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, and a bench where I've ended up on more than one date with guys I no longer talk to. 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?

Saturday, January 24, 2015


1. On India: After watching and chronicling equal proportions of sad and happy, ugly and beautiful, I've realized that nothing in India is as good or bad as it seems. And that I have no right to become desensitized to any of it -- not the pain or the joy, the beggars or the Bollywood, because it has somehow come together and allowed me to be here.

2. On Work: The more I work, the more I recognize the signs of a biased system -- from the people I interview thinking I'm a student, to editors discrediting my ability to work independently. If you're a woman you have probably been wired to underrate yourself when it matters most-- I know that I am. But knowing that has only made me work harder, and somewhat more fearlessly, to become better at what I do and unlearn those invisible boundaries.

3. On Men: I think I've somehow spent years expecting the guys I date to read my mind, and finally realized that it doesn't work. Say what you mean, ask for what you want, and if you have to wonder too long just let it go. Just kidding, I've learned nothing about this species.

4. On Money: People always ask me about money when they hear that I'm a freelancer and are surprised when I say that it's hardly an issue. I attribute this to two things -- learning to live simply and happily without too much stuff, and not succumbing to the atmosphere of deprivation and competition that we're told surrounds us all the time.

5. On Being Alone: Last year I walked out of the airport in Hyderabad after one of many trips and had a sinking feeling when I realized no one would be waiting for me, as usual. Then last week I reveled in the liberating luxury of a 20 hour train ride all to myself with a podcast and Caravan. Making friends with solitude is an ongoing challenge, but possibly the most fulfilling of all these lessons.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Dusty Dreams

My dream tastes like train coffee and a crumbly biscuit from a kind stranger. It's gritty like the sand and god-knows-what between slipper and sole. It gathers like sweat at the nape of my neck, and black smoke that chokes until my dream turns into freedom in lawless hills between rice paddies and streams.

This dream, it smells of mud and rain and phenyl in crowded hospitals. It is slow like the days that feel like weeks, and those last few moments before sleeping in a grimy hotel room where I look for comfort in the wrong places. When I look in the right places, the dream is unstoppable, booming laughter and Tibetan prayer flags and a piece of boiled corn as yellow as the sun.

I always thought that when my dreams left the clouds to touch the earth, they would fall like welcome rain on parched skin. But my dream is scorching sun and flooded pathways and unanswered questions about the child with the swollen belly. You don't always get to wake up when it hurts.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Field Notes: Araku Valley

The hills in Araku are a million shades of green. There are shelves of rice paddy ponds and groves of straight, tall trees shading lush coffee plantations. Bulbous jackfruit, each the size of two basketballs, hang off branches and rot on the side of the road when they fall. Fields of methi and spinach and millet thrive, even though the monsoon rains have only sprinkled the valley. Out here streams rush down the slopes and across the roads and through the tiny villages of mud houses and red tiled roofs.

It's too beautiful to close my eyes, too alive to daydream. I forget about the ribs of the jeep seat jamming into my hip, or the numbing vibration of long motorcycle rides. I forget about the work I came to do.

But V. Rao, a community leader and researcher who has opened his home to us for the week, says he no longer sees this Araku, a tribal area in Andhra Pradesh that was once a hotbed for the Maoist movement. "I just see the poverty. I see how bad things are," he says without emotion, steering his bike expertly through the eroded roads.

I don't know much about Rao. I don't speak Telugu, and he doesn't know Hindi or English. Vivek, my reporting partner, translates for us, and there isn't much time. But I see that he dresses with care, speaks with authority, and in the evening, dances tipsily to dimsa music while he brainstorms ideas to move his community forward. His home -- three bedrooms in Araku town -- doubles as an orphanage for the twenty abandoned girls that he has taken in as his own along with his own children and their families.

That day, we're returning from a daylong meeting with about fifty village leaders and youth -- a meeting where Rao has spent hours making sure attendees know their rights at a time when their land is threatened by the mining industry, illegal timber markets, climate change.

Those struggles, while very real, are not the most immediate in these striking communities. In villages like Chintalveedi, the families tell us they're just trying not to get sick by drinking the well water that is covered by a sheet of algae. They wonder why their babies keep getting viral fevers, or why their feet swell with disease while the doctors remain far away. And they wait for the government to turn the skeletal bamboo huts where their children study every day into actual buildings that resemble a school.

But there are also signs of incredible health and harmony -- a vestige of age-old wisdom that dissolves as you get closer to industrialization. Here the farmers have sinewy arms and strong, white teeth. They eat local grain and rice with lentils and green vegetables straight from the earth. Men and women share tasks like cooking and taking care of children, and the threatening leer of creepy men is nonexistent. And while the next generation seek an education to grapple with the economy they can no longer avoid, many said they would prefer to stay close to this lush, green haven.

I think back to the cities, bursting at the seams with new villagers choosing the urban life, just like my great grandparents did years ago. I think of scarcity -- power cuts and dry taps and fights over space and walls and borders. And how far removed the rice on our plates are from these paddy fields. Amid the traffic and concrete jungles that I have deemed my comfort zones, there are diseases of a different nature in every home.

In Araku I don't know what's right or wrong and I'm too tired and uninformed to figure it out. When a weathered grandfather in one village asks if I've come to find out what medicines to send to them, I feel helpless and misdirected. So I wake up every day for the journey instead -- the hours in the backseat, staring at the valleys and hills with renewed awe. And I think of this line from the Bollywood movie Highway when the heroine says: "Where I came from, I don't want to go back. But wherever we're going, I don't want to reach."

The road has yet to let me down.