Sometimes I’d weep on the drive home thinking about how terrible I felt after sharing my stories aloud. Nothing could have prepared me for the harsh criticism that ensued between those walls each week during our 2-hour evening classes.
I missed when the words would effortlessly slip out of my fingertips, and my ritual was simple as: hear words, find paper, write. I never worried about whether what I had to say was right or wrong, good or bad. I shared my words because putting something out into the world that other people could connect with made me feel alive, and I always understood this work would be my ultimate purpose in life.
I had chosen a memoir class, because myself seemed like the best topic to be an expert at as a starting point. In my first class, I eagerly volunteered to start the live readings with a childhood story, confident of the praise to ensue at the finish line. But the room was silent. Everyone, including my teacher um’d and uh’d under their breaths, as they attempted to convey a tactful way of saying “are you sure you’re in the right place”?
After my last class, my teacher sent me a carefully crafted email, telling me it wasn’t too late to choose a different career path.
I felt incredibly beaten down. I had quit my job after feeling spiritless in my work to take some much needed time to focus on myself. After spending half a year exploring India solo, I returned home certain that whatever it was going to take – more education, writing for pennies, being poor – I was ready to pursue my writing as more than just a hobby.
And for a long time I did. I met with publishers of big magazines, interviewed, cold called, applied to go back to school, enrolled in every night class I could find remotely related to writing, accepted ghost writing gigs on topics I knew nothing about. Begged, pleaded, cried.
There were little wins, but for every one, there were huge losses to counter it. After 2 years all in, and what felt like little to no progress, I finally decided to accept that perhaps all the doors closing on me were clear signs indicating this was not the right path for me.
I never considered myself to be a fearful person. I was the first in my family to go away for school, the first of my friends who dared to quit their job and travel, and despite all the warnings globe trot through India solo. But these acts of “bravery”, didn’t change that in facing my biggest fear – being vulnerable – I gave up when it got too hard.
I am not changing careers, leaving the country, or even professing a specific direction for writing. Writing is still a scary place for me to return to, and I struggle with whether I will ever belong here. But what I did manage take away from all the criticism, rejection and tears: not all stories have to have a romantic ending, sometimes the story ends, because it’s where it was meant to end.
As I limped along attempting to make my way up the mountain just in time to catch the sun set over Hampi, her little hand clutched on to mine.
She looked up at me and smiled. Without a word she pulled me along, and I followed to the beat of her jingling anklets. Through every nook and peak, she waited patiently as I slowly twisted and swivelled my injured limbs around.
One hand on her pot of chai, one hand in mine. One eye ahead, one eye behind.
This one is for you.
The sweet little nine year old who stopped on her way up the mountains in Hampi — where she sells garam masala chai everyday to support her family — to help me, a complete stranger, find the strength to go on.
To Rashmi,who stole my heart while Hopping in Hampi.
I remember passing by the slum areas often while gazing out the taxi window on the streets of Mumbai. At the tender age of thirteen I was bewildered, fascinated and intimidated all at once. I wondered what happened behind those straw doors and wooven roofs that I so frequently witnessed as a tourist.
My curiosity continued to grow after that short first trip to India and so I delved into Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Thrity Umrigar’s The Space Between Us and Gregory David Roberts Shantaramto feed my fascination. Although I knew they were fictional stories, I was intrigued by the characters and their lives. There was this peculiar sense of familiarity, like I was reading about a distant relative or neighbour; I hurt when they hurt and wept in the emptiness of their hardships.
Although I didn’t know if I would ever have the capacity to help or change the reality it was based on, I never seemed to take my mind off of it. I yearned to learn more and followed in the direction of intuition until then.
Twelve years later I found myself packing my bags one day. I was getting ready to uproot my life for six months to lust after a burning curiosity, a long time dream to explore the country that was supposed to be akin to me.
I arrived in India with a thirst for knowledge and a quest for change, but in that first month there I was very quickly confronted with a cold reality of struggle. I battled day in and day out as I chased for answers to understand the things that made me me. No matter how many times I fell, I got back up and kept going, but India kept testing my patience, pushing my limits… angering and dissapointing me in every possible way.
The unwanted attention, pestering and disrespect stained my insides with deep resentment. I was mad at the people, mad at myself, mad for everything I had given up to be there. I felt like I was drowning in deep water, desperately gasping for air with no rescue team in sight. I ached for comfort and wondered how to reconcile my wavering spirit.
It was the end of January when I returned to sister’s home in Delhi after spending a few weeks with my parents (who had been visiting) in the South. After three months of India and a little dose of home I was feeling calmer about the upcoming weeks of exploration.
A few days before leaving to travel Rajasthan on my own I received an email from a google group I had signed up for – a network of young professionals in India sharing resources. An organization called WASH United was seeking photographers to document sanitation in the Delhi slums. I wrote back immediately disclosing my interest in the opportunity, using my blog as a resume.
The next thing I knew I was meeting up with a group of young talented Indians, ready to explore the Delhi slums….
Four months after the fact and I still find myself in awe. Visiting the slums was one of the most fascinating, eye opening, heart wrenching and heart warming experiences I’ve had in my life. Even after reading extensively about slum life in India, it didn’t all sink in until I found myself walking through the sewage filled nooks and crannies, interacting with the locals; visiting my distance relatives.
They offered seats along their ledges and piping hot chai as they relished in fascination of our fancy gadgets. The children giggled and jumped, excited to pose for the camera. They brought us into their world forgetting the hardness their own and filling it with the joys of human connection. And even if temporarily, I began to forget my anger and frustration as I watched them carry through the day; smiling and scrubbing, laughing and limping. It was then that I started to recognize a new reality; why I love India.
I battled with myself about whether to post these pictures. Something about exposing their lives with nothing to return to made me feel empty inside; as much as I love the art of photography, human compassion trumps all. After much contemplation however, I share these with you in hopes for us to humble one another, sometimes we need a reminder of how fortunate we really are.
As you go through my work, I hope you make it a thoughtful experience. One in which you ponder why you’re thankful for what you have, and consider what you could do to spread the joys of your life, far beyond your own reach.
For now I am working away on a few new projects I hope to spread your way soon.
Throughout my stay in India I spent four weeks in a rural area just outside a city called Nasik, training to become a Yoga Teacher. What I anticipated to be a relaxing retreat, actually turned out to be one of the most challenging experiences I’ve had in my life.
Unlike many of the mass marketed teacher training programs in India, the one I selected focused on resembling the lifestyle of a traditional Yogi. Ultimately this meant thirty days of bucket showers, daddy long legs, snakes, 4am wake up calls, scrubbing floors, silent days and disconnection from the world… Ashram life.
To start off, I share with you some of the most profound life lessons I learned along my Yogic journey.
Hope you enjoy!
The 20 best lessons I learned about life while living at an Ashram
1. There is more embarrassment in pretending to know something rather than just asking. Take pride in your curiousity and be intelligently informed.
2. Relish in your own introverted-ness.
3. Be at peace with your past so you can focus on the present and enjoy the future.
4. You control your obstacles; it is your decision whether they will hold you back or help you grow.
5. The answers to many of your troubles are silence, or will come to you in silent moments.
6. Have faith in yourself and the universe.
7. Smiling with warm eyes can solve a plentiful of your quarrels.
8. Spread your joys as far and wide as you can.
9. Few things in life are surprising these days; pique your imagination by constantly finding fascination in the unknown.
10. Being alone and being truly comfortable with it is much harder than people make it out to be. Be gentle to those who do it, they are fighting a much harder battle than you see.
11. Be at peace with the reality that at the end of the day something or someone may not rescue you, but rather that you will rescue yourself from your own suffering.
12. Smile more often than you cry.
13. Be connected to the people you love near and far, make time for them even if it means a short text or e-mail.
14. Respect your mind and body for what they are; love yourself.
15. Don’t be so hard on your own heart.
16. Share your knowledge, talents and resources with the world, because nothing means much these days if you aren’t sharing.
17. Save yourself from the battles of boredom by striving for a life of continous learning and curiosity.
18. Embrace life in its entirety; celebrate the small wins and big wins.
19. Honour your emotions. Once you’ve wholly experienced them, discipline yourself over and over again until you learn to control them.
20. Always, always, always choose passion over fear.
Look out for more posts to come in the “Diaries of a Yogi” series, where I will delve into the in and outs of living life as a modern day Yogi and showcase some of my favourite photographs.
What a journey it has been since starting this blog almost four years ago. I still remember the exact moment I decided to get a wordpress account as a way to quietly share my writing with a few close ones. At the time, 2009 precisely, life had dealt me some of the hardest cards I had ever encountered to date. I had no idea how to conceptualize saving myself from the hailstorm that poured down on me. Beyond loneliness, my career was in shambles and I was holding on by a thread to my relationship as the only source of my emotional sanity. It was a mess, I was a mess. I turned to my writing as the only outlet I really had left.
I received a lot of positive feedback on my writing from those standing by my side and witnessing my quarterlife ‘crisis’. They urged me to continue, and so I kept going despite having no clear end goal in mind. One day I woke up and had an ‘ah hah’ moment, where I decided it was time to find the courage in me to share my lessons.
I began posting all my work on Facebook, opening up my life to my networks and admitting to some deeply personal things that I believed haunted me alone. Little did I know, that I wasn’t the only one in my twenties facing problems of every kind. Long lost friends, acquaintances, colleagues, family members and strangers began reaching out to me to share their stories about some of their own struggles and how they related to what I was going through.
I was in awe that anyone would find my writing interesting enough to read through even a paragraph of it. Reaching out to even one person would have been a call for celebration for me. But In 2011 and 2012, life handed me some blessings. Getting freshly pressed twice earned me exposure to strangers across the world, who found it in their hearts to take the time out of their lives to tune into my world and share their words of encouragement.
So I kept going. And thanks to all of you, I found the courage to begin pitching my work to online publications in March 2013. Without a background in journalism I had no idea how to really go about doing this, but I decided had nothing to lose and everything to gain, so I kept at it with reckless abandon.
One lovely Friday afternoon after spending a few hours with a former colleague of mine, I received an e-mail from a publication called “Elite Daily”. I had casually e-mailed them suggesting that my writing would be a good fit for their newsletter after discovering the site through an article a friend of mine had shared via Facebook. After reviewing my work, they invited me to be a contributing writer. I couldn’t believe that something which started off as a therapy method had grown into something bigger than myself.
Although a small win in the world of journalism, its a start to something I’m deeply passionate about. And ultimately, I hope this is an encouragement to all of you out there, who like me are just trying to chase dreams and find happiness in your life. Even when it seems like nothing is working out for you, have the strength to see past what will likely be temporary rut, because great things are often born in times of turmoil.
I’ve often discussed how my journey ahead has looked narrow and dark; I haven’t always been able to see a light at the end of the tunnel. Admittedly the dark can be a scary place, but its also the place that pushes you to figure out how you will get where you need to go. Chances are I’ll continue to encounter dark tunnels, but I no longer see them as something to be feared but rather something to be conquered, and best of all the potential for greatness coming my way.
I still remember my first real trip to India. Dozens of children swarmed the windows of our taxi with plastic butterfly hair clips, dinner towels, napkins, oranges, earrings, bracelets, everything and anything someone may leave the house for. I was confused and overwhelmed by the commotion and loudness that was Bombay, and as I looked over to my mum for an answer she quickly rolled up the windows.
But it didn’t stop my questions. I wondered why the carrots were red, why I couldn’t drink fresh milk or have a glass of water from the tap. I hated the way everyone stared at me strangely when I walked down the streets and when I spoke english. I didn’t understand where I fit in, and so, I wrote. At the tender age of 13 when nothing else made sense I turned to my journal, and 12 years later as I sit in Delhi after living here for 5 months, I’m still writing.
Ironically this country intimidates me more now than ever before. The version of India that I knew, the one my parents built for me at home coupled with the memories of that one short visit for my cousins wedding is so far from the one I’ve experienced living here.
In my first month while I endured episode one of the dreaded diarrhea curse (which would also mark the beginning of multiple illnesses), I started to question what made me come to India on a whim. Before leaving, all I knew was that I had been manifesting this dream to come live and travel extensively within the country for the last 7 years and the desire was strong enough to make me leave behind all the wonderful things and people I frequently dreamt of returning to in my many moments of sickness and solitude.
The sheer manifestation of the desire was rather peculiar considering that before choosing to live here I had only visited twice; as an infant and a preteen and both times were certainly no walk in the park. As I laid in bed miserable, I began to wonder whether I had made the right decision to leave and if this slow decline of my health was a sign to return home or the universe’s way of testing me to see how badly I wanted this dream….
I’ve been fighting for so many years. Unconsciously trying to repress emotional baggage I didn’t even know I was carrying from the 6th grade. It was the boy who sat across me in class and called me a paki that started it all. I remember that disgusted look he had on his face, like it was a dirty thing to be a paki, like I was a dirty thing. I should have stood up to him, but I felt ashamed. I was ashamed of my big bushy eyebrows, the dark thick hair that grew on too many parts of my body, the way my hips curved outwards, the way I tanned to a rusty brown in the summer. I often wondered why I didn’t look like my entourage of Asian friends who by comparison looked like angels to me. I envied them for being what I perceived as normal.
Although I grew up in a household with the strict rules and routines of any average Indian immigrant family in North America, I often pretended I was an outsider. That I didn’t know anything about this ‘Indian’ thing. That I couldn’t speak my language if someone asked me. For years I praised the tortilla and rejected the rotli. I dyed and chopped off all my hair so I couldn’t make the long iconic braid. I removed my nose ring and replaced it with an eyebrow ring. I insisted for two decades that unlike other Indians who live in Canada I was different because my parents weren’t born or raised in India and my last name was not an identifiable segment of the Indian population.
But on the other hand, I sometimes embraced my Indian. I took pride in the fact that I was brought up on a strict schedule of gujurati food. That I learned to tie my gungru in three perfect rows every Saturday morning for 6 years before my Kathak class. That I loved the way the dark kajol I wore beneath my eyes made me feel mysterious. That I couldn’t wait for my birthday every year because it meant warm, sweet, fresh, gulab jamuns made by my mum. That the best part of summer was slurping mangoes with my hands in a way that left a dark orange ring around my mouth. And that I entered a daydream coma every time I watched SRK’s latest romance flick.
I constantly battled with myself about whether to embrace or resent my roots. I switched on my Indian light, but even then dimly, when it was in my favour, and quickly switched it off when it didn’t suit my purpose. But I never realized that this internal conflict existed until I found myself strolling down the streets of Delhi as a young adult, my oversized glasses glued to my face, as an attempt to disguise myself as an outsider. I knew then that this was the reason I had come and this was the reason I would stay and overcome all the obstacles along my way…
In my first week here as I was sitting in a trendy little cafe sipping on a lassi in Delhi’s Hauz Kas village, I stumbled upon a book called ‘Maximum City’. I was intrigued by the cover so I began to flip through it, only to quickly learn that the Indian born, New York based author Suketu Mehta was highly acclaimed by every South Asian fiction writer I had ever known and adored. Instinctively I began to read it, and twenty pages in I was fascinated. The novel delved into the many conflicts Metha faced while having to move to America as a preteen Indian bred boy learning to fit in, and then again while moving back to India as an American bred adult learning to roll with the Indians. Amongst all the compelling things he revealed though, it was one line in particular that stayed with me throughout my own journey in India, in which he said:
“India is the country of No. That ‘no’ is your test. You have to get past it. It is India’s Great Wall; it keeps out foreign invaders. Pursuing it energetically and vanquishing it is your challenge….India is not a tourist friendly country. It will reveal itself to you only if you stay against all odds. The ‘no’ might never become a ‘yes’. But you will stop asking questions” (19).
Although I expected this journey to be challenging, I never could have mentally prepared myself enough for all the things I observed in the last 6 months. After two injured ankles, countless episodes of diarrhea, several hospital visits, bags full of obscure pills, injections, head lice, trains, buses, planes, boats, scooters, autos and too many indecent proposals… its almost a miracle I made it back home in one piece. I’ve cried out of fear, anger and frustration about the injustices I faced one too many times, and I constantly battled with myself on how to make amends for the things I witnessed and experienced but wished I hadn’t had to.
I grappled with how to accept the reality that inside my dream there was a nasty truth. Precisely that both living and travelling in India as a female from a Western country, on a budget and with minimal hindi speaking skills, is no walk in the park. It takes patience, understanding, and above all incredibly thick skin to overcome the things you see and feel on a daily basis. But even then, with the mental preparation, it often just implies that as a result of being a part of this demographic, limitations and compromises must be made about where you can go, what you can do and when it can be done, and this is the only way to survive the country.
Truthfully, I’ve come to accept that India is a country I simultaneously love and resent. I resent it for being backwards in so many ways, yet I love it for its beauty, diversity, and courage. Although it isn’t anywhere near to perfect; it often smells of the garbage that fills the streets, disease is rampant and unfortunately the media reports are not magnified, it is emerging to something better. Perhaps slowly, but I do believe that in my lifetime I will be able to say its a country I love in its entirety and one which I hope to be able to fully conquer one day, even on my own if I choose to.
Despite the many challenges I encountered on this quarter life adventure, I don’t regret my impulsive decision to leave behind my life for a second. It was a dream I’ve wanted to accomplish for so many years and I’m happy to be able to say against all odds I didn’t give up on it. Admittedly the journey wasn’t the way I expected it would be at all, but it introduced me to some of the most fascinating people who not only piqued my curiosity over and over again, but surprised me with a kind of graciousness I’ve never experienced in my life. It taught me more than I could have ever imagined about myself and a country that I had longed to understand for years. Most importantly, in a strange way, it saved me. I finally came to see that this identity I have, being Indian, is so much more than just a birth right, its a privilege. One which I’m proud to say I’ve earned, one which I’ll never question or deny again, and one which realizing has allowed me to fully love myself.
After returning from South America last year and successfully travelling solo for the first time, I had talked about how the experience made me feel closer to the fearless woman I hoped to be one day, and now at my return from India, I finally feel like I am the fearless woman I dreamed of being.
Look out for many many more blog posts to come where I’ll share some of my favourite memories that made me lovemy India.
I had been dreaming about coming to the holy city of Benares (better known as Varanassi) where the sacred Ganges river lay, ever since one of my professors in university had painted this majestic picture of his trip there 5 years ago during a lecture on Hinduism. He spoke of his travels with such passion, as though he had undergone some sort of transformation there that had left him mystified that a city could awe him this way. I decided I would surely make my way to the Great Ganges one day to discover all the mystery of these sacred waters for myself.
As soon as I arrived in Delhi I wasted no time in arranging my travel plans to Benares. After standing in line for 3 hours at the train station I managed to get the last foreigner ticket out, and in true Indian style I squished into a 4 bunk cabin with a family of 6. In fear of being harassed as a solo female traveler, I smothered myself under a blanket to avoid all contact. I clutched on to my purse tightly and stuffed my headphones in my ears drowning myself in 12 hours of Michael Jackson and Hed Kandi; tra la la la la… here I come Benares.
Coming out of the station I was warmly greeted by one of my dear friends’ Aunt and Uncle who had welcomed me to stay with them while he would also be visiting from Dubai. In India they say “The guest is God” and my experience staying with their family was nothing short of it. I was pampered all weekend long in sweets, savouries and stories. We ate the flakiest samosas soaked in dollops of tangy amla chutney, the creamiest pineapple rasgula, the freshest gelabi, and the tenderest crispy puris. They shared tales of mischief in their younger days and warm memories of what life was like growing up in a joint family with brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins to pass their days with. As they reminisced with me, they smiled with a silent sigh, remembering the simplicity and togetherness of their lives, one they perhaps longed for once again…
On the morning of my last day, we woke up at dawn and rushed to the dock of the Ganga (better known as Ganges) to ensure we secured a boat and boatsman so we would be just in time to catch the sunrise. By 5am we set out onto the waters in the dark and watched as the locals living along the river began to prepare for their day ahead. They chatted and giggled as they bathed together in the holy waters. They styled their hair, fastened their lungis and saris, and chanted prayers.
As the sun began to sprinkle into Benares I paused and closed my eyes for a moment. I hoped I wasn’t just dreaming and that my reality was sailing on one of the holiest rivers in the world with my dear friend, his family, and the soothing sounds of peaceful prayer all around us. When I opened my eyes I found myself in awe, mystified that the universe could move me this way…
Although I hope to mystify and awe you through my pictures, the experience of embracing the spirit of the city in the present is simply incomparable. Like most Indian cities, Benares was filled with ironies, paradoxes, delicious foods and shocking behaviours, but I wanted to focus on capturing the beautiful and honest aspects, everything that made me believe it to be the Great Ganges.