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If Popular Science can, so can I.

If you have something interesting to tell me, do email me at umm.of.on@gmail.com. Because I really do love a good discussion and chat. I don’t always enjoy trolls, even if some are cute.

Also, comments on blog posts are not really needed, because it’s just my personal opinion and also… this is why.

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Why set goals to follow, when you can chase your curiousity and wander into amazing places

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My favourite nook at work.

With this week I complete two years in my current job. What a steep learning curve it’s been.

I have not faced something so tough and challenging since I interned (in the hope of bagging a job) at The Indian Express in 1995.

It’s never been about big goals for me, and for a brief while in the past few months I thought I wasn’t good enough because  I shied away from those big goals. Do you HAVE to be a business head? HAVE to be an entrepreneur? HAVE to be a certain ‘title’ and on a certain rung on the shaky ladder? For some, that maybe what gives them joy.

Not for me, a soft voice whispered in my head. And I was told by the self-help books and the ‘gurus’ that that’s my ‘limiting belief’ talking.

Then I went to Bhutan. The whisper became more assertive. Not for me. A job well-done, every day, is all the permanency one can expect in life. It’s to take one step after another, mindfully and ethically. It’s to stop and be aware of the environment I am, be it in this glass tower in West Bay, or the little apartment in Mansoura, or the Smaisma beach I escape to so often.

This is what I know for sure. One doesn’t HAVE to push the limits and measure up to someone else’s benchmark of success.

I don’t HAVE to have to follow a text book career trajectory that’s about climbing a corporate ladder. After all, I am a jungle gym kind of person, ladders are not for me.

The fun is in the movement… in the doing of things, in the meeting of people, in the telling of stories.

It’s one short life where I have to love and enjoy and feel a sense of contentment, if not achievement, on a daily basis. Something I’ve been fortunate enough to have almost all my working life, including the 15 years in Qatar.

So I look back, at 40, and tell myself: Slow down. Enjoy the dance.

 

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[MAID ON CALL-PART II] When things fall apart

She called at midnight, weeping, saying in Tamil: “They sent me out, they asked me to leave. I am near the gate.”

And so ended the day after 20-exhausting hours, with a much closer look at how stifling it can get here.

Fifteen months ago, with great trepidation we took on the responsibility and welcomed home Y, to help me run my home. Even though she was responsible and her work left little room for complaints, we were increasingly ill at ease to have a live-in help. Even as we were contemplating our options, things came to a head.

At 4 am on Thursday I was woken up by a missed call. From Y’s number. Panicking, we rushed to her room to see an empty bed. When we called back, the phone was answered by an Arab man who introduced himself simply as ‘the police’, and told us that they had caught ‘the maid with man.’

We were stunned. What man? How, when, who… Our Y? The one we trust so implicitly with our children, our home, our unlocked wardrobes.

Once we got our head around the call, R rushed to the capital police.

Here’s what happened:

  1. We were not allowed to speak to her. R saw her in the questioning skill looking scared. She speaks Tamil, and has only a smattering of English.
  2. She was caught sitting in a car with a man, outside our building, is all we were told.
  3. We were told ‘we were safe’ because she was not caught on our premises, so we were not culpable.
  4. They refused to tell us what action would be taken, or what we could do.
  5. They did ask what we wanted to do, and we made it clear that we won’t file a case, but take her home and send her back to her country.
  6. They asked R to come back after a bit, but he was not allowed to meet her.
  7. When R went back the cop was actually surprised and little rude about why he was so bothered, and sent him back. They were suspicious of a sponsor/employer who seemed to care.
  8. The next stop was the embassy. They again said nothing could be done. The law will run its course. But what was the law?
  9. When in doubt about migrant rights, call Aakash. He gave me some clarity. But again, the same counsel. Nothing could be done.
  10. The cops did mention that the prosecutor would make a decision that night. But they would call us, and we can’t do anything more.
  11. They didn’t call us. They just sent her out. Late in the night. When we went to pick her up, she was with the guy they found her with. It was midnight, she was waiting with someone who probably made her feel safe in a strange place.

We brought her home, and sent her back to her home country the next morning.

What did we learn during those 20 hours? When the sh*t hits the fan you might or might not be soiled. You just wait and watch.

Here is why we will not recruit and sponsor another live-in help:

  1. However good our intentions, because of the nature of the laws here, she will be in a state of entrapment.
  2. It is not a healthy environment for an adult to be dependent on his/her employer for sustenance, entertainment and solace. The employer wields unfair power over the employee.
  3. Unlike Hong Kong which also has a large number of domestic workers, there is no provision in place here in Qatar for their entertainment or socialising.
  4. An adult woman has needs. And the fact is, we would not have allowed her to meet her man outside in the dead of the night (we have our interests to protect), nor allow a stranger into our home (we have our kids safety to keep in mind.)
  5. Because I don’t want to ever feel this angry and this helpless. However much I empathise with situation, I am still very upset that my home and children were placed at risk.
  6. Many months ago when she asked to meet someone outside, we asked to meet and speak to the guy first. It made us feel sick and feudal. But we had to do it because:
    • As her employers/sponsors, we would be held responsible if we knowingly allowed herself to place herself at any risk.
    • We recruited her through a friend, giving her family back home an assurance that she would be treated with respect and kept safe.
    • We did not know of any place that she could meet anyone, be it man or woman, without being questioned or harassed. (Only the Filipinos seems to have a sense of community that addresses the socializing needs of workers of all income levels)
    • We had from day 1 explained how the system works here, and why things that are not really a ‘crime’ are illegal here. Yet, one cannot easily accept feeling like they have no life.

My regrets:

  1. If I were to go through the last 15 months all over again, I would have tried harder to provide socialising opportunities that were not dependent on us. Having said that, I wouldn’t have gone through the process at all.
  2. But, I don’t regret having Y in our lives these past several months. She made it so much easier for me to cope with a new job and new challenges. I do regret that she didn’t leave with more dignity.
  3. I regret not picking up on some signals over the last few months. But I see them as ‘signs’ only in hindsight.
  4. I regret that for several minutes through the day I judged her character, slipping into a moralistic frame of mind (when did I become that kind of a person?). I had to remind myself the number of times in my youth I sneaked out for a rendezvous, betraying my parents’ trust.
  5. I regret that she didn’t really trust us enough to take us into her confidence (she wants to marry this guy); We trusted her with our children, after all.
  6. I regret that she didn’t save enough to buy the land she wanted, or shop for her family and go back with bag loads of gifts as she did the last time.
  7. I regret that her last memory of my family and me would be overcome with her own regrets and ignominy.
  8. She left our home stoic, and without a farewell to the children (who were asleep then and think she went home to take care of her mother). I will regret that.
  9. Little room for second chances for the disempowered. Regret…
  10. I regret that I am part of a system that is inherently prejudiced against low-income migrants, especially domestic workers. When ‘caught’, she was not allowed any representation.

Why am I writing this blog post?

  1. If you are planning to recruit domestic help, ask yourself tough questions. You are taking a human being into your home, her basic needs are the same as yours, would you be able to give her a life that you won’t be afraid to live?
  2. Do not forget that you have power that no one individual should be given. So use that power cautiously. We only had to say ‘file a case’, and she would have been entangled in a long prosecution and detention. She would have been treated as a ‘runaway’ or ‘absconder’.
  3. Make your threshold a sacred space that no one crosses without your permission, especially when there are kids. I think we communicated this strongly enough, that she assured us that she never brought her boyfriend home. It gave us both a degree of relief and guilt.
  4. Because I spoke about the experience of sponsoring a domestic help earlier, I thought it only fitting I write this too.
  5. And finally… Writing is how I cope. It is how I vent and how I heal. This post is public because I feel we live in an unfair society, and we have to be perennially aware of what this kind of migration is all about.
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How do you pause? How do you seek your freedom?

There is a freedom in not having to communicate. To not be asked about your thoughts and opinions, and to not ask. To not continuously desire to be understood and liked. To not talk, and not be forced to hear. To see, touch, listen and experience without an intent or the need to act.

A freedom that’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold on to.

So I seek out a deserted beach on a weekday afternoon, for some minutes (or an hour if I am lucky), and sit with a glass of mint laban. No music, no internet, no chatting, no company. Feeling one with the stillness and achieving what meditation classes couldn’t – not fighting the thoughts that come to mind, but not thinking of anything deliberately, either.

Then I drive back to life as usual and go back to making polite conversations in person and irreverent ones online.  I now know that I engage more often out of fear than out of interest. The fear of being left out, of not being recognised, of falling between the cracks.

I feed my soul with those stolen moments of freedom on Simaisma pier, trespassing on a private beach at The Pearl, behind construction dumps near the Wakrah seaside.

The back and forth tweets, the facebook commentaries, the instagramming of filtered reality, the inane smoking room chats…

How many of us really enjoy and benefit from the non-stop conversations and noise around us?

How do you pause (or stop)? How do you seek your freedom?

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Who are you, she asked…

It wasn’t a meme or a tag, but that’s such an interesting question I decided to do a post instead of leaving a comment on Shamozal’s blog.

A misunderstood child. A troubled teen. A happy cousin. A pesky sister. A sister’s pet. An angelic student. A loyal friend. A bitchy classmate. A nagging wife. A supportive one too. An angry mother. A mother with immense patience. A nasty boss. A tough one. A pushover. An insubordinate employee. A trusted one. {and so on…}

It really depends on whom you ask.

Who am I? I am a sum of how I’m seen by others, and a product of how I judge myself based on that.

I am a work in progress, and cannot yet (unfortunately) detach myself from how others view my words and action and say this is who I am.

Now, tell me, who are you?

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Bhutan: An escape on the wing of a milestone excuse

I can still hear the sounds of the mani dhanka.

Every time someone asks me how my escape to Bhutan went, I am at a loss to give a true and smart answer.

So I settle for ‘indescribable’… and now, typical of me, I am going to describe it to snoredom in this post.

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There are many reasons why I planned a solo trip…  it’s been a long time since I’ve truly been by myself. A long time since I’ve been still and since I’ve really moved. A long time since I enjoyed doing just one thing, or not doing anything at all. A long time since I’ve challenged myself physically. A long time since I’ve truly ignored and forgotten my rheumatoid arthritis, having allowed myself to be limited by it for 26 years now.

Bhutan bound

So where do I go? What do I do? Ethiopia or Bhutan? Discuss with friends, or just decide on a whim? At the end, I made the decision based on two things. First, I would be going off-season to a place that even otherwise restricts the number of tourists coming in. Which promised me space and time that won’t be overcrowded. Second, religion. Having never really been drawn to organised religion or worship, yet considering myself spiritual, I’ve been curious about Buddhism all my adult life. Its non-theistic and non-ritualistic principles, its shunning of labels (‘good and evil’ and ‘morality’), have all been highly appealing, its rather fatalistic attitude towards life notwithstanding. But the ugly co-mingling of politics and religion has tainted Buddhism too. I was curious. How would a place that gave equal power to the monastic body, elected administration and its King, function?

How does Buddhism thrive in a place that seeks iconic representation at every street corner (photo above) and every tree stump? Stupas and temples scattered all over the landscape. How do they balance deity worship with a Buddhist path that is all about self-realisation outside of it? I am none the wiser now. But it was an interesting week all the same.

Buddhism: The simplicity is confusing

Oh wait, I am probably a teeny bit wiser. At the very first hotel in Thimpu, in the bedside draw instead of a Gideon’s Bible was a book by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. What Makes You not A Buddhist. The book starts off by asking the reader four questions… I was hooked. Those questions and the answers continue to whirl around in my head. It also helped me enjoy my Bhutan experience without being too judgemental.

I visited monasteries and nunneries, and in both saw those too young to be allowed to take on such a commitment. Why would a five-year-old boy be in maroon robes? Why would a pre-pubescent, gum chewing, kite-flying girl find herself in a nunnery? (photo) Yet, it is not my place to question, just to observe.

Inside temples where photography was prohibited — “When you remove your footwear it means you leave behind the camera,” said Chencho, my guide — was a confusing array of pre-Buddhist deities, Bodhisattvas, different incarnations of Buddha, and even rifles, harking back to Bhutan’s warrior past. There were large platters of offerings — packets of biscuits, crisps, instant noodles (of which I will tell you more in a bit), kurkures, soda cans.

This is a Kingdom that has so zealously protected its identity and emphasised the importance of national happiness through sustainable development, controlling who and what comes into its boundaries; Yet, it seems to be struggling with the onslaught of FMCG products. I cautiously hope it’s not a battle it will lose completely.

A losing battle?

Bhutan in winter is still so beautiful, one can only imagine how breathtaking it would be in the full splendour of spring and early summer. How much greener and more colourful would it get?

However, as I walked through its fields and mountains, I tried not to look down. What an eyesore! The path littered with plastic bottles, foil wrappers, discarded plastic packs.

An irony, because there’s a desperation to hold at bay the external influences that might corrupt the Himalayan Kingdom’s tradition and history.  Every construction in Bhutan has to adhere to the ‘authenticity’ standards of architecture. So there are no ugly new-age buildings, even if there were plenty of unkempt traditional ones. Currently there’s a ban on import of cars and housing loans. The national dress (kira for women and gho for men) is mandatory at any official representation.

Its handloom and handicraft heritage is promoted and protected, and yet, the largest Buddha statue in the Kingdom was made in China. The market is flush with cheap Chinese toys. And every TV set I saw was tuned into a Hindi film channel.

China, Bollywood and FMCG marketing respect no boundaries it seems. And then, some corruptions are homegrown… in this cigarettes-free country, betel leaves and chewing tobacco leave a red stain all over.

There were rubbish bins and messages at every turn on the trekking routes, and I take that as a sign that this too will be controlled. Somehow. That when people get used to the novelty of food out of packets, they will learn to dispose of the garbage responsibly. Everywhere I went, I saw children and adults alike opening up packets of instant noodles, sprinkling the seasoning onto the uncooked noodles, and eating it like a pack of crisps. The empty packs then fell to the ground, just as the apple cores and orange peels did (photo).

The pace of working hands

For all that, there was a sense of all pervading calm. Even as people laughed and talked loudly, there was a quietness. There was a pace to their life that irritated me on the first day as being too slow — “yes, ma’am, tea will take 30 minutes”. Then it grew on me. So much so, on the fourth day, when I landed at the hotel in Paro and realised the staff were not expecting me, and that they and I had to go through a big yellow bag full of keys to find one to the room of my choice, it actually seemed like a fun thing to do (photo).

There was an unhurried enjoyment in everything. Food was prepared to perfection, and served with such care… so why rush it? Was it because I was the only guest in two of the three large hotels I stayed in?

Except for the cars and the mobile phones, there was so little by way of mechanisation (photo). This is a land with no traffic lights. “No one understood it, so they removed it,” said Chencho. But there was an easy understanding between motorists moving across the narrow roads and bridges.  A basket on a pulley was used to transport material from base to higher points . Cattle plough the farms. Wizened women worked briskly with their spades in the cabbage patch. Bricks were made next to an orange orchard. Children played seven stones, a bag of pebbles in place of a ball. The wooden phallus available at every store front was handmade. My boarding pass was handwritten.

Everyone seemed to be working with their hands. It was probably why they had no time to hurry.

Fat, unfit and on a hike? Why not!

It was because of that environment of ‘why rush?’ that I didn’t give up on the hikes, despite my poor fitness levels. There was no rush (or need) to complete the treks, you see. As I took longer on every trek than what was suggested in the guide books, Chencho gently encouraged me to just take it one turn, one steep climb, one short path at a time. “You can do it as slow as you want.”  There were routes on which I was overtaken by horses, gorgeous stray dogs, little children, families with babies strapped to their backs and old ladies who gave me a gentle pat as they walked past me.

The destination, invariably a monastery/temple (dzongs), was never referred to till we reached it. It was only about moving. In fact after the second dzong, I felt no compulsion to go into these beautiful structures. What was inside were repetitively similar. Since I neither had offerings nor prayers, it didn’t make sense to intrude into other people’s space of faith.

But every day, I set out in the direction of a dzong high up in the mountains (photo). There were times when I felt my heart beat so hard, like it would pop out from between my shoulder blades. Given my woeful fitness levels, there was a tinge of fear when that happened. Then slowly, as it got quieter all around — no sound of water or birds — the stillness would envelop me, and all I could hear, but not really feel, was the loud thump of my heartbeat.

The more I walked and hiked, fewer the things I carried with and within me. No camera, no headphones, no phone, no anxiety to reach the destination, no anticipation for what was in store at the top, no thought of what next, no talking… just keep moving.

PS: I turned 40 a few days ago. I dread birthdays. Not because I feared ageing, but I feared the expectation of celebration. The same reason I dread most festivals. As I told my friend Teesu there was no major ‘moment’ on the milestone birthday, just a big fat excuse to be self-indulgent and go away, which may not go down as well for the 39th or 42nd, say. And it sounds cool to say, “you know what I did for my 40th…”

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2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 16,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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2013: 2 of this, 0 of that,1 of the other and 3 of…

2  People kept me from taking really rash decisions, and saved me from myself. My O & N.

0 New financial investments

1 New country visited

3 New skills in the making: Documentary film making, online media and screenplay writing

I don’t believe in resolutions, but I do believe in gratitude.

And I am grateful for countless things. My daughters, my sisters, my friends who blindly support me, and the ones who call my bluff, the people whom I work with who make every day a learning experience… More than anything else, I am grateful that unlike last year, this year has been about relationships that worked, that were strengthened.

What I struggled with in a year filled with challenges is to make sure that my thoughts were fair. It’s easy to pretend to be good, to be right, because you want to be liked and respected, or at least not disliked and disrespected. However, the demons in your mind – the anger, the bitterness and the occasional evil thoughts, make it more difficult to like yourself. And that’s so much more important, so naturally so much more difficult to achieve.

May 2014 be the year we all conquer our demons.

 

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“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” — Voltaire
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