Of India, Pakistan, and many memories…

Working in the digital space, the word ‘clickbait’ is thrown around often. Conversations in India are just like that these days, ‘clickbaity’. “Finish them off, bomb them into oblivion, Aman ki Asha – what stupidity are you talking about?”

I have heard these and then some in the past two weeks. Whether it was out of rage, intended to shock or just hopping onto a “revenge” train. I can’t say. These came from my own – family and friends who decided what was right for India like they believed in it.

I have been wanting to write about it for sometime but the fear of confrontation stopped me. Do I want to fight with my own? I did not. But I also thought if I did not say what I wanted to, I am just another coward wanting to keep the peace (pun intended here!).

It took a piece written by my former editor Prasad to open the floodgates of memories. It was October 1999, and a few days after Amrit was born when I received a beautiful hand-written letter from my then colleague Kamran, congratulating me and calling my baby ‘amrit ka pyala’. I showed the letter to Appa who had seen two wars in 1965 and 1971 but had never met and interacted with a Pakistani in his life.  He was taken aback by what Kamran had written, and was touched with the love and affection that came from his words.

Just two years before this, in December 1997, I was on my first international flight to Muscat from Mumbai via Delhi – and as the aircraft passed through Pakistani airspace, it sent a chill down my spine. I shouldn’t have worried, and after we touched down in Muscat, the husband’s office driver who came to receive us was a Pakistani – so full of warmth and affection and so eager to make me feel at home in Muscat.

At the Times of Oman, where I joined as sub-editor/reporter in 1998, we all sat in a circular newsroom – Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, Arabs, and Omanis. Though we all had our differences – when it came to World Cup cricket and supplements – we bonded over food and the sense of two so-called “enemies” living and working together in a foreign country.

Our colleague Shehzad’s wife sent us the choicest delicacies during Ramadan and Eid, she also once cooked us a complete vegetarian meal at home, Kamran married Mariya and named his first-born Suhani after Rani Mukherjee’s character in Saathiya, we ate the choicest Pakistani mangoes (chausa) in summer and preferred Pakistani basmati over the Indian brands. One of them (not naming him here) told me I looked like a smart Pakistani when I wore a particular style of salwar kameez. I remember retorting, “Why can’t I be a smart Indian?” And together, we laughed.

Did we feel wary of them or did they feel we were the “enemy”? Definitely not. We were friends and colleagues working and arguing late into the night shift. Clarence Rufin went through my stories with a tooth comb and helped me come with great headlines and we debated on everything from Kamal Haasan’s Anbe Sivam to 9/11 and sang Bollywood songs during rare power breaks.

Twenty-one years later, Kamran remains a close friend, committed to peace between the two countries. And eight years back, he published a piece of mine on Sai Baba in a Pakistani paper of all places, because he thought my spirituality would resonate with his readers, never mind the difference in religion. Despite the many differences, and the physical distance – which might not reduce in my lifetime – we still remain friends.

So, when friends in India say I am “opinionated” because I want peace between both countries and I will not label Pakistanis as “enemies”, I don’t think I need to justify who I am friends with and why?

All I have with me are those fond memories of the Times newsroom, the workers in my husband’s office and the chance meetings I have had with friendly Pakistanis in parks and malls.

I wouldn’t trade these friendships and memories for anything in this world. And I will always believe that “peace has a chance”. All you need to do is believe in it.

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Apna time aayega… and some lessons in life.

I was eight or nine years old, and on the bus home when I got into a bit of a scuffle with a senior from school who was also from the same neighbourhood. She wanted me to give up my seat on the bus but I refused. Her tone dripped acid, “No wonder your mother is sick.”

Everyone knew my mother was dying of cancer during that time. Surely, that girl too. And yet, as a lot of bullies do, she knew she could hurt me where it would hurt the most. I ran all the way home from the bus stop in tears. I told Amma about it. She just said, “Let it go. People will realise the fruit of their actions later.”

For many years after Amma’s death, I would clutch my copy of the Sri Sai Satcharita and wonder whether my time would come. Whether the tears would dry up one day. Whether the barbs and insults will some day decrease into nothingness. I remember walking all over the city with just a few rupees in my pocket. We were not poor or anything, but I was denied what I wanted, even the most basic of necessities.

I overachieved through college solely on temerity and guts, and with four sets of clothes. I started taking tuitions for children in the neighbourhood at the age of sixteen. Whatever happened, I was never without money – it came from the tuitions and the competitions I kept winning, all the time.

Life has not been easy. And yet, what I remember from those days is how I held on. Despite the hardships, digging deep into my palms with my nails and drawing blood, the constant screams to ‘get out of the house’ or buying my own stuff to make food at home, I held on – on mere hope and faith. That apna time aayega. In between all these, I walked across a waterfall in the peak of the monsoon, travelled as the only woman in a train compartment for 36 hours and climbed atop a bus.

My friends tell me I have been blessed with incredible guts. And a penchant for forgiveness. I agree… for apna time aayega may mean I have proved people wrong. but I did not carry on with life with any vengeance in my heart.

Today, God has been more than kind to me on many fronts. A “spiritually-filled’ life in the Middle East for 20 years, a wonderful family and great friends, and the most encouraging of workplaces. And enough money to live a comfortable life.

Did my time come? Yes it did. But I do not feel like pumping my fists in the air and doing a headstand. I believe giving and receiving is a circle – I must have done something good to receive all the good things in life. And trials and tribulations are a way of keeping my feet on the ground.

Yes, apna time aayega. Accept it with grace and humility. With empathy and love.

Romancing the 80s and 90s

So, this week, I wrote a story on the whole dating scene of today especially with all this swiping left, swiping right, and chatting business.

Okay, we didn’t have Tinder in the 80s or 90s. We didn’t even have WhatsApp, Hangouts, Yahoo Chatrooms because, hmmm, we had no Internet, you see. What the heck, we got television only in 1985 and cable TV (and in the process, Bold & Beautiful and Santa Barbara) in 1992.

The 22-year-old boy sitting next to me at office was bewildered. He asked, “So how did you guys romance?” adding, “you were so cute then, how did guys hit on you?”

That cute bit was to make sure I didn’t tear his copies apart, line by line. Nevertheless, who doesn’t like a bit of flattery? So I set forth to educate him and other twenty-somethings on romancing in the 80s and 90s.

“Hit on me? I would stare him down!” Ask the girls of the 90s what staring down a person means, and they’ll tell you it’s worse than looking a basilisk in the eye. If my looks could kill, a few people in Mattancherry would have been dead by now.

Romance was discreet – the aankhon hi aankhon mein ishara types – across houses, rooftops, classrooms, buses or even boats. First, you would look at each other, and maybe after six months, the girl would let out a half-smile. And that too only at the neighbouring school boys. Coming from a convent, it took us all of 15 years to talk to them, only because they were fiercely protecting us at inter-school fests. But once outside, in the bylanes of Fort Kochi, it would be back to half-smiles, lest the whole nunnery came behind us with “you are falling in sin” Catholic sermons.

College was better – we finally had boys in the vicinity though we had different stairways to reach our classes. I was the first to rebel, push my way through the boys on their stairwell and reach the top floor with a smile. Well, that was rebellion in those days. We encouraged budding romances – where couples had eyes for each other without touching; or a group of boys goading a shy boy to go talk to a girl.  I don’t even remember shaking hands with a boy, even if he was a classmate, until I started Journalism school. It was all so sweet, innocent, and heady.

Outside college, we used to bump into the same boys because they came from the same neighbourhood, in typing classes, at Laxmi Bazaar (our go-to place for everything), at Shantilal Mithaiwala or at the different temples that dotted the area. There would always be a group of giggling boys smiling at a group of “Oh! I so want to talk to her but I don’t think I will” groups of boys.

Yes, the temple was an important meeting place. Between the circumambulations and  various puja and bhajan gatherings, eyes met, smiles were exchanged and romances blossomed, only silently. Most of the time, people were too scared to take it any further than surreptitious telephone calls from phone booths or a walk together on campus.

When lives moved onto workplaces, and important careers had to be made, parents starting looking for grooms and most of the girls married by the age of 25. There were no Devdases lingering in the neighbourhood, no writs slit or beards grown.

Yes, there was a feeling of loss – of the innocence of childhood and youth, of camaraderie, and of friendships that drifted apart.

Now in 2018, when we have all connected on Facebook, and over WhatsApp Group, it’s so good to reminisce about friendships, romance and all the leg-pulling of men and women who are now in their 40s.

So twenty-somethings with Tinder, Woo, OkCupid and all those apps, this is how we romanced. Like we truly believed in it!

 

 

Ayakkad Amma, your love lives on…

Blogging Challenge – Day 7

A couple of weeks after Amma (my mother-in-law) passed away in February this year, Bala asked me why I was not writing a piece on her like I did for Appa (my father-in-law) in 2015.

It’s not that I did not have anything to share about her. Twenty years of being a (daughter)-in-law in the Ayakkad family came with a lot of memories. There was so much to write, and I didn’t know where to begin.

Last evening, my colleague Dipti was dropping me home and we got talking about the largeheartedness of the generations before us.  In an instant, the first person who came to my mind was Amma. Largehearted defined her, wholly and completely.

As I sit before my laptop screen and try to put together some sort of a tribute, I realise Amma does not need one. After her passing away, the number of Ayakkadians who came to visit us said it all. One remembered the number of times Susheela maami (as she was known) made sure he had food at home, another remembered her leading the band of women who made murukkus and laddoos for a village wedding, her enviable collection of traditional recipes (she didn’t have to repeat a dish for three weeks) and yet another for her nuggets of wisdom.

While Amma was conservative and superstitious about certain things, she was very open-minded about a lot of others. She never commented on my “short hair”, or sense of dressing but was rather pleased that I never hesitated to wear a saree when the occasion demanded it.

As the first home in the village, anyone who visited the temple dropped in at ours. Relatives, friends or old-timers, Amma made sure they had a quick meal, and in olden days, some of them even stayed over for a few days. If I learned how to welcome guests in the wee hours, do jugaad and stretch a sambhar with some modifications or whip up a simple upma at midnight, I learned it all from her.

At a time, when in-laws were put on a pedestal because they are “sammandhis”, the bond between my family and my in-laws was often envied. Whenever Amma and Appa made a trip to Cochin, I would joke that they packed  half the house into the car. Amma would pluck fresh sambhar keerai from the backyard, pack buttermilk and milk (because we got milk in packets in the city), make special sweets and would never forget to buy halwa from Lakshmi Bakery for my kid brother, Karthik. Once they were in Cochin, Amma would take over the kitchen for a few days because my father loved her cooking.

Her food came with a lot of stories…. how certain vegetables were preserved for the monsoons when fresh vegetables would be scarce, how every part of vegetables could be used to make more delicacies (for example, the nendran stem was made into thoran, the pulp of the pumpkins into thuvaiyals, etc). She and Appa diligently plucked the manaithikalis growing in the front yard, and pickled them along with fat chillies in curd. The nellikas (gooseberries) would be made into pickles or drowned in salt water. Every waking moment was spent in doing something fruitful. Her cooking was to die for… and the variety mind-boggling. Amrit insists that no one can make better sambhar, rasakalan or chutney podi (that the children lovingly called paati podi) like his Ayakkad paati.

She faced a lot of struggles in her lifetime, but took them in her stride and showered all her love on her five children. She was warm, friendly, disciplined and a woman of the world.

Alambalam Narayanan Parvathy (fondly known as Susheela maami), your love lives on!

 

Dance like nobody’s watching…

Blogging Challenge – Day 6

It was edavam already… but the monsoon seemed to have a a mind of its own. While  dark clouds signalled rain, frogs croaked in anticipation and the night air was filled with petrichor, so far, there was just a trickle here, a drizzle there… It was not raining in torrents, not yet.

Kshama stood by the window, staring at the clouds. “Let it rain and soothe my beating heart,” she thought, as she reluctantly put on her anklets. She switched on the tape recorder, and as the song came to life, she had only one thought on her mind. “Will my body listen to me?”

As guruji taught her, she began with the aamad… her jingling feet making contact with the ground just as a sigh escaped her. Was her heart really in it? What if people mocked her? Tore apart her presence among all those nimble feet ?

And as if to calm her wandering mind, a streak of lightning lashed across the sky, followed by thunder that that brought on a shudder. As she practised the morni chal,  she saw the outline of the raindrops on the windows. She could feel the weight slowly slipping from her mind.

What was that Rajan told her? “What have you done in your life so far? Changed 25 jobs… moved five cities. You have no purpose or aim in life.”

Or that one that hit a new low: “You are a workaholic, who will want to marry you?”

Each snide remark that swirled in her mind brought new rhythm to her feet. Outside, it began to rain… the raindrops frolicked to the sound of thunder, the lightning sending out sparks…

It was as if the strobe lights had switched on, bathing the room in an iridescent glow. Kshema brought on the chakars in full flow, as she pirouetted across the room. Chaugun, dugun, athgun, she danced with gay abandon in a perfect jugalbandi with the rain that was now falling in torrents.

It was as if the Edavapathi had heard her prayers.

At 44, she was learning Kathak. Throwing criticism and judgmental cynics to the winds. Taking the reins of her life.

One taal at a time.

Outside, as the wind blew loudly, the storm in the heart settled.

And it was time to take a bow! As if nothing else mattered!

 

 

So you ask, what did I do in a women’s magazine in the Middle East?

 

So women in Saudi Arabia are now allowed to drive. And about time too! Clap clap…

So what does one think when one hears the word, Middle East? One is judged and painted with the same brush as Saudi Arabia.

So you wax eloquent about the misogyny, repression of women and abaya-isation of the Middle East, and claim you know it all. Without having stepped out of your myopic haze? Why? Because women were not allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Until last week.

For fuck’s sake, as they say in Hindi, apne gireban me jhaank kar dekho kabhi… to Asifa and nearer home, as the Ola auto driver on hearing the muzzein’s call to prayer tells me rather matter-of-factly, “Yeh sab log Pakistan ko support karte hain!”

Or the Marwari friend of mine from Jabalpur who has to wear a ghunghat every time she is in front of a male relative.

Or my so-called educated relatives who still segregate women when they have their periods. You get the vein, don’t you?

Yes, I lived in Muscat, Oman in the Middle East for 20 years. I worked in a newspaper and a women’s magazine. And I was an accredited journalist there. The smug and reprehensible question I have been asked over the course of the last year in India, continues to be, “So what did you guys have to write about?”

I don’t think I owe you an explanation. But I owe the wonderful, inspirational women in Oman one, and must give them their due.

Not every woman in Oman wears an abaya or a hijab – it’s her personal choice. Like it’s their choice when it comes to where they want to study, work, who they want to marry or why they want to divorce. They revel in their choices. They don’t take their husband’s names and the female cashier at National Bank of Oman would never reveal my account balance to my husband, she would write the number down on a piece of paper and give it to me. How that that for women’s rights, people?

I have met and interacted with a number of women in senior management positions –CEOs, CMOs, CFOs, Directors and entrepreneurs. The country has special scholarships for women who wanted to study abroad – they utilized this right, and yes, they came back to their country and took up jobs in homegrown companies and worked their way up. Purely on hard work, and ambition. How’s that for breaking the glass ceiling?

Near my home is the Krishna Temple – a sprawling Hindu temple flanked on one side by a church and on the other by a mosque. We practised our faiths, yes, in a Muslim country. And on Indian festivals, the Omani women at office were the first to wish us. How’s that for women and secularism? Yes, in the Middle East.

Now let me come to my job. Though I headed an English women’s magazine, my Omani colleagues respected my experience enough to let me supervise their own Arabic one. Why? As a former colleague once told me, “Women all over the world face the same challenges, whether you are an Indian or an Arab.” How’s that for respect of experience, guys?

So, together, we interviewed achievers, discussed drug abuse, smoking, equality of the sexes, and also fashion choices and make up.

I don’t need to take names here… but I am proud to have among my friends – those who were chosen to be part of the National CEO Programme, another who is a drift racer, one who combines a high-profile job with being a mountaineer (she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro), a 26-year-old who is a footballer, a football commentator and working wonders in the agriculture sector and yet another who is a corporate trainer. I can go on and on… yes, all this in a small country in the Middle East.

So next time, you ask me what I did in the Middle East – yes, I was a journalist for a women’s magazine. I worked as hard as scribes in India, bringing stories of hope, faith and yes, equality. I worked with nationals, and expatriates from a dozen countries, Pakistanis too. All this in a small country, in the Middle East.

It’s time we get off our high horses, and respect women, wherever they are, for whatever they are doing.

That we are privileged because we live in a democracy is a joke. Please, kabhi kabhi apne girebaan mein jhankar dekho. You may get some answers that may shock you.

 

Serve with a smile…

Blogging Challenge – Day 3

“Madam, le lijiye, yeh nimbu ghar ke pedh se hai.” (Here, take some lemons, they are from the trees at home.)

“Indha poo naane thoduthen. Vechukongo.” (I strung these flowers into a gajra. Please take them.”

These were just some of the many conversations at a monthly medical camp I volunteered at when I was in Muscat. Organised and spearheaded by the SAI Group, it was attended a number of expatriate women from different religions and nationalities, mostly domestic help who did not have access to any kind of medical care.

I didn’t have to do much. Just check their weight, write down BP and blood sugar readings and direct them to the doctors at the camp. Once it was done, we offered them coffee or tea and biscuits and had our own little chit-chats. It was held on a Friday, mostly a half-day off for most of them, but they still took a bus or cab to attend the camp. Sometimes, a few of us picked up them  up, or dropped them off at central points from where they would then go onto their everyday lives, taking care of households, and waiting for that elusive trip back to their home countries.

While they were at the camp, they were all cheerful and full of banter. Despite the numerous health complications, one could feel that sense of positivity shining through. And also, commitment. One had a daughter to marry off or send for higher studies, another had a home to build, most of them had huge families to support… and all of them were chasing that golden pot at the end of the rainbow… through the big Gulf dream.

When some of the women couldn’t afford complex treatment, scans or even expensive medication, doctors and volunteers stepped in. Each case was followed up and solutions suggested.

You would say that we were all doing a noble deed. But I think it was the other way around. These women taught me more than I had ever learned in 20 years of my career. They battled adversity with optimism…they revelled in the happy moments of everyday life, with hearts full of love.

While leaving, they would thrust into our hands, bags of lemons or mangoes, a gajra or two strung with fragrant jasmine, and smile…

“God bless you! Agle mehne milenge!” they would say. We would smile too… that infectious smile that has now made us a little more understanding, a little more empathetic and filled our hearts with a little more love.

Deen dukhiyon se prem karo… mera Sai prasanna hoga…

To the girl on the bus yesterday…

Blogging Challenge – Day 2

On the bus back to Bangalore yesterday, the girl on the seat behind us was crying a lot. As in crying buckets of tears, enough to warrant concern. So I turned and asked, “Is everything alright?”

The girl was leaving home for the first time, from a village to the city, away from her family and friends to work and live on her own. Her mother was unwell with dengue, and she was wracked with guilt, unable to stay back and help.

We consoled her saying, that all of us went through these times, and things would get better and we were just a call away if she needed help. In half an hour, she was back to normal and even joined us for dinner.

I was only 23 when I left Cochin for Muscat – flying for the first time ever – to a country I knew nothing of, with a person I was married to for only 20 days. There were no mobile phones or internet then, ISD was so expensive that I called home only once a week and Oman Post took forever to deliver a letter. We relied mostly on friends going home on vacation to post our letters, crossing our fingers and hearts that they reach in 2-3 days.

Vacations then were only possible once a year due to high ticket fares and we packed as much as possible – temple visits, my home and the in-laws’, a short holiday within the vacation, medical check-ups and in the blink of an eye, the month was over.

But we forged new friendships and support systems, and in time, the line between friends and family became blurred and we built a circle of receiving and giving.

A small country in the Middle East taught me some friendships are forever, distances shrink and time doesn’t matter if the hearts are closer.

So to the girl on the bus, here’s a friendly piece of advice. Go out into the world with an open mind, make new friends, love with all your heart, fall down, pick up the pieces and live life, to the fullest.

There will be somebody to hold your hand, along the way!

Let’s talk depression… again and again

I remember a few years ago when I was working for the magazine, I used to edit my own copies thrice after writing them. After which, I used to print a black and white dummy and proof-read the entire magazine. I corrected the pages on screen, and then took another colour printout and edited and proof-checked again. And before signing off the final dummy, I would read the entire magazine again till I had each headline, intro, and blurb at the back of my mind.

I was the butt of many jokes for my “perfectionist” attitude. Until it reached a stage where my boss actually told me, half in concern and the other half in exasperation, “Okay, Rekha, let a mistake go. Let’s see what happens when we have to print a corrigendum.”

That would perhaps have been an ultimate blow to the walls of perfectionism I built around me. So I read some more… till I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

With the death of Kate Spade last week, and Anthony Bourdain yesterday, one feels gutted, shortchanged, and helpless.

There’s so much we talk about mental health… yet the stigma remains. We are afraid to seek help… and give help.

I’ve spoken of my experiences with anxiety disorder and depression time and again, and I still get those surreptitious glances and fake smiles. A very good friend, who I reconnected with after 30 years just said, “Don’t tell me anything. You are okay now and it’s all that matters.”

Why don’t we want to talk or hear anything to do with mental illness? The most educated are perhaps the most ignorant.

The term “depression” is bandied about quite loosely. If you are sad, it does not mean you are depressed. Yes, if the sadness lingers and takes over your life, it’s time to ask for help. Look up terms like Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia… there are plenty of mental health disorders that affect people. You can’t simply wish them away by denying their existence.

What one can do is quite simple. Listen and observe your loved ones. Don’t judge them for what they are going through. If you are the person suffering, listen to yourself. Go to a professional for help. Understand that medicine and therapy go hand in hand. And no, you won’t get addicted to anti-depressants if you follow what your doctor says and she will help you to taper the dose whenever required. Incorporate exercise into your lifestyle. Get your doses of serotonin and dopamine by making some small changes.

No one said life is easy. It can be underwhelming, overwhelming, difficult and bizarre. It’s okay to feel what you are feeling.

There are helplines and organisations and some wonderful people who have made it their mental health their mission. Personally, I have been blessed to be a part of Sayyida Basma Al Said and Whispers of Serenity’s Not Alone Campaign in Muscat. Closer home, in Bengaluru, I know Nelson Moses’s Suicide Prevention Foundation of India is doing brilliant work in suicide prevention.

Remember, you are not alone. This is my promise… I may not be a counselor or therapist… but I will give you my patient ear, understanding and confidence.

I have been there… and that’s why I talk of depression, again and again.

Oh! India, where have you lost your sense of empathy?

It’s going to be 10 months since Amrit and I decided to move to India, he to continue his studies and I, to test waters in a land I left 20 years ago. For greener pastures, you may like to believe, but definitely not I would say… and that’s a debate for another post.

Last month, my mother-in-law passed away in Mumbai after a month in hospital following a cancer diagnosis in January. It was a hard time for all of us, and when the news came, we felt numb, unable to do anything. That day, for whatever reasons, it took me an hour-and-a-half to traverse the 8 km home. There was a lot to do, book tickets, get to the airport in the wee hours… take local trains to my brother-in-law’s place and so on.

That night, according to tradition, we were not supposed to cook at home.

And I am sorry to say none of my neighbours came to ask how we were, or how we were coping. Not that I was unfriendly, my door is always open and I make it a point to speak to them whenever I am free.

You would argue why would that matter? It does, for me…. two years back, around the same time when we were in Muscat, my father-in-law had passed away suddenly. My brother-in-law and family were with us on a long-due visit and were visiting some tourist spots 250 km away from the city when it happened. The moment our friends came to know of the news, they were on speaker phone, calming Bala on the long drive back to Muscat. And once we were home, my neighbour had taken over, bringing cups of coffee to the huge number of friends and colleagues who had come home, another friend volunteered to “web check-in” all our tickets, some even helped us pack our clothes as we were similarly, numb with grief. Everything was taken care of without being asked to, right until the time we were dropped off at the airport.

This time around, Amrit and I were alone… My brother was away… and no, we didn’t eat that night. But we did what we had to do, catch a flight to Mumbai and from there on, be with family.

This lack of empathy I find everywhere. The inability to stop, speak a kind word and move on. It’s ruthless, this dog-eat-dog world where “busyness” has been raised to an art form. The standard reply to everything is, “I am busy. There’s too much traffic,” even at times when I had expressed a desire to visit people or places. When we were planning to settle  in Bangalore, there were many who had said, “Come, come, we are all here.”

Sadly, the move taught me a few lessons and to believe in myself. So Amrit and I did everything alone – from finding a house, starting a home with just two suitcases and yes, over the past 10 months, have managed to find our feet in Bengaluru.

And fleece here is another word… your house help, the carpenter, the plumber, the auto driver who demands one-and-a-half or metre pe extra 30 rupees – everyone fleeces you for time and money. At times like these, I read the voice messages from Lakshmi, my former house help in Muscat, who always asks after me and Amrit and how we are doing in India. “Madam, don’t stress yourself. Eat well. Are you sleeping?,” she asks in every message.

I came to India happy to be among my own. Or so I thought. Only to realise “own” means different things to different people.

Being part of the diaspora in a foreign country taught me many lessons in togetherness than in my own country. Did we have all the time in the world there? No, we were busy with our jobs and our lives and still found time for others, for spirituality, and to forge strong bonds.

There are so many instances that remind me of such love. And it’s this love that keeps me going.

It would, however, be wrong of me to be cynical and generalise. I have found a few good friends at the workplace who I can depend on. That is one constant in my life that I have always been blessed with.

What does it take to empathise? Absolutely nothing.

Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Try to love without conditions attached.

The world will be better because of it.