege are powerful, pedantic, and sometimes, petty. But they are just words. Semantics can only go so far. 

The words written by my teacher lodged in my consciousness decades ago. I tried to master the arithmetic of counting my blessings at every major crossroad in my life. And each time, it stirred in me the long-buried desire to help others, just I had done with Shobha that long-ago summer.  

Actions speak a different, more powerful language.

Whether I offered to read books for the blind in Baltimore or volunteered at the adult literacy center in California, I tried to do my small bit, knowing that it might be just a drop in the ocean. 

There will always be much more to do than what a mere individual can accomplish. 

For me, the first step towards building a more equitable world begins with gratitude, not just for my blessings but for the people who taught me to focus on the right things. 


Ranjani Rao is a scientist by training, writer by avocation, originally from Mumbai, a 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

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

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.

 

Love: Refreshed

A husband for home, a wife for away. Intrigued by the title, I clicked on the link sent by a friend who is also my travel companion. The premise of the essay; a special kind of relationship between friends who choose to travel together, leaving behind their families; reflected the kind of trips we had taken. For several years, we had been to exotic locations within and outside India, responding to the call that dragged us away from our families, filled us with awe and wonder, and refreshed and rejuvenated us. Like the essay in the New York Times, ours was a story of friendship, but also modern love.

I read this essay in the Modern Love column on my smartphone as I commuted to work in the air-conditioned comfort of a train in Singapore. On the way back, I clicked to related links at the bottom of the first essay and scrolled through several well-told tales of contemporary love, hooked. By the time I reached home, I was transported to the Mumbai of my teens, a phase in my life where I had preferred reading romance over other genres..

I devoured innumerable tacky Mills and Boon and Harlequin paperbacks piled up in hole-in-the-wall second-hand bookstores that doubled as libraries. I didn’t expect anything depicted in these slim books, featuring people whose lives looked nothing like mine, to happen to me. I do not remember putting myself in the shoes of their blue-eyed protagonists. The books were more fantasy than romance. I read them for entertainment and, perhaps, escape.

Over the years, as my logical nature took over my impressionable self, I lost interest in reading romance. With limited time and a refinement of reading tastes, I veered towards fiction and non-fiction titles with more literary merit.

Modern Love essays came to me in midlife; a phase where my children were teenagers, I was remarried, and trying to find my way in our blended family in a new country. Certainly not the best time to idle away precious minutes in light reading when I could have been doing many more meaningful things.

But no matter how old, skeptical or cynical we may be about love, there is something about this ancient, universal emotion that tugs at us insistently, exhorting us to read and respond. No matter how crazy my schedule, I managed to read a handful of essays every so often.

Just like in teenage, reading romance in midlife once again provided an escape. This time the words held deeper meaning, because these were true stories. And they covered a wide canvas. Many featured same-sex relationships and the associated challenges. Some focused on loss; of a child, of a parent, of a way of life, and its consequent lessons. 

Except for a few, there were hardly any Indian protagonists. But it didn’t matter. I found more in common with the bibliophiles who flirted than the woman who tried to understand her Indian boyfriend. Although the protagonists didn’t share my skin color or cultural background, I suffered their heartaches and rejoiced in their success, because these were familiar emotions. From my own experience, I knew that love can hide when you go looking for it but show up uninvited, in the most unexpected places, between the most unlikely people.

Not all Modern Love stories were about romantic love. And I found them more interesting. The appeal of the story lay in the evolution of the protagonist and not so much in the specific nature of the relationship. 

I used to scoff at my friendly neighbor who, unlike me, was a happy housewife with no personal ambitions outside of her home turf. During a particularly trying time, she sent me food, lent me a gas cylinder, and offered to watch my daughter until I returned from work, thereby enabling my single mom lifestyle. Humbled by her generous gesture and loving offer, I learnt that love can grow between two very different people who respect each other. 

Not so long ago, books became movies. Today, essays become Netflix and Amazon shows. When Modern Love episodes showed up on screen, I was not surprised. But when I noticed an essay on Medium.com titled “Is Modern Love Only For White Women?” I was shocked. The writer called out the producers of show for not showing women of color as primary love interests in the eight or so episodes that have been released.

Failure of romantic relationships can be disappointing. But my life experience has taught me that even as we mourn failed connections, or deal with disappointment of interactions that do not live up to our expectations, if we pay attention, we can feel an undercurrent of deep-seated knowledge that we are richer for the experience.

Romantic love, after all, is only one shade among the myriad colors of love that we get to experience in a lifetime.

Resilience in the face of disappointment is an admirable quality. Walking into a romantic relationship after the failure of the first, is foolishness of the first order. But it is also a symbol of hope. A signal that we are deserving of respect, of acceptance, of love. I know this first hand.

Much of our ability to bounce back from failed relationships depends on how we have processed other kinds of love that preceded romantic love in our lives. From the care experienced in a nurturing home, from the mentoring of kind teachers, from the unconditional support of friends, from the solidarity of colleagues and teammates. These are all shades of love. I am sure there are more than fifty.

There is much to learn from Modern Love — not just the column and show, but from our own experiences in these confusing times. In love, as in art, taking the time to understand its subtle shades and nuances is what makes it (and us) special.

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

This piece was initially published on November 7, 2019 under the title Fifty Shades of Modern Love.