A Lesson From How I Gained Weight

“Why don’t you spend time on yourself?,”  my aunt suggested in passing, when I shared that I get bored on some weekends. She perhaps thought little of it after the conversation, but it had a game-changing effect on me, suddenly spurring me into working on myself in multiple ways  – one of which has been physical fitness.  I have always been the skinniest guy I knew all my life – I saw pictures of a little kid with chubby cheeks who my mom said was me, but I have no memory of that time.  My BMI had always showed me as underweight.

I put on fifteen pounds of weight in just three months, a rate of increase that wasn’t projected even in the most optimistic of plans I made for 2015.

 I stopped eating out all the time with friends and started cooking at home much more often,  as I live by myself – eating more nutritious food and saving money. I installed an app to keep track of my running and walking, I kept track of my calories, I joined a gym and started training with weights about twice a week.

Nothing I did was extraordinary or out of my comfort zone, and yet, this surprisingly fast gain in weight was despite the eating problems I have had with my dental braces and bite plate.

All it takes to change your life, sometimes, is a minor tweak in your mental orientation from a small piece of advice.

 

A Little Girl’s Father

I was flying kites recently with a friend’s little nephew. He soon lost interest and would rather play on the slides. A little girl in the public park took his place and befriended me – she wanted to fly a kite, which we happily did until my kite broke.

I listened to her talk and I couldn’t but adore her pure innocence, her pure heart unadulterated with malice, her cuteness. I chuckled as she shared how sorry she was about my kite. It was, after all, barely worth $2 at Wal-Mart. But she was still too innocent to value things on their price. I foresaw my daughters being spoiled.

What the little girl said after that struck me for days.

“Let’s go to my dad.”  She said, with a confident voice. “My dad can fix it!” I smiled and looked up. As if to convince me, she continued, “My dad can fix anything!!”

The father is a girl’s first love, I’d read, and here I saw it in her eyes. The trust in her flawless, invincible hero, who could do anything, who would always be there for her, to protect her, to provide for her, to guide her.

It was that age. It was why I was heartbroken when I saw a picture of a little Palestinian girl looking on, towards the lifeless body of her superhero, her invincible man, her love –  her dad.

Her face said it all – her bubble had burst. Her dad wasn’t invincible, after all. He was dead.

Her dad couldn’t do everything, after all. They always learn later, but it wasn’t time yet, for her to know that.

Growing into young men and women, through their rebellious teenaged years,  everyone learns of the flaws and imperfections of their precious dads. Maybe they continue to love them despite their flaws.

As a son, I remember when I looked up to my dad that way. And then, I discovered he wasn’t as perfect as I thought he was. I disrespected him sometimes as an angry teen. And then, I grew further. I could now see him in full. If the love I had for him as a child was like that of an animal, blind and complete, where I would rather get hit by a brick than have a pin prick him, it was now total love with him with reason – the man, the human being, the father, the husband, the brother, with full knowledge of all his imperfections amidst his strengths. Father-and-Son1

My dad the husband has shown us children a beautiful marriage with our mother. My parents have long conversations. He jokes with her, he lightens her up and tries to please her when she’s upset. He has been a mountain of support –  physical, emotional, financial to my mother when she recovered from cancer.

My dad the brother is someone my uncles, aunts and cousins rely upon for support. Everyone in the extended family goes to my dad for advice, help and mediation.  As I play that role in my circle of friends, I wonder if it’s It’s something I learned from him.

My dad the father has been more amazing than anybody I knew – he pushed all of us toward academic success – my three siblings are medical doctors. Dad had a great career himself – our mother loves him for his industriousness, efficiency and hard work. My dad is a spiritual man. He encouraged and motivated us to give religion, Islam its importance in our lives. He didn’t force us, and he succeeded in what he wanted.  For the strict parents who forced a moral and religious code upon their children, we have seen how the good boys and girls in front of their parents have secret sinful lives hidden away from them.

My dad is street-smart. He fixes things.  He would rather wait an extra day before he calls a plumber, an electrician, a laborer, a mechanic or any other specialist, because he would like to fix it himself.

 I am twenty years older than that little girl, but I would still take anything to my dad to fix – my broken kites, my broken heart, my broken toys, my broken work, my broken spiritual life. That I live far away from him tempers with this wish to share with him, to ensure I don’t worry him with my problems.

My dad says he loves his daughters more than he’s loved his two sons. I smile, because I know my sisters love him immensely for he has given them every reason to love him as much as that little girl flying a kite loves her father.

 When an acquaintance asked me who in the present world I would like to emulate the most, my answer wasn’t Steve Jobs or Bill Gates like the others. It was my father, the employee, the husband, the father, the brother, the son.

My Grandpa is no more.

They were together for 70 years. And then they left this world together.

Abba Jaan followed Nani into the next world after just two weeks.

He had been sick for weeks; he was in his early 90’s. A month before that, I had broken into tears sharing with a friend my fears of his end.

Despite everything, there still was disbelief when I received the news. I was at the same place out-of-state as I was when I received news of grandma’s passing away.
I looked at the people laughing next to me with shock – how could they be laughing? Don’t they know they’re dying!? How much time do they have?

I can still meet him in Paradise, I consoled myself. “It’s Ramadhan – I’ll beg God to get everyone I love into Paradise.”

My Grandpa was a gem from a bygone era – of British and Royal India. He grew up in Coorg, a hill-station in South India – full of Coffee plantations, a part of India I have never seen. My earliest childhood memories of Abba Jaan include him gifting us fresh Coffee beans and honey from his farm when our family would visit him in Mysore.
He graduated from College in the erstwhile Princely State of Mysore in British India – a rare enough feat at the time that he was invited to dine at the Palace with other graduates with the Maharaja, the King of Mysore. His classmates in university made it big – the more financially sound of them continuing their education in Aligarh and outside of India, but Abba Jaan had to support a family, so he took up a desk job with the Government in Mysore.

He spoke British English, a lot different from what his grandchildren spoke. He was suave, handsome, well-dressed in Western dress pants and shirts and well-groomed. My mother and aunts would giggle about how he wouldn’t stop getting a haircut every two weeks and a neatly trimmed and shaped beard every so often no matter how old he got. In fact, it is when he stopped his regular hair cuts that my mother knew his end was coming. He worked out in a gym and played badminton with proper badminton attire – few men in his time were as “Western.” His refinement was not just in his physical appearance but in his manners and conversations. He was also very well-read, quoting European thinkers and writers, showing a lot more European Western influence as opposed to the American influence his later generations would come to have. I remember the jokes he would read to us from Urdu newspapers and his giggle.
An old man came face to face with a tiger in a forest which wanted to eat him. The old man reasoned with the tiger – I’m old, my blood is cold. Why don’t you go there where you could have a younger man? The Tiger says it’s very hot these days in the summer. I would like some cold blood!

The jokes may not always have been rib tickling funny, but his giggle was what made us laugh and smile.

His interest in history and politics meant Abba Jaan and I were natural conversation partners. I would love how he would wait for me so we could talk. I listened with relish as he described historical events. He was deeply pained by the Second Iraq war, enough that for a brief while, we thought he was losing his mind as he argued over diametrically opposing points at different times, confusing everyone.
He was politically and religiously active, for which he had to seek an early retirement from his job during the persecution of all political opposition during the Emergency imposed on India by Indira Gandhi in 1975.

His only son tragically passed away relatively young, in front of an old father in a painful time for the family. If my Nana was known for his patience all his life, his repeated heart troubles and trips to the hospital in the months after that showed us his patience perhaps included  more of hiding his pain from the world than a lack of it. Two weeks before he died, he saw his lifetime companion pass away. No one knew what he went through. He was silent. Was he in pain? Did he understand? Is he grieving?

Nouman Ali Khan shared exactly what was on my mind – ” I look back and half of Ramadan is over in the blink of an eye. Before I know I’ll be saying that about my entire life.”   I can already see myself following in the footsteps of my father, and my grandfather, and time is unstoppable. My thinning hair is a daily reminder for when I forget.  Before I know it, I will have to face my Lord with what I accomplished in this world. Will I be ready? What will people remember me for?

Time to pull up my socks in the few remaining days in Ramadan.

My Grandma died today.

Our beloved Nani, Ammi Jaan. I didn’t know her by name, true to Indian culture.

Ammi Jaan was one of the simplest, most clear-hearted women I have  known, of the kind that otherwise is only part of Indian folklore about the people of old. She loved her family and wanted everyone to live together, nearby, in the same hamlet, in the same town, close to each other. What’s the point of your education, she said, or your job, if it moves you away from those you love. I have been away from my family for a long time – over nine years now. And almost every time I saw her, she would hint at how I should move back in with my family. You should open a “shop,” a doctor’s office in her language, in Mysore, she said, of my sister and her husband, doctors in the UK, so they could live close to family.  . She raised my sisters when our family was away. They have many more fond memories of her than I do – her Dosa with extra ghee, her walking to my sister’s school for two miles every afternoon to give her a fresh, hot lunch, her loving smile.

Ammi Jaan knew no malice. She was delightfully innocent. To her, the world was full of kindness, empathy and care, just the way she was. When I talk about  caring for others, she’s on top of my mind as someone who embodied unconditional love when she cared.  She grew up in a now-small village of Srirangapattanam, where everyone knew each other. Contrary to other parts of India that saw Hindu-Muslim clashes, people were simple, nice and loving here, best known for one of India’s greatest heroes in the 18th century, Tipu Sultan, who fought the British colonial forces and brought in new technological innovations. She took great pride in her hero, and spoke of how, if Tipu Sultan had continued to rule, Srirangapattanam would have been  London. Of course, London still seemed the center of the world to her, having spent a significant part of her life at a time when the sun never set on the British Empire. As someone who loves history and wants to experience life the way others did, she was a treasure trove to me. She spoke of how everyone following the World War 2 on the radio thought Hitler would win, as the Luftwaffe were ravaging London.

Ammi Jaan was also deeply religious.  My sister said she pretended to sleep next to her while she prayed – she heard Ammi Jaan pray for every single person in the family several times a day. Her most painful time that I knew of, was when her only son, our Mamu, passed away young in front of her. She never seemed to recover mentally from the trauma. To those who cared for her, none more than my aunt, it was a painful period until her end. Her dementia worsened with time. Her prayers had become meaningless to those around her by now, because she forgot how to make the Muslim ritual prayer. She would ask the same question every five minutes, and ask silly questions, providing some comic relief and rest to an aunt who was otherwise overworked caring for her. She failed to recognize her own children and grandchildren many times. She perhaps never understood what my mom went through – in her long and painful cancer treatment. Near her end, she forgot how to swallow, or use the restroom. She had several health complications and was in considerable pain in her last days. My cousin talked of how, even at her end, Ammi Jaan would always answer queries about her health the same way – “Allah ka Fazal hai,” “Good, by God’s grace.” Her faith was embedded in her personality.

When they told me her days were numbered, deep inside, I felt that was probably the best for her- an end to her suffering. But God knows best, so I prayed for what was best for her. My mother had been very emotional. I didn’t know how to comfort her, but I decided to take the plunge anyway. Two minutes into my conversation with mom, when I talked about how Allah gives us what is best for us, she burst into tears and hung up. If I was calm about Ammi Jaan all this while, I was crying seeing my mother cry. It has been about a week since I have spoken with my mother, something that has happened very few times in life.

And then, the news came as I was driving out of state – Ammi Jaan  had passed away.   Hours into my long drive, I couldn’t hold back my tears, turned around and went back home.

In the messaging thread that I used to inform my cousins of her death, the previous message was of the birth of a baby in the family. It struck me how two consecutive messages for the family were about birth and death. That sums up the life of this world – it is but a brief period between birth and death. It is temporary.
Through the ups and downs in life over the past year, one lesson I have learned repeatedly has been simple – life goes on. And life ends when it is meant to. Old gives way to new, each with its own benefits and challenges. Until then, all we can do is make the best of our time and circumstances, preparing for an eternal life in future.

The prayer that I always make had found the best time for it – Ramadhan – may Allah unite all of us, everyone I love, in eternal paradise again. Amen.

Back from a Dream Trip

It wasn’t hard to miss the difference in how Ettihad Airways treats customers bound for India or Pakistan vis-a-vis those for Western destinations.

Flying to Bangalore, India, my gate at the airport in Abu Dhabi was in a corner that could have passed off for an ill-maintained basement. There were no signs, directions or flight information except marked gate numbers. It was crowded. I had to ask cleaners for information or search around for staff who gave conflicting information about the assigned gate. I knew I was flying cattle-class.

Flying back to Washington from the same airport was needless to say, a pleasant experience with an ambience you would expect in a modern airport in an oil-rich Sheikhdom.

My time in India. The surprise I gave my folks when I showed up at their door with no prior warning or information, from thousands of miles away, was one of the happiest times of my life. India was just the way I had expected  – full of people with loving hearts and intrusive personal questions by strangers. Uncles and aunts trying to get me married. It seemed very expensive – from public transportation to restaurants to groceries. I didn’t do much sightseeing – all I wanted was to spend as much time as possible with the people I had missed so much. It was a wonderful experience  – a getaway that I needed in a place I wondered if I should call home.

In the few days before I left for India, I was stressed, dejected and sad. From a friend who hurt me a second time and wanted nothing to do with me. From stress about my career. From the relative loneliness in a new city even though I had made several friends. From pressure with decisions I had to make in personal life that would affect others. I was low on self-esteem and motivation.
And then Allah opened an opportunity for me. ‘Eid was only a couple of weeks away and I had a natural break at my job. It was perfect. I needed a break from everyday anarchy.. a holiday with those that love me unconditionally.

The three weeks after I returned were the best days I had in a very long time.

Uncollecting Things

My mom jokes that I’m a hoarder. My mom and I obviously disagree on the semantics.
I like to preserve things. Too many things, she says.

I have saved bills from restaurants, movie tickets, grocery bills, screenshots of phone calls, autographs, newspaper cuttings, old fliers,  Q-cards from events, coins from other countries,  hand-written notes and letters. You get the idea.

Hand-written notes and letters. I have a special thing for them. I still carry around a handwritten letter my dad sent me in 2009 in my wallet.

It reminds me of what I shared here in 2011.

Oh, my wallet. My sister gifted that to me more than ten years ago on my birthday.
Everything I preserve has a history behind it that I cherish, such as this wallet.

Ironically, t
idy and organized that she is, the same sister is quite the opposite of me in this regard –  she had made me get rid of my notes from a class in middle school to clear the “trash.” I’m sure they would have been a fond addition to my collection.

We’re different. We’re wonderful and distinct in our own ways.
But I understood why she was more efficient than I was at organization after I spent hours together sorting through my belongings and cleaning my room the past weekend. It’s only been months since I moved.  Given how much money changes hands for every hour I spend working, it wasn’t a feeling of success.
I raised the threshold of the importance occasions or people would need to have to preserve  memories associated with them. Needless to say, I can travel much lighter now that I got rid of so much stuff.

I’ll have your back.

 It is easy to get used to and dependent upon support. It is perhaps one of the pitfalls of growing up in an extremely loving desi family, and having a lot of friends.  The assurance that someone has your back, that someone is always there to rescue you if you screw up, gave me a sense of security and helped fuel complacency.

 My sister, speaking after her marriage, said a big difference in her new life away from our parents was that she now had to fend for herself more than ever, to actually answer and face the consequences of her mistakes. She gave an example of her losing her passport sized photographs. My dad would be the one doing all the running to make up for her mistakes, but all that he would say, no matter how many times she faulted: “Oh don’t worry beta, it’s okay”. “Beta” is an affectionate word for son/daughter in Urdu.
I have to admit though, that this kind of support is not true for everyone – first because my dad’s daughters were just that, absolute princesses to my dad, and secondly, because dad was and is a very rare gem of a person – and I don’t say that because he barely ever shouted at any of us siblings (*lol*), or because of his mind-blowing intense selfless love and sacrifice for our mother and for us.

 Living away from my parents, I feel the pinch too. Even if my parents couldn’t solve my problem for me, such as taking my exam for me (my dad would joke about it), they would push me to work harder and give me huge mental and emotional support. They still are out there for me, as much as distance permits and as much as I let them in on my issues, given that it would make them extra worrisome. I have a lot of friends, and some of them are out there for me just as I am for them. I consider myself lucky for that.

But then there are things which you have to face all by yourself, all alone. Things that aren’t going away anywhere, things no one is going to solve for you. You wish for someone to fly into your life and change things for the better. If only that were possible. The only way would be to stand up and fight – the cost of accepting defeat and fleeing would make it a non-option. Facing the hammer repeatedly seasons you to better face challenges in the future.

 It makes you stronger each time, which is good preparation for what you  want to be and try to be – the same backbone support and dependence for those you love. Enough to be able to make this promise: I can’t promise to fix all your problems, but I can promise you won’t have to face them alone.”

A Reminiscence

 I am, on paper, at the prime of my life. I am twenty three. I am out of college – in fact, I  have nearly finished enough work to get a Master’s degree at an age when many people don’t have a Bachelor’s. I have the world ready and laid out to be conquered. I have an entire life ahead of me, to prosper, to enjoy, to conquer its peaks one by one, to make a good life after all the hard work of school with little to worry about. I have no financial obligations to meet other than to satisfy my own animal instincts of hunger, thirst, shelter. My parents are blessed enough that they do not need my money, nor do my siblings.  Things could be better but things are going great.  I have a great set of friends I love to hang out with. I have the best restaurants to dine at nearby, I am going to get my own car after I start getting paychecks, soon. What would I have to complain about?

On Eid day recently, I had the honor of being invited by a female acquaintance’s family to their home along with a few other friends. Few friends have introduced me to their families, so this was an exception. I knew her from the MSA, but had barely ever spoken to her – in fact, I had ignored her for months if not for a couple of years but had more recently interacted with her enough to get the invite.  It was a happy occasion but I cried or struggled to not cry later that day. Like a true gentleman, I never let anyone know of my turmoil. Hers was an amazing, lovely, happy family which looked cute together. I was missing my own. My family all together, happy and frolicking around , just like that.

I had selfishly moved away from my parents seven years back for my career. I saw my past years flash before me. I wasn’t really jealous here, or may be I was. But I wanted the same.  I missed being in my mother’s arms, I missed the hug from my father. The kiss on the forehead from my mother. Resting my head on my mother’s leg.  My father’s insatiable love for me  and the now unbelievable desire for me to succeed. My loving sisters, my brother who I fought with at times, but for whom I  prayed and wanted to succeed. We all made a pretty, lovely, happy family. Our sibling rivalries looked cute. The thought that those days are never going to come back brought a gulp in my throat then and tears in my eyes now. We went out every weekend, we had our family games of carrom and chess, snakes and ladders and a few other board games. We loved arguing what to order at the restaurant for our weekly dine-out. We loved shouting when our mother cheated by picking up coins from the Carrom board without pocketing them in with a striker.

We’ve all grown up. My sisters are married, and are away with their own new lives and kids. My parents are old and I am not with them.  My brother is busy and has a life of his own away from all of us. They miss me and I miss them.  I forget them all too often as I get engrossed with my life, but I know they do not forget me at what are supposed to be their happiest of times. I cried when my mother asked me to be with her on Eid.

I have given up so much for the time here that every moment that I am away from them is precious as diamonds that I have to try to extract the best out of. What I have achieved in the seven months since the last time I saw them does not seem to match up to that.

All I can think of right now, and pray for, is for all of us to be united in the eternal paradise, and live happily together, forever and ever. An eternal life of bliss and happiness celebrated together.  Bring on the monopoly with two dices, please!

Winter trip to the UK and India

After a grueling Fall semester in school, I got to get away from this place for a five-week long holiday and visit friends and family in two countries – the United Kingdom and India.

People are often surprised when they hear about how much my family and my extended family is spread out over three continents. A few days before I left, one of my lab-mates expressed his awe at how much of the world people like me have got to see. I told him that going to and living in different parts of the world has widened my horizons,  and that people who haven’t lived in different places tend to have skewed understandings of other parts of the world. They tend to believe more in stereotypes and are easier to fall prey to propaganda about other nations and cultures. No, Muslims don’t actually worship a black box in the middle of the desert and don’t actually kiss the ground five times a day !
Well, this guy did not actually say that (Yusuf Estes did in one of his lectures ), but he did have some of the wrong but popular impressions about Arabs and the brown people, and he’s always been in the area between Indiana and the east coast.

After a Christmas day shutdown in London when I landed, I had little to do but sleep at a friend’s place.  It was just my poor luck that my next and final day in London was going to be a strike-day for the London underground metro workers and none of the tube trains would be working.  A Brit replied to a ranting me: “Welcome to London”.
Apparently, strikes are not too uncommon here.

I still enjoyed riding the jam-packed double decker buses for the first time, but long waiting times for buses, higher walking time  towards stops, and a very early sunset meant I could cover only so many places. Our group got to be at  The Tower bridge, London Bridge, the aquarium, London eye, Piccadilly Circus, Liverpool station, ice-skating near the London eye , Trafalgar Square in the dark,  London Central Mosque’s closed gates and Madamme Tousadd’s closed doors.  At least I could tame a huge lion and sit upon its back – so what if it was a statue in Trafalgar square and the pictures were crappy in the night ?

Generally overcast skies and dull weather had me humming “Welcome to Seattle” as my next few weeks were spent visiting relatives and friends in Manchester, Blackburn, Cardiff, Liverpool etc. interspersed with visits to local attractions in these cities, the best being the museums in Manchester. I would recommend the Nawab restaurant in downtown Manchester to anyone who wishes to have the best of desi food in the area.(UK for me).

Next stop, Bangalore, has always been my absolute favorite city in India despite my allergies, the pollution and the heavy traffic.  Mysore, an erstwhile royal city in the south also had a bunch of relatives I had to visit and was my next stop. The Mysore Palace was definitely a better structure than the more famed Buckingham palace.  A musical fountain show in Bangalore a few hours before I had to board my flight back home was my last stop and provided for my last few hours until a long time with  some of the most beloved people in my life.
Pending work at school was enough motivation for me to gather enough courage to control my emotions as I headed back home.

I arrived back to a warm welcome by the customs and border protection folks at the airport, who opened all my bags and searched every inch, all the while asking questions about the books (most of them on Islam) that I had bought during my trip.
Okay, it has been enough procrastinating. Heading back to my work now. I’ve added a few pictures from my trip below.

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