Five gifts my mom left for me…

After a prolonged illness, my mother said her final goodbye to us two weeks ago. I thought I was prepared, but not so. It took me several days to transition from mourning my loss to celebrating her life. Here are the five lessons I learned from her.

  1. Never ever let negativity define you. My mom was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, but shared her childhood days between Amritsar and Lahore. She witnessed terror firsthand as tensions between Hindus and Muslims turned violent following India’s independence. Friends became enemies, neighbors turned into looters and moms tearfully tucked poison in their daughters’ lockets to give them an option. During this difficult time, her family was ripped apart; those in Lahore had to resettle in India. She also lost her father, adding to the uncertainty and trauma. She carried the memories of those days and recalled them for us, but did not let them taint her fundamental view of the world, a world where all people had goodness in them and all religions held the same truth. She survived, thrived, made friends with people from all religions and exposed her children to all belief systems.
  2. There is a trail to blaze no matter where you are and what you do. She married into a very traditional
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    family where more than 20 people lived under one roof, each with a separate bedroom but sharing a common kitchen. Interpersonal conflicts were natural, and compromises were always called for. She followed family rituals and traditions to the fullest but always found a way to be who she was—fundamentally a progressive, adventurous, free-spirited woman! She wore a sari, but was the first one in the family to tie it in the then frowned-upon “progressive” style. Needless to say, that same style became the standard fashion of the next generation. She was the first one in the family to get married without a veil, the first one to form a women’s organization and the first one to ask for a home subscription of a newspaper. In fact, she was reading five newspapers a day until her body lost the strength to sit. She was a master knitter and an experimental cook whose skills and interests knew no bounds.

  3. You can be intensely spiritual and passionately pragmatic at the same time. My mom was a deeply spiritual person. From going to temples to celebrating festivals to helping the poor to holding her morning chants, she did everything to build her inner strength. At the same time, she was ready to adapt, reform, and modify practices to adjust to the ever-changing life style. “My God is very flexible,” she would say and shorten the prayers in order to get to her social causes, like constructing water wells for travelers or distributing blankets to the poor. The concept of untouchability was completely eradicated from our house as soon as she assumed the mantle of matriarchy. There was not a poor girl in town who came in her contact and was not grilled about her education. She would scold her parents if they did not believe in sending their daughter to school and would often pay tuition if finances turned out to be the reason.
  4. Love life and be adventurous. In a society where women could not go to gyms or join sports clubs, she took on table tennis. In our town, there were only two tables for playing table tennis, one at the Officer’s Club and the other at our home and each year, there were two champions—the official champion of the city and the other, my mom, the self-declared unofficial champion, having defeated every guest and visitor to the house. She would invent word puzzles and brain games for club parties and test them on us. On my short visits to India from the United States, she would present her quizzes on American politics, capitals and monuments. I would protest by saying, “But I live in America.” To which she would calmly say, “Yes, but let’s see how much you know about America.” For her, everything had to be more than ordinary and every experience had to be more than special. My father loved to travel, and mom took full advantage of every experience. She even traveled through snow-clad Himalayas in her sari and slipper socks, riding a pony for three days to reach the holy temple of Amarnath.
  5. Family comes first! My mom had a deeply fulfilling relationship with my father. During their first year of marriage, my dad drafted a 75-page, handwritten letter to my mom. My mom’s devotion to my father was also legendary on good days and bad. We—her husband and children–were her joy, pride and life. In a time and age when male children were preferred over female, my mom was gender- blind. She raised my sister and me with the same care and attention as she did my brother. She expected nothing but the best from all of us. I never ever heard her raise her voice or say one bad word about anyone irrespective of what harm anyone may have caused her. She swallowed hurts with grace and always handed out serenity in return.
  6. Today, my heart aches from the void that I know will never be filled. But I find solace in her words, “If you count your blessings, you will never have time to complain about anything.” Thank you, mom, for teaching me how to count my blessings and today I know that you have been the most precious of them all.

Narendra Modi, India’s new leader, through my eyes…

On Friday, India woke up to a new dawn. Everyone was expecting the candidate for Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, to win, but only a few had expected this outcome – a landslide!

Since then, I have been asked at least twenty times, “Who is Modi, and what is he like?”

I had an opportunity to meet Mr. Modi in January of last year at Vibrant Gujarat, an annual day of celebration for his state, the State of Gujarat. I saw him in action again in January of this year when I was in India to receive Pravasi Bhartiya Samman, a presidential honor.

I don’t claim mastery over India’s politics (who could?) nor am I a serious political observer in any way. What I like and enjoy is watching people and their reaction to political turning points. Here is what I observed during these two encounters with the gentleman who has become the Prime Minister-elect of India.

I was invited to speak at Vibrant Gujarat and arrived 30 minutes before the start of the event in the VIP room. I was one of the first persons there, so I got to watch as the room started to fill with India’s top industrialists – Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Anil Ambani, Anand Mahindra – and top executives from many multinational companies based in UK, Germany, USA, Japan and China.

Fifteen minutes later, Mr. Modi arrived without an entourage and without the drama that I am used to seeing surrounding elected officials in India. He followed the same routine of shaking hands, but then I was taken by surprise when he congratulated me on my work at the University of Houston. (He was briefed well, I thought!). My surprise doubled when he complimented me on my presentation a day before in Gandhinagar (Obviously, he was aware of my presence in his state). And then he said that his state needs help and partners to expand access and establish excellence in higher education. (He was engaged with issues, I thought further).

A few minutes later, I walked along with other speakers to the stage. It was the most elaborate stage I have ever seen – three rows of dignitaries in stacked seating making it clear to everyone that Gujarat was a business-friendly state. For next three hours, many got up to speak about Gujarat, and almost everyone spent 90 percent of their time in complimenting Modi’s leadership in transforming the state of Gujarat. On that morning, he appeared larger than life.

Thousands of people sat mesmerized for hours basking in the glory of their leader. Finally, Mr. Modi himself stood up to speak to a thunderous applause that refused to quiet down despite several attempts. People loved him. He was their leader; he was one of them!

Mr. Modi electrified the crowd with every sentence. He was not negative and he was not presumptuous. Within seconds, it became clear that he loved his people. It was a magical bond between the people and the leader, witnessed by millions across India on their television sets.

I turned to my husband and said, “This is not a wave; this is a tsunami.”

My second encounter with Mr. Modi was in New Delhi at a convention for non-resident Indians, organized by the Government of India. Other than president and prime minister, many chief ministers were also participating as speakers and panelists. If energy in the room were to be the measuring stick, it was obvious that Mr. Modi was the winner.

For his session, the hall was filled above capacity. Different audience, but the same spell-binding effect. It was as though Indians living abroad were also mesmerized by the Modi charisma. He spoke in Hindi and people listened, even though half of them could not understand that language. The English translation of his speech was distributed to everyone, and it appeared as if those who could not understand Hindi were happy to just be listening to his voice. For those of us who knew Hindi, he reached out to our hearts.

This time, my husband turned to me and said, “He has captured India’s imagination.”

Today, India has high hopes, and it has given a clear mandate. With an absolute majority, an Indian prime minister is far more powerful than an American president. Only time will tell whether Mr. Modi can do for India what he did for Gujarat. But, as a political scientist, I was thoroughly intrigued witnessing the emotional bond between this leader and his people.

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