Monday, July 30, 2012

Hijab + hood = hijood

From a Times of Oman special in the sports section called 'Ramadhan and Muslim Athletes: Overcoming Greater Obstacles.'

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Letter I Just Wrote in 1991

Dear grown-up Khadija,

I am writing to you because you've been trying to find me. I saw you trying really hard over the past few years, and you've come really close, but I think it's my turn to reach out now. I need to cover these last few steps and close the distance between us.

I am you, 10 years old, and from where I am, the year is 1991. Do you remember 1991? It was in the early 90s that you started doing some really cool things. You pestered Abbu into showing you how to work his Yashica SLR camera. You just kept asking and asking and asking until he had to show it to you. You'd go on to win a Middle Eastern photo competition with it. You also started spending hours at the DOS PC at home, the one that only displayed text, that too in green. That's where you learned how to type so fast without needing to look at the keyboard. You spent hours writing all sorts of things on that computer. You wrote two mystery novels based on a character similar to Nancy Drew. You even made pretend book covers for those novels. One was about sabotage at a farm and the other was about the sabotage of a high school music department. You'd even started writing a Nancy Drew novel based in India. You also wrote a collection of short horror stories. There was the one about the guests who died on their way to a party but still showed up. Then then one about the young male student at an English boarding house who was ragged to death and stayed behind to mourn his fate for all eternity. You wrote a commentary on each an every one of your classmates. You wrote an essay on your thoughts about how being educated and being knowledgable seemed to be two different things. You'd go on to use that concept on your TOEFL essay after high school when you had to write down your thoughts about if you preferred education over experience. The staff at the testing center would be really impressed with your scores, they will have never had someone score so highly before. Back at that old DOS PC, you would spend so much time staring at those green letters as you typed all your stories that when you were done, everything white around you would look light pink for a while afterwards. And one day the computer crashed and you lost everything. Everything. All those stories and characters have remained in your life though, like miscarried children.

You would then go on to writing a story on paper and stapling the pages together into a book with a front and back cover. Do you remember the story, it was about 4 children - brothers and sisters - who got lost in a forest and found their way out by following the movement of the sun across the sky. You had even made an ever-growing short story collection by adding pages of short stories (with illustrations!) between two pieces of cardboard covers tied up with ribbon. Do you remember the first story? It was about a girl who lived in the forest on a hill and saw her first human from where she hid in the trees - a boy from the town in the valley. You wrote about how she fell in love with him from a distance and waited for him and then followed him to the valley, only to discover that he loved someone else there. Her heart broke and she returned to the forest on the hill without ever facing the boy she loved.

Around the same time you discovered the magic of recording your own voice on audio tape, and you started spending hours every afternoon, when the grownups would be asleep, at the music system, at first simply recording yourself reading from books like the British women who read stories on Oman radio. Then you graduated to reading from the newspaper the way they also did on the radio. Then you started pretending to be the news anchor and the correspondent and would record your voice as you spoke through the phone intercom to capture the effect of a real phono. Then you started recording music request shows and mixed your own tapes from your own music collection. After a while you'd pester Abbu to show you how to use the giant video camera. You couldn't do much with it, the whole thing was made up of separate pieces of a large camera, a large VCR, and a very heavy light that would get hot very fast. You couldn't even move around too much because the whole thing had to be plugged into a power source. You didn't have many subjects, so you'd record your kittens instead. Do you remember that time you were waiting to capture your two kittens rolling across the living room floor? All your video and audio tapes are still lying around that house you live in in 2012 where you're 31 years old.

This is who you are. You draw, you write, you design, you film, you edit. You are not the robot people forced you to become as an adult, someone who talks about machines with people who themselves are machines. I know people made fun of you, called you weird, abnormal, and even laughed at you in groups. I know that's when you stopped listening to me and started doing things to make people stop laughing at you. But they never stopped. You stopped drawing and writing and creating things, though. Because I went away, because while you paid so much attention to the people outside - people who weren't very smart in the first place - I felt bad that you felt ashamed of me and had to hide me, even apologise for me. You never stood up for me. You thought the others were right. So I went away. Like that girl from the forest on the hill. And you weren't able to create things anymore.

But you came back to find me. I saw you standing up for me. I had been so hurt, but you put yourself through your biggest fears to find me again. You left everybody and everything to find me. You'd almost become me again, but I realised that I needed to return your gesture. If the boy from the valley came back to the forest on the hill and looked everywhere for the girl, she would need to hear his calls and go to him. Otherwise they would never be able to meet. So here I am. Ten years old. I like eating plain cornflakes with dollops of ketchup on it. I doodle faces of women all over the phonebook while talking to my friends over the telephone. I don't know what a landline is because in 1991 we only have regular phones at home. Many of us still have rotary phones, and Abbu recently ordered a wireless telephone from Dubai because they aren't available in Oman yet. That's the phone through whose telecom you recorded your voice as a pretend radio correspondent. Amma hasn't started insisting I start wearing grown-up shalwar suits and cover my legs yet. I don't know about menstruation, I don't seem to notice my hair or my face yet, I like to play with my cat and her kittens. She gives birth every 6 months. I don't watch too much TV because cable hasn't come yet. I have a group of friends at school that I huddle up with every recess to take turns and narrate ghost stories to. And I write stories and draw and record in audio and video. And I'm very good at it. I don't know what the other kids do, but the things I do don't seem like work because it's like breathing. It just happens. Doesn't it to everybody? It seems like it should. But it doesn't. But I don't know that yet. I know you do in 2012.

You're remembering these things again, aren't you? You've been trying to get back to being the way I am right now, so imaginative and productive. But you've been having a hard time becoming productive again. You've got everything back except the effortlessness. You're forcing yourself to be creative and complex. You're trying to be yourself by imitation, by paint-by-numbers. You're trying to become like me as if you and I are different people. You don't have to do that. You don't have to become like me, you just have to let yourself be.

Do you know the one thing that's standing in the way of your recovery? It's that you're so self-conscious. You think too much before creating something. Before you've even started you start wondering about style and structure and metaphor and marketability. You start worrying about what you will do with what you create. Stop it. You don't have to do anything. Why don't you just be the way I am right now, oblivious to the world outside? I don't think about what anyone will think about my work. It's not even work for me, it's Do you remember how your roughbook in school would fill up with art work and stories and illustrations? Do you remember how one day in 6th grade you wrote a story, almost in passing, about two characters - Ketchup and Hot Sauce - who almost fell into a bowl of water and dissolved away? Their father, a tomato, was furious at their carelessness. You wrote about how he yelled at his children about how they were made of him and his wife, their mother, a container of salt. You'd even drawn a picture of the whole thing. You hadn't planned it. You just saw some pictures in your head of two characters, and you made the rest up as you went along. You didn't think about anything else except how much fun you were having. Why don't you do that now?

You're so much older than I am. You know so much more about the world. I am 10 years old, and I go to school. That's it. You've lived in 4 countries - 3 of them by yourself - and experienced things I don't understand yet or even know exist. Maybe you've grown up too much. You've certainly cried too much. What, you thought I wasn't watching? But I'm here now, and we are one. Come back to simpler things, to cornflakes with ketchup, to simple stories. Forget about the world, come back to 1991, before the Internet, before cable TV, before cell phones, before judgments, before perversion. I don't even know the word 'pervert' until a few years later when a girl in my class tries to explain it to me and I still don't understand. You can sit with me and tell me about all the things that are going to happen in the new century. You can tell me everything. We'll write it all down as simple stories. The world will be tomato fathers and condiment children, nothing more complicated than that. We don't have to save the world or win an Oscar, we don't have anything to prove to anybody. We don't have to be famous, we don't have to win prizes, we don't have to be afraid of what the world will say. You're my hero, and you don't have to be afraid anymore.



PS - does '20th Century Fox' change it's name to '21st Century Fox' in the future?

PPS - am I beautiful as a grown-up? Has anyone fallen in love with me yet?

PPPS - how tall do I end up being?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I Wanted to be a Graduate Student

I wondered if the Italian American professor in front of me could tell that I was dying on the inside. His last name was Romano. Like Ray Romano, like Romano's Macaroni Grill. Did he know how badly I needed an assistantship? I was 22 years old and in my final semester as an undergraduate student at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. I had promised myself that I would only go to graduate school if I could finance at least part of that expensive education. Tuition racked up to at least 6,000 dollars every semester for international students, and that was not including the other few thousand dollars that got spent on rent, food, expensive textbooks (many cost over a hundred dollars) supplies, transport (air and ground). Most foreign students did not qualify for any sort of financial aid as undergraduates, but they could try for assistantships in graduate school. Assistantships were packaged differently in different universities, but they all got you work experience either teaching or researching with a stipend. OSU, for example, often tossed in free health insurance and waived out-of-state tuition. They would only charge you in-state tuition, which was like one-third of what international students usually had to pay. And I desperately wanted to teach or do research, the thought made me happy on the inside. Being happy though was not my first priority at that time, I needed to be able to afford grad school first, and that was through an assistantship. Any kind. From any department. Doing anything.

But this was early 2003. The American economy had crashed so badly in the time since 9/11. Assistantships and other forms of financial aid had dried up at colleges and universities across the country. I only knew of a handful of international students on assistantships at OSU. They didn't even advertise for them anymore. I had applied for graduate study at OSU and 4 other universities across the US, and I'd got in everywhere. But I needed an assistantship. School would be too expensive otherwise, and I'd have to look for a fulltime job and someone to sponsor a work visa for me, and if anything was more difficult than finding an assistantship, it was looking for a job in the US as a foreigner. And I was only 22 years old with no real-world experience. I knew nobody would hire me. There were thousands of foreign students out there that employers would prefer to hire over me. These foreign students were the older ones or the ones with a master's or a doctorate degree or with previous fulltime work experience. I was at the bottom of the pile - 22 years old with only a bachelor's degree and no fulltime work experience in my field. Only until a couple of years ago foreign students were being picked up by giants like IBM and Microsoft from universities across America and being offered startup salaries like 60,000 dollars per year even if they didn't have any experience. That had changed. The America I witnessed in the 2000s was one of lack and scarcity. Foreign students were now returning to their home countries empty-handed because they had been unable to find a job in the US even in the one-year grace period the immigration department gave them after graduation. I didn't want to go back empty-handed, I knew I was smart, I knew I had potential even though I had tanked on morale. Home is where careers and dreams went to die. Bottom line: I absolutely had to get an assistantship to go to graduate school. I really wanted to study, I wanted to be more qualified, I loved academia. And maybe the job market would improve after 2 years, at least for me, when I was older, had a master's degree, and maybe some research or teaching experience on my resume. I didn't want to go back home. I had worked too hard and lived too alone and sacrificed too much happiness at an age when I was supposed to be partying and dating and learning about make-up and wearing nice shoes. I couldn't go back now. I had to stay in the race.

Did this professor in front of me understand that? I was sitting with him in his little temporary office in the business building at OSU. He was tall, thin, and had a head full of short, very curly dark-brown hair. He wore glasses, and at that moment, he was sitting across from me with his head bent, looking down at a copy of my resume that he held in his hands. I'd never met him before, he actually used to teach at the Tulsa branch 80 miles away. Did he understand that my heart was pounding because he had actually replied to my cold-call email about needing an assistantship and had wanted to meet me? I had sent hundreds of those emails over the past few months, not just at OSU but to every conceivable department at the other 4 universities where I had been accepted. I could not afford to leave any stone uncovered, there was no room for oversight here, there was too much at stake for me. Over the past many months I had physically visited every single department - academic or not - at OSU and left a copy of my resume and a cover letter in every single mailbox. I used to go one building at a time and walk through all the floors and visit every single office. That's a lot of buildings. That's a hell of a lot of printing work and paper usage. If it looked like some kind of office, I'd enter, ask to see the mailboxes, and leave my resume and cover letter in every single box. No one ever got back to me. I must've physically visited at least a thousand mailboxes across the entire OSU campus in Stillwater. I even visited the veterinary sciences department. It wasn't even attached to the main campus. But no one called me back. I couldn't physically do this at the other universities where I had been accepted because they were in other states, so I had had to resort to email instead. I had emailled my resume and cover letter to every single professor at each of those universities. That's when I discovered that my Hotmail account had a limit of sending 200 emails a day. It was an annoying discovery, but I guess all it meant was that I had to wait 24 hours for my email account to be able to send the next 200 emails and so on and so forth until I had covered every professor and staff member in every department at those other universities. I needed an assistantship. Please. But I mostly got no responses. I had a handful of people respond in the negative. I didn't know what more I could do. The head of the department where I had been accepted as a graduate student at OSU had personally told me that no assistantships were available at her department either. They had a waiting list though, and she offered to add my name to it. I knew of at least a dozen people on that list.

"You don't have anything even in the Tulsa branch?" I had asked her without thinking in a flat and dull way, which was how I had become in those days. I felt small, helpless, and emptied out. I had nothing more to offer. All these months, all that effort, all that initiative, and nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. It was not fair. This wasn't how it was supposed to be.

"Oh," the department head said. "I'd never thought of the Tulsa branch. I don't know about our department there, why don't you contact them directly? We only keep track of our Stillwater assistantships." The Tulsa branch of OSU was just a handful of small buildings, a small extension of the sprawling campus in Stillwater. So I emailled the professors there with what remained of my extinguished spirit. I was not going to try for anything after this. There was absolutely nothing more I could do.

And I got a response. From a professor in Tulsa who said that he wanted to meet me. He was going to visit the Stillwater campus in a few days, and I could meet him in the temporary office he had there. I was terrified. He was the only person who had got back to me with something other than 'sorry', got back to me at all actually out of everyone else. I set an appointment to meet him in his office in the business building on my campus. From that moment on to until I sat in his office before him, my heart kept pounding and I kept breathing badly. I watched him looking over my resume in front of me. He's thinking my resume is unimpressive, he's going to tell me that he hates my face, that I'm underqualified, I am not special, how dare I waste his time. I wanted to cry because hope felt more terrifying than giving up did. It was cruel, it hurt. I sat there before him in my cheap ill-fitted jeans, worn-out sports shoes, and discount jacket. I was 22 years old, and I was wanting to die. Just say no, just say no, please don't make me wait for you to change your mind about me.

He looked up at me.

"I am impressed that you made the effort to contact me. I can take you on as a graduate assistant, I need some help with some research that I'm doing..."


"You made the effort to contact me on your own, I can appreciate that, that is why I had wanted to meet you."

The whole meeting didn't last more than 10 minutes. He didn't even ask me any questions. I was going to get to go to graduate school. My life and career was not going to end at 22. I didn't cry in the office, but I must've afterwards.

* * *

One of the offices I had discovered on my very thorough coverage of the Stillwater campus was the Career Services office. I had left a copy of my resume and a cover letter with the lady at the front desk. And I'd forgotten about it. I had zero expectations from non-academic departments, assistantships were usually only for teaching or academic research, but I just did not want to take a chance. Might as well leave them my papers while I'm scouring the whole damn campus anyway. And I ended up getting a call from them, from the Career Services office. Their department head had wanted to meet me. His name was Amjad Ayoubi, and I set an appointment to meet him. I had no idea what to expect, this was a non-academic department.

Amjad was really nice. He was from Palestine but now lived in America and had a family here. He was short and had a glow to his very open-looking round face. He was sitting down, but there was something very happy, eager, and rarin'-to-go about him. I sat across from his desk, completely unsure what to expect. He had a very nice, shiny, wood-and-carpet office with motivational posters on the walls. Someday I wanted to have an office like that. Maybe even a whole house like that. It was possible in America.

He slid a shiny little credit card in front of me. It was actually a mini-CD in the shape of a credit card. I remember it was metallic orange in colour. Orange because that was our university colour. We were orange-and-black, the tigers. Amjad's dark eyes shone as he looked at me. He was very excited on the inside.

"We're planning on using this to teach students at OSU about using credit cards responsibly." His eyes shone some more as he looked at me. "Can you make a website using the contents of this CD?"

A website? I didn't know how to make a professional looking website. I didn't have the software, I hadn't even been trained. I had only taught myself the basics of HTML from a book and made myself a personal website with only 1 page - one very long tedious page - with pictures of my favourite actors on it. This was on the now defunct Geocities. Apparently it's only available in Japan now, or so Wikipedia says. I was a Computer Science major but they didn't offer any web design classes back then. I had no sort of training. I had only recently graduated to tinkering with my website using MS FrontPage, but there was no way I had the technical or design knowledge to pull off a real professional website. Amjad would laugh at me. This whole business of putting yourself out there for something you wanted was humiliating.

But I didn't tell Amjad any of this. I didn't even know why he was making me do this. I asked him for details on what he expected from the website (mostly because I had no prior professional experience to base this new task on), but his face only glowed more and he told me to do whatever I wanted because he wanted to see what I could do. That was what I had been afraid of.

But I went back to my dorm room anyway and made on my dear old PC what I would now think of as a horribly flat, sparkly website with the most unappealing and dull colour scheme ever. I had tried to use OSU's black and orange theme, but for some reason the whole thing turned out chunky and primitive looking. All the links worked but the whole thing just looked so amateurish. But it was the best I could've done at that point. I uploaded the website to the new hosting space I had recently signed up for with Netfirms and sent Amjad the link. I cringed at the thought of how disappointed he would feel. I had created the website, and I knew I could've done better if I had the tools and the training, but I was handicapped by my limited knowledge. He called me back for another visit. I dreaded it. He would tell me that that was the ugliest website he had ever seen, but I was so much on autopilot looking for assistantships for graduate school that I was seriously just going through the motions. I was prepared for the humiliation, for fingers pointing at me telling me how I didn't deserve to go to graduate school and that I was a waste of the world's time.

Amjad ended up telling me that one of his employees needed someone to help her with technical work on the Career Services website, and that I ought to go and set up an appointment to meet her next. I did. Her name was Tina. She was a petite white woman in her late 30s with short dark brown pixie hair, and she looked a little bit like Kate Beckingsale. She was friendly and had the energy of a happy hummingbird. She chuckled a lot. One of the questions she asked me was if I had ever worked very hard towards something and had still failed. I knew all about that sort of thing, and I told her about the various assistantships I had applied for at OSU itself and had not been called back. I remember putting my heart and soul in one particular application and being turned down. I'd lain in bed and stared at the ceiling for a long time after that.

"Oh!" Tina had blurted out, probably not expecting to have me answer that so quickly, "I'm sorry you had to go through that." I didn't know what was happening and why I was being interviewed. I needed an assistantship, and this was just looking like the usual minimum-wage part-time job, the kind international students like me had already done so many times before. Assistantships paid more, were more serious work, and at least at OSU got you in-state tuition, health insurance, and a stipend. That's what I needed. I had to go to graduate school.

And they hired me as a graduate assistant. Around the same time as Dr. Romano did. I ended up with two assistantships for the duration of my master's at OSU and became somewhat of a legend in the international students population. Scoring one assistantship was rare, two was unheard of. Both positions had been created for me and at least the one at Career Services was discontinued after I graduated and left to work with Deloitte & Touche 2 years later. I remember how a number of international students who never used to speak to me or even used to be rude to me had started coming up to me in my last semester with fake smiles to suck up their way as my replacement at both assistantships. I don't think any of them got in. It felt good to have won. And Career Services and working with Dr. Romano ended up becoming the best professional experiences I have had to date.

Amjad and I on my first homecoming after graduate school
Tina and I at lunch somewhere on the way back from a seminar in Oklahoma City

The Woman in Accounting

Her office was tucked in the back somewhere. She was the accountant at the Career Services office where I worked part-time as a graduate assistant at the Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. I don't remember her name. I barely ever interacted with her. I barely ever saw her. Was she a Sharon? A Carol? She was in her late 40s, a thin, slightly bent white American woman. A white shadow.

I was sitting across from where she sat at her desk. I had won the Business Suits for Students contest, and I was here in the accountant's office to finish off some paperwork. The Career Services office had held the contest to award a lucky student 400 dollars worth of a brand new business suit and shoes from Dillard's at the Woodland's mall in Tulsa 80 miles away. Applicants had had to write an essay about why they needed a new suit. Mine had won. Four hundred dollars! For clothes! Brand new clothes! From Dillard's! We didn't even have a mall in Stillwater, and I sure didn't remember what nice new clothes felt like. I had spent 6 years at university counting pennies, skipping meals to save money, and frequently overdrawing my bank account. I used to choose to walk almost an hour to the nearest WalMart to save on a 5 dollar cab ride. God-awful times. I was only a year away from finishing up with graduate school, and I needed to find a job for after so I could stay on in the country. The economy was crap, hardly anyone was hiring, and I needed to find a job or pack up and go back home where careers go to die. I was only 23 years old and had been running on empty, emotionally and financially, for 6 years. I used to feel so bad at career fairs in my makeshift suit; everybody else had shiny well-fitted ensembles. I felt small and exhausted. The first draft of my essay had reflected my life:

"Not again will I be taking 45 minute walks to WalMart (for want of a car) for groceries, all the while secretly harboring desires of magically finding a pair of cheap comfortable shoes that will go well (in the dark anyway) with the imitation-silk blouse from Goody’s and the pair of great fitting though slightly worn-out grey trouser-like pants that I’d fished out from the clearance pile at JCPenney’s. My Frankenstein of a suit. My eclectic grown-up collection in my blue-jeans college life."

Winning 400 dollars for a brand new suit and shoes that I desperately needed but could not afford for critical job interviews was something that almost made me want to get down on my knees and cry. All on the basis of my writing too, a personal skill that had all but died by then. It was validating for me. Shocking, but powerfully validating. My was still good? Good enough? To help me with something?

The award committee had really liked my essay. The accountant lady had told me so while making me sign a bunch of documents.

"“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,”
William Shakespeare

A part I’ve been playing for 20 years (almost my whole life) is that of The Broke Student, during which time my parents paid for all of my expenses. The last 6 years have been spent with their financing my education and life here in the United States as an international student, converting a fistful of foreign currency into a lot less dollars. It’s been even harder what with tuition for international students being 3 times as much as their in-state counterparts. Part-time on-campus employment only provided pocket money.

But it’s time for The Broke Student to take her exit from the stage.

I will be graduating in May next year, out in the real world, acting out my new part – The Unemployed College Graduate. Hopefully that won’t last too long. I’m wishing with fingers crossed really tightly that I will then leap into my next role – The Full-Time Worker. Perhaps playing this new part will help pay back what was invested in me, if not in dollars and cents, then in some other way.

“Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Sans suit?

Indubitably, The Unemployed College Graduate will need to dress to impress to initiate the metamorphosis into The Full-Time Worker. A good suit, however, is way out of The Broke Student’s budget. Wonderfully, this is where the ‘Business Suits for Students’ program comes in. The Broke Student seeks to take her very first steps in bringing The Full-Time Worker onto the stage, in some way helping her family by first helping herself."

I was shyly listening to the usually withdrawn white woman as she praised my writing. Nobody else used to do it anymore, my creative writing skills from my childhood had gone completely underground by then. Silent, dead in the dank underworld along with the rest of me. I was surprised that someone had liked my writing enough to tell me. She sounded sincere. And she kept talking. Her voice was small and tired sounding, almost as if she hadn't spoken in many years. Her face had already started wrinkling in thick chunks. She didn't look me in the eye but kept talking as she slowly shuffled through her papers. "Your writing is wonderful," she had said to the weary young thing I had become, "never stop writing." And she kept talking. She told me that she used to work for a very large company, that she had been doing very well in the corporate world, but she hadn't liked it. Then her husband died in a plane crash, and she left her big office and her old life and moved back to tiny little Stillwater in the middle of nowhere with her children. She was happy here in her small hidden office. Then she smiled a small but real smile at me, and I felt so moved on the inside, although I didn't say anything because I was too young and too numb to understand what she was making me feel. I ended up getting a job at a big corporate office a few months later and left Stillwater. I never saw the invisible accountant from Career Services again.

Small Dog, Big Fight

Aw, an essay I had written as a 22-year-old applicant for the Mercedier Cunningham scholarship at the Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. I had not won, but I can admire the little chipper's spirit!

Statement of Need

“Small opportunities are often the beginnings of great enterprises.”

300 something years before Christ, in the part of the world that once used to be the magnificent Greek Empire, one self-conscious under-confident youth struggled with a weak voice and poor delivery. But later in his lifetime, he metamorphosed into an awe-inspiring fiery political orator. Today, Demosthenes is remembered as a great, no, the greatest of Greek orators. And over 2000 years later, hundreds of lifetimes past, the Mortar Board of the Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, felt compelled to quote him in the 2004-2005 edition of the Mortar Board calendar.

Let’s extend our stay in the present day for a little while longer. In 1981, I was born an Indian citizen in the Middle East, and my parents financed my education (and my life really) ever since then. Of course, every cost associated with me increased many, many fold when I came to OSU in 1999 to start working on my undergraduate degree, what with tuition for international students being almost three times as much as their in-state counterparts, all the while converting a fistful of foreign currency into a lot less dollars. I worked as many hours of part-time jobs as my status as an international student would allow me, but at the end of the day, that only helped provide pocket money. All the same, I tried to look at it all through an entirely different perspective. I chose optimism and struggled to view hardships as opportunities, small yet path-forming.

Today, I am enrolled in the Management Information Systems Master’s program, and for as long as I have been working hard at it, I have been trying to support myself in some measure with a financially more satisfying status as a graduate/research assistant. I’m not financially independent yet, but I’ve been seizing whatever opportunities have been tapping at the door of my life. Carpe Diem has become the tune my soul’s been dancing to. It’s not a new dance; I had been taking baby steps during my undergraduate years (albeit unknown to me at that time), clumsily tripping over myself and often feeling graceless and frustrated at my ineptness. Teeth-gritting perseverance, however, made the tune louder and faster; the dance trickier and nearly acrobatic. Today it is a much-cherished intuition.

The opportunities have been getting bigger swiftly, and I’m almost afraid to break for a breather and inadvertently (shudder!) slow down. I do not know what great enterprises these opportunities herald, but today I feel the need to quote a countryman of Demosthenes’, Pindar the great poet. He once declared, ‘learn what you are and be such’. A merry dance my Greek friends lead me at from across the millennia. The real world awaits me at the end of my life as a student, and in mirthful anticipation of what wondrous new melodies lie in the vast unknown, I can hardly dance any faster.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Everybody's Favourite Aunt

Aunt Alice's advice to my teenage self in a November 1996 issue of Young Times. Remember her? Good times, good times.

My Friend the Astronaut

It's 2012, and Sunita Williams is making headlines in India. She is an astronaut with NASA and is going to be heading back out to space. She is also of Indian origin from her father's side.

I heard about her on TV a few hours ago here in Muscat, Oman. All the Indian news channels are talking about her.

And I suddenly miss Kalpana Chawla. Do you remember her?

It was 16 years ago in 1996 when the world first heard of Kalpana Chawla. I was 15, and it was such a huge deal for me as a young Indian school kid in Oman to hear about a female Indian astronaut. There were no Indian news channels in those days, but I did rip out stories about her from a youth magazine I used to subscribe to. How amazing was she! In those days I almost used to live in an alternate universe where the Star Trek world was real, and here was an Indian girl like me who was going into space. The final frontier! From NASA! As far as I was concerned, NASA was the real world's Starfleet Academy, and I had a crazy amount of respect for that. I had another Trekkie friend in high school who had a thing for Mr. Spock (I was a Kirk girl myself), and all I ever heard her say was that she was going to grow up and work at NASA too. It felt nice to have one of our own - brown skin, black hair, black eyes, a name that didn't sound like Smith or Sarah - out there, someone who was actually going to see the final frontier my Trekkie friends and I were always obsessing about.

The next time I heard about Kalpana Chawla was many years later in 2003. I was 22 years old and emotional-light-years away as an undergraduate student in my final semester at the Oklahoma State University out there on the American Prairie. A tragedy had occurred, and the Space Shuttle Columbia had disintegrated - along with everyone on board - over several miles in Texas while re-entering the Earth's atmosphere. From what I remember, it was because of a faulty heat-resistant tile on the body of the shuttle. The shuttle had burned up and fallen apart out there in the next state in a region only 4 hours away from where I was. And Kalpana Chawla had been on board.

The American news channels had carried stories about the Columbia crew for days. One of them told a story about Kalpana, about how she had felt while looking at the Earth through a window from inside the Columbia while in space. She had seen her own reflection looking back at her, and she had been able to see the Earth in her eyes. And she had said that the Earth had looked so beautiful and so calm and quiet out there in space, and that if everyone could see what she had seen, that no one would fight each other anymore.

I miss her today. I've never had any real-life role models, never really looked up to anyone particularly while growing up, but she had felt like someone I had known. Her smiling pictures in her astronaut suit, the ones from NASA with the American flag watching over her from behind almost like it had her back, those pictures felt like she had been smiling at me. Like she knew me too. She had kind eyes. She looked like a nice, normal person. Kalpana my friend. I miss her today.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

They Say Success is Relative

"To help my clients formulate their visions, I give them the following exercise, which almost always excavates what it is that brings them fulfillment:

Complete the following sentences by writing down your responses on a blank sheet of paper. It is not sufficient merely to complete the sentences in your mind as you read them; you must commit your answers to paper. You can change what you wrote after you see them in print, but make sure you write them down.

1. The people I view as successful are...
2. I feel successful when I...
3. My symbols of success are...
4. I will feel like a success when I...
5. If I were to write my ideal obituary based on the fact that my life was a success, it would read like this..."

- Cherie Carter-Scott, 'If Success is a Game, These are the Rules'

Those Evil Ad People

Prrrrooobably not the kind of beauty Eleanor Roosevelt was talking about.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

My new magazine!


The first XZBT comes out August 1, you don't want to miss it, do you?

Visit the website at Like and share the Facebook page at Subscribe to the monthly newsletter at

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Cleric's Worst Nightmare

The end of the world is upon us: people now get fatter during Ramadhan, and Kate Moss is the face of Harper's Bazaar Arabia's Ramadhan special (her naughty bits have been covered quite literally for Heaven's sake).

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dead Girls like Sonam

I'm sitting here in Muscat, Oman, looking at my old small spiral notebook that I used to carry around with me as a reporting intern at NDTV in New Delhi last June. The front cover is dark blue with a broad orange stripe. It says 'Lotus' in small print next to a picture of a lotus flower. The spiral is thin but tough and black in colour. The back cover says that this notebook contains 160 pages and that it cost 11 rupees. There's an address back there, probably the manufacturer: Sohan Lal Nem Chand Jain, 90 Chawri Bazar, Delhi - 6 (INDIA). You can email the company at and call them at their 'helpline' at 65288701. Don't forget to dial 91 for India and 11 for Delhi.

The pages of this notebook are in various shades of pastel - pink, yellow, blue, green, but the first few pages are white. Ruled. If you flip through them, you can see my scribbles through half of those 160 pages. In black ink, of course, that's the only colour I write in. The first page of this notebook has neat handwriting. This is where I would write down the extension numbers of the different departments at NDTV. The Video Tape Library (VTL), Graphics (GFX), Input, PCR B (English), and PCR A (Hindi). And the cafeteria.

A few pages after this are some questions I'd scrawled down as bullet points. I remember writing them. I had been on my way with a senior cameraperson to the Ministry of State for Women and Child Development. The minister there - Krishna Tirath - was finally going to make a statement, and I had been hurriedly dispatched from the newsroom to get that bite. It was about that 14-year-old girl who had allegedly been raped and murdered in Lakhimpur Kheri in Uttar Pradesh by some policemen. She had already been buried after an autopsy that had cleared the policemen, but the ministry in Delhi had decided to send in their own team to exhume the body and conduct a second autopsy. The girl who had died, her name was Sonam. Her parents were Tarannum and Intezam Ali. These were poor people. India is a poor country.

The NDTV car had been smelling hot and dusty. The monsoons hadn't hit yet. I'd been making notes during the ride about questions I wanted to ask the minister. I remember my scalp feeling tight, I had wanted to do a good job. I had planned on asking the minister 3 things: had they received any new information about the alleged crime, was the ministry stepping into this issue because of political pressure, and was there reason to believe that the proposed second autopsy was expected to yield different results? That's what's in my notes anyway. I was quite a serious little intern.

I remember rushing into the ministry with the cameraperson, a no-nonsense South Indian man with a strong vibe of strength about him. The ministry was dank and moldy from the inside. Sticky feeling. The elevator we took to go upstairs kept shaking and making mechanical chewing noises like a robot's digestive system. We were late, late, late, what if the minister had already begun? The cameraperson and I rushed out of the elevator as the doors opened too slowly and ran down a corridor that looked like there was a war going on outside. The lights were out, the ceiling was gone and had wires and other skeletal building material hanging down from it. We found the door to the minister's office. We opened it. A number of eyes turned to look at us. We were late, the other channels - their reporters and camerapeople - were already there. The minister was at her desk. And her room was amazing. A shiny floor (was it hardwood?), expensive couches, and large black statues of Renaissance-type children and women in various corners of the room. Air conditioning. A corporate office almost, a whole other world far away from the decaying ministry outside.

I helped the cameraperson quickly set up his tripod and the mic. With the red NDTV muff. I felt a little embarassed about being the last ones there, but the minister hadn't started giving her statement yet. "Aaiye, aap hi ka intezaar thha," a number of reporters and camerapeople there said to us, almost rolling their eyes. Please come, you were the ones we'd been waiting for. We were NDTV after all, the most famous, the most sophisticated channel of them all.

Everyone was crowded around the minister's shiny desk. There was no space to stand close to her desk because that's where all the camerapeople stood with their large cameras. I was the youngest and the shortest - and female - but in the confusion I somehow found my way up across her desk. Someone patted my shoulder to make me sit down on the chair there, and I did. No one was paying any attention, the reporters were mentally disconnected, the minister was chatting with another female reporter, and I didn't really know what to do. These were the real camerapeople and reporters, and they all knew each other. Even the politicians and other newsmakers knew them. I didn't know anyone. I didn't know what was supposed to happen next. The minister looked at me, a new face sitting across from her desk. I caught her eye, and after an awkward second, I decided to ask her a question. One of the ones I had come up with on the way to the ministry.

The minister had started to smile at me when I spoke. I think I asked her about the autopsy. Her face fell, she looked at me like I had gone off-script. Her mouth trembled, her eyes darted left and right, and her voice shook as she turned away. "Not now, not now, later, later." Later? When? Isn't that what I was supposed to do as a reporter?

I guess not. The minister immediately started making her statement, memorised and well-rehearsed, inflecting at all the right places. She first did this in English for the English channels, and then performed it all over again in Hindi for the other channels. It was like watching a play or the taping of a show. Aaaand turn to this camera for Hindi. I sat there across from her the whole time, wondering why I had even bothered to use my brain to come up with questions that I had thought needed to be asked.

We were hardly in there for more than 10 minutes before the statements were taken and the camerapeople and reporters decided to leave. I had looked around but no one was asking any questions, I didn't know why. I felt somewhat stupid and useless. Redundant. Everyone left the minister behind in her office and stepped back out into the muggy haunted corridor and packed the elevator on our way down. The reporters and camerapeople were abusing the minister the whole time. "What a waste of time," they had said. "She's an idiot. She's only doing this to suck up to her boss Chidambaram." I felt like a dancing monkey. I'm sorry, Sonam.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hey Priyanka

Dedicated to Priyanka Sacheti

Hey Priyanka did you hear
About the girls who'd died
But woke back up
What do you think the world will do
When the girls snap their fingers
And put on electric blue pants
And look 3 inches taller
What do you think Priyanka about that
Do you think it happens to everybody
Do you think life puts everyone to sleep some time
But only some remember to wake up again
Do you remember Priyanka what it meant to live
Was it wearing neon pants
Was it wanting more strawberry sauce on your cheesecake
Who put us to sleep Priyanka
What did all those years mean
What will we do now that we're awake Priyanka
What will the world do now that some dead girls have come back to life

Sunday, July 1, 2012

I. Have.The.Power

"Power is a mind-blowing entity. It's the capacity or ability to get things exercise control over people, events, situations, and oneself. However, all power is based on perception. If you think you've got it, then you've got it. If you think you don't have it, even if you have it, then you don't have it. In short, you have more power if you believe you have power and view your life's encounters as negotiations.

Your ability to negotiate determines whether you can or can't influence your environment. It gives you a sense of mastery over your life. It isn't chiseling, and it isn't intimidation of an unsuspecting mark. It's analysing information, time, and power to affect behaviour...the meeting of needs (yours and others') to make things happen the way you want them to."

- Herb Cohen, 'You Can Negotiate Anything'