• 17

    As some of you already know, I lost my grandfather this morning. He had been battling with illness for many years now, and he passed away today, peacefully and without pain. He was an incredible man– a fighter to the last moment– and a huge part of my childhood. I shared a very close relationship with him, and today, even as I grieve his passing, I also appreciate his life and the 24 years we had together.

    Sitting here in New York, there wasn’t much I could do, so I did what I do to make sense of the world– I wrote. And I want to share this “letter” with you all because I want to share this incredible human being who I was lucky to know and love, and who will always remain an important part of me.

    Dear Nanu

    As we all sit around, thinking of you, I wonder what you have said to us right now. One thing I know—you would not have wanted us to mourn your death. You would have wanted us to celebrate your life. You might even have made some silly joke that would, despite everything, have made us smile. And so, I choose to remember your life more than I mourn your passing.

    I remember how, many years ago, we used to have morning tea by the pond. You wanted to build so much surrounding that pond—a water fall, a canal connecting to the other pond that had frogs, a whole landscape. I remember how your eyes would light up when you described it, how I too could see the landscape through your vision. You taught me about beauty and dreams and possibility.

    I remember how, in second grade, my teacher asked each of us to clip the name of the newspaper we received at home because we were doing a survey of which newspapers were read the most. I remember you giving me clippings of each of the 6-7 newspapers you subscribed to (and read each morning), so much so that my teacher thought I had gone around collecting clippings from all my neighbors. You taught me about a love of learning and of different perspectives.

    I remember your excitement about birthdays, the lists you would help me make of the eats, the games, the guests, and the decorations for every childhood birthday party. I remember going to the cake shop with you to choose a special cake—a princess or a bird or a superhero. I remember how much you enjoyed the planning and the party. You taught me about celebration.

    I remember your stories about the Indian independence movement—remember watching it unfold through the eyes of the teenager you used to be. I remember your staunch idealism, which you never lost through the long days working in the London factory that you described. I remember your zeal for the causes you cared about, remember you going for a protest march in 2002, when you already had knee trouble and could barely walk. You taught me about fighting for one’s beliefs.

    I remember how, when I was little, you would introduce me to people as your “favorite granddaughter,” and I would shoot back “how many granddaughters do you have?” and you would respond, “only one, but you are still my favorite.” It was the same conversation every time. You taught me about a love so strong that it had no room for comparisons.

    I remember how often, as a lawyer, you took on cases for free when your clients could not afford to pay. I remember how, for a long time, I wanted to be a lawyer because I respected what you did so much. You taught me about justice.

    I remember, many years ago, walking with you and feeding the fish in the pond and in the aquarium, feeding the birds in the garden, walking amongst the plants as you pruned and nipped. I remember you explaining the name of each plant, telling me which trees were planted when and what they were good for, plucking narangis for that sour taste that shook my whole body early in the morning. And I remember how, when Karun and I were little and one of your birds died, you helped us bury it so it could be safe. You taught me about life and about death.

    I remember how you and I would debate about all kinds of things, ever since I was four or five, in ways that the rest of the family wrote off as our special arguments—haazir-javabi. You taught me about thinking through and voicing my points of view.

    I remember how, when I sat with you in the intensive care unit after your stroke last year, you apologized to me for the “trouble.” And I remember one day a few months ago when I was visiting you at home and I had a slight headache… you forgot your own pain and discomfort in your concern that I be able to rest. You already couldn’t get up from bed, but you made sure you didn’t once ask me for anything because I fell asleep near you and you didn’t want to wake me up. You taught me about unselfishness.

    I remember how, through all your years of pain, you never complained and you always responded to the question “How are you doing?” with a decisive “I’m okay.” I remember how even in those last months, you were never short of silly jokes and puns on words like “bas” and “kaafi.” You taught me about strength and a sense of humor.

    I remember how, even after my 24th birthday, you continued to call me TM, short for “teeny meeny.” And I remember you explaining to my friend and me that I was still “teeny meeny” as far you were concerned. You taught me about the way grandparents’ love.

    You taught me so much that you are inextricably a part of me, of the best in me. Anyone who looks deeply into my strength, my love of beauty, my passion for justice, my desire to learn, my starry-eyed dreams, my insistence on speaking my mind, my understanding of life or my acceptance of your passing—anyone who looks there will see you hidden inside it. You can never be far from me because you are a part of me.

    When they told me that your heart kept beating for almost 10 hours after everything else in your body gave up—that your heart outlived your body—I couldn’t help smiling through my grief. Of course your heart would be stronger than anyone believed, of course it would be larger than life (larger even than death)… and of course your heart would be the last to give up.

    I love you,


  • 17

    Today’s entry began as a personal email to a close friend– a writer friend, to whom i can get away with writing long letters about nothing in particular. It left me thinking, then got me to pull out a book I haven’t looked at in a while, and write a little more. So, here they are, some thoughts in nothingness

    If you have read a large part of this blog, you’ll know that memories and remembrance are themes very close to my heart. Not just that I like writing about specific moments I remember, but also that I am fascinated by the act of remembrance and what it does. Almost 5 years ago (wow) I had prepared a “program of poetry” on remembrance as part of the Speech Team at SUA. Found lots of lovely poetry on the theme, but the one line that has stayed with me is from Sylvia Curbelo: “Snapshots are shields/ What we remember in some way protects us.”

    Today, as I re-read parts of that book (“Spinning Gold out of Straw” by Diane Rooks), i found an image that struck me. She read the the word “remember” as “re-member” i.e. to put something back together. Perhaps the most graphic and powerful explanation fo that interpretation of the word is in this West African tale she tells:

    The Gift of a Cow Tail Switch

    A West African Tale

    A great warrior did not return from the hunt. His family gave him up for dead, all except his youngest child who each day would ask, “Where is my father? Where is my father?”

    The child’s older brothers, who were magicians, finally went forth to find him. They came upon his broken spear and a pile of bones. The first son assembled the bones into a skeleton; the second son put flesh upon the bones; the third son breathed life into the flesh.

    The warrior arose and walked into the village where there was great celebration. He said, “I will give a fine gift to the one who has brought me back to life.”

    Each one of his sons cried out, “Give it to me, for I have done the most.”

    “I will give the gift to my youngest child,” said the warrior. “For it is this child who saved my life. A man is never truly dead until he is forgotten!”


    What a powerful story. Yes, that youngest child was the most important in the search.

    In less dramatic ways, remembering isn’t just about life and death; remembering is also about the little things, which are no less important.

    Today I was thinking not only of what it means to look back much later but also of what it means to look back right now. We often tell each other to “forget it” when we are upset or angry, to “move on” when we are hurt… and I do it too, believe we have to be able to move on. Yet, does that “moving on” have to imply looking away? I think not. I think it possible to look something in the eye, embrace it, and then move on.

    Indigenous Mexican culture taught me a lot about endings– most importantly that they are just as much a part of a process as the beginnings. I learned that i didn’t have to mourn the end of something beautiful and special– or, i could, if i chose to, but i could also celebrate it, or I could do both. I remember my program coordinator’s constant refrain “hay que cerrar ciclos” (“one has to close cycles” but I prefer reading it as “circles”), and he was usually talking about internal, emotional circles. In that culture, initiation ceremonies and closing ceremonies were equally important… if you began a project, you had to take out a little time and energy to close the project, not just abandon it and “move on.” It felt a little forced at first, but I quickly learned to appreciate the importance of that moment, and I found my own little rituals with which to close important circles.

    My last essay at SUA was called “On leaving college: a conversation with Ralph Waldo Emerson,” and it explored Emerson’s essays “circles” and “experience.” A quote from my essay:

    Why circles? Circles have a completeness to them: lines can extend infinitely in either direction, but circles cover all the points in the universe that could ever be a part of this particular circumference. When you tie the two ends together, the circle is finished; although its energy may radiate out into surrounding circles, that particular circle is closed and encapsulates everything that happened within it.

    I feel this way about my undergraduate career now: it’s been an incredible process, but I have by now gone over all the points in this circle. It is time to close the circle and move on to the next process. Emerson reminds me, “there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens” (179). The end of this process is only the beginning of the next one. And there is no outer limit to how far these circles will expand or how many of them there will be.

    I don’t know if this makes sense in isolation, but that’s what I meant– needing to tie those tow ends together as a way of having gone over all the points in one circle… so i know it’s time to move on to the next one. The image accompanying this essay was one of concentric circles that touch at one common point (I hope you cn envision that!), and it’s become how I look at life.

    Especially now, as I close one more circle, arrive back at the common point, and start drawing a new, larger circle that encapsulates all the ones up until now. Over the last few weeks, i find myself making gifts and cards for many people at work (I wish i could do it for more than I can, in fact!), and I’m realizing that, although I do believe that the recipients of those cards and gifts appreciate them, I am doing this as much for myself. Saying “thank you” helps me realize in my heart that this one, beautiful chapter is over, without letting its “over-ness” be a sad experience. I guess that’s what I learned in Mexico– I learned to celebrate endings just as much as I celebrate beginnings (look at their Day of the Dead! If a culture can celebrate death just as much

    as they celebrate life, what greater example can there be?).

    That’s all. If you were expecting this to come to some satisfying conclusion, it won’t. Not yet at least. It’s a thought in process, nothing more, so add your two cents please!

  • 21

    While facilitating a workshop this morning, I suddenly had a shooting pain through my left eye. The pain subsided soon, then became a kind of dull, annoying ache that lasted through the day. Not terrible, just annoying. Not the kind of thing that would usually have carried me to the doctor, but this time instinct said “GO!”, and so i did.

    Good thing too, because this time i have not 1, not 2, but 3 broken stitches inside the eye! Fun times.

    I’m amazed at instinct, though… at how the body just knows how to tell me when something is severely wrong as opposed to my random everyday pain. All three times that this has happened, the pain/ grittiness/ discomfort hasn’t been much out of the ordinary, or much more than a regular day. But each time, i have just known that I need to see the doctor immediately. I still don’t know how i have known, but i have. Instinct. It’s amazing.

    I’m a little exhausted from all this. It hasn’t even been 3 months since the last surgery (tomorrow is three months to the day), and here I am going back into the OT. The memories of the last one are still too fresh, the pain too real… over time, the memory fades, and forgetfulness helps one be brave. But right now, the memroy is fresh, and I really don’t want to go through that again!

    Oh well, at least this time i can prepare for it. Download lots of auidobooks. Buy lots of snacks and cold foods (have i mentioned how, when i am sick, i can only eat cold food or i want to throw up?). Stock up on pain meds. Hand over the most urgent things at work. Finish important-to-finish-now writing. And then I’ll go back into that sterilized room. Ugh, I’ve spent way too much time in OTs, the memories make me shudder.

    So yeah, I’m ranting. But right now, at moments like these, I also have a vauge sense of pride. Just pride that I have made it this far. Sometimes I forget all the struggles to get through school, to get through college, to balance (not always successfully) a working life and taking care of all these chronic illnesses. Sometimes, I get caught up in little stresses, start doubting my life’s capacity for limitless growth, limitless expansion. Then, something like this comes along and forces me to reflect, just for a moment, on everything I have fought and won over. Not immediately, perhaps, but eventually. And that brings me pride and comfort anf faith in the future, faith in my life’s capacity to defeat obstacles and open up further.

    In the newspaper this morning, there was a short essay by Sensei (don’t ask me how it got there– i have no clue– but it was perfect for today). He wrote about a 19th centruy mountain climber who was trying to conquer a particular mountain (i’ll dig up the details another time). He wrote about each expedition, about all the ones that failed, about the ones where the mountaineer was seriously injured, and then about the 8th one, when he finally conquered the mountain. He wrote about how, even if you fall down seven times, the important question is whether you get up the eighth. I guess that’s my question to myself right now as well. Even if I fall down seven times, will I get up the eighth?

    And the answer is yes, I will, I always have so far. Moments like this remind me of this simple fact. And although that cannot alter the fact that I have a very not-fun few weeks coming up, although it cannot prevent me from wishing i didn’t have to deal with all that pain yet again, although it cannot really change anyting, it does remind me that this, too, has meaning.

    And maybe that reminder sums up all the change I need right now.

  • 28

    Okay, I’m fed up. Everyone I meet is trying to analyze my choices of the last few years, and they are driving me up the wall. Figure this out:

    First there are the people who cant understand the decision to come back to India after completing my undergraduate degree. One of the first questions I was asked at my recent job interview was why I am choosing to return to India after doing so many “interesting things” in the USA (umm, and there’s nothing interesting to be done here?). One person actually asked outright why I am “wasting” my American degree, i.e. coming back here when salaries are so much higher there… next someone will ask why I didn’t just marry an American and settle down there! Others are more subtle, but their incredulity is obvious. And annoying.

    Then there are a handful of people, and several recent newspaper articles, that sing praises of Indians who have “given up promising careers abroad” and come back “to help the less fortunate in their motherland.” Since I am looking for work with NGOs and such, some tend to lump me with these people. Umm, no. That was NOT what I was thinking in choosing to come back. Sure, I want to work in the villages here, or in alternative education here, but I do NOT pretend to be doing it so selflessly, to be giving up what I really wanted in order to “help”; in any case, that sounds incredibly patronizing, as if those are situations where you just give and don’t receive. I want to do this stuff because I enjoy it and because I have learned more in such situations that I have anywhere else; I came home because this is where I want to be. That’s all; stop trying to make martyrs out of people like me and thereby demean what was really just an honest decision to come home and follow my heart.

    But right now, I am most irritated with the other extreme– the JNU-style “communist” intellectuals who insist on speaking contemptuously of my college experience in America, for no reason other than that it was in America. I just met one such person today: she tried to convince me that my education there was meaningless, that there was nothing I learned at SUA that I wouldn’t have learned at Delhi University, and that there is no such thing as the “independent research” I believe I did for Capstone and for several of my classes. Anything positive I said, even to someone else in a different context (for example, my amazement at the fact that I became conversant in Spanish in just two years, whereas I cant string together a sentence of French after five years of it in high school) was brushed aside, loudly and definitively. At most, she might acknowledge that Mexico or Argentina were good for me, but America? Never.

    Where do you even begin explaining yourself to such people? First off, SUA opened the doors for me to even go to Argentina and Mexico– there was no way i was going to do that directly after college here; it simply wouldn’t happen. Besides, I treasure my experiences in the USA just as much as those in Argentina and Mexico… in each of those places, I learned several important life lessons and made several incredible friends. Oh ya, she (and people like her) also think it amazing that I have friends from Mexico/ Argentina/ France/ Peru/ Japan etc., but if I talk of my American friends, they think I’m a wannabe American who can’t get enough of that country. Again, how do I tell her that I don’t see my friends that way? I didn’t make friends with Lili because she’s Peruvian; I made friends with her because she’s Lili. I didn’t make friends with Masako because she is French; I made friends with her because she’s Masako. And I didn’t make friends with Wendy or Mike because they are American; I made friends with them because they are Wendy and Mike. I don’t like this arbitrary assigning of value to my friendships– who the hell is a random stranger to decide which of my friendships is most valuable, depending simply on which country that friend comes from? Why is it that I can speak of all my other international experiences with all the love in the world and have people tell me how lucky I am to have had these experiences, but the moment I talk of my US experiences with any trace of affection or nostalgia, I’m branded a sell-out to US hegemony?

    I’m far from claiming– or believing– that everything about the USA is great and about India terrible (let’s face it– would I have come home if I believed that?). At the same time, I will not therefore claim that everything about the USA is terrible and about India is great. I DID have a wonderful four years at college there… i cannot speak for the average American college (I don’t know if that exists, and if it does, I don’t know what it is), but i CAN speak for my own college experience there, and it was incredible. I DO believe that there is no other place where I could have met and befriended people from all over the world as I did in the USA. I DO respect many things about the people I have met in the USA; yes, the USA went to war in Iraq, but the USA also has the millions of people out on the street protesting that war, making their voices heard… I don’t remember a single large scale protest against India’s nuclear program here in the capital; yes, the USA still has its share of prejudices and doesn’t allow gay marriage, but men in Delhi get arrested for being gay. And, now that I am back, I am becoming strangely defensive about these things.

    It would be funny if it weren’t so sad: The people who tell me this belong to the so-called “progressive” groups in India. These people think of themselves as having absolutely nothing in common with Bush. But actually, they mirror his us-against-them mindset, even if they flip who the “us” are and who the “them” are. Dr. Ikeda once defined world peace as “a global network of friendship”; as naive as some will think that, after SUA, I know it to be true. I can never fully be at peace with a label, but I cannot be otherwise with the face, the name, and the story hidden behind that label.

    In a world that still thinks in terms of “nation-states,” it is hard to explain a global identity. I feel I have a global identity. People I love are scattered all over the world, so I don’t think of those blobs on the map as nations but simply as places where I have a friend, as the home of someone I love. I refuse to undermine any part of this identity– the American part, the Indian part, or any other part– and it seems like much of the next few months will be a process of making people realize that my world is not, cannot be, black and white.


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