Panorama pic of a bird sitting on a play pen. Purpose was to depict my circumstances which prompted me to write the article. Alone yet looking ahead. The bird is brown and blue in color
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of Erasing Identities: One Name at a Time

I was introducing myself to a graduate class in an American university. I had zero orientation to the entire system! I had never been in an American classroom. Did not know how the system worked. Barely knew anyone in the class. There were two friendly people who nodded their heads at me and asked me who I was. But the class had an amazing mix of people. To this day it is hilarious how naive and scared I was. It was – fear of the unknown. If I entered a similar class today, I would drop out of the class mid-way and walk out without even explaining myself to such a class/professor.

In walks a professor in shorts and starts taking introductions of people.
[Note here that the unprofessional dressing of the professor was already shocking me. Sorry from where I come, to teach, teachers dress in formals. I am sorry if that is too much to expect at an American University].

It was my turn to introduce myself to the class. When I said my name -SriPadmini Chennapragada, almost everyone’s eyes in the class popped out in shock.

There were already a few women who had the standard, “I will not be friendly, I won’t make this brown girl feel accepted into our group” look. Then there were a few others who were clueless of my presence only. So the shocked expressions only added to the already existing discomfort that was surrounding my presence.

And to immediately feel accepted and make them feel better (which was again a pointless effort and I know better today!), I politely said,

You can call me ‘anything’

To this the professor bends down to stare in my face and jokingly said,

“If I can call you anything, then I can also call you an asshole.”

Before that day, I had never spoken to anyone who used a foul English word in their communication with me. I think I was in shock for many hours after that. I immediately recovered from my embarrassed and shocked face to say,

You can call me Sri

And that day was the first day of the next ten years of my life when erasure of my identity began. Every time someone called me Sri, I taught myself to respond. It was like learning to talk and be communicative again. When I took ‘Sri’ to my name, it was to associate my grand father’s memory with me forever. To have him with me in my journey of life. To have a part of his name first read out during all important occasions of my life when my full name was to be read mandatorily. It was to honor him at every milestone of my life and thank him for what example he set for us. From where I come, we don’t call ourselves out by the names of our ancestors that we add to our names. But at UTA, I was not allowed even 2 minutes to add that into my communication. It was shock treatment. As I write this today, I still remember the expressions of these men and women who laughed to the bad joke. I can still hear the whole class bursting out to laugh while a couple of us cringed!

That experience killed me internally and that building became a very scary place for me to go to. Six months later I left the program because it was nothing but a brick and mortar space that was delivering some technical skills. There was no education happening there!

Over the next six months, every day was a tearful scary experience. The building was stress causing. I hated my life. I questioned the reason for my existence by the end of the semester. All these were the symptoms of a root cause that I was not trained to identify back then – I was angry for someone making fun of my name (that I was taught was also connected with my spiritual identity). I was disliking seeing the people who didn’t give a damn about me changing my name in a split second. I felt like an imposter for saying my name was something else that no one in my life called me with. And it constantly reminded me that it was my grandfather’s name that was being taken to identify me (which we almost never do here at home). All that was needed was for the professor to not use ugly language and I would have just told him,

You can call me Padmini.

Over the ten years that I have travelled extensively outside India,

My name has been a conversation starter.

My name was a story to introduce people to my language and culture.

And that day in UTA, that was taken away from me because a professor landed a job in a university just because they had a PhD. No one cared to check if he was a good teacher. Nor was there a system in place to periodically check what was happening inside the classrooms. And trust me every little thing adds up. Do you still wonder why educational leadership evolved into a whole PhD in itself?

Today, at least 4 people (that I know of) who sat in that class are full-time faculty in American universities. As an educational leader if you think a webinar/workshop/2-day training is going to help them ‘learn’ to be respecting of others’ cultures, you are so wrong! I can’t imagine being a student in the classes of most of those former colleagues. What American higher education needs is more diversity in your faculty. What American higher education needs is to identify and re-school faculty members who hate the way our names sound or the dislike the food we eat.

Before I tell you why I wrote this today, let me tell you, until I left the US last year to commence field work in India, I studied in a program where a professor told me my name was hard to learn for six straight years. In a class, everyone’s last names were written up on board while explaining a concept. The list always stopped at my name. And the professor would be like, “No way! Am not spelling that out!” And my last name is only Chennapragada.

Ten years later, when I read this article about a similar incident at an American University, I am shocked but at the same time happy to note that there is enough awareness within the student community and the system to flag it as a situation that needs immediate attention.

FIVE POINTERS FOR AMERICAN PROFESSORS WHO FIND IT HARD TO LEARN FOREIGN NAMES

  1. ESSENTIAL SKILL : To address your students respectfully with their own names is an essential skill and not an optional skill that can be substituted by something else. The student will definitely feel included.
  2. PRACTICE and it takes some time daily. Invest in it and the student will better engage with you in the learning process (which will make your life and job both easy!).
  3. WRITING the name down in your own codes and symbols for pronouncing it properly (especially if you rarely interacted with foreign students before). Ask a linguist on your campus to help you (if you are embarrassed to ask the student and learn).
  4. PRINT a copy of all the names in the class prior to the day 1 and mark any names that need to be learnt. Ask the student to teach you how to say their name properly and call them out more. This will encourage a culture in the classroom that will discourage ‘invisible segregation’ that is very common inside American classrooms.
  5. DO NOT ASSUME a word sounds certain way. We all have our own languages and corresponding scripts. Most of our languages don’t fit into the confines of English language.

In conclusion, since US Universities want our monies, our diversity, our creative and out of box thinking to grow their own revenues and diversity profiles; plus you (a faculty/staff) as an employee of that US University have agreed to work for that organization, we all have to make equal efforts to learn together.

We learn to speak English and pass the TOEFL –

You will learn to call us by our own names and not ask us to pick an English name!

 
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Of Sunshine & Strength: The Category 2 People

TRIGGER WARNING:

Some ‘well-wishers’ ‘advise me’ not to write ‘posts like this’ 🙂 but you know me better than that!

In my little understanding about human life, I learnt that there are a few broad categories into which human beings can be placed (while considering how they react with the spaces and events around them).

1. Some just keep changing their course of life as obstacles and challenges keep showing up.

2. Some stick to the path no matter what the challenges are.

3. And then come the third kind who will present chameleon hues to say ‘We are smart. We adapt according to the circumstances and grow up the ladder’ (trust me — adapting is significantly different from stepping over others and enabling a discriminatory and excluding system).

How we each respond to the space and events around us is deeply internal, and influenced by a multitude of factors ranging from our upbringing to socioeconomic statuses.

For the people belonging to category 2, the small percentage of luck to survive is critical. Success is hard to get for Category 2 people, and survival becomes an every day battle to wake up to.

What we saw this past week in news of a Bollywood star’s passing, was in my opinion — him missing out on the small percentage of luck. When someone who he pushed away would have come back and insisted that they stay and watch over him. It may have needed just that much of push back from someone whose help he refused. But now, we will never know.

For many humans like him, the journey is lonely. Not many understand what they are speaking and for the insecure ones who can’t match their (Category people) brilliance, eliminating them becomes a priority task to ensure that mediocrity thrives over rare brilliance. Brilliance in my understanding always leads to change and change is hard to process for the elite few who control a system. Here is where the status quo comes into the picture.

In Bollywood they call the root cause for these selective support systems — Neopotism

In corporate workplaces, I hear many Indians broadly use the term ‘workplace politics’

In Indian sports too, ‘politics/ego clashes with administrators and top coaches’ is cited as a common reason for brilliant athletes losing the races even before competitions begin.

In academia, depending on the geographical positioning of the individual, root causes range from casteism to racial discrimination.

I have faced it. In the form of both casteism and racial discrimination. I was bloody lucky to have had people in my life back then who said —

“No matter what, we are stopping what we are doing, we are sitting with you, we are not leaving you alone while you are battling this brutality!”

This was not my blood-related family. A few years before, these people would have been strangers in my life. If I didn’t get lost in this brutal battle of discrimination, nepotism or what ever fancy terms we humans use to describe the ugly side of human behavior — that is because some strangers decided that being compassionate, and caring for a foreigner was more important for them than to appease the status quo.

We all need to educate ourselves to be more compassionate!

There is a strong need to move beyond hashtags and memes that will fight for equity and fairness. I don’t mean to undermine the efforts of individuals who are making an impact through social media content. However, many of us who are still operating under strong biases assure ourselves that by sharing ‘I Care’ content, we are absolved of our every day behaviors where we discriminate, abuse and disrespect people who are different from us in how they live their life or eat their food.

And for the Category 2 people reading this, when feeling low, it is hard to reach out for help. One needs a lot of strength to be able to reach out and ask for help.

Let me also tell you, to allow yourself to feel vulnerable by seeking help — is the hardest thing to do. But on the other side of reaching out for help —

There is sunshine. There is healing. There is growth. There is strength.

For many people who view me as an accomplished person who is living the best times of her life — I have been to the dark side. In order to not trigger other’s pain, I made a conscious decision to not speak about my struggles for sometime. But mind you, what I place on social media platforms is selective content. So that must never make anyone who reads the content feel — wow what an accomplished personal and professional life.

So this post was to tell everyone who looks at me and says to me — I am lucky. I am accomplished. I am doing great things.

I never set out to do great things. I am a curious person who always chased interesting questions involving many social science variables. But what you see came to me at a cost. And I don’t ever want that for anyone in my life.

Having said that, I will conclude this post with what a friend once said to me:

Adi, why am I like this?

He simply said,

“Padmini, you are an authentic person. There are no two sides to how you present yourself in any sutuation. And today’s world is rarely like that. So don’t change. But learn to protect yourself while you stay authentic!”

My Category 2 peers, don’t be afraid to be judged. Just reach out for help. Pick the phone. Show up at a door unannounced. Don’t walk away from asking help. Some day you will discover the power in developing that habit when survival is the need of the hour.

And some day you will save many more lives by just being you and sharing the story of your survival.

Padmini seen here in a white and green salwar kameez and also wearing a matching face mask. She is  smiling while looking into the camera with a balcony herb garden and  colorful wind chimes in the background
Dressing in Style when your mom is bored during the COVID-19 lockdown 2.0

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NIDIA 24: Thirty years and then that one day..

When: 1 AM,October 28th, 2017

Where: Aboard AA 2311

My Uber driver today (from the hotel to airport) was a former professional boxer who proudly told me he was a first-generation immigrant and he loves coaching young kids. There are times in life when you start talking to strangers (in buses and airports) and realize you agree with some of their opinions about life. J is one of those people from my life. J kept talking and I suddenly felt an incomplete circle of thoughts in my brain complete itself.

Today it is 31 years since I was blessed to be born into this beautiful world. As I sit and type these words out thousands of feet from above the earth, I remember J and another conversation from earlier today that pushed me out of my slumber as a NIDIA. Also here I want to tell you why this post is very important for me to write. For several weeks now, battling through a personal crisis, I have stayed away from talking to every good friend I had (like literally. If you know me, and then I tell you I have become a silent person, that can tell you volumes I guess). I showed up for family events because family is one thing that grounds me and gives me the hope to keep moving ahead in life. Sometimes it is blood related, sometimes it is not. And it is hard to stay sad for a really long time when you have a family that will not quit until they see you laugh a lot. You take advantage of that blessing and hang in there so that you can preserve that humane side in you to pay it forward. It has now come to a point where I am overwhelmed by the concerned messages I receive from people everywhere and all that I do is flip through them not knowing what to say. So this communication is very important for me to tell you all that I am okay and am recovering.

Several weeks back, at work, I was assigned the task to read a book that one of the professors I work for had authored. I was to help create supporting imagery for a research project presentation. Click here if you wonder what I do at work.  I remember that week of the assignment. I had walked into my work supervisor’s room several times that week expressing my disbelief on how much that book’s content was making me uncomfortable and unhappy. What no one knew was that assignment made me sick in my stomach. It was hard to be reading the book and not connecting with it multiple times.  What no on knows is that I cried multiple times that week because of everything I read in it. You may be wondering, “Well wait, you call yourself a non-immigrant Padmini, this book is on immigrants! Not adding up?!”

When you live thousands of miles away from the home in a place where every day, apart from studying, working, staying healthy, a considerable amount of effort also goes into ‘fitting in’, you have to be careful. Careful to not let the process get to your nerves. Careful to not let someone tell you that you are not good enough to be among them. Reading Dr. Stewart’s book made me realize that no matter how much I want to deny it, I have lived some parts of those lives described in that book. I have struggled through some of those challenges. I have undergone similar micro-traumas like those immigrant students did in their lives. And over the time, they have only accumulated onto my mind. And my struggle was to keep going no matter what – to not let the dream die. There are some people in my life currently who are championing for me to gather my strength and nerves to move forward in my life. But mental health is complicated. In a common man’s language, broken spirit is hard to heal. No matter how best it can be restored, will a broken porcelain dish pieced together by the best expert in the world be the same as the one that has never been broken? Or as some may argue, will the viewer’s perspective decide if the patches make the mended one even more beautiful? Regardless of the point of view whatsoever, the key questions to ask for me are:

Do we have those best technicians available to us for mental health?

What is the best glue to piece a broken spirit together?

C, I know you told this to me before. But today, when I heard the same analogy from another woman, I felt a sense of calm in my heart.

Would just one average intensity poke on someone’s shoulder hurt the same as hundreds of pokes at the same spot on the shoulder for a really long period of time? If a person with Spinal Cord Injury came to you, what would you say to them? Would you talk to them the way you are talking to yourself? Think about it, would you be so unkind to them as you are being to yourself? Oh, or is it because their pain is visible and yours is not visible to the eye?

As someone told me earlier this week, “Sri, you do you first!”  Seldom will we have an opportunity to sit across the table from leaders who will look you in the eye and say that to you. You take care of yourself first and then worry about the rest. I remember them also telling me this. “Sri, if you take all the inner dialogue that you have and make it into a person and let them stand beside you, you wouldn’t be able to stand that person for one moment. We need to teach ourselves when to not hear to it.” This is the most profound sentence I have heard in the last sixty days of my life. This birthday, yet another blessed day when I got to be with my family, I made a decision to be kind and compassionate to myself first. And that also I will seek help as much as I need and won’t shame myself for asking help. I wrote this post for many reasons. Some of them are:

  • I am okay and I am keeping to myself. One of these days, I hope to find the glue that will fix the broken porcelain that I am today.
  • I have talked to many of my friends over the years who discussed with me the shaming that surrounds taking time to heal (I know everyone doesn’t have that option but for ones who have the privilege, don’t disregard it. Use it and help someone because it makes you stronger). Especially when you are on track to achieve a ‘goal’. I want to let everyone reading this to know that we cannot shame/silence the help seekers. Nor can we say that seeking the help of a psychologist is a sign of weakness. It is a science and like any profession, there are greatly knowledgeable people working in the field and then there are the others. So educating ourselves about it before shaming someone seeking help is important.
  • We cannot normalize a person’s suffering as a process of toughening them up for life. If I have a rupee every time I heard this sentence in my 8-full time years as a student, I would not have needed a humongous education loan from SBI.
  • We cannot negate or devalue a person’s human experience because they have put up a brave and dignified presence always. I write this point particularly because in the last sixty days I had people say to me things like, “Oh! You are so successful, you are so capable. You are such an achiever!” Some of them may have some truth to it. The fact is, I am not. Keeping in line with my desire to share only positive stories or life lessons on this blog, I never wrote about the experiences that have severely challenged me as a non-immigrant in this country. The experiences that made me feel very low and worthless. Disregarding the pain of being treated like that is what led me where I am today. Also I wrote this post because my mom says if in her younger days she had a way to express her views like this, she would have shared her life lessons with more people around her. She says when I can write my thoughts down, I should put them to good use.

Thousand miles away from where I call home, I found comfort in the questions that two women asked me about who I am ( I guess that is why I am drawn to qualitative research and interviews. The beauty of this form of research is: within its principles, every voice counts, every story matters). While there are many loved ones that care for me, pray for me and have positive thoughts for me everyday, meeting these champions made me realize that I lack compassion for myself. So as I turn 31 and am trying to bounce back from this crisis, I want to request all of you who read this to:

Be respectful of any pain you face in life. Don’t tell yourself it is okay to get a ‘little’ hurt in the process. No hurt/pain is little. It only keeps layering more pain onto itself. That is the complexity that surrounds our human minds.

No goal/desire in life should take you to the point of choosing between loved ones that care for you and success that may kill your inner joy (that success becomes pointless if you become a mean person in that process).

It is okay not to be able to fit in everywhere we go.

You do not know what great hope and joy meeting you brought to my life C & K! To keeping the promises and making every day count with self-care and compassion for myself. Thank you for the laughs and sharing your stories.

Karin Korb on the left in a black top, Padmini in the center wearing a  white Kashmiri kurti with colorful embroidery and Candace on the right wearing an elephant grey t-shirt. All the three women are smiling their hearts out while looking into the photograph. In the background is an open air drinks bar at a hotel with two uniformed bartenders on scene.

Note: To all the junglees of my life who will text me jokes about the porcelain dish comparisons, I will personally come to beat y’all up 🙂 Please don’t! Is emotional post pe kachra math karo kameeno *hugs*

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The Balancing Act of Marrying Together Two Cultures

When: 31st July 2017

Where: VA

A few months back I read a dissertation on the acculturation process of immigrant Asian Indians in the United States. This one I read was approved in the May of 2008 and was authored by Dr. Nirisha Garimella. When I was looking up dissertation and thesis documents submitted by Indians at TWU, this one particularly drew my attention for two reasons: one, Garimella is a very popular Telugu surname and two, it used a qualitative methodology for studying the phenomenon of how Asian Indians settle into United States. While I cannot share the detailed contents of the dissertation here, to simply explain what the study highlighted, one can say it narrated the stories of 15 immigrants settled in the US from a kal, aaj aur kal (yesterday, today and tomorow in Hindi) perspective.

"Oh my god! I cannot believe it has been so many years since I saw you!"

Fast forward to last week when I visited my cousin's family. As I was about to walk into the house, the main door sprang open and my cousin's wife like literally crushed me with her hug. Not that it surprised me! 3 full days at a conference, lot of listening and lot of talking later, a 11 PM arrival after two hours of train journey was making me feel weary until she crushed me :) Such energy and excitement in receiving someone into their home at 11 PM was so refreshing to experience. What happens after I receive such warm welcomes is a story for another time. For the next three hours I was surrounded by a family (including a 15 year old and a 10 year old) that made me laugh to the point of having tears in my eyes.

"It is very hard to describe the early years! I would wonder what the hell is happening to my body, why don't I feel healthy?"

As we continued to talk about the six years that happened between my last visit and the current one, at one point, I saw her eyes well up. This was followed by a lot of head nodding. We spoke on so many things ranging from  parenting to politics. A lot of the talk was surrounded around how healthy vegetarian food was an impossible thing to have around when she moved to the States. All through these hours of conversations I shared with her, I couldn't stop thinking about this dissertation I read. As she spoke about her own life, she would start with the history of her own life, talk about what is currently happening and then present such a positive and hopeful image of the future.

As I currently split my time between understanding immigrant perspectives, their challenges and physical activity, I am often drawn towards these conversations that happen with Indian women who move to the States at a very young age and are then trying to create a home here for their own families.

"No matter what my day has in store for me, I need to work out early in the morning. Then I can handle anything."

I woke up this morning very early and through my foggy eyes, I saw her dressed up in her work out clothes, walking over to my bed and saying "I will see you exactly in 45 minutes Padmini. I need to go work out! Sleep in if you don't feel like going. We shall figure it out!" And she is gone! I was like "Whoaa! What just happened?" These days I am not a very morning person and seeing her be so active I was like, "What the hell! I need to get out of my bed right now!" And I was up and ready in 45 minutes. Now I can only imagine what that image of her can do to the young kids growing up in her home.

"Watching what I eat is so important for me because I know it powers every living second of my day. And I am constantly trying to make the meals at home interesting. That way I get the kids to spend more time with us too " *says this while smiling at me*

You see her order food at a restaurant and she is constantly talking to both her daughters about the content of the foods. And then she leaves them alone to make the choice for themselves. Her daughter wants to snack and she is immediate to bring her a bowl of apple slices. She does all this so naturally that it looks really easy. But all through our conversations, it was clear that all these awesome parenting skills came to her through many trials and tribulations she has lived through. This beautiful parenting and compassion that is evident in her personality came after years of lived experiences in a country far away from her parents and her own land (just like it has come to many other immigrant women too!). She is often very quick to say,

"We learnt from each other Padmini. We were both very young. We moved here with no clue of what the future held for us. But once we got here, we continued to learn and evolve."

Why it is important for me to write about her?

In today's times, I rarely see immigrant women (especially Indian women) who  are physically fit and can be active all through the day. I am guilty of it myself (I am not yet an immigrant. NIDIA you see). I let stress get to me so badly sometimes that it takes me about a week's time to recover. I have often said this to my American friends here.

Self-care is a very absent or unknown concept in the lives of millions of Indian women.

And the response was always agreement with an amendment.

"Women in general happen to neglect or not make time for self care. So the additional variable of immigration makes it more complex for y'all!"

She is an excellent example of an Indian immigrant in this country, who has learnt to bring together the best of two very different cultures that she got tossed into. If I had to summarise what I learnt from my conversations with her, I would say:

  • It is important for us to wear a smile on our face and embrace life as bravely as we can. No matter which direction life throws you in.
  • It is perfectly okay to slow down, take a step back and to ask for help.
  • It is important to have a fitness routine every day in the morning.

Portrait of Shanti Kondapi and Padmini Chennapragada sitting on a cement bench. Shanti is wearing a beautiful maroon long skirt teamed with a white sleeveless top and Padmini is wearing navy blue lenin shirt teamed with a denim skirt. The background has a white wooden fences and on either sides of the bench are white flowered plants looking pretty in the beautiful Carrytown weather.

Meet Shanti Kondapi, an unsung victor of the immigrant battles that many Indians try to survive, mother of two young American girls who can out a song in your heart every time you meet them. I was on my way to the airport when I heard the song "Badal pe paon hai!" from Chak De! India when I had the idea of wanting to write about her. Her life story is empowering for me to learn from because through her balancing act of marrying two cultures together, she powers three other humans around her. Also she is not related to me. Growing up watching my sister and mother closely, I always lived in this bubble that no one else is as capable as them to raise children or to be managing a family. But as I travel and meet more people, their life stories are constantly educating me on how so many women around me are leading amazingly positive lives.

I am sure Shanti's story is not alone. There are millions of women like her around the world. But these stories need to be told repeatedly. These voices need to be heard. They need to be talked about at our dinner tables. In today's times, it is more important than ever before to talk about how immigrants are bringing in great value to the citizenship of these United States.

Vadina (sister-in-law in Telugu), until we meet again, lots of love and hugs! I will miss you!

Annayya (brother in Telugu), I won't miss you, and no thanks for being so nice 🙂 I can try being not so nice too, if you visit me in Dallas.

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My Life: Religion in Reality

The Holy Quran at Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

The Holy Quran at Portland Art Museum, Portland, Oregon

Two days back, I was standing in the Portland Art Museum staring at a beautiful Quran which had illustrations made of gold and lapis lazuli. The beauty of the illustration caught my attention as I was walking away from a Native American Fashion exhibit. In a few seconds my thoughts drifted to a conversation I had with a best friend in college (I think it was in 2009). As the holy month of Ramadan begins, I want to share a part of that conversation here. Years ago, when I was going through a rough patch, my best friend then told me something that helped her tide past tough times in her life. I do not know how accurate my understanding about this topic is. May be someone who is an expert on these topics can correct me if I am saying something wrong here. But why is it important for me to share this?

It was one of those rare occasions when someone from a different belief system helped me retain faith in God while not talking in the same language of faith I grew up around.

We were sitting in our college’s parking lot in the back of my dad’s car (Strangely, I have a photograph of both of us from that day which another friend clicked on my phone!!). By then I had cried for about 20 minutes when my friend said to me,
“Arre sun, tereko mein ek baath bolthi Padmini. Mereko nai maloom ki tereko yeh sab mein yakeen hai ki nai. Lekin mereko bolne ka mann karra, so bolri. Humaare mazhab mein ek baath sikaathe humko. Quran mein bhi likha hai. Jisne bhi apni zubaan se kabhi bhi ek bhi galat baath na kahi ho, woh zubaan se nikli dua hamesha Allah tak paunchthi hai. Aur ek aisa bhi hai ki ek bhi insaan nahi hoga jisne kabhi apni zubaan se galath baathein na ki ho. Lekin jo bhi galtiyaan hum karthein hai, woh sab hamaarein hi hai. Isliye, jab kisee aur keliye tu dua karegi, woh dua Allah manzoor karega kyun ki, doosre insaan ke hisaab mein tho tere zubaan ki galtiyaan maaf hai.”
[Listen, I will tell you one thing Padmini. I don’t know if you believe in all these things I am telling you. But I feel like telling you. So here it is. We are taught something in our religion. It is written in the Holy Quran also. A mouth(zubaan) that has never uttered a sinful word, a prayer spoken from that mouth always reaches Allah. And there is also this saying that there won’t be a single human who has not sinned ever by speaking bad words. However, a sinful word spoken from one’s mouth is their own and a prayer from that person for another human will always be a clean prayer. So praying for someone else will be the best way to make an honest prayer that the Allah will bless.]
I don’t know how well I have written her words in English. But these words have been a guide for me since then. Since that day, I always found solace in praying for others more than myself (That doesn’t mean I am not kicking screaming and blowing my nose away on hurtful things. I do the whole drama also :). Well, I do pray for myself to ask for all the materialistic things that I want and to occasionally give Him my thanks for gifting me a wonderful life. Jokes apart, that conversation helped me come over a huge set back in 2009 and since then, I have always bounced back from so many situations that would have definetely broken my spirit if it was not for all the spiritual help I had around me. And the beauty of the life I experienced so far is that when I went through a time of questioning the belief system I grew up around, my best friends who were Muslim, Catholic and Sikhs helped me find my way back to believe in a power that was beyond the understanding of my small brain.
When I stared at the beautiful lapis lazuli and gold illustrated Quran pages that day, her words rang in my ears. The words that she said to me, how I constantly use them in my life to tide past tough times made my eyes well up. She was a great friend. She was always there for others despite having a tough life herself . I learnt to cook Palak curry from her (see there comes my food reference!), learnt a great deal about Islam from her(She taught me to wear a hijab which I still use today in the hot Texas sun. It is amazing how airy it is and how you can hide your face completely! :)), realized the value of having a cursive handwriting from her (she used to say, kaiku kharaab karri tera handwriting aisa waisa likkhe? howli hai tu!!), and learnt from her that staying strong in the face of adversity was a hidden untapped talent that women are naturally gifted with. We also often spoke comparing the good things and the not so good things we experienced for practicing our own religions (If I publish all that here, I will be removed from all the countries I ever lived in hahaha). We talked a great deal about the foods we cooked. Our discussions were so animated that, one night when we were both posted for a night duty, I went to sleep listening to her describing how they cooked chicken biryani and trust me, to this day, I can narrate to you all the steps that are followed in cooking chicken for biryani 🙂 It is hilarious when I look back at all those memories. I even did a fashion photo shoot for her in a burqa. I can never publish the photographs unless she would ask me to. I will wait for that day.
I don’t know where she is today. She just disappeared from all contact points after college. May be she wanted no part of that life we all struggled to make it through. This Ramadaan, seeing that Quran brought back all these memories to me. Ismat, where ever you are, I pray and wish all the best for your life. I never asked her if I could share her photo publicly. But today I want to. If I receive an objection or a note from her or her family, I will remove the image from here. But for now, I want the world to see the image of one of the best humans I knew growing up in my city, Hyderabad. She reminded me to keep faith in my Hindu gods and she was a staunch Muslim.
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