The Women in My Life: A Diwali and Thanksgiving Reflection

The Women in My Life: A Diwali and Thanksgiving Reflection

November 21, 2015 | Author: Sridar Iyengar | Co-Founder of The Sounding Board

For the last few years for Diwali- the Indian Festival of Lights- and then for Thanksgiving- the U.S. family holiday- I have sent out messages to my network of friends and family reminiscing about my childhood experiences and lessons I learnt from them. This year with Diwali in mid November and Thanksgiving just a few weeks away I thought I would combine the two messages. In fact, these two festivals of celebration, two hemispheres apart, are naturally aligned ushering in the hope of a better tomorrow for ourselves and everyone who is near and dear to each of us.

Keeping to the storytelling narrative I have used before, I thought that this year I will use this occasion to give thanks to some of the women who shape(d) my life and through their example gave me insights which are at the core of many of my ideas and initiatives . I will also acknowledge that lately I seem to be more connected to the feminine side of me, in an emotional, not hormonal, sense. So identifying my life with the women in it seems very natural. To keep the narrative a shorter…long one, I will be selective in the choice of individuals as well as the particular insights I got from them.

Let me start with the mothers, both mine and Anita‚Äôs. Kamala and Rina were a lot alike, one quietly anti-establishment and the other openly voicing her disdain for them; both mocked established religion and its accoutrements. They were always for the underdog and had no time for people who became high and mighty, and forgetful or dismissive of people from their past. From them I learnt and/or reinforced my basic healthy disrespect for authority in all forms, sense of loyalty to everyone who has ever positively touched my life , and fervent desire to always have a point of view on all matters and avoid group think at all levels. Also, while I cannot match their “can do” attitude towards everything, I am much better at it for knowing them. It has at least helped me to look for solutions rather than focusing on the problems.

An incident involving my mother 50 + years ago may illustrate where my desire to look for solutions may have emanated. It involved my brother Viji’s plan to go to the UK for work. My mother was all for it and my father less so, influenced by advice from an uncle who was a family benefactor and mentor. At that time this uncle was under the influence of a “holy man”, who had fed him some mumbo jumbo about dire consequences to the family if my brother, a Brahmin by birth, crossed a body of water which was inevitable to reach the UK. My mother’s respect for Hindu priests and holy men, never high at any time, hit new lows below zero. But she was a problem solver. She knew that Hinduism always gives a Plan B, so she challenged the said Holy Man to suggest what would be needed to propitiate the Gods who are the only ones who could change destiny. Placed in that box and wanting to prove his privileged access to God, something my mother knew he could not resist, the Holy Man came up with the solution; a maund (about 82lbs) of rice to be distributed to the poor. It was done and my brother went to the UK. Nothing I have done will equal this bargain my mother made with God.

Then of course there was the third mother – Mother Teresa. I do not claim any particular relationship with her although our daughter – Nina- was adopted from the orphanage run by the Sisters of Charity, and my family was involved closely with her in the Seventies/ Eighties. When we took Nina to see her, a few years after the adoption, some words from her have stayed with me and perhaps reinforced my own priorities. Waiting to meet her at Mother House with a whole bunch of others, she glides in all animated as usual waving her hands saying “Children First, Children First” and proceeds to greet my daughter and another child before acknowledging the adults present. Those words from 30+ years ago have stuck with me and I feel that in some way my focus on being and working with young people is helped with that validation.

A very under-represented person in my storytelling has been my sister Charu. I have referred to her in my first Diwali message as darpok ( perennially scared), but when it came to her brothers she was the Jhansi ki Rani , the Joan of Arc. She championed all our causes, which I acknowledged unfortunately belatedly in a eulogy on her premature death, and was the wind beneath our sails. Charu was a teacher and loved being one all her life. She had a great circle of friends and in her own quiet, gentle way, exuded great strength without the bravado of her brothers. She had a sense of adventure, and loved to travel and go to new places. That part of her has rubbed off on me, some say, with a vengeance. Charu also taught me how to cherish friendships, to be optimistic about life and generally do things without expecting anything in return.

My daughter Nina is often my teacher. As she is my reviewer and a fierce critic of my rambling writing style I will keep this section fairly brief. To her I owe the idea which I have committed to for the rest of my life. I remember her coming home from school one day and telling me that there was no diversity in her school. This surprised me because her immediate coterie of school friends included an African American and a Chinese American along with a couple of Caucasians. When I articulated that surprise her response was clear, “Dad”, she said, “you only think of diversity in terms of ethnicity. There is no income diversity in the school. We all come from similar economic backgrounds”. Inherent in her response, I thought, was a feeling that her ecosystem could not expose her to the issues facing young people from less secure economic backgrounds. From that day on I have made inclusion, fairness and working towards a more equal world a central part of every decision or activity I undertake. So thank you Nina.

I now come to the one person who more than anyone else has created all my yesterdays and tomorrows since we started dating on New Year’s Eve 1973/74. She has been the enabler of all my actions, the person whose strength and certainty on major issues has helped me make the decisions, and the one who has given me enough rope to hang myself but ensured that I didn’t. The things I have learned from Anita are too many to mention but suffice it to say that when it comes to different options and choices on matters unrelated to my work I want to explore all of them. Anita on the other hand makes her mind up quickly and does not look back. She selected our daughter from around 100 other children at Mother Teresa’s orphanage in Kolkata within 30 mins of entering the place. The five homes (one rented in London) we have lived in since we got married were all chosen within the same 30 minutes of arriving at the location. Similarly, our move from the UK to the US was done as soon as I had mentioned it to her as an option I was considering. While I had second thoughts about leaving a secure leadership position in the UK and taking my chances in the US, and it eventually took a piece of dialogue from a movie-Flashdance- referring to regrets if one gives up on a dream, to get me over the hump, Anita had absolute confidence that both our move and we would be successful in the US. On the big decisions in our life she has led or pushed and I have followed or fallen forward. Even when it came to decisions which impacted me more than her, as when I tried to convince myself that my day long heart attack in 2001 was just “gas”, it was her quick thinking and taking me to ER which allows me to write this today. She knows what she wants, identifies it, gets it done and does not agonize over it. Maybe a few clothing items or accessories may be returned but nothing major. When you have that kind of Shakti (strength) by your side it is easier to step out and try new things. For me therefore life has been a case of having a strong woman in front of me.

I share these stories because I find it not only therapeutic, but as it accesses the archives of my brain, my personal physical iCloud, it allows me to re-live and acknowledge the contributions of others to my life. In the past some recipients of this yearly message have responded saying that it got them thinking of their own lives in the same context. I encourage all those who have had the patience to reach this sentence to do so and give thanks to all those who yesterday made our tomorrow.

Wishing all of you a Happy Diwali and have a great Thanksgiving

With love and gratitude,
Sridar