Finding new meanings through meetings with strangers

Earlier today, I shared my mother’s blog post recalling her assistance to unknown fellow travelers years ago. Knowing her well, I account her actions to a strong sense of duty, a following of the Hippocratic Oath so to speak. Her post has prompted a discussion on whether times have changed and would well-meaning people still help strangers if they find them to be in trouble.

Right on cue comes news about the #Illwalkwithyou campaign in Australia, where citizens are helping Muslims afraid to commute fearing religious backlash and hate crimes following the hostage situation in Sydney. Started by an individual, the campaign snowballed into several citizens tying up over twitter with Muslims to offer them their company while using transit in the city.

Reaching out to strangers in need without fear is an act of bravery, no doubt, but beyond that it is an act of humanity. How many strangers do you, on an average, meet with and interact with? Of these, how many are ‘curated’ and ‘filtered’ through formal and informal processes? I include here surveillance and security mechanisms as well as pre-decided appointments in a business or social milieu that involve some form of deliberate selection. Are there any opportunities, or indeed any desire, to meet people you don’t already know? Moreover, would we be open to meeting strangers across the barriers of class, gender, religion, etc?

As an urban professional, I’m raising two questions that I feel rather concerned about:

1- Are we, as urban citizens, inside a ‘zone of fear’ and averse to initiating contact with strangers?

2- Are urban spaces and systems designed to make meetings between strangers happen?

I find it important to raise these questions, especially in the political climate that we are experiencing in India at this time, where segregation, insecurity and fear are prominent themes. If we are to ‘develop’, I  think these are issues we need to think about and, at least as individuals, deal with.

On a personal level, I try to have meaningful conversations with everyone I meet. Since I’m interested in the urban informal sector and in migration, I make it a point to especially speak to those who offer urban services- auto drivers, fuel pump attendants, vendors, cleaning staff. What I hear from them has a profound impact on how I think and behave; it also informs the way I look at cities and people. And my biggest takeaway is that we are all human. If we lose that sense of humanity, I’m not sure life will have meaning any more.

Will it, won’t it? 8 activities that will/might/won’t happen this weekend #lamepost #emptythoughts

I started working a full time job earlier this month after a gap of very many years. I had been busy all this while doing all sorts of paid and unpaid work with flexible timings, but this was going to be a very different deal! Even though I’ve adjusted to ‘the grind’ well enough, I’m really excited about a 5-day break coming up starting tomorrow, bringing in a season of festivals and festivities in India.

So on my last working afternoon before this break, I’m dreaming up all the stuff I will do, and simultaneously wondering how many of them are actually likely to happen! Thought I’d share the list and the thoughts…..

  1. Calling my kids’ school friends over for a day spend: Will happen. You DO NOT go back on an offer you’ve made your kids, especially if you’ve recently started spending entire days and evenings and sometimes half the night away from home!
  2. Football mum: Ferrying the kiddos around is part of the weekend drill. Not really complaining!
  3. Catching up with my besties: Will happen. It’s my only means to sanity and this is not about choice! Shout out to those two, you know who you are…
  4. Dancing: Am hoping to put in extra sessions of kathak in preparation for our show in January, but will likely get in only a couple the way things are
  5. Baking/Cooking: Sigh! The stuff I dream of but never find time to do, I guess I need to find a way to prioritize this
  6. Pampering myself at the salon: The things that MUST happen will happen, but for the rest I’m not terribly optimistic!
  7. Catching a movie: Where’s the time slot for that? There must be one, there must be one……missing Rahul, partner in crime and another crazy creature who drags us to the movies no matter what!
  8. Sleep in: Another one those things I need to do and must do, but don’t ever really end up doing.

Clearly, the kids prevail and I have a strange set of priorities. But that’s how it goes folks! Signing off now and entering vacation zone…

Ajjee, family rockstar: Nearly 100 and indomitable still!

We’ve never seen her sit still. We grew up eating home made sheviyo (fine noodles cooked in multiple ways) and paapad (typical to Indian food, hard to explain but is spicy, made of pulses and eaten as an accompaniment with meals) made by her. We helped her make vaatiyo (baatis or wicker sticks for lamps) from raw cotton. And we swaddled babies and ourselves in godadiyo (quilts) hand stitched by her. Ajjee, my father’s mother, my beautiful grandmother, has been a constant in the lives of all her children and grandchildren and many many more of us.

Made usually of leftover pieces of cloth, Ajjee builds intricate patterns and designs, often a peacock or a cat for kids or a pattern of geometric flowers for older people or even a simple quilt made out of an old sari put together by a complex and even running stitch. Her talent and industry has been the stuff of legends. It wasn’t just family, she would make these precious quilts for anyone who came in to appreciate, ask for help and even those who made a simple, honest request (it’s getting tough for her now to be equally productive, but not for want of trying!).

This morning, the family proudly read her name mentioned in an interview in The Hindu with Patrick J Finn, who has just finished a book on quilt-making in India and I simply had to write this tribute to the most inspirational person in our family. Our very own rockstar- Hirabai Naik! Ajjee for some, Maee Ajjee for others, Ayee for many, a symbol of grit and determination, a beacon of kindness and love and hope. A person who rises above us despite all her human failings.

_DSC1797Always built small, Ajjee has become frailer with time but her spirit is indomitable. Today, even as she complains of feeling fatigue, her mind is still working on the latest designs. Beyond quilting, she is a master of re-use, making hundred of cloth shopping bags and gifting them to everyone. She doesn’t actively advocate their use, simply because she belongs to the generation that never made the switch to the plastic shopping bag! She just assumes everyone still carries their own cloth bags with them and I think it is remarkable that within her lifetime we have moved so far away from cloth bags and are now firmly marching back towards them, aided by supermarkets that charge us extra for carry bags in a bid to encourage some environmental sensitivity.

Last year, in Goa, when we visited for Ganesh Chaturthi

Last year, in Goa, when we visited for Ganesh Chaturthi

In small but fantastic examples like this, I increasingly see reasons for Indians to look back at the small things we are losing- skills, recipes, habits and ideas that make for a healthier, more responsible lifestyle that puts community and family first, but is also is eager to learn from others. To me, that (not religion, not ritual, not caste or creed, nor regional identity) is the essence of an Indian culture and I always look at Ajjee with amazement for all these values she taught me, without ever preaching but entirely by example!

Emotional outpourings on New Year’s Day! #friendship #happiness

I ushered in 2014 with a warm fuzzy feeling of being surrounded by love and laughter. From the party last night with all our closest family and friends (and many not in town who we missed hugely) to the picnic at Lodi Gardens today with college friends, I kept thinking about how my sense of well being is hugely impacted by the kind of relationships I have with the people around me.

No words can express what he means to best friend by far!

No words can express what he means to me…my best friend by far!

The fulcrum of my life

The fulcrum of my life

Bringing in the New Year, drunk on friendship and happiness!

Bringing in the New Year, drunk on friendship and happiness!

Who we hang out with says a lot about us? What are the values that bind us? That’s the question on which hinge most of the relationships in my life that I have chosen to nurture. And because I am driven by people and relationships (including the one with myself), I find it important to introspect on these lines on the first day of the New Year.

Respect, honesty, loyalty, empathy and integrity. These are the five values that I feel most aptly describe what I have in common with my dear ones. I value the friend who can say the most unsavory truth to me, the one who can accept my silliness without judgement, the one who stands by me in my hour of need but also the one who seeks me out when she is in trouble.

A big thank you to everyone who has, in the past year, held me together when I fell apart, shared in my happy moments, been sensitive to my feelings and needs. To those who let me be, to those who held my hand, to those who pulled me into their lives. To those who cemented bonds that long stood strong, to those that forged delightful new ones, to those who dipped their feet into the pool of friendship.

I feel upbeat about 2014. I have never felt so sure about myself before (must be something about getting closer to the big Four ‘O’)! Looking forward to more work, more fun, more writing, more travel, more introspection, more outreach, more joy in the small things of life, more big decisions……

‘Happy birthday, mumma ke daddy!’ says Aadyaa

My dad would have turned 70 today, had he still been with us. I mentioned this while eating lunch today and darling Aadyaa spontaneously cried out a heartfelt wish to him, sending her wishes out into space to him, wherever he might be! Such a simple gesture, something only a child could execute with such grace and innocence.


I spent a super relaxed day at home and at some point in the late evening, Aadyaa and me ended up playing table tennis, on the drawing room floor! She is only 5, but super interested in sports. As playing on the TT table is hard for her, I decided to experiment with sitting on the floor opposite each other and just getting used to hitting the ball at each other with the TT bat. Oh, it was so much fun! We used the tiles to carve out an imaginary table, invented new rules and even played a match of sorts!

All through, I reminisced about how daddy used to be an ace TT player and how he coached me. Evenings in the faculty club in SGPGI Lucknow, him and me, hitting away. I learnt about strategy, about when to use which serve, about assessing the opponent’s game and targeting their weaknesses. He spoke about the sportsman’s attitude (excuse the outdated gendered reference), about the need to win, about not always being ‘nice’! I don’t know how much of the lecturing got through at the time; mostly I valued the TT lessons as daddy-kiddo time! The TT tips did work and I continued to play for my college team after leaving Lucknow and even win sometimes.

Miss you, Dad. I learnt a lot about respecting young people from you and was fortunate to be the guinea pig for your parenting experiments! I hope I treat my kids with the same measured mix of leniency and discipline, with the same amount of trust and confidence and with the same sort of unconditional love!

My emotional bond with art is also my tool for positivity

I feel blessed today by my good fortune in finding not one, but two gurus to guide me through my journeys in art and self-development. For these are intrinsically linked and I see that clearly more than ever before in my life.

Let me back up. Culling out lessons from the experiences of friends, family and my own, dealing with the stresses of urban life and staying positive in the face of multiple pressures are the most oft repeated challenges we face. For those who put all their eggs in one basket, by choice or otherwise, it becomes vital to excel in their chosen area of concentration, whether its the home, the workplace or a serious hobby. My strategy has been to diversify my risks so to speak and is in line with the fact that i do have multiple interests and I may say talents that I can pursue. For many years, I focused on studying and music suffered. If I turned to music, a full time job would mean it would get little attention. If I left it, my guilt would kill me. I would stare longingly at salsa dancers and die to learn. I would go to performances all alone and cry bitter tears of remorse.

In my thirties, in the middle of struggling to balance home and career, raising young kids, something snapped inside me. On an impulse, I joined Shiamak Davar’s dance classes, after a gap of ten years! As I learnt to take time out for myself and got back to dance, my confidence grew. Three years later, I started learning kathak, for the first time in my life. I also tried various music teachers till I found my current guru. Between music and dance, both of which I pursue earnestly and purely for self-satisfaction, I found the self-confidence to explore new avenues at work, to think creatively, to approach problems with a positive attitude. If a particularly tough tukda (technical piece in kathak) can be mastered by being attentive and through practise, if my voice can hit that high note that eluded me last year, then issues at work can also be tackled.

Today, I find myself far more centred than I have ever been before. Even if things don’t go as planned, if I don’t meet my expectations in one area of my life, there are other things happening to compensate. I had this vital insight this weekend, that I had been deploying this as my stress management and positive thinking strategy! Whatever works, I guess!

This morning, I had the fortune of interacting with two talented artists. Nishi Singh, a kathak exponent of the Jaipur gharana who weaves the nuances of the Lucknow and Benares gharanas into her dance thanks to her training under several gurus was invited by my kathak guru ji Jayashree Acharya for a lecture demonstration with us students. We were doubly fortunate today to meet Vidushi Mamta Maharaj, daughter of Pandit Birju Maharaj, who also visited the studio. In watching her love for her art and her versatility-she played the tabla, sang and danced with equal ease-I was reminded that love and passion, and an immersion in the arts can bring a fluidity to life that mere hours of tutelage and practice cannot. Mamtaji’s message was one of emotion, of the need to connect to your art through your emotional side as much as through the intellectual side. To me, it is a validation of the emotional bond I have had with music and dance for years. There was a time when I would be ashamed of crying at a performance or being too emotional to sing on certain days when Masterji was too harsh in me. But now I know those were the signs that the bond is there for life.

I sit out hearing Udai go through his music lessons inside. There are days when I see his tears of frustration at not getting his notes right. And I hope with all my heart that he forms this bond just as I have!





On tackling life when it’s a tightrope walk

I have not blogged as often as I would like to lately and it certainly is not for lack of things I want to express! The truth is that I have been feeling overwhelmed lately. It’s that point that I reach every now and then, when I have been piling stuff onto my plate…all good stuff that I really want to do and really enjoy and some not-so-good routine stuff that I need to do…but when I reach the point when the plate is overflowing and the panic attack begins, that is not a nice place to be.

At time like this, when the panic attack is at its vicious worst and I still have to maintain an exterior of normalcy as well as keep up the tempo in all the good stuff I have taken up, there are two options.

1- Strike! Withdraw, take a forced break, breathe deep and come back with renewed vigour.

2- Attack! Renew social connections. Call on the connections of the heart, all my friends who really know me. Talk to them, interact, laugh, cry and let the stress seep out of me.

This second option, strangely, works for me much better that taking a break while trying hard not to hyperventilate! All this interaction stuff can be done in this age of technology without taking even a moment’s break from the list of tasks. Getting positive reinforcement from people raises my motivation levels higher and the energy needed to push myself more is then easier to generate.

In the same spirit, I attack my blog with renewed passion. I cannot let go this…which has become so much a part of me. Which helps me connect to people I don’t yet know, that larger energy circle that I shall reach out to in the future.

Of course, there are some things that I end up compromising on. The gym, for instance has taken the back seat these past few days. I’m working on setting that back on track as well….

More images of Dad, while I am at it…

While I am still in reminiscing mode, I thought I would add some more nuggets to sort of complete that storyline. There are, of course, many more images and incidents galore that I can dig out of memory, but these are a few special visuals I really want to share.

Shortly after we were see here Me, dad, Rahul, Mummy and Amamma. How young we all astonishes me to see how much time has gone by, it feels like yesterday...

Shortly before he passed away in 2002…you see here Me, dad, Rahul, Mummy and Amamma. How young we all look….it astonishes me to see how much time has gone by, it feels like yesterday…

The three of us in the fronnt lawn of the house in SGPGI Lucknow. I must have been in Class 9 or so...many happy memories of life on that campus, friends, parties, fights, games....

The three of us in the front lawn of the house in SGPGI Lucknow. I must have been in Class 9 or so…many happy memories of life on that campus, friends, parties, fights, games….

News item about his book release. It's true. Whenever I asked him of he was scared to be dying he denied it saying he has achieved all he wanted to and had lived a beautiful life....nothing to be sad about!

News item about his book release. It’s true. Whenever I asked him of he was scared to be dying he denied it saying he has achieved all he wanted to and had lived a beautiful life….nothing to be sad about!

Shit happens, but life must go on: A photo journey of nostalgia for Dad

I was charged by my paternal uncle with the seemingly simple task of creating a power point that described the highlights of my father’s life to be shown to schoolchildren in Goa, who would be participating in an inter-school elocution contest in memory of Dad, Dr Subhash Raghuvir Naik. Now Dad was very much a son of the soil and his Goan identity played affected him deeply; his emotional connect with his birthplace and family was always obvious to me, as it was only when he spoke of his childhood that I would see his eyes wet with unshed tears and sheer nostalgia.

Anookaka’s persistence is legendary in our family, and it took several calls to galvanize me into action. I had had a busy week at work, but I was also procrastinating. I knew delving into memory lane would take its toll on me emotionally. But there was no escape and last weekend, I found myself leafing through old pictures and condolence letters. Words swam in front of me as I shed tears that have been contained for over a decade; the mind flash-backed into scenes I thought I had forgotten. My mother watched me calm and composed as I let myself drown in a strange sort of sorrow. Sweet sorrow, as it were.

It is always hard to cope with the loss of a parent, or any dear one. The initial months are hard in the sense of getting used to life without the lost one, the years after are hard because you learn to cope and the guilt of that never leaves; and many years later, you think the trauma has left you but all it takes is a quiet afternoon and a few photographs for you to come undone.

Am blogging a few of the images I scanned for the presentation. I am smiling today, as  look at these because I am not the kind of person who can weep for long, I am a proud daughter to a dad who taught me always see the glass half full; and because I know shit happens, but life must go on…

Getting to know each other- Ajjee, me, Dad

Getting to know each other- Ajjee, me, Dad; 1976

Daddy and Mummy on their wedding day; Feb 1973

Daddy and Mummy on their wedding day; Feb 1973

Fevicol ka jod! Dad and me; perhaps 1979?

Fevicol ka jod! Dad and me; perhaps 1979?

The KEM Mumbai days, the white coated he loved his work! Round about 1983?

The KEM Mumbai days, the white coated doc…how he loved his work! Round about 1983?

The two-week visits to Goa were filled with conversation- Anookaka, Dad, Ajee; About 1985

The two-week visits to Goa were filled with conversation- Anookaka, Dad, Ajee; About 1985

A summer break in Bangalore where my maternal grandparents stayed. Ammma, Vava, me, Ananth mama, Dad. Check out his veshti, this is probably on Diwali day 1986

A summer break in Bangalore where my maternal grandparents stayed. Ammma, Vava, me, Ananth mama, Dad. Check out his veshti, this is probably on Diwali day 1986

A huge leap in time. Rahul and me etting married in 2001. Circumstances are strange. Dad has just been detected with cancer. His smile remains intact....

A huge leap in time. Rahul and me getting married in 2001. Circumstances are strange. Dad has just been detected with cancer. His smile remains intact….

Dad started to write his autobiography within months of learning of his terminal disease. This is at the release function in 2002, just weeks before he passed away.

Dad started to write his autobiography within months of learning of his terminal disease. This is at the release function in 2002, just weeks before he passed away.

Smile, for you can light the world!

I could post a zillion pics of my kids for this week’s Word A Week Photo Challenge on the A Word in your Ear blog, seeing as the world this week is Smile. But I refrain from being the over zealous mom. I cannot but extend the word Smile into the word People. It is certainly the warmth of the people in our lives that makes us go on, day after day, despite hard times. And what best way to take strength and inspiration from them than to pay tribute to their smiles, that most precious gift that can instantly chase away gloom and lighten the heart, quicken the step and bring us back on track, when we fear we will lose our way.


This casual click on my kids fooling around one Sunday morning a couple of years ago is my absolute favorite! I am allowed to be a pit partial…I think


Our neighbor she is and her smile has been a mood-lifter for sure!


Aadyaa surprised herself by not crying the first time she played Holi full blast, the festival of colours


That is Udai in absolute glee at the water pistol he is wielding. Also on holi!


Enigmatic smiles are the specialty of this particular friend!


Her sweet nature is reflected in her smile….at her son’s Upanayan ceremony, which is when Hindu Brahmin boys are formally accepted into the fold) my bhabhi is decked out in all her finery!


Another Hindu festival of Karva Chauth, when wives fast for the health and life of their husbands. This was taken in the lawns of my apartment block. This friend seemed amused in the midst of everyone else being seriously immersed in the rituals!


What are they upto? Udai and his grandmum fooling around


Two wonderful smiles and two weak-watery expressions…this was clicked after Aadyaa bought that small earthen pot from the tribal potters that squat on the pavement near our home…