Life Musings, Writing

Joy in the Journey

For my last weekend in Al Ain I could think of nothing more fitting than a drive up to Jebel Hafeet. Over the last two-and-a-half years, escaping to the top of the limestone range has been my favorite pastime. I even chose my apartment because of its mountain view and I will always remember standing out on my balcony on winter mornings waiting for cloud-cover to rise and reveal the city’s iconic peak.

The view from the top of Jebel Hafeet can often be hazy, maybe as a consequence of the quarrying and cement factories that dot the area. But for me, the beauty has always been in the serpentine journey through hairpin turns, as I play hide and seek with the sun.

In November of 2017, I moved to the Garden City reluctantly as my head and heart continued to combat each other, trying to figure out how to coexist in unison. But the slower pace of life, small town vibes and simple routines grew on me sooner than I thought they would. My rhythm adjusted and the people I met solidified my feelings for my temporary home. Each person had a feel of calm and deep investment in making quiet connections…some private and some to share.

As we drove up to the top this morning, I could not help but marvel at how life plays out, pushing us in the directions that lead us to where we need to be. Thirty minutes into the journey we were making our way to the over-priced café and hoping to catch the sunrise one last time. God’s early morning, egg-yolk exposition did not disappoint.

I hope to return and see the sweeping views of Oman and Al Ain again someday but for me the drive and the anticipation of making it to the top will always be what makes this journey a beautiful experience. It is never about the destination but the journey itself. Just like life.

Writing

Type. Delete. Repeat.

When my high school English teachers told me to write every day, I took their advice to heart. I believed that they were offering sage wisdom gained by being fantastic practitioners themselves. From that moment on, I wrote almost every day, convinced I had found the key to being a good writer. As I look back, I realize that was probably not the best advice for them to have given me, also I never read a single piece of their writing, and don’t remember being particularly fascinated by their turn of phrase. As time passed, I learned this notion of writing every day was, in fact, common writing advice but not very impactful. Still, somewhere deep in my conscious mind is a little kid committed to that practice in the hopes that such discipline will make me a real writer, a good writer, a great writer, a respected writer.

When I began this blog, I would get home after a long day and sit at my desk, always in dim lighting, with mood music to boot, and write; just write – about my day, people I met, conversations I had and the writing, was not very good. (It’s all still available on here for anyone who has the time and the inclination to check. It might even make you chuckle) It was comforting, I suppose, to put so much energy into making myself feel like I was trying hard to improve my skills because I was certainly not having any success finding external validation. I would submit work to magazines and newspapers relentlessly and have that work simply ignored.

I’m a different kind of writer today. Reflective, pensive even, easily moved by everyday things but cautious with how I express my feelings. I still write two to three times a week but on so many days, the writing is questionable. My wasted words, I call them. They never make it to my blog or anywhere other than the trash bin on my computer. At the end of a long day I sometimes scroll through twitter or read the news or try to answer a few emails. Then I remember I should be writing, so I open up a Microsoft Word file and tap out a few lines. I procrastinate. I tap out a few more lines. I tell myself I have written for the day and have, therefore, done as I was counseled to do so long ago.

What I crave deeply is the luxury of those few times when I start to write, and though I don’t yet know the shape of what will come, I write my way forward. I remember the joy of those moments so vividly. Stolen pockets of time – on a bus travelling between Paris and Engelberg, at the grave-side of a teenage student who had died tragically, as I watch my mum and dad carry out their household chores in domestic bliss, listening to a busker playing a Coldplay song on the high-street in Goadilming and sometimes even just as I stare out at the red taillights of cars lined up end-to-end on a highway between Dubai and Sharjah.

Writing everyday is akin to building muscle (so I have been told) – the muscles get stronger with time. Perhaps I am my own greatest critic, nothing about the writing I produce or the work I do, fulfills me completely. I am always looking to get better. Do better. Be better. Maybe I am meant to be the kind of writer who writes best when I least expect it. A writer without consistency. A writer stealing from everyday experiences and hoping that some day the words will come together more beautifully than they usually do. Until then I will type, delete and repeat. Bear with me.

Life Musings, Writing

The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone – Little Foxes

I was never a diehard fan of Sushant Singh Rajput and I don’t claim to have seen all of his work. I have watched a couple of his films and some interviews and to me, he always came across as honest, authentic, down to earth – the underdog who beat the odds in Bollywood. It helped that he was a musician, a reader, a truth seeker, a star gazer – there was so much more to him than the average ‘hero’ and that’s perhaps why I liked him more than some of the other actors who have graced the screen in recent times. But, I did not expect to feel the way I do, ever since I heard about his passing this morning.

Some losses feel more personal than others even when there’s no real reason for them to, and it’s not difficult to see why. The science is simple, we invest so much in the lives of larger than life characters that they become part of our lives. Over time they rent living space in our thoughts, our conversations and our daydreams.

In my lifetime I can recall reacting on social media to the untimely passing of Chester Bennington, Nafisa Joseph, Jiah Khan, Kushal Punjabi, Robin Williams and now Sushant. There were others before social media became a thing who left behind shattered families, scores of heartbroken fans and communities left questioning ‘why?’. Sadly public memory is notoriously short-lived and before you know it, the next big headline will steal the space where tributes once took pride of place. Already today, news anchors are diverting our attention to stories of presidents, protests and prejudice. Everybody moves on. Public sentiment is re-set. We go back to our default setting.

While the pressures of fame are not everyday concerns for most of us, the effects of isolation and despondency are, they are universal and that’s why a loss like this, resonates so loud. Every time I hear of a suicide, I go reeling back to that Wednesday evening, circa 1998. I had just returned from choir practice when my ma sat me down to give me some news. I could tell from her eyes, the timbre of her voice and the way she held my hands that the news was not going to be good. A few minutes later, I was trying to digest the fact that *******, my friend (just a year older than a fourteen year old me) had taken his own life. ‘Pills’, they said, I didn’t even fully understand how that was possible.

Even today I can close my eyes and re-live everything through a blend of disjointed memories. I remember going to his house, his mother clinging to me as she wept. Tremors passed like waves through her frame, everything around us shook. Sobbing. Wails. Faces in the crowd I had never seen before that day. Suddenly I am at a funeral home. I’m staring at the skylight above us instead of the White coffin below it. My gaze is fixed upwards, I am stoic but I steal glances at my friend resting peacefully a few meters away.  First, confusion. Then, Calm. The riff notes of ‘I Surrender All’ linger on gloomy air as a Pastor reads from the scriptures. The hard-wearing scents of Eau de Cologne and Rose petals make it difficult to breathe. ‘Dust to dust’ the crowd reads at the cemetery. Mud, more mud. Flowers. Muffled voices. Incence. Crows cawing nearby. The end, of my friend’s life.

What haunted me then for weeks after, is what makes me most uncomfortable today in Sushant’s passing. How did we let it get to this? Why did he feel so alone, so isolated, so helpless; as if there was nobody, not-a-single-person-in-the-whole-world who could have helped him, or to whom he could turn?

For weeks I felt guilt and regret regarding my relationship with ******* like there was something I could have done or said. Weeks turned to months, but I was still regretting unsaid words and ruing silly arguments; wondering if things would have been different had my actions been any different.

In retrospect, ******* was clearly going through mental struggles he could not articulate. We didn’t have the vocabulary for it back then. Nobody knew his pain in 1998 and nobody knew we would wake up to this news today. Nothing has changed. Not enough people seem to care if you have a mental illness. They might even call you names like “crazy” or “addict,” and perhaps never look beyond those labels. My friend was the “victim” of a suicide. Maybe that explains it better. He was a victim of a mind that turned against him and system that couldn’t help either.

All these years later, everything is still the same. Most people with mental health issues still struggle alone and fight their demons unaided. I wish ******* had known that there are people who do care. I wish those people had told him so. I wish Sushant had known his death was going to send shockwaves through our communities. That he has millions of wellwishers and mentors who regret their absence from his life. That supporters would come out of the woodwork for him. That demigods and luminaries would eulogize him. That people respect him. Admire him. Love him.

Did he know that people care? Would it have made a difference if he did?

 

Books & Reading, Writing

The Road to Leadership with Hercule Poirot

As Agatha Christie’s world-famous detective turns 100 this year, it’s worth taking a leaf from his book for some real world applications too. This article appears in The WKND Magazine, June 2020.

The quarantine life has affected people differently. Some have taken to baking, others to exercising and some are exploring latent talents. I don’t fall into any of those categories but I have binged my way through potentially all of Netflix’s crime shows and was left with what I call, whodunit withdrawal symptoms. There is always something about crime shows and not knowing the unknown that is intriguing and stimulating to the mind.

While contemporary shows really refine the genre and elevate it to a new level, I still love going back to the ones I grew up with. I know I am dating myself here but, shows like Street Hawk, Perry Mason, Columbo and Agatha Christie’s Poirot series with their red herrings and high-stakes intrigues were the original ‘binge-worthy’ shows way before the notion of bingeing became part of popular culture.

It worked well for me that life in lockdown also coincides with the 100th anniversary of Poirot, which has given me a chance to binge my way through David Suchet’s perfectly helmed episodes.

I started reading the Poirot novels when I was around 10, and as I grew up, I began to understand his character better. But re-watching the episodes against the backdrop of a global pandemic has been something of a revelation. For weeks, I have been discussing with colleagues and friends the importance of leadership and leadership styles; and while there is potentially every possible style currently displayed on the world’s stage, Poirot too (it occurred to me) shows us some characteristics that are perhaps more important today than they have ever been.

Poirot prioritised relationships and deep listening. He embodied the saying ‘To see clearly, listen more’ and so, in many of his cases, it is simple words, an off-hand remark, or a turn of phrase that actually leads him to answers. It is his understanding of human nature, tones and gestures, expressions and body language that helps him connect with people.

Poirot, as I recently observed, was also a spiritual man. In The Triangle at Rhodes, it was his observance of spiritual practices and deep-seated notions of right and wrong that led him to find and prosecute the murderer. As long as the guilty person was not identified and punished, he believed a shadow would hang over the lives of everyone else. Poirot believed closure was vital and that murder was never justified.

In Lord Edgeware Dies, Poirot read upside down during the case to understand the killer’s mindset and, through the series, comes across as someone who constantly upscales his skills. Here was a man who knew himself well and understood that expertise was not optional. Studies suggest that the best leaders know their domains well and while Poirot was by no means perfect, he was humble enough to learn and practise what he did not know.

As we all come to terms with current events, it is perhaps an opportune time to look inward at our own leadership characteristics. It is also the perfect time to reflect on who we choose to lead us. True leaders put people first, prioritise relationships and have the ability to inspire, to take others along on their journey, and be credible. They are able to make people sit up and listen, then follow – not by shouting the odds, but through the power of logical persuasion and a clear sense of purpose.

How wonderful it is that, in fiction, we are able to find a poignant and timely message for the real world. The climate of our times demands leaders who are not just intelligent, but wise; leaders who formulate strategies that target the greater good; leaders who are fair. Poirot, without trying to, can remind us that the more we choose such leaders, the better off we will be.

Life Musings, Writing

An Abundance Mindset

This whole week I have been forced by circumstances to think about the constant tug-of-war between abundance and insufficiency. My mind has been marinating in things I have heard, read and discussed with people and I learnt quickly that I was not alone, perhaps because of the climate of our times.

In most people’s minds, there is a battle between two perspectives: abundance and lack. These are almost like two roads that we have to walk but sometimes without a choice, each giving us vastly different experiences of life.

Abundance often correlates with positivity with the core belief that there’s enough out there for everyone. By carving our niche and claiming our little successes, we are happy to bask in the realm of possibility. On the other hand, when we think from a perspective of insufficiency, we could be filled with fear and questioning. We think pessimistically, are highly attuned to what we don’t have and what won’t work, as well as the deficiencies of our situation. Everything is either black or white.

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Rhine Falls, Switzerland

While I have been questioning so many things lately, my predominant state is that of gratitude. Abundance doesn’t come from resources alone, abundance is a mentality, no? I am reminded of the majestic waterfalls across the world, some of which I have been so fortunate to see personally. It amazes me how that much water can continuously flow at such speeds, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, for thousands of years. To me, this is symbolic of a never ending abundance that can come only from a power greater than our little minds can imagine.

The natural world has a lot to teach us if we pay attention, no matter what the present circumstances feel like, it is alive and well and ongoing. My prayer for myself is that I would focus on the abundance instead of all the things that seem so far from reach. And, if you haven’t seen a waterfall, I’d like to share this one with you in the hope that it will remind you to live in an abundance mindset, no matter how difficult it might feel at the moment.

Teaching, Writing

Teachers Learn

This article apprears in the June 2020 edition of Grazia India. In it, I reflect very briefly on my journey with #EdTech and about how important digital competence will be for teachers post #Covid19.

As a student in Kolkata, the only technology I used in my lessons was a calculator, and man would I have been lost without it! There aren’t enough digits and limbs on the human body to help someone calculate, who doesn’t have a mathematical bent of mind. Circa 2006 I was finishing my graduation and B.Ed degree and still spending hours in the college’s dimly-lit library, making copious notes of everything that I would later integrate into my essay type answers. There was an unsaid rule back then, the more you wrote, the more knowledgeable you would seem. So I wrote, and wrote. There was no question of photocopying anything, which self-respecting college student did that?

Cut to 2009, two years into my move to the UAE; I am standing in the centre of a cavernous hall at EdEX MENA, the region’s largest education conference and the focus of the year is educational technology. It was as if someone had flipped a switch and education as I knew it had transformed. I was surrounded by teachers geeking out over gadgets, apps, LEGO, Minecraft, augmented reality and robots. The keynote speakers were erudite educationists who claimed the landscape of education was changing and technology was one catalyst. I felt so intimidated as I realized my skillset paled in comparison to the more cutting-edge practitioners.

With the sudden upheaval of education post the Covid19 outbreak, teachers may find themselves intimidated again. I am conscious that not all countries have kept pace with the changing times, and not all teachers are able to adapt as smoothly as they are expected to. Let’s face it, so many of us were taught under a 19th century model, grew up in 20th century classrooms and are still expected to be a modern-day McGonagall or Dumbledore; as the world grapples with unprecedented disruption.

If 2020 has cemented anything for teacher’s it is this – the landscape of education has undergone another paradigm shift. Successfully balancing work and life, keeping abreast of evolving policies and technologies and dealing with children is akin to ‘survival of the fittest’. I hate that old adage ‘those who can’t, teach’. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teachers today are/need to be consummate professionals with skills in technology, data-analysis, modern pedagogies, medical and life saving skills and they have to teach too!

It’s easy to get caught up in the buzzwords and evolving philosophies, but one thing remains unchanged – children still need teachers who can inspire them, individuals who care about them and also about how they learn. But teachers need to accept reality too, while tech may never really replace teachers, teachers who use tech, might. The burden is on us to either upscale our skills or risk gradual extinction post Covid. It is important to understand is that this is a new experience for us – both students and teachers and so it is imperative that we treat this as a learning experience. Every day, something changes and we need to be patient and gentle with each other as we acclimatize.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though, teachers continue to orchestrate fun learning experiences whether online or in a face to face setting, that being said, always remember to check yourself, your pyjamas and your background before turning on that camera. The last thing we need is another teacher becoming a viral meme sensation.

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Life Musings, Writing

A Collector of What Ifs

Anybody who knows me, will probably describe me as ‘confident’ or ‘self-assured’ and that’s partially true. I project confidence when I need to, it takes a lot of preparation to get me there but when I’m there, I wing it well. I use the phrase ‘wing-it’ intentionally, because that’s often how I feel on the inside; as though I am an imposter feigning confidence and calm – the swan gliding over placid waters without causing a ripple but churning and chaotic below the surface.

Self-doubt is a special kind of hell. A small failure makes you question your abilities and the next thing you know, you feel like you aren’t good enough or smart enough to do anything. And that’s when you stop trying.

I believe that we all have that little inner voice that tells us what we want to be doing with our lives and who we want to be. Unfortunately, we push this inner voice aside because we start to think things like, “How am I going to do this?”, “What will people think of my decision?” and the worst one, “What if I fail?”. Herein lies the delicious irony of my life. Despite my self-doubt, I have ambition. For as far back as I can remember I have wanted for everything to be different with me. I thought I had the strength and mastery to make it and gradually I taught myself how. But the most terrible obstacles for me aren’t situational, they are in my own head.

If I could measure my life in moments of self-doubt, it would look like yardstick after yardstick of questioning my choices. Choose A and then obsess over the thought that I should have chosen B instead. Why do I always choose the wrong thing? Anyway, I ramble, it isn’t all doom and gloom. I go through cycles of self-doubt, the questions usually come in torrents and leave a million what-ifs like driftwood strewn along a shoreline. In time, the tide comes in and takes away the debris to where it came from, but till it does, my head and heart remain in constant conflict, each one fighting for a stronghold over my life and actions. Some days my head wins, on other days, my heart.

I guess, I’m putting this out there today just to acknowledge that I have days like today, weeks like this one has been. A truth-seeker is obligated to be truthful first, no? I am reminded of the fable of the Hare and Tortoise; how confident that little Hare was, so self-assured, so certain of getting to the finish line. In 35 years, I have never once felt like the Hare, just always the Tortoise. I stick my head out of my shell and take one step at a time, crawling at my own pace, hoping just to finish the race respectably while the Hare is taking his victory lap.

But we all know how the fable ends, an ending that promises both optimism and Hope, and if this post can do the same for even one of you reading this, then writing it would have been worth the effort.

“Just be yourself instead of trying to prove yourself. For if you do, the former will automatically take care of the latter.” ― Craig D. Lounsbrough

Life Musings, Writing

Quarantine Chrysalis

A friend reminded me this morning that it takes 66 days for a new behavior to become a habit. As we turn the corner of 71 days in quarantine and begin contemplating return to some degree of normalcy, I was forced to question if I am ready for routine again.

Normally, my days are divided into some variation of work and leisure; rinse and repeat. So now that we’ve been thrust into an extended period where some of us are working from home, some not working at all, and everyone is dealing with some degree of uncertainty and worry, we’re lprobably left feeling unprepared for how to plan our days.

Behaviors we relied on pre-Covid, to help us cope with work and life, release tension, and let off steam were part of our anxiety toolbox. We built these behaviors over the course of our lives as we figured out how to balance our time and responsibilities. These practices developed into habits. During the course of this pandemic, so much changed and so quickly – what does our anxiety toolbox look like when many of our normal behaviors aren’t an option right now?

What do we do when our lives are upended and we’re left to create our own schedules every day? Turns out, we just don’t.  I have been relishing this at-home time; sometimes listlessly going about evenings in a blissful limbo.  A total departure from scheduled routines, I have learned can disrupt sleep, cause us to miss meals or the opposite, snack all day. Comfort food, social media, reading and TV binges dominated my down-time over the last 71 days. But as we approach returning to routine, a lack of structure, is perhaps the newly developed habit I most need to change.

Though hope springs that the pandemic will end in the next weeks or months, the question remains: what will the new normal at work be like? I have spent some time reading various ‘How to return to work after quarantine’ kind of blogs and the generic suggestions have not been helpful. So, I have put together my own simplistic list of what I plan to do in a lead up to a gradual return to normalcy.

  • Start making detailed to-do lists
  • Wake up earlier
  • Change into work-like clothes
  • Force myself to turn my camera ON for as many meetings as possible
  • Avoid napping (this is going to be THE most difficult one for me) and re-adjust my body clock and sleep cycle

Though it’s still uncertain what life will look like after quarantine has ended, one thing for certain is that if we look after the little things while we can, we may leave quarantine feeling less fatigued – and maybe a little more productive. COVID-19 brings with it many new worries everyday, but life will go on, and so must we.  To really stretch the caterpillar to butterfly analogy, I am most certainly in the ‘Pupa’ stage now and what the next period of time will be like for me is increasingly determined within, and not from what I experience externally.

Writing

8 Years and 42.7K Tweets Later

As I sat on my bed, sipping coffee and scrolling on my phone for news from the 2019 Billboard Music Awards this morning; a curious landmark update dropped into my timeline. It was 8 years, the tweet told me, since I joined Twitter.

In early 2010 my childhood friend @rnvj encouraged me to join the platform ‘Facebook is where you meet people you went to school with. Twitter is where you meet people you wished you went to school with,’ he told me. So I got online, set up an account and tiptoed around the edges of conversations, unsure if I should join in. I gave the app three months tops, but I stayed much longer until 2011 when I finally found my groove.

In 2011, discovering you could connect with people you didn’t know through an app on your phone was genuinely life changing. For me, then discovering that you could meet them in real life ‘tweetups’ was even more amazing and I feel sad that the number of ‘tweetups’ I have attended over the years has diminished. How incredible it was that once a month you could meet with people that you had been interacting with online. Twitter was a place big enough to have a critical mass of people who cared about the place where they lived, the affairs of countries and celebrities with equal passion, and who wanted to see where this new technology would take us all together and as well as individuals.

I watched it all play out in my timeline, and it captures my attention till this day.

Seeing the real connections that I have made over twitter, started online and nurtured in real life at times, or even continuing on over 140 characters, reminds me why I love the platform so much. I have too many contacts, both professional and personal, people I legitimately care about and whose opinions matter to me, who live all over the world, with whom my primary interaction is/was through Twitter – these are people I never would have met without the network. It is still where a place where I can learn a lot about a lot. So while there are those who lament social media for it’s tendency to make us disconnect with one another, I look to hashtags and handles to show the power that social media, like Twitter, has to legitimately and authentically connect people. I can’t even talk about this without coming off sounding like a cliché, but for those of us who have experienced that, it is real and it is powerful. The last eight years has also cast the positive side of social media with the negative. Not everyone I’ve met online has been a beautiful person. But that is life.

So, thank you, if you’ve connected with me online or in real life. Your 140 characters, ideas and opinions make life interesting and rich. But if you’re reading this and we are still strangers, lets change that – follow me @sydneydxb and we’ll take it from there.

After eight years online, I believe twitter is a way of life – one that is well worth investing time in. So get a good healthy feed of what’s going on in the world and with the people you find interesting and soon you’ll find that it will become the first thing you check each morning.