“Professor Dumbledore. Can I ask you something?”

“Obviously, you’ve just done so,” Dumbledore smiled. “You may ask me one more thing, however.”

“What do you see when you look in the mirror?”

“I? I see myself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks.” Harry stared.

“One can never have enough socks,” said Dumbledore. “Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn’t get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books.”

It was only when he was back in bed that it struck Harry that Dumbledore might not have been quite truthful. But then, he thought, as shoved Scabbers off his pillow, it had been quite a personal question.”

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

For those of you who are not avid Harry Potter fans, let me give you some background. In his wandering through the castle of Hogwarts, young, orphaned, wizard Harry encounters the mirror of Erised (Desire, spelled backwards, as we later discover) and is wistfully bewitched by it – since it shows him his dead parents, alive and well. Eventually though, with the help of his wise principal Dumbledore, he manages to shake off the charm the mirror holds, recognizing that it only leaves him stuck in his dreams and does not help him learn or develop in any way that would aid his progress.

Growing up, we had many little fairy tales and games to wish upon – a shooting star in the night sky, a truant fallen eyelash on my cheek, a pair of tiny sparrows, a train rushing past us on its tracks, the tooth we left under our pillows for the tooth fairy and even our birthday candles that we blew out with great gusto every year.

“Make a wish!” someone would inevitably announce and I would dutifully screw my eyes tightly shut, scanning my brain for my deepest desires and dreams fervently. It always took some thought – like my conscious mind needed to rifle through an array of perfect dreams to find the most important one. They always had the same theme – exotic travel abroad, accomplishment in class, success at work, comfort for the family, more travel, food and wine, a home, more travel, etc. etc.

As I grew older, the list of my dreams and wishes also evolved. And I started to recognize that merely wishing for things did not make them come true. And yet, it was not a tradition I ever broke – almost as if the ceremonial soul searching and releasing my wish as words spoken aloud into the universe set forth a chain of events destined to make it come true. Maybe I wished for things that did not happen as well and I just chose to forget them, choosing only to retain the good outcomes – indelibly forged into the walls of my brain for eternity.

It is hard to tell, really.

What I can say for sure, is that like Harry and the mirror of Erised, I have struggled with the concept of perfection. I have often chosen to be willingly limited by achieving perfection rather than compensating. And it has often led to disappointment, soul searching and self-bargaining. But on the rare occasions that my wishes were granted and perfection struck – victory was sweet – creating lifelong memories to be savored and furthering the search. Over time though, I have learnt to break perfection down into smaller goals, life moments and memories – helping to create frequent little victories and celebrations.

How you ask?

Today was a perfect Minnesotan day with blue skies, sunshine, friends and a long hike with my delighted puppy, Kahlua. And so, I sit here in content and ramble tonight – a scented candle flickering in the perfumed summer breeze; soft strains of piano jazz in the background, a mellow pinot keeping me company and casting tall stemmed shadows along the wall as my Labrador puppy sleeps at my feet – quivering as he dreams about his day in the park. I look up and hear a train trundle past in the distance. Despite myself, I close my eyes to make a wish. And for the very first time, I don’t have to search my mind – all my little cells seem to offer up my wish almost simultaneously –

“I wish for another sunny, glorious day with Kahlua”

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I could hear the pitter patter of the rain on the windows outside our meeting room. Inside, we sat around the conference table and looked at each other with curious expectation.

We were a motley bunch – team leaders of various groups within the finance team – there was the crafty head accountant – tapping his face with his fingers as his gleaming eyes took everyone in, the witty tax leader – scanning the room for the target of his next wisecrack, the bored commercial finance leader – who had pulled out the day’s newspaper and was intently reading the comics page, the treasury leader pointedly studying stock tickers on his phone , the perfectionist controller – shaking his head at the absurdity of it all and me – the beady eyed and eager financial analytics and planning leader. We sat and waited for the Vice President of Finance to come in and kick the discussion off.

None of us really knew what to expect. We were a finance team in the eye of a storm – having spent the past three years turning around the company we worked for, upgrading systems, processes and resolving lawsuits and disputes – before finally getting it ready to be merged with our sister company and controlling interest.

As with any merger process, we were aligning to common processes and systems of the acquiring entity – to be able to leverage efficiencies of scale. The process of alignment was not without its drama – the two businesses were nuanced and different in multiple ways, resulting in a fair share of heated arguments and debates.

In this backdrop, Sanjay, our VP of Finance, had suggested holding a team offsite workshop. The intent was for each team leader to present their transformative vision and road map for their respective teams. The formal merger was still some ways off and we had to figure out how to work more cohesively and efficiently.  And so, an agenda was drawn up and announced – we were going away as a team – staying offsite for two days – complete with team games, walks and visioning presentations. This had never been done for the three years since the company was acquired – so it was no surprise that people were enthusiastic and excited.

A day before the actual workshop was to happen though, the Indian High Court granted approval for the merger – a hitherto long delayed event that was expected to take another six months. Almost immediately, corporate headquarters announced the formal merger and the revised structure in which we were to operate. Some positions were being optimized across duplicative teams in both organizations while others were being modified. All of us had reconciled to the inevitable – I was going to give up the reporting and analytics side of my team and instead take over the planning function for the entire organization.

I wondered if it even made any sense for us to go through with the offsite as I packed my things and got ready to leave work. Sanjay’s office was still lit as I walked by.

“You’re here late,” I stuck my head in cursorily and without any greeting, as was our way.

“Just putting the final touches on the agenda for the offsite tomorrow,” he smiled at me.

“Does it really make sense to go through with it, when everything is about to change?” I shrugged.

He looked at me pensively.

“I think I’d like to.” he responded slowly. “I think there is no harm in talking about our plans and vision, even if we may have to tweak it to adjust to a new structure.”

And so, just like that, we found ourselves in the bright conference room, on a leafy campus, sipping hot, sweet ginger tea from little china cups as we listened to the downpour outside. Looking around me, I could see that everyone’s eyes mirrored the same questions that I had had of Sanjay last evening. Finally, he walked in, nonplussed and sat down.

“Good morning everyone. Shall we begin?”

Methodically, we worked through the day – all of us taking turns to lay out our challenges, strengths, solutions and strategic visions. I watched as the commercial leader cringed when the tax leader explained the struggles of incomplete information captured at booking resulting in lower tax refunds. It was clear as mud that he had never thought through the greater implications of some of the short cuts his team adopted. We had some fun a-ha moments collectively brainstorming solutions to various processes that cut across teams and enjoyed sharing feedback on our top performers and star employees.

Finally, it was time to share our transformative plans. We went around the horn and each leader had ten minutes to present. The sense of inevitability returned, as folks started to talk about the futility of planning improvements in processes they would no more own. As the mood became progressively gloomier, it was finally my turn to speak.

I set up my computer and looked around. Tomorrow I was giving up this team and a portion of my responsibility. But today, I was still the leader of financial analytics and planning and I was going to share my vision for analytics of the future. Nevermind what tomorrow would bring, nevermind that I would never be able to implement a lot of the changes that I had envisioned.

Ten minutes later, I looked around at the room once more. It had been a lively discussion. We had discussed changing business needs and information asks, the need to provide timely and accurate insights and the unspoken ask to determine trends and patterns that are hard to recognize in the moment. I felt curiously satisfied as I sat down in my seat.

“Thank you Shruti,” Sanjay smiled at me. “Shall we break for the day? You can absorb our discussions and take in the beautiful campus tonight.”

Like little children set free by their teacher, everyone scampered out of the meeting room to their respective pursuits. I lingered back, pensive, as I powered down my laptop and packed my things. My ten minutes of fame helped vindicate that my vision was sound, unfortunately, it was not something I would get to implement.

“Your presentation today was excellent,” Sanjay stuck his head into the conference room unannounced and smiled.

“Thank you,” I said quietly. “It really feels pointless though, you know?”

Tearing up unintentionally, I looked down at my things, waiting for the moment to pass.

“And why would you say that?” Sanjay smiled at me gently.

“Because I will never be able to see it to fruition,” I responded softly.

He chuckled.

“Such a drama queen.” he responded. “That you can dream it is all that matters, silly girl.”

I looked up at him quizzically.

“Always remember, everything in life is there only to prepare you for what comes next,” he smiled. “That you can envision your change only means that you will be ready to implement it when the time is right.”

It was a curiously comforting thought. Despite myself, I smiled at him.

“Now, shall we go find the others? I hear the cafeteria here serves up a mean cheese toast.”

Not long after that, I separated from this group of people, to join another team. And like Sanjay predicted, I was able to accomplish a lot of what I envisioned. And encounter new challenges I could dream up changes for.

It is a long and winding journey – he omitted that part 🙂

Two distinct incidents come to mind when I think about my tenure in Bangalore. I’m going to remember them to you today. Why you ask? I have a point, I think. And like with everything else, I’ll get to it eventually 😊

I worked for the global offshore center of a multinational organization. Since we worked with global teams in multiple time zones – it was common for most managers to work early afternoon to late night. Suffice it to say, there were not too many lady managers – I pretty much was one of a rare breed. There were plenty of girls in our analyst teams though – a heartening trend. Indian laws require companies to pick up and drop all ladies working late hours (actually all employees) – a reflection of the need for secure transportation for women in India. I dutifully tried the shuttle service offered and rapidly dismissed it as being impractical – work was way too unpredictable for me to be able to maintain a fixed schedule for leaving work.

And so, I started to drive my old little jalopy in and out of work every day. It was an hour’s drive – and anyone who is familiar with Bangalore traffic on the Ring Road will understand when I tell you that no two days were the same. But as with everything else, the traffic and chaos become second nature to you, as you navigate the jams – singing along with nonchalance to the radio.

One evening, we were tied up at work pulling together a critical presentation for an impending client visit. We spent the better part of the night going through iterations till everyone was happy with the outcome. It was nearly four in the morning when we trooped out into the car park and clambered into our respective rides.

“Did you want one of us to drive behind you till you got home?” One of my male colleagues offered thoughtfully.

I shrugged. “It’s a really long drive. That would be unreasonable. I will be fine.”

“Ok. But can you call us as you get to the ring road please?”

And so, I turned off onto a winding side road that would take me to the outer highway that formed Bangalore’s circumference. It was a pleasant drive – not a soul was to be seen on the otherwise cluttered streets. Suddenly – out of nowhere – a shadow detached itself from the sides and appeared in the middle of the road in front of me. I screwed my eyes to slits to focus. It was a man. In his hands was a huge rock, the size of a large watermelon and he had it raised above his head – poised to launch at my windscreen. Instinct and every nerve in my body was screaming – urging me to slam the brakes. Somehow though, self-preservation took over and I gritted my teeth and slammed the accelerator instead.

I still remember the whites of his eyes widen in comprehension. I missed him by barely a few nanoseconds as he swung aside and dodged the car as it hurtled past him. I was shaking wildly as I turned on to the ring road and picked up the phone to call my colleague.

“I’m at the Ring Road now. Some hooligan tried to stop me by throwing a rock at the car.”

“What? I hope you did not stop?” I felt his concern wash over me through the phone. “This is a local gang that tries to hold up passers-by. Had I realized they are active in our locality I would have driven with you.”

“It’s fine Sid.” I responded tiredly. “I did not stop. I just want to get home and rest, you know?”

The next day, Human Resources was already briefed of the incident when I got to work. All the employees were cautioned. People kept walking up to me to talk to me.

“You were so brave, are you ok?”

“How did you have the presence of mind not to stop?”

I just smiled and accepted their concern and shrugged at their misplaced admiration. Suffice it to say, I never stayed at work that late without being escorted back by a colleague to the main highway. It bothered me that I was creating a disruption for all my colleagues, but it was sensible and there were no other alternatives.

A year after the aforesaid episode, I was driving to work in the late afternoon. The Ring Road was astonishingly crowded even by Bangalore standards, and so I resigned myself to a long commute. I was sitting patiently in bumper-to-bumper traffic, when I suddenly noticed a group of boys in the car ahead of me waving to me angrily. I was puzzled. The traffic started to move right then, so I decided to just ignore them and go my own way. But it was not to be. As soon as the occupants of said car realized that I was not paying attention, they started to follow me – yelling and gesturing angrily.

I was genuinely puzzled and frightened. People in cars around us started to crane their necks and look to figure out what the problem was.  As the lanes started to clear, the car swerved around and stopped right in front of me, effectively blocking my path. The five occupants spilled out of the car and came up, surrounded my car and knocked on my window with agitation. I rolled the glass down.

“Lady, you just hit our car and tried to drive away,” one of them started to yell.

I was even more puzzled.

“Did you hear a sound or feel contact?” I asked. “Because I did not. Do you think you are mistaken?”

“Do you think we are all lying then?” the response was even more agitated.

I tried to reason. “Ok, but don’t you think there would be some impact on my car, had I accidentally hit you?”

“We don’t care. Step out of the car so we can settle this.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m not getting out of the car,” I responded pleasantly, but firmly.

A crowd had started to gather. Cars were driving around us to get past us.  It was quite the scene.

They started to confer amongst themselves. I could tell they were unsure how to proceed. The leader (self-proclaimed) walked back to the car.

“Compensate us for the damage and we’ll let you go. Else we will call the cops.”

I sighed as it dawned on me that there was no way I could diffuse the situation in isolation. I came to a snap decision and picked up my phone. I was not super sure what the emergency number was in Bangalore, but I was about to find out.

“What’s your emergency?”

“I need the Police please. I’m a girl alone, stuck on the Bangalore Ring Road. I was followed by five boys who have now stopped my car and are not letting me pass.”

“Are you in danger? Are there people around?”

“Yes. But we can’t diffuse the situation. I need help.”

“Ok, we have identified your location. We will send someone in the next fifteen minutes. Hang tight.”

I then picked up the phone for a second time and called my colleagues at work.

“Er, really sorry to bother you guys….but I need a spot of help.”

I rapidly briefed them.

“Don’t worry Shruti – we will be there as soon as possible,” he yelled into the phone.

Later they told me how my colleague burst into a management meeting, gathered all our colleagues, organized themselves into cars and rushed to my location.

I rolled the window down once more. The men were standing and watching me curiously.

“Let’s just wait. I have called the cops as you wished,” I informed them pleasantly. “They should be here shortly.”

I could tell they were wary now. But they were also trapped into the situation now, as much as me.

Shortly, two cops rolled up in their car and got out and assessed the situation. They walked around and studied both cars – eyeing the damaged paintwork on their car and the intact paint on mine. Eventually one of them walked up to me.

“Madam, do you have a valid license and is your car registered?”

Here we go – I thought. The accuser will be accused. I saw the boys smirking amongst themselves.

“Yes.” I responded firmly. I was not backing down.

“Good.” He answered. “Are you willing to lodge a formal complaint that you were being harassed? We will escort you to the Police Station.”

“I am. Let’s go.”

I watched as the boys took it all in.

“Before we go madam, can you please take a photo of each of these boys, their driving licenses and the license plate of their car?”

I was puzzled.

“Should you change your mind or should one of them harass you ever again in the future, I want you to be able to identify and locate them.” He explained gently.

I teared up at his pragmatism. We eventually made it to the police station where the gravity of the situation dawned on the boys. One of my male colleagues had made it to the scene and accompanied me.

“Please forgive us!” one of the boys came up to me and started to beg. “I don’t know how the situation escalated so quickly.”

I turned to look at him as I paused to sign the complaint form.

“One minute we saw your car in the lane next to us with you in it alone and in the next minute suddenly we were pursuing you. I am sorry. I can’t say what happened and why?”

He was genuinely bewildered at having been overtaken by what can only be explained as mob mentality.

“What’s to say it won’t happen again with another girl?” I asked him calmly.

He shook his head solemnly, tearing up as well.

“It won’t.” he answered. “We learnt our lesson.”

“Forgive them if you can.” The cop whispered into my ear. “I have seen hardened criminals. These are just silly boys.”

And so, just as the rest of my male colleagues arrived, I was dispensing with my complaint and thanking the cops.

“She had already managed the situation?” one of my colleagues asked incredulously. “You do need to be more careful Shruti!”

I chuckled, nevertheless grateful for their concern, as we all made our way back to work. It was a story that was oft repeated to many others that worked with us. Over time a couple of more lady managers joined the group. They were always structured in their work hours – choosing to take a shuttle back and forth from work.

I however, continued to prefer to drive. I saw no reason to change. I hated that I would occasionally have to request for assistance from my colleagues or leave early – but there were limits to every situation.

I have often thought that driving is a great parody for real life. This situation is no different. I was an educated, empowered modern Indian girl. And yet, I was subjected to differential standards of conduct, safety, independence and flexibility. And I am not alone. My sisters, cousins and girlfriends can all whip out similar episodes. In some cases, the discrimination is very subtle. In others it is blatant and rage-inducing. And we all deal with it in our own matter-of-fact ways as we go about our lives – because that is the only option.

Till the day I am seen and not seen as a girl, alone.

It is a sedate winter weekend – the snow continues to fall unabashed outside, while we sit ensconced in the warmth indoors. The house is quiet as the only sounds to be heard are those of the dog systematically shredding his bed (the adventures of adopting a young puppy continue) and I let my mind wander back into my memories from yester years.

A little over five years ago, I was wrapping up a stint with one of the group companies of Mahindra & Mahindra – a highly respected Indian corporate house known for their values and integrity. We were gathered in Cape Town, South Africa for the group conference and Bharat Doshi, the group CFO, was called up on stage to address the gathering.  He admitted to being caught unawares and so instead of a prepared speech, he chose to remember to us his memory from his Harvard days. His story has always stayed with me and so I am going to share it with you.

“We were in a leadership & ethics class and the professor presented us with a case study,” he started. “The board of a company was hotly debating a tricky situation that was best served by a unanimous vote.”

We listened attentively.

“All the board members gradually agreed to a common decision but for one individual. That person continued to present his case and could not be convinced.”

“The other board members were angry and upset with the individual for potentially jeopardizing a unanimous outcome.”

“After outlining the case, the professor turned to our class and asked us to debate how we would resolve the situation and come to an agreement.”

“The class turned amongst themselves and started to discuss the details.”

““We would try and reason with him…?” One of the students piped up.”

“The professor shook his head.”

“No, he countered with his own reason.”

““We would offer him a reward or incentive?” someone else offered.”

“He was not enticed.”

“The group tried multiple options – all of which revolved around encouragement, enticement or mild coercion – without success.”

“Finally, in exhaustion, one the students in our group exclaimed, “Oh, I would just remove this one individual off the board and the company”’

“There was a momentary pause in the class as the other students shook their head in violent disagreement.”

“Then the professor shouted at the student, “Pick up your books, gather your things and get out of this class, this campus and this university. Never come back.””

“A hush of shocked silence spread through the class as the student in question stopped for a moment and stared in disbelief, then silently gathered up his things and walked towards the door.”

“He had only just opened the door when the professor spoke up. “Stop. Go back to your seat and sit down.””

“Puzzled, the student walked back, looking at the professor tentatively.”

“You now know how it feels to be that lone voice of dissent,” the professor said to him.”

I remember feeling the prick of tears in my eyes as Bharat Doshi smiled at his recollection and the audience. Everyone in the auditorium was equally moved by the story and the ethic it conveyed as he waved quickly to signal a close to his address and walked away from the podium. His little story touched my heart more than any prepared speech could.

A loud rip shakes me out of my blog-induced-reverie as I look around. The dog is surveying me quizzically – with what look suspiciously like remnants of his bedding in his mouth.

Welcome back to the present, I guess.

“At night, the trees ask each other, how can they live without roots?”

   – Russian proverb

I returned from my holiday in Machu Picchu with my mind made up. I was going to adopt a puppy. It was time to abandon the single girl lifestyle in favor for a family – albeit a canine one, never mind the demands it was going to place on me and my time. Our family dog died a couple of years ago, and I was so affected by his passing, that I never felt like I would be able to have another pet.

And yet, here I was contemplating a dog again. I fretted about the small things – the high-rise apartment, the time, the money and the effort. But really, I was afraid of being a bad puppy mum and the eventual loss that comes with outliving your pet’s lifetime. Somehow though, this time was different and I was feverish with a nervous anxiety as I scanned the websites of multiple animal shelters looking to see if they had puppies available.

“You really want to play puppy roulette?” Michelle asked me incredulously. “Why not select a nice 2- year-old dog instead. She will be housebroken and trained?”

I listened quietly, seeing her logic, but not feeling it. Some decisions are made by the collective emotions in your little cells and not by your grey matter. This was going to be one of them for me.

“I should be fine. I’m mentally prepared for it.” I responded. “Please will you come and meet this 10- week-old black Labrador pup with me?”

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“Sure,” she responded instantly. “But don’t you want to look some more? Or are you happy with the first pup you see?”

I smiled at her voice of reason and support, all wrapped into one.

“Let’s meet him?” I responded. “If he feels ok, I don’t want to look any further. I just want a doggly to love, you know?”

And so, one chilly fall morning, we head to the shelter to meet the foster parents of little Baddha puppy. He was a tiny black lab mix, ten weeks old and thirteen pounds heavy. I felt his little heart racing as I cradled him awkwardly, brown eyes gazing up with trust and curiosity all mixed in together.

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“He is not house broken yet,” the foster mother warned. “He needs to go out every hour. Although he does sleep through the night.”

“That’s fine” I responded, stroking his velvety fur and admiring the single white stripe down his chest.

“And he does need a bath,” she smiled. “He will chew on his own collar when he is bored.”

“We will do just fine together.”

Two days later, I was as puppy proofed and equipped as a girl can be. Michelle loaned me her dog’s old kennel and Kahlua (as I chose to christen him) came home. Why Kahlua you ask? Because my Grandmother loved black dogs and called every one of them Kaallu (Hindi: The black one) and because Kahlua was our family’s favorite liqueur growing up.

Anyways, so two days later, with barely any sleep from excitement and trepidation, I leashed and brought home my very first family member – the actual reason for now terming the house a family home.

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The first week was frenetic as we struggled to establish a routine and learn about each other.   He hated walking on a leash; he was always hungry – begging in an insistent manner for more food; he loved his toys and was terrified of going up and down stairs – standing at the top of a flight and whining with forlorn abandon. Three days in, we were struggling to walk with some communication in the park, when he suddenly retched up all his dinner on the sidewalk. I had Michelle on anxious speed dial.

“He threw up his dinner Michelle,” I gasped with concern. “Should I rush him to the vet?”

“Hmm,” Michelle responded calmly. “How does he appear now?”

I turned to see him tentatively watch people pass us by. “He seems fine?”

“Then maybe its just settling-in-blues?” she suggested. “Take him home and feed him some pumpkin.”

Somewhat mollified, we went home and settled into a routine. He was too young for me to leave alone, so I was working from home that week. My days were interspersed with meetings, puppy feeds, potty breaks and shrieks when Kahlua nibbled on my toes or snuggled up against my feet.

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As wonderful as it was, I knew I was needed back at work and had to find him a daycare fast.

“Not a lot of places will accept puppies that young,” my neighbor warned me.

“Ugh” I answered, scouring the neighborhood and the internet alike for recommendations. People stopping to say hello to Kahlua offered me suggestions on how to work from home, or crate him, or feed him and what daycare options to use. I felt like a first time parent selecting a school for her toddler.

“Sure they have great features….but is it individual enough?”

“Thank you – but does she have enough experience? She seems awfully young!”

Eventually, I found Linda and Kahlua and I went to meet her in person. We both seemed to take to her well enough and Kahlua started daycare with her three days a week.

The first day at work, I kept wondering how he was doing. Did he miss me at all, or was he busy playing with the other dogs? Almost fortuitously, Linda texted me a photograph of him at that instant.

“Found napping after an extensive play session”

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That weekend, Kahlua and I went walking around the neighborhood. He was starting to gain confidence and was turning into a mouthy puppy. After repeatedly yanking objects from him, I gave up and started to enjoy the surroundings. He was a dog after all. He had to learn for himself.

A couple of hours later though, my confidence in tough love took a beating. Kahlua looked decidedly under the weather. He was uncoordinated and dazed and his legs appeared to have a life of their own.

I was terrified.

“I’ve broken my puppy,” I wept as I whipped out my phone to speed dial Michelle and consult her again.

Kahlua flopped down on the carpet and whined.

“That’s it.” I put the phone away firmly. “I am taking you to the emergency vet. I am not imagining things – you are NOT well.”

Thirty minutes later, the vet came out holding a very dazed dog.

“Now remember, I am not obligated to report you to the cops….so you should tell me the truth…”

I blinked at her in disbelief. No good news ever started with a sentence like that.

“…Did you feed your puppy marijuana?”

Despite my disbelief, I gulped.

“What?” I reacted. “No way. I don’t even smoke.”

“Well, do you have kids that do?” she clearly did not believe me. “Sometimes, parents discover it like this.”

“I am all by myself here,” I emphasized. “It’s just him and me.”

“Well you really ought to take more care, you know?” she admonished me. “He is really over stimulated. Take him home and give him a quiet dark place till he recovers.”

Both of us returned home – tails tucked between our legs. I was a terrible puppy mother, just like I feared. The phone rang. It was Michelle.

“You called?”

Soon the entire story came gushing out – ending with me blaming myself copiously. Michelle listened in stunned silence.

“So….you’re dog is…stoned?”

“Yes!” I bawled.

“Geez.” she chuckled. “Guess I never realized he was hippie!”

Despite myself I started to laugh.

“I feel like he is bearing the brunt of my inexperience, you know?”

I could hear her smiling.

“I know. But you will both teach each other how to be.”

Somehow, that was comfort enough for my guilty soul.

Kahlua was none the worse the next day. I watched him with hyper vigilance for all of a week – before we established some unspoken boundaries. He continues to test those boundaries each day.

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(It’s been more than a few weeks that I’ve played hooky from blogging – partially because my professional and personal routines were upside down, but mostly because for the longest time, I was not ready to write about Machu Picchu yet & I could not look beyond it either. I hope to be a lot more regular going forward– call it my resolution for the new year I guess!)

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I really can’t pin point the exact moment when I learnt about Machu Picchu’s existence nor the moment that it took the prized position on my bucket list of places to visit, towering above even the wailing wall in Jerusalem and the Egyptian pyramids. I can’t even tell you that I honestly knew the complete history of the lost Inca City or why it was so special to me. I just knew that I had to see it before I die and that it was on the other side of the world in Peru, South America. And I knew this with all the intensity of the wanderlust spirit that drives my existence.

This ferocious certainty existed even when I was just a little, Indian girl of modest means and no hope of making such an expensive trip across time zones, continents and oceans; when hiking for three days up the Andean mountain sides was alien; when the only knowledge I had about Peru was that Lima was its capital city and that it was known in the culinary circuit for sublime Andean stews.

But life has its own odd ways and patterns. And so, I eventually found myself relocating over Stateside for work. Arguably the move was underpinned by the fact that South America was way more accessible from the US than it was from India. Somehow the opportunity presented itself by way of time, means and a small little hiking group that was going to attempt the Inca Quarry Trail from the base of the hills in Ollantaytambo up to Machu Picchu in the Urubamba River Valley.

I was way more nervous embarking on this trip than I had ever been before. Even more than my high adrenaline visit to Queenstown to bungee jump and swing in a canyon or dropping into the wilderness of Kruger National Park or white water rafting on the Ganges. There was something about high altitude hiking up to 4450M above sea level and back across loose quarry rock, steep steps and slush and mud for three straight days and camping outdoors for the very first time in my life with other experienced hikers that had me in trepidation. But I was determined. This was my dream and I was going to climb that mountain and visit the Inca citadel.

We met up in Cusco – a touristy mountain hamlet with a marked Spanish influence. It was an odd group of six – Darren was from Tasmania, Debbie and Gill were from London, Peggy and Marylou were from Seattle and I was an Indian from Minneapolis. I was somewhat mollified to find that while everyone else had some hiking experience – we all shared a sense of nervous expectation at the physical demands of the hike. We were led by our Quechua hiking leader Bruno (I secretly termed him Mr. Spock for his extremely Vulcan like features), two cooks and three horsemen (who I suspected were descendants of mountain goats in their agility and speed on the hill side).

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As with all things, the hike started out nice and slow.

“Gentle, rolling hills – Andean Flats,” Bruno termed the terrain. We made friends with our hiking gear, our poles, our day packs and our technique even. Darren, who was the most experienced hiker of all of us passed around useful tips and pieces of experience as he stayed back to walk with Debbie – she had recently had knee surgery and after weeks of physiotherapy had bravely embarked on the hike with us.

I focused on my breathing and placing my feet down firmly as I locked step behind Gill.

“Remember, every step must be a good step,” Darren chanted from behind me.

For someone who tended to lag in all races and walks – I was grateful to be in the middle of the pack – Peggy and Bruno sprinting ahead while Darren and Debbie brought up the rear behind me. We took our first break near a little school in a village called Sokhma – the school had all of 11 students, all of varying ages and capabilities. A little stray ‘doggly’ (in Darren’s words) came up to inspect our protein bars and snacks as we sat and contemplated the hills before us.

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Eventually though, Bruno hustled us on. Things started to heat up rapidly from that point on. The trail started to narrow, got more uphill as we encountered clouds and donned our ponchos to battle the sudden down pour. A stream or two was crossed, a waterfall admired and the hillside embraced on occasion to allow horses and fellow hikers to pass. Our mini breaks started to become more and more frequent as we huffed and puffed along the steep trail – taking a breather to ‘admire the scenery’ every couple of steps. Debbie lagged far behind as she worked with her knee to negotiate the terrain at her own pace. Suddenly we all came to a sudden stop – bumping into the person ahead of us. Bruno pointed into the distance into the valley.

“Do you see that little blue building there in the distance?”

We peered into the valley we had just walked up from, trying to see what Bruno was showing us. Eventually we spotted the little blue dot he was indicating.

“Aha?” I answered tentatively, eyes shaded and half screwed shut in the sun.

“Well that is the school in Sokhma, where we took our first break some time ago.”

We all fell silent as we goggled into the distance. The implications hit me as I studied the mountain side and learnt my first major lesson on the hike – When everything feels uphill – look back to see how far you’ve come.

The same realization was dawning on everyone’s faces.

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Energized and renewed, we embarked afresh on our hike. If it was possible, the trail had gotten even steeper. It was now virtually vertical, just a little wider than my shoulders and slushy like a swamp. Bruno skipped ahead and stopped at the turn, eying me as I took two steps up and slid back in the mud. The sheer vertical drop a few inches from the corner of my eyes warned me to focus. Sweat poured down the sides of my face (along with the rain, that continued to fall unabashed) as I slowed down to the pace of a snail.

“Get to the hill side,” Darren yelled from below us. Puzzled, I turned to look and saw a huge flock of goats with a goatherd and her dogs swarm towards me as I pressed into the slushy side of the mountain for safety.

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Somehow though, we survived the onslaught of weather, livestock, terrain and locals as we eventually made it up to our campsite for the first day – after detouring to a beautiful Inca rest stop en-route. We congratulated ourselves as we flopped into our tents and sleeping bags – too tired to even take our gear off. I was sharing a tent with Peggy – a spry seventy-year-old grand mum from Seattle. She bustled around making the tent more comfortable, as I watched her – too tired to move, encased in my sleeping bag.

“Make sure you put your hiking gear and duffel bag at your feet when you sleep,” she warned me.

“Why?” I was puzzled.

“Because we are on the edge of the hillside – I’m not sure I want to wake up tomorrow and find that my tent mate slid off into the valley at night.”

“Ugh.”

That was enough to keep me up all night – scooching back up like a little worm every time I slid down in the subzero temperatures.

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Day 2 and 3 got progressively harder and harder. The scenery became more and more sublime. We got more and more tired. It was a cycle. We scaled up to the first pass at 4450M painfully and slowly, up a hill that Darren termed as “Hell Hill.” Debbie slowed down so much that Bruno decided to call upon one of the horses for her to ride. He termed the horse 911 – something we all chuckled at in our heads, too tired to even laugh out loud.

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But it was not over yet. Bruno led us surely but certainly towards the next pass. By this time we resembled characters from the Zombie Apocalypse. I was numb to the beauty now. Every time I looked up, I would see Bruno far away on the top of the hillside and get overwhelmed. And so I started to wear a sun hat and focus only on the backs of Gill’s shoes. That was my second lesson. When everything gets to be too much, focus on the small steps and don’t look into the distance. Darren tells a story about how he and Peggy (it could have been Gill), were seated along the trail at our next designated meeting point and watched me come around the corner. They called and yelled to me so I knew to stop. Apparently, I looked to them, paused and then continued walking right past them as they kept yelling for me to stop.

“You had completely tuned us out,” Darren laughed later. “It was like Elvis had left the building.”

Finally, we made it to the second pass and spotted the snow capped peak of Mount Veronica. And I learnt my next lesson. No matter how bone tired you feel, you are not. You can still go further. It’s a mind game.

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From there started our descent through rolling stone and rubble on a steep incline down to the second camp site. I was weary to the bone. Bruno’s anxious eyes followed me as I crept down the incline chanting to myself, “Every step is a good step.”

“Look up. Mount Veronica is revealing her beauty to you,” Bruno was waiting for me.

And she was. Just like in the logo for Paramount pictures. Despite my exhaustion, I stopped for a moment to take it all in.

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I stumbled into camp on the second day after eighteen straight hours of hiking. My body and brain were on auto pilot and I could no more focus on my legs as I tripped and sprained my ankle in a hole in the paddock.

“You have to be kidding me,” Darren exclaimed. “After hours of hiking down a sheer vertical drop, you fell in the paddock?”

I mumbled miserably to myself as I picked myself up and hobbled into my tent. This holiday was turning out to be one of the most physically exhausting things I had ever done. How was I ever going to get back to work rejuvenated after this experience?

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That night it poured incessantly as I tossed and turned in the freezing cold in my sleeping bag. I was sure I did not sleep a wink. The next morning I nursed a fever and a swollen ankle. Bruno examined it sadly.

“You need to walk on it. We are too close now for you to turn back.”

“I am NOT turning back,” I responded firmly. “But I am terrified, you know?”

And so ankle bound firmly, armed with my hiking poles and with Darren staying back kindly, for moral support and assistance, we made our way painfully and slowly up to Machu Picchu. Darren chattered pleasantly all the way and I only half listened to him.

“You know, all the lights go out in your face, when you stop listening and tune me out?” I suddenly heard him telling me.

‘What? Oh. Really?” I responded. “I really am sorry, Darren. I’m just focusing on staying alive and moving.”

“It’s fine. You’ll get there. Although really painfully slowly,” he chuckled to himself.

And eventually, get there we did. After another night and day of walking, sleeping and eating on the move – we finally made it up to a near perfect ancient city in the clouds.

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As I stood up on the hill and looked down at the terraced slopes, I could not help but smile to myself. Battered, bruised and nursing a swollen ankle and an injured ego was all worth it. So what if I had been unable to rest even for one instant on my holiday.

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But here’s the greatest lesson I processed as I sat on the train back from Machu Picchu to Ollyantaytambo. This was easily the hardest thing I had ever done. Physically, mentally and even emotionally. Somehow though, it forced me to stay in the present every second of the trip. It forced me to be aware of my surroundings and did not allow even an instant of brooding on work or life or family or hopes and dreams.

And that was the most relaxing thing ever.

(Neti neti =Sanskrit for”not this, not this”, or “neither this, nor that” that constitutes an analytical meditation by the process of elimination.)


I’m heading out to hike up to Machu Picchu in Peru in a couple of days. I’ve never really done anything quite like this before. My mind is in a bit of a chaotic turmoil.

Obviously, I need to prep and pack and avoid and fret quite a bit. Standard operating style for Shruti. I’ve also got to suffer crushing guilt and anxiety at abandoning work for ten days – friends often remind me it’s the ‘spider syndrome’ – the tiny, inconsequential spider sitting upside down on the roof and fretting at the belief that it holds up the entire weight of the ceiling.

It’s the way it goes with me.

So, I don’t really have the time or mind space this week to do a full-blown blog post. Instead, I wanted to share with you a little excerpt I read in my little book of couplets by Rumi. Why you ask? Because, when I was younger and eminently influence-able (if that is even a word!), I was a great fan of this suggestion by the Reluctant Messiah in Richard Bach’s book “Illusions.”

He advised that when faced with a dilemma, or a difficult situation, or a decision or a conundrum – open a book at any random page and read the first thing your eyes fall on. Even a newspaper should work if nothing else is available. Usually, you should be able to find meaning or solace or guidance in whatever you read first.

I have followed this suggestion diligently since I was a child and it has often yielded interesting, albeit occasionally very weird results. More than anything, I found it expanded the way I looked at a situation as I tried to make relevant connections. I have managed successfully to make sense of an extract from the horoscope section I once read off a newspaper, or a character profile of a villain that caught my eye in a novel or a poem or quip that I looked up in my book of Murphy’s Laws or couplets by Rumi. Eventually, all reading is condensed into one simple message – it’s going to be ok. You are part of a grander scheme of things. And whatever it is that you labor over – good, bad or ugly – this too shall pass.  😊

For someone who had no intention of blogging today, I digress expansively.

Here is the little Sufi couplet from my morning reading…

“Today, like every other day, we wake up empty

and frightened. Don’t open the door to the study

and begin reading. Take down a musical instrument.

Let the beauty we love be what we do.

There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”

– Rumi – The book of Love, translated by Coleman Banks.

I scanned the reverse camera on my car perfunctorily as I started to reverse into my designated parking spot in the basement garage of my apartment complex.

Something about the wall I was backing into seemed curiously bare and bothersome. I could not pinpoint why. Then it hit me. I usually see a bicycle standing propped against the wall through my reverse camera. Instead all I saw now, was a brick wall and a lonesome bicycle lock dangling from a hook on said wall. I parked, slammed the door shut and charged out to the rear of the car. It was most definitely lacking one red-and-black bicycle.

“Well, this is new,” I muttered to myself in bemusement.

About eighteen months ago, when I got to Minnesota – a cold, tired and mildly terrified little immigrant – people everywhere told me about the glorious summers, the beautiful lakes and the fabulous biking paths.

“Get a bike. You will love Minnesota summers.”

“I don’t really know if I remember how to bike,” I offered, much to my chagrin.

“Nonsense,” they would universally declare. “No one forgets how to bike. Start with a simple bike if you are not so sure – you can always upgrade to a custom bike once you find your groove.”

Eventually, as winter melted into spring, I acquiesced to the insistent advice. With a friend in tow (for comfort and support more than anything else) – I scoured sporting goods shops and departmental stores, till I settled on a basic hybrid bike from Schwinn. It was a little taller than I would have ideally liked – but scroungers can’t be choosers and soon, the little bike and its matching helmet and lights found a new home in my underground garage.

The next summer and fall were a glorious epiphany of new biking trails, lakeside picnics and a whole new world of biking etiquette. I encountered multiple issues with ill-adjusted seats, handlebars and wheels along the way. Armed with many-a-YouTube tutorials and a box of specially acquired tools, I learnt to fix up my bike and look after it. When I encountered a flat – I researched and found myself a neighboring bike fixer – whose quaint store I absolutely loved to wander in and listen to his tinny radio – while he attended to my bike.

As the second round of spring and summer came around though, I realized I had become reasonably bike savvy. I could now tell that my bike was a lot heavier than those that other bikers around me rode. It was also not custom fitted for my height and torso – and so I frequently came away with sore shoulders and an achy back after longish pedaling sessions. I realized that I was getting to the point of needing a newer and better bike.

“Why don’t you go into Erik’s Bike shop?”, Michelle advised me over brunch one day as I confided in her. “The usually do a very nice custom fitting to ensure you are properly positioned on your bike.”

I was not ready quite yet.

“Well, what if they show me the nicest, lightest, toughest little bike and I have to give up my apartment and sleep in my car after that?” I asked.

She chuckled.

“Well, then probably tell them the spending budget you have in mind and keep them focused on offering you options in that bracket,” was her pragmatic response.

“But I like my bike!” I wailed. “I’ve fixed her up so many times on my own.”

“Ok, but aren’t you yourself saying that the height and fit don’t work for you?”

“But what if I move jobs?” I asked her. “What on earth would I do with the new bike then?”

She looked at me quizzically. “And where are you planning to move, that biking is not possible?”

“I don’t know,” I faltered. “Well what if I move back to India soon? There’s no real need for an expensive bike there.”

She nodded with faux sympathy.

“Agree. Maybe then wait till you feel sure, to get a new bike?”

“Hmm” I was not happy with that suggestion either, but had no idea what I really wanted to do.

And so, summer this year gradually yielded to fall with her bejeweled colors and cooler temperatures. I was not biking as much as I would have liked to – a combination of lethargy, busy work schedules and just doing other things. At a subconscious level I knew it was avoidance. I also knew I was being silly. I should have just gotten myself a bike I would be happy to ride. But I was paralyzed by the what-ifs.

Till today when that blessed thief decided to take the decision out of my hands and swipe my little budget bike.

I stood in the basement and stared at the bare wall in puzzlement. A car pulled into the spot next to me and my neighbor jumped out.

“Did someone steal your bike?” she quickly worked out what had happened. “That is really rare and unheard of in this complex.”

I shrugged.

“You should file a complaint with the police.”

“Naah. It’s fine. It was probably just some kid.”

“How can you say?”

“It really wasn’t an expensive bike. I’d been contemplating getting a new one for some time.”

“I guess the thief nudged you along with your decision making, eh?”

I smiled at my neighbor as we walked into the elevator.

He sure did – bless his heart, whoever he was 😊

We have been struggling to close out a particularly egregious project.

It is a difficult situation made worse by stubborn posturing by teams on both sides of the table. Our position was severely depleted by the lack of adequate documentation and bandwidth to record meeting minutes and document site conditions. Eventually though, we decided to bring on a commercial manager on the site to help bolster the situation. And so, JD was pulled off his assignment on another bad West coast job and asked to help.

After only two months of having JD on the site, we found the other side desperate to get him off the job.

Initially though, the local team that he was going to help was resistant. They had no experience with him.

“It’s a bad situation,” they wailed. “How much more can one more person help us?”

I smiled as I thought back to my first encounter with JD.

We first met on a training in Ohio a couple of years back, travelling together to train the local site on policy, compliance and the importance of good documentation. Since I was new to the US, generally a lost soul when left to myself (shocking really when you think about the fact that I live and travel half way across the world by myself) – JD offered to let me drive with him in and around Columbus city.

The digitized workplace creates curious memes in our working relationships – colleagues, subordinates and bosses alike – are all reduced to a familiar voice on the other end of a virtual meeting. So, meeting JD in person was refreshing and offered me a lot of perspective on the person he was and the job he did.

The two-day long training went without incident and soon we were on our way back to the airport. We discussed our observations as we turned into the rental car lane to return the car. There was no one manning the rental car agency office.

“There’s no one there,” I looked around anxiously.

“That’s fine.” He reassured me. “You can usually park the car, lock it and drop off the keys in a drop box. They inspect it the next day and send you a confirmation email.”

We drove into a vacant spot and parked. JD helped me pull my luggage out of the boot.

Suddenly a man walked up to us – he appeared to be an attendant.

“You can leave the keys with me,” he told JD as he held out his hand.

JD dropped the keys in his hand and we watched the man walk away from the car and the rental car office. Despite myself, I started. Something was not right. Evidently JD shared my sentiments and he rushed after the man, tapped him on the shoulder and calmly asked for the car keys back.

Two more cars drove up and people started to shuffle around and pull out their luggage. I was curiously tense.

After a moment of brief contemplation, the ‘attendant’ returned the keys to JD, shrugged and walked away.

I exhaled a long breath of relief.

“That was odd.”

JD smiled at me as he calmly reopened the car. He started to take detailed photographs of the inside and the boot of the car.

“It most certainly was. I have heard of car thefts happening in similar situations. Our instincts saved us, I guess.”

“Why ever are you taking so many photographs of the car?” I asked, puzzled.

“To document the state of the car when I return it. Should someone get frustrated at their unsuccessful attempts and try to vandalize the car.”

I goggled at him.

“Do you really take photographs to document everything?”

He smiled again.

“Sometimes,” he answered gently. “When my intuition tells me, something is not right. My paranoia has saved me from feeling jipped many-a-time. Shall we walk to the terminal?”

I was still smiling at the memory as I crashed back to the conversation around me.

“….I mean, we already have the best people on site trying to close out with the customer,” the team was saying. “What will he influence?”

Despite myself I smiled.

“He will be a blessing in disguise. Wait and watch.”

I had seen a glimpse of the personality behind the voice in the phone.

It’s been a more than a couple of weeks since I last blogged. And it’s not been for a lack of effort.

The voices in my head are true-to-form as they criticize my stress dominated lifestyle and absence of muses to fire some creative imagination and wry humor. I’ve hit this spot of writer’s block a couple of times in the past and have worked out that I just need to wait till that urge to string together some words hits me again. But the flash of inspiration has been conspicuous in its recent absence and gradually the realization, and guilt, dawned on me. Filling up on work was probably squeezing the creative space from my mind and heart.

The weekend came around unusually bright and sunny – and I spent the better part of the day soaking in the sunshine and cheer from people around me. As the day got progressively hotter though, I headed back to the cool comfort of home for an afternoon siesta. There is nothing more languorous than spending a lazy afternoon reading, drinking cups of tea and napping on the couch.

I was in the throes of a vivid dream.

I was getting ready to go away on an intense journey.

I needed to pack up all my things and leave them neatly kept away – out of sight and out of mind prior to my departure. Just before I left, I scanned the space with satisfaction. Everything was dispensed away with clinical perfection. I remember little about the actual trip – except that there were a host of other people. It was tiring, but busy and we saw lots of places and did lots of things. On many occasions, we were rushing to keep up with our schedule.

Somewhere along the journey though, I started to think back to the home I had so neatly put away. A niggling suspicion started to grow in me, that in my hurry, I had packed away a little stray kitten into a large bag and stashed it away with everything.

“This is plain absurd”, I told myself, as I continued to rush to keep up with everyone around me. “You don’t even own a cat.”

“But I distinctly remember it,” I argued back plaintively. “It was a stray. It had little feathered veins in its delicate ears and tiny whiskers.”

“You are imagining things within the construct of this dream,” I told myself firmly – even as my heart sank a little at the fear that my memory was not wrong.

Around me, people kept calling – asking for help or telling me to catch up. And I did it all, but kept speeding through everything, hoping that I could get back in time – hoping that it wasn’t too late. I kept trying to remember if the bag or box (it kept changing shape over the course of the dream) had air holes or spaces for the kitten to breathe. It would not come to me.

Finally, the trip came to an end. I can’t remember if I made any special friends or if we had a grand farewell. All I remember is rushing feverishly home, throwing open the doors of the closet and digging up and unsealing a large bag/box and waiting.

There was silence. A part of me was scared. Another part of me wondered if there was nothing there to begin with.

Suddenly a faint little paw fell out on my hand as a dying kitten head was exposed to the air. She choked and gasped as I watched her shriveled up little lungs fill up with air. With shivering hands I picked her up gently and cradled her body – rocking her back and forth till I could feel her warmth. I had to resuscitate her. She had to live. I could not be responsible for stifling her.

At this point, I woke up, sobbing inconsolably.  The warmth from her little body felt so real, the desperation to save her, tangible. I could not tell if I was successful or not in my efforts.

It was quite some time before I felt like myself again. Eventually though, I made myself a cup of tea, opened a blank document and started to type tentatively.

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