Saturday, December 31, 2016

Even More Lessons

I promised a very good friend I would continue my three-year-old tradition of posting about what I've learned at the turn of a year. In all honesty, this year was so packed with mind-boggling wonders, I've hardly had time to process. So this is more a post of what I've understood from 2016. It seems to be both a gift and curse that keeps on giving.

1. On resilience. This is the first year that I've truly felt strong. Like on a cell and bone and flesh level. Throughout the year I've had highs and lows -- some of them from watching people in my life struggle in a way I've never experienced myself. Some from starting and ending an incredible relationship. But I kept having this recurring thought: no matter what happens, I'll be fine. No matter what happens, I can find happiness again. It's a liberating feeling.

2. On listening. Whether it was Brexit or Trump or a difficult misunderstanding with a friend, I learned that listening closely and actively is the only thing that can lead to full acceptance and clarity. I don't think I've very good at this yet, except maybe when I've got a notebook in my hand and a story to write. But I am fully convinced that being a good listener is far more helpful than any advice, gift or word I could offer. And it would prevent lots of pain.

3. On work. I'm extremely lucky that what I love is also what I do for a living, but that thought has not always been comforting. I think society sometimes makes me feel guilty for finding fulfillment in my work -- like I'm some sort of slave to an illusion.  But I've had two jobs this year -- one that was not a good fit, and one that I look forward to each day, and I have now come to accept that my work will always be a large part of my happiness.

4. On New York. I didn't love New York before I moved there in January. Actually, I didn't love it until May, when the flowers came back out and my seasonal hangover had passed. But the combination of moving to this crazy city from an even crazier one (Bombay, I will always love you) made this city feel more like a playground and less like a menacing jungle. New York and I are still negotiating our terms, but I've got great respect and love for this city.

Happy New Year to you and yours.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

That Time He Won

This was an election about belonging.

For many of the Americans who voted for Donald Trump, this was a chance to say: This doesn't feel like my country anymore.

For many of the Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton, this was a chance to say: America does not seem to think this is my rightful home.

And for the Americans who voted for third-party candidates, or the ones who lost hope when Bernie Sanders was defeated, this was a chance to say: These political parties do not represent me, or my beliefs.

We've created a country where nobody feels like they fit in, and there is a collective responsibility, far bigger than the establishment, to change how we operate on a human level, in our own communities.

If we've curated our Facebook feeds and media diets to align only with our own beliefs, we need to recognize that we are building our own bubbles and then refusing to leave them. If our friends all look and act the same, we need to recognize that we have yet to humanize whatever we deem the "other". 

America has not just spoken, it has screamed. We could sit here looking at more data, more polls, and reduce it to some statistics: White men won. Rural Americans won. Blue collar workers won. And we could think about the people of color, the women, the immigrants, who have lost.

Or we could accept that we have fractured ourselves to the point where nobody recognizes the country they live in—one where we are suspicious of our own neighbors and uncomfortable in our own skin. 

Then, maybe, we will be able to operate out of something other than fear.


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Loose thoughts after Alton Sterling Died, and then Philando Castile died

I woke up today and it was a little worse than yesterday. I walked toward the train and only saw black men. And I kept saying, in my head, I'm glad you're still alive. And you, I'm glad you're still alive. 

When I lived in India people at home used to say: aren't you scared of getting raped? And when I moved back home, people in India asked me: aren't you scared of getting shot? Yes and yes. Fear is just something I lace my shoes with before I leave the house now. But there are others much more likely than I am to be the victims.

People blame things on the system as if we did not create it with our bare hands, as if we do not perpetuate it with our wallets. As if the machine would still work without all the cogs.

Now that I know there is no limit to our empathy, I think we owe it to the broken limbs on America's body to learn more about the trigger we've collectively pulled hundreds of times. It takes strength to bend the moral arc towards justice.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

More Lessons

Last year I published this one month late, so I already feel like I won 2015.

1. On going home. The other day I was in the middle of a screaming match with my older sister and there was this one moment where I stepped outside of myself, looked at the situation, and thought: wow, I've learned nothing. I always thought my mettle was tested on the road, in the middle of nowhere, on deadline, but moving home from India for four months this year -- the longest I've been home since I was 17 years old -- taught me otherwise.

2. On emotional intelligence. The ability to effectively say what you mean and how you feel, and provide a space for others to do the same could probably end wars.

3. On sitting still. Let this year go down in history as the year I actually started meditating, and not just on yoga retreats, thanks to my friend Shreya and this app called Insight Timer. I probably spend nine-tenths of that time daydreaming, but those few moments of clarity are like hours of therapy and a chance to differentiate the reality I have created from what is actually around me.

4. On the art of disappointment. This year I applied for several fellowships, jobs and grants. And I went on a few dates. For some strange reason, approaching every single opportunity with a balance of delusional optimism and detachment is what makes me feel satisfied, even when they don't work out. Disappointment is much easier to brush off when you know you've done your part.

5. On chocolate. It's okay to like milk chocolate better than dark chocolate.

6. On fear. Last year I was nervous I wouldn't 'make it' in India. This year I was worried I would settle for a life in America where happy hour was the only thing I had to look forward to. Neither of these things happened: In India, I produced investigative projects, nuanced reports and met hundreds of incredible people with a record low of two bouts of stomach illness. In America, I spent much needed time at home with my family and managed to land a job that is exciting, valuable and well out of my comfort zone. Sometimes fear is the best motivation.

Inle Lake, Myanmar

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Sangam is the Sanskrit word for the confluence of rivers -- it's a word that's been rolling around my head for days as I say my goodbyes and pack up my bags to move across the world again. I used to think of these moments as crossroads. But choices, decisions -- all those things fade when you know where you need to be.

That hasn't made it any easier to leave.

The past 19 months in India have been the most dynamic of my life. I reported in ten states and at least one hundred villages, some that could only be reached on foot. I spoke to women and men of every caste, religion, income status and belief system, and found myself connecting to people I didn't know existed. I've been belittled by powerful men, and empowered by tiny children. 

I wrote dozens of articles for dozens of publications -- collaborating with meticulous editors who have pushed me to dissect and unlearn, and others who have tested every bit of patience I have with their obsession with page views. I struggled to maintain integrity and nuance, and fought when an editor tried to use the word "Slumdog" in my headline. 

I worked with incredible, incredible journalists. Vivek, a brilliant, obsessively detailed writer who is now one of my best friends, and Bibek, an even-tempered Buddha-being who met our deadlines even after a horrific earthquake hit his home. Atish, my British bro, who is as spontaneous and hardworking as they make them.

I got handsome checks for work that felt too joyful to be called work, and tiny checks that came six months late for hours and hours of arduous research and writing. I received grants from three sources to pursue projects I've been thinking about for years. I asked for double, then triple, the rate that was offered to me, and learned to demand what I deserve. 

I fell in love with Bombay a little more each day I lived here -- with its turbulent sea and ubiquitous soul that refuses to get lost in the hustle. Its massive creative community and entrepreneurs, and beauty tucked into every corner. My Ultimate team that allowed me to fail and learn and fail and learn with nothing but love and encouragement. And friends that make everything feel like home.

I learned to be alone -- on trains and at home and in coffee shops and on work trips. I learned the luxury of silence and anonymity, and the power of my mind in the face of fear and injustice. I learned frustration and anger with no outlet, and joy that couldn't be tangibly shared.

And when I didn't want to be alone, there was my family. My cousins and aunts and uncles and Diwali, Raksha Bandhan and Holi. Birthdays and babyshowers that I would never have gotten to attend, and grand-uncles I had only met once. Family that could sense my cough from miles away, and packed me food for the road no matter how much I protested. And my family in Chandigarh, who taught me a new way to love.

In India, I've learned that love can be the silent walk between two grandparents who no longer hold hands, or the snuggles of new lovers on Carter Road. It can be the intense dedication of a doctor to his patient, and the belief of a teacher who climbs up ladders to her students. Love is in the way mothers tuck their babies under a sari fold, and the food that strangers share with me on the train.

And oh man, have my tastebuds been singing since I landed: fermented ambal in Andhra, coconut-fried fish on the Konkan coast, kababs and biryani in Hyderabad, wada pav and sol cuddy in Mumbai, real Mysore dosas, vinegar-marinated Coorgi meat, kheer in the Punjab pind, gatte ki sabzi in Rajasthan, rossogullas in Calcutta. (And somehow my jeans are too big now.)

I can honestly say that not a day of my time in India was wasted, not a day was less or more than it should have been, and that in itself has been a lesson in living. I leave with a heart that has been cracked wide open -- not so much broken as demanding what it now knows to be real.

But the thing about rivers is they don't just stop. So this sangam is just a moment, and my feet are already getting pulled forward in the strength of a current that is India and America and family and purpose all at once. The only thing I know how to do right now is let go.

Every goodbye deserves a rickshaw selfie.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Everywhere Feels Like Home

It's only four-thirty a.m. when, as we say in Hindi, my sleep opens -- my body's cadence stuck somewhere between yesterday's Florida and today's Bombay. Dawn breaks evenly across my window as I put on my sandals and step outside into the smoky morning, instinctively heading straight toward the sea.

During the one-mile walk to Carter Road I see more life than I do in complete days back at home in the U.S. The milk man delivers his plastic pouches to a shopkeeper by tossing them one by one in a perfect arc from his bicycle into the kiosk window. Men jog past me in semi-athletic attire, sometimes in chappals that flap on the pavement. Bandra's old church ladies, in their floral-print skirts and dresses, saunter by with sleepy dogs. 

Indians are not an extraordinarily active people, but they are people of slow and steady routine. A morning walk for the uncles and aunties, always around six a.m.,  a cup of tea on the table with The Hindu at seven. I have nothing of the sort in place, even without jet lag, but it's soothing to step into their rhythm.

When I get to the sea I am already damp from the thick, humid air. I walk past the coconut water cart, a sleeping rickshaw driver. The waves have no answers for me today -- maybe because I have too many questions. 

Last night, when my airplane landed, I took to Twitter (I know, I know) and told two thousand of my closest friends that "Everywhere feels like home." Because everything does -- the purple jacaranda and cooking dinner for my parents in Tampa, and seeing the friends who knew me when I cried hysterically anytime my family left my sight. But also this: the choked roads of Bombay's Western Express Highway, the brick streets named after Catholic saints, the fresh mangoes in the fridge.

There's a decision I need to make soon -- a decision that would already be made if not for a sense of constant belonging. For this, I get advice from all angles. From a mentor who tells me to "get the fuck out" of India before the small risks I take turn into big ones. From the roughened, hardworking guy in the village who asks me if there is anything more real that what I see in front of me out here, away from the self-importance of city-dwelling office people. I wonder who needs me more, and if my idea of need is just a naive and misguiding illusion.

As I look out over the sea wall, the buzz of Bombay waking up behind me, there are many voices in my head -- voices of my family and friends and editors and people I write about. When I turn back they're so loud that I no longer hear my own.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Thing About Indian Women

I need to tell you about India's Daughters. And her mothers, sisters, girlfriends, bosses, wives, coworkers and every other small or huge role the women of this country play in their families and in their offices and on the streets that aren't always paved for them as they walk miles without stopping.

I need to tell you about my grandmothers. Neither of them cleared five feet tall, but they were nothing less than pillars. My akkaji, in a white cotton sari, raised seven kids, lost her husband too early, and asking for nothing but the solace of her quiet, routine and the lit diyas of her pooja room. And my grandma, on my dad's side, who withstood freezing Massachusetts winters of poverty and a volatile spouse. She worked in factories and banks where everybody loved and knew her, and made meatloaf even though she was a strict vegetarian because she wanted her kids to fit in a weird new country called America.

I need to tell you about Karuna Nundy, the Supreme Court attorney who answers all my texts, calls and e-mails even though she's leading the fight for free speech on the internet, for fair health in Bhopal, for safe workplaces for women who actually make it past the first few glass ceilings. And Chandramani Jani, a village leader who convinced government officials to do their job in a village in Orissa. About Deepika Padukone, a Bollywood actress who spoke up about therapy and depression so we know the green grass needs to be watered, too. And I'll show you a picture of Pali, the woman on the Punjabi border town, who let me make lopsided rotis while she told me, without even a tiny bit of self-pity, what it was like losing her parents as a child and being forced to marry her own cousin and run their household.

If I could convince you this country was secretly run by women -- that they oiled the gears that kept it turning, brought home the water that kept it quenched, balanced the checkbooks, and painfully opened doors, one-by-one, would you believe me? Because after days of walking through those doors, India has taught me more about the strength of being a woman than any school, college, therapy session, bedroom or comfy cubicle has been able to do. And I'm pretty sure that if more of India's Daughters were allowed to grow up, they would shake the world.

I mean, could you play cricket in a sari?