Wednesday, 31 December 2014

No more, please.

As a daughter and sister of pilots, this has been a heavy, heavy year.

Never did I imagine that I'd be thinking of fallen wings and broken petals three times in the same year.

I know that many disasters, calamities, accidents, and deaths take place every minute, and in every corner of the globe. But these three took place in mine; within my four walls, and in my safe and protected space where all planes take off and land, safely.

No more, please.

In memory of QZ8501.


"A large wheat field dotted with purple flowers and Queen Anne’s lace."

Could have been any of us.

MH17 in my (heavy) heart.



Waiting with my countrymen for some news, any news. This is too close to home.

MH370 in my heart.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

The 'Happy" in New Year

All around me are messages of holidays and celebrations.

As I stand on the LRT platform, I see construction workers toiling away at a site. They are most probably foreigners, far away from home. 

And what of their year, I wonder? Was it full of good cheer too? Given the poor living conditions they endure, and their limited rights as migrant workers, I'm not too sure. 

Gloomy thoughts on a rainy afternoon. Must be kinder to them, Harkiren. They too are in search of a better life.

Friday, 19 December 2014

So, where are you from?

To date, I’ve been asked if I’m Indian, Punjabi, Malaysian, British, Gujerati, Spanish, Bengali, and just yesterday, South African.

I love this question, because I believe in roots, and mine are pretty strong. But I've learnt along the way that not everyone shares my enthusiasm for it.

As a Malaysian, growing up in a country where race is at the forefront of everything, while the answer may be obvious, the question of nationality, race and origin is sometimes a delicate one.

While I was studying in the UK, I received mixed responses. Most fellow students were earnest about exchanging stories on their origins… diversity was part of the attraction of being there, after all. But to my great surprise, a large number of ethnic Indians had an issue with it. Where-are-you-from was met with ”the UK”; where-are-you-originally-from was met with “the UK” and rolled eyes, and oh-my-god-what-is-your-ethnicity-for-heaven’s-sake was met with “well my grandparents are xxx but I’m British, obviously”.

Yes, obviously.

I was at a loss as to why they found it so difficult to acknowledge the culture from which they came. Why such a strong need to disassociate? To me it was heart-warming that non-ethnically Indian friends were curious enough about the Indian subcontinent to recognise that within it exist dozens of unique cultures across the different states. Not to mention that a lot of them had roots not in India, but in East Africa. What a heritage to come from!

So after a few years of this, my questions evolved into greater sophistication: so you’re probably from here but where is your extended family originally from? Geez.. what a waste of breath. Over time, I grew more hesitant and resorted to Google-ing to discover the origins of surnames (clearly I am obsessed with this question!).

These days, this question is coming back to find me again. Joining the UNDP family has been delightful, because I feel so keenly the celebration of origin and ethnicity in the way we work, dress and speak. It is often the second question asked of anyone, right after “what is your name/ how should I call you”. It’s a badge that my colleagues carry ever so proudly; we decorate our offices and tables and desktops with reminders of who we are, and how in spite of all that, we are working towards a common goal of empowering lives. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would be able to touch so many corners of the world just by going to the office! So rich is this environment that yesterday, when I heard a colleague speaking in an American accent, my thought was “that’s interesting.. how did an American end up in this office?”. And then realising that I was in America, and really it wasn’t that surprising after all! :)

From where I am today, my courage is back, and I feel like I have been given the licence to shamelessly ask this of anyone, because it matters to me and the work that I do.

My response to the question from yesterday:
“South African? No, I’m not (smiling). I’m Malaysian, but my family is from India. We are Punjabi.
And you? Which part of India are you from?”

“Actually, I grew up in Zambia.”

Welcome to my world! 

Sunday, 30 November 2014


I've always loved photos like this one. Life looks so perfect, so idyllic. Blue sky, boats, open fields, and the time to sit with another soul.

But all this talk of Thanksgiving, and today I see this through a different lens. My camera cannot capture the hardship that comes with the life of a farmer or a fisherman. They are at the mercy of weather patterns, crop diseases, and probably the worst of all, their middle men and end customers (that's you and me, by the way). 

Today I am seeing the food on my plate in a completely different way. My mind is travelling all the way to the hand that sowed the seed, nurtured it with absolute tenderness, and reaped it with such hope that this season would be a good one. 

The idea that a family's entire week might be affected by the few grains on my plate - this brings immense perspective.

It is your beads of sweat, and your worry, that lines my stomach. My thanks seems like such a poor exchange for this gift.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The First Step a.k.a. The Loss of Starry-Eyed Notions

For many months I had visualised that moment. 

Standing on the final steps of the bus. Looking at the red earth beyond the last step. There may be a stone or two, some clumped earth, or even a footprint. Perhaps my knees would wobble after stepping down, due to the unevenness of the ground. I think I would inhale, a deep inhale. There would be the scent of mixed everythings, including the dust of the land and smoke from the bus. I may be tired from the many hours of sitting, and yet restless to begin. I imagined I would see fellow pilgrims gathering their gear, an upwards path visible in the distance, and what would seem like little ants creeping up slowly. I figured I would be approached by an enthusiastic chaiwala, and of course I would gratefully accept. His name would be Chotu, obviously. 

View from the trek

I would then stand back, taking it all in, my hand covering my little tea glass to contain the heat of the precious little. I would tense my shoulders, pick up my kit, and take the first step. It would all be a bit like that last scene in the Sound of Music, when the Von Trapp family trekked over the mountains to escape Austria. With a Sikh twist. We might replace "Climb Every Mountain" with Beynti Chaupayi, and maybe the long flowing grass with dry earth, but really, that would be the only difference.

This is how my journey to Hemkunt would begin, once we got off the busses at Gobind Ghaat.

Entrance to Gobind Ghaat, the base of the trek

Clearly, clearly, it had been a while since I was last in India. 

I had forgotten that you cannot lock India in a woven basket and hypothesise on what lies inside; for like a snake charmer who bears the risk of snakebite, you have to lift the lid and allow yourself to be hypnotised by Her dance.

You cannot chart the turn that your journey will take, you cannot follow a map; for like the milk She blesses into Ghee, She churns every possible route and outcome in Her consciousness, and delights in picking the most impetuous one. 

You cannot hope to keep your feet on the ground; for like the pilgim mass that will sweep you in its embrace, separate you from those you know, and unexpectedly release you in unfamiliar places, She will deliver blows to your stomach, compassion to your heart, tears to your eyes, sickness to your body, and bliss to your soul.

Her weapon of choice is shock, and She uses it unflinchingly. Her soul is unruly; She will not be tamed. 

Enter the den, and survive, O Man.

The lure of marigolds

The romantic myth of my first step was quickly dispelled. Let's revisit my earlier reverie.

Standing on the final steps of the bus. Looking at the red earth beyond the last step.
CHECK. There was also a frayed plastic bag, mixed in the earth, to add to the view.

There may be a stone or two, some clumped earth, or even a footprint. 
CHECK. Small stones, many footprints.

Perhaps my knees would wobble after stepping down, due to the unevenness of the ground.
CHECK. I did lose my balance.

But not because of the stones, oh no. I was ambushed, ambushed, I tell you, by an army of pithus (porters).

Each face earnest, and hungry to be selected. Each mouth promised to be able to carry anything in the baskets on their backs: luggage, food, even children. Each frame small; most of them are Nepali farmers who come to the region in the summer for this type of work. 

Bahadur bhaiya, one of our pithus. This was bhaiya's first summer working at Hemkunt. 
Ma liked him instantly for his sweetness :)

In all our bewilderment, we attempted to formulate a strategy to circumvent the mob and make it at least 2 steps away from the bus. Forget it! By now, our newly arrived bus had drawn significant interest, and the siege was joined by porters and their mules, guides, dhaba-owners (breakfast! lunch! dinner! NUDELS!!), walking stick sellers, and every other human in that square who believed he had God's own solution to making our trek a smooth one.

Anything you need, HA!

At this rate, getting to Hemkunt seemed like the least of my worries… I first needed to get to my travel gear, a mere 6 feet away! :)

And so there it was, the Loss of Starry-Eyed Notions. There was no submissive step down, no liberating deep breath. No sea of pilgrims, no intoxicating scent of cha. And no opportunity to pause and take it all in. 

Elbowed by humans and bags on one side, and badgered by pithus and mule owners on the other, I made a quick adjustment to all other naive fancies I had earlier formed on the days to come.

Designated parking area at Gobind Ghaat. All modes of transport welcome!

And then, a corner smile. A knowing shake of the head. You did it again, Mother India. Aimed Your stun gun and unsaddled me. 

As mischievous as Your methods may be, here, I am reminded that the only thing that exists right now, is right now.

Throw out the guidebook, and surrender to the vortex of Your whirlpool.

Sign along the trek. SO appropriate :)

I turned to look at my mother, and we both laughed. Here it goes!

And we took the first step.

North Star, leading the way, as always :)

~ notes from my road, Hemkunt 2012 ~

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

When the Saints Go Marching In

I have to say. This thing they call meditation? Pretty freaking cool.

Before the Siri Singh Sahib’s teachings and I found each other, I’d been fed all sorts of hogwash by all sorts of well-meaning people. 

“When you meditate, you will be at peace”. “You will see a light moving towards you”. “Time will fly by.” “You will feel still and calm… completely relaxed.”

Oh what will it take?!
Photo credit to Surabhi Nambiar

But but but...I am not at peace; rather my mind rakes up some serious filth from dark, scary corners that I didn’t even know existed. 

Nope, no light moving towards me; only me running after random specks and swivels forming and vanishing under my eyelids. 

Time most certainly NOT flying by; I mean, there is the Hare and the Tortoise, and then there is the Snail, you know? Every second.. every blistering second..!!

Still and calm? It’s like a bag of ferrets let loose in my body with all the itching and twitching. ANY excuse to take a break. Oh! Need to use the bathroom. Oh! Throat is dry. Oh! Hair on my forehead just moved. Oh! Ran out of excuses so going to go and look for another one. 

Yeah, like that wan.

So either all those well-meaning people didn’t tell me the full story, or I’m just so damn cursed that nothing will save me. 

Optimist that I am, I’m going with the first possibility :p. 

I now know, thanks to the Siri Singh Sahib/ Yogi Bhajan/ Yogi Ji, that my experience is perfectly normal. The thought that I’m normal is as alien to me as it probably is to many of you, but I’m (obviously) inclined to agree with him. Not that it isn’t possible to have a beautiful and blissful meditation, which many do, and even I have been blessed to have had on some occasions. But on the whole, it’s a lot of work. The mind is like a pit with all sorts of creepy crawlies multiplying in there... cleaning it takes time, persistence, and perhaps most of all, constance. 

You can ask a thousand people about their meditative experience, and probably hear just as many versions of it. Everyone has their own creepy crawlies, and every moment presents different ones. For me, in the midst of all the Filth and Specks and Snails and Ferrets, I’ve come to realise that meditation ignites the tiny (and suppressed) creative side of my (accountant) brain. Thoughts and sentences and projects take shape in my head, and By God I am a Genius for thinking up most of these. We’re talking some serious smarts here, people.

(Note to self: Ego getting out of hand... attention required! :p)

What I love most about these ignitions are the Lightbulb Moments that often follow. Epiphanies, revelations, perspective. They rush in; racing and stumbling over each other, in an absolute hurry to make themselves be heard and known. A reminder to this host body, wallowing in self-pity, consumed by negativity and engrossed in the “why me” complex, that you are so completely blessed it is almost ridiculous. Outrageous that one little person, in the context of this ever-expanding universe, can be so wholly bathed/ drenched (almost drowning!) in blessings.

And so it was Lightbulbed to me on this morning of Yogi Ji’s birthday, while (attempting; got to be honest) to meditate at Chayo. During the Guru Ram Das chant, I thought to myself, you blessed, blessed, blessed girl, everywhere you turn, you are surrounded by divine sanggat. 

O my mind, meditate forever on the Lord.
Photo credit to Angad Singh

My own little Saints, EVERYwhere. Our home has always had a Darbar; I have known no loneliness amongst the pillars that are my family. I have the Ulu Yam clan; the laps in which I have grown. My Samelan community; from which has emerged a lifelong supply of friends and inspiration. My London soul sisters and brothers; whom I have no words to describe, but cherish with a London-shaped hole in my heart. My sisterhood from Women’s Camp; who make being beautiful, bountiful, and blissful seem so easy. The Setapak sangees; who I sing and seek with during rainbows and stormclouds. The Chayo family; that I cling on to for doses of sanity in the eye of the city-life hurricane. My husband and newly-gained NM family; which I’m so so so grateful for, knowing that I have the BEST company on the roads that lie ahead. EVERYwhere. 

My markers, my checkpoints, my lift-uppers, my guiding forces, my rocks. There is no escape from these stalkers, I tell you. At every step of the way, every bend in the road, every climb uphill and every bumble down below, they stand there, glowing so bright that it hurts my eyes and brings me to my knees in gratitude.

My Beloved Guru, thank you, thank you, thank you, for marching in all these Saints to keep an eye on this little person. 

I see you, each of you. I thank you, love you, bless you, pray for you, bow to you, and hold you in the lightest and brightest corners of my heart. 

All my love.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

I was Born.

Today, I reflect on some of the many things I've take for granted as a woman.

Being able to: go to school. Read. Wear shorts. Have a childhood. Go to university. Live on my own. Travel alone. Drive. Have a bank account. Be an equal witness. Marry a man of my choice. Work. Earn equal pay. Vote. Pray without an intermediary.

Or maybe I should have started with: being allowed to be born.

To the organisations who defend and promote these rights, to the women who brave the odds and fight for them, and to the men who stand by them, you live in the lightest corner of my heart, and have my deepest gratitude.

Happy Women's Day, all.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Road.

The road to Hemkunt is paved with landslides.

That they will be there to greet you, there is no doubt. The only variables that exist are the magnitude and “stopability” of these landslides. I know of some who had attempted the journey and not even made it to the base at Gobind Ghaat, whilst some others were stranded on their way back, having to spend an uncertain number of hours in their vehicle while the road was cleared.

This I knew, and I went prepared for either eventuality. I had already decided, after all, that being able to go was really not in my control anyway, regardless of how much I wished it or how intensely I prayed for it.

And because of this little acceptance, I tried to look at each landslide as a part of my journey as opposed to an obstacle. This wasn’t difficult… the road was windy and the movements of the bus were relatively slow, unless Vijay Bhaiya was feeling particularly enthusiastic. Each bend, each pothole, each bump, gave me ample time to push my nose up against the window and inspect my surroundings. It goes without saying that my faith grew by leaps and bounds every time I felt, actually felt, the bus drive over a part of the road that was not wide enough for us... so maybe I should add that the road to Hemkunt is also paved with logic-defying optimism!

What I saw amused me. An interesting choice of word, you may say, and I would have to agree. Today I am brave enough to use it because I have the benefit of hindsight; we were fortunate that our journey was fairly uninterrupted and we could stick to our schedule. So yes, today, I am amused. Had the situation turned out differently, I suspect my word would perhaps instead have been @?&;%!$ or something of that variety :p.

One has this preconception that a landslide is about mountains and cliffs, rocks and stones, sand and dust. But isn't everything more vivid, more exaggerated, more layered on this subcontinent? :)

The landslides to me were a photo book, a CliffsNotes, an India 101. Not quite the Incredible India that is on the posters all around the world, but India as it was; uncensored, unInstagrammed, and real.

“Horn please” signs were painted on almost every available rock face, occasionally with paintings of horns (it is very likely after all that you may not know what one looks like), and often accompanied by words of wisdom on the perils of speeding. “Be Mr Late, better than Late Mr”. Ha!

These were naturally followed by ring tone horns with an average 3-5 second sound time, going off one after the other in a curious medley of beeps. Just making sure you heard them the first time. And then the second. And the third. And wait.. why are we honking again? 

“All India Permit“ trucks with missing bumpers skirted the curvy road, the latest Bollywood hits blaring from the hand-painted external speakers in a great spirit of music-sharing with the local villagers who may not enjoy the good fortune of owning a radio. This is real peer-to-peer technology, yo.

Traffic jams with buses packed like sardines (I wonder what the Indian equivalent is to this expression?) lined the path, with kohl-lined eyes and bits of saree cloth peeking through the prison-bar windows. Each vehicle an artist's palette, bursting with colour and heat, waiting to be plucked out and freed.

Cows chewed. Grass that grew on the roadside. Plants that sprouted out of the gaps in the face of the rock. Leaves that stuck out of their semi-covered transport trucks. They chewed, and chewed. Occasionally they gave dirty looks to the sweet Punjabi girl trying to sneak up for a photo. But still, they chewed.

(Now this next one isn't something the prudish me would normally write, but one is determined to be frank!)

Men stood with their backs to the road, performing a certain ritual that is known to grant relief. There. I've said it now. Don’t judge me! Or roll your eyes :p.

Conveniently located food stalls and dhabas, created an entire industry just for slowed-down vehicles, with arms waving through the windows exchanging rupees for street munch, fruits, paan, Kurkure packets, and refilled mineral water bottles. We were significant contributors to this economy. Burp.

Water flowed through the rocks, down to the Ganges far below, where many a pilgrim waited to receive his drop, his purification, his answer. It tickled the rock, reaching into all it's funny hidden corners. I wonder if to the Earth, a landslide is just the mountain laughing as it is tickled by trickling water. A great, big, giggle, with loose parts. We see it as destructive but maybe it's just a matter of perspective, eh?

Half-constructed bridges, like forgotten ideas, decorated the bends. I imagine the men came one day, started building, went off to have tea, and never came back. Why bother, when a landslide would wash it down anyway, and you’d have to build it again?

Audiences gathered, especially at larger landslides. Men with shirts rolled above their bellies (such shiny drum-like bellies!), arms akimbo, and waited for the next piece of action. Add a muffler or two, and a beanie perhaps, and there you have it... I'm laughing too :)

Miniature yellow suns lit the path on trolleys. There were rows and rows of glass Coke bottles, now home to mountain water adorned with beautiful yellow nimboo in the place of the caps. The eternal Indian question for me: to drink or not to drink? The water was pure, but could the same be said for the bottle, the nimboo, and the handler? Where lies the line between caution and surrender?

Statues of gods were auspiciously placed at particularly perilous parts. They may have appeared old, but you would be wrong to think them abandoned. The uneven garlands of marigolds around their necks and red tilak on their foreheads suggested recent invocation. The Gods are kept busy out here, be it by soul-searchers or businessmen. 

So… just mountains and cliffs, rocks and stones, sand and dust?

They say a picture speaks a thousand words. But sometimes, it takes a thousand pictures to describe just one.

For me, all those images came together to summarise the experience of one (just one!) little-big, sweet-pungent, beloved-awkward, practical-ridiculous, colourful-bleak, spirited-nonchalant word.


Every day a journey, every road a mystery, and every destination a blessing.

~ notes from my road, Hemkunt 2012 ~