Friday, December 30, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Happy New Year!

Photo by Algont

سال نو مبارك
 (sal-e no mobarak)

Guten Rutsch!

Feliz Año Nuevo!

Naye Varsh ki Shubh Kamnaye!

Buon Anno!

С Новым Годом!
(s novim godom)

გილოცავთ ახალ წელს

wan bun nyun yari

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Christmas Witch

By Patricia Winton

The Befana at St. Peter's
Who flies across the world on a cold winter night filling children’s stockings with presents? Santa Claus? Well, yes, but not on the night of January 5. That’s the Befana, a good witch adored by Italian adults and children alike.

January 6 is Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas, marking the arrival of the three Wise Men at the manger with gifts for the baby Jesus. It’s also a national holiday in Italy, marking the last day of the Christmas season.

According to an Italian legend, the Magi stopped at an old woman’s hut on the night of January 5, asking for directions to the Christ child. The old woman didn’t know, so they asked her to join them. She told them that she was too busy cleaning her house.

Later, when she saw the bright star, she changed her mind and went in search of the manger bearing gifts but didn’t find it. In one version of the legend, she became so distraught at being unable to find the child that she cried. Her tears fell onto her broom, which in her haste she had brought along. The purity of her tears gave magical powers to the broom, allowing her to fly on it.

In another version, she has lost a child, perhaps killed by Herod's men who were charged with destroying all newborns to prevent a Savior coming into the world. In her quest, she found the Christ child and thought it was her baby. The baby Jesus was so sympathetic that he gave her broom its magical powers and allowed her to be the mother of all children for one night each year.

Candy coal is ready, just in case
there are naughty children.
Since then, every year on the night of January 5, the Befana flies all over the world, filling good children’s stockings with presents and candy and leaving lumps of coal for bad ones. Because she is a good housekeeper, she may also sweep a bit.

The Befana tradition has existed on the Italian peninsula for centuries, and it may have its origin in an ancient Roman celebration called Saturnalia, which began around winter solstice and lasted for about ten days. At the end of the festival, Romans went to the Capitoline hill to have their augurs (fortunes) read, perhaps by an old woman.

The Befana is dressed in old, tattered clothing with a shawl on her shoulders and a scarf on her head. She carries her gifts in a bundle on her back. She’s smudged with soot because she comes through the chimney like Santa Claus (how does his beard stay so white?).

The Regatta della Befana in Venice
Before the children go to bed on January 5, they put out treats for the Befana, including a small glass of wine. Tradition has it that if you see the Befana, she thumps you with her broom. That may have been an inducement created by parents to get the children off to bed early!
Today, there are celebrations throughout Italy both on the evening of the fifth and on Epiphany itself with processions, fireworks, and more. In Vatican City, people in medieval dress march to St. Peter’s with gifts for the Pope; in Venice, the Regatta della Befana is raced on the Grand Canal; in Florence, a medieval parade marches from the Pitti Palace across the Ponte Vecchio to the cathedral.

When I’m asked what we do for Befana in America and I say we don’t have Befana, people—old and young alike—are stunned. They shake their heads in wonder. No Befana! How can that be?

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Celebrating New Beginnings

On May 30, 1845, eleven years after slavery was abolished, a ship called Fatel Razack landed on the shores of Trinidad and Tobago, depositing the first boatload of indentured servants from India. These workers would go on to work on the islands’ many sugar plantations, settling down, raising families, and planting their own roots in the Caribbean. Like many of their own names, even the name of that ship they arrived on, Fatel Razack, was a permutation of the original, in this case from the Arabic phrase “Fath al Razak,” which means “Victory to Allah the Sustainer.”

A hundred years later, in 1945, the Indian citizens of Trinidad and Tobago marked the centenary with a procession and ceremony, calling the celebration Indian Arrival Day. It was attended by a number of public officials, such as the acting governor representing the UK, and with greetings read from other noted dignitaries such as Mahatma Gandhi. Celebrations of the event, akin to the Mayflower landing in North America, continued on and off over the next few decades with less success than that first one and under different names, until 1995 when Prime Minister Patrick Manning declared the date of the 150th anniversary of the ship’s arrival as a permanent public holiday.

Between 1845 and 1917, more than 140,000 Indians emigrated to Trinidad alone, and today, ethnic Indians (East Indians as they're known in the Caribbean) celebrate Indian Arrival Day, mainly in the Caribbean, on different dates depending on country, but elsewhere as well. May 5, 1838, in Guyana. May 10, 1845, in Jamaica. June 5 in Suriname. In Fiji, where the event is known as Girmit, on May 14, 1879. In Mauritius, November 2. According to a number of Internet sources, the event is also celebrated in Australia, Britain, Canada, Martinique, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States.

Nowhere is it more popular than Trinidad and Tobago, though, where it’s a public holiday with at least a dozen melas (parties) thrown across the islands. On some levels, it’s a controversial holiday. Some suggest taking out the word “Indian,” for why should any one group get to celebrate their arrival when so many others hail from other lands and cultures as well?

Whatever your position on that subject, Trinidadian blogger Nicholas Laughlin makes an interesting observation about arrival day itself:

“I suppose I wish I knew exactly when my ancestors first arrived in Trinidad, and maybe a few days' research at the National Archives would turn up some answers, but I find I'm far less interested in the moment of arrival itself and far more interested in the new journey that 'arrival' begins – in the process by which wanderers, exiles, prisoners, and explorers make of the disjecta membra of many old worlds, something new and strange and perhaps, in the original sense of the world, wonderful.

We reach. And the journey now start[s].

Bon voyage to us all.”

Well put, Nicholas. And Happy New Year to us all as well. May our 2012 be filled with adventures galore and rich, rewarding journeys. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Carnival Peruvian Style - Cajamarca

It doesn’t matter what time of year you travel in South America, as chances are, you’ll come across a festival. Of course, some festivals are bigger than others, like Rio Carnival, but from experience, I find the smaller ones more fun.

The first time I had a water balloon smash into me was in Cajamarca, Peru. I’d travelled there in the hope of catching the all-important Peruvian Carnival and I was far from disappointed, though a tad drenched by the end of my visit.

Situated in the northern highlands, the equatorial climate makes visiting the hot springs and Inca ruins an unforgettable experience, and combined with the festivities, Cajamarca should be on the must-see list for every traveller who wants an adventure.

Cajamarca is one of the most important historical regions in Peru. This is where the Incan Empire collapsed and the colonial era began. Back in the 18th century, the Spanish chroniclers described the city as “large and beautiful”, and it is still, despite the bloody history.

When I travelled to Cajamarca it was late February and the celebrations of the Peruvian Carnival were well underway. Entire neighbourhoods united in a noisy, fun-filled event that is now etched in my memory forever. The combination of music, art, literature, and humour appealed to my sensibilities and was the perfect representation of ancient and modern traditions.

Women sat atop brightly decorated floats and paraded through Plaza de Armas and the surrounding streets. Creativity ran rampant during these celebrations and the locals came up with astounding costumes made of papier maché, feathers and all manner of cloth. Musicians continually played upbeat music and people danced in the streets, waving decorated banners, streamers, and yes, throwing water bombs filled with talcum powder and/or water.

One of the drawcards to this particular festival is the bawdy and satirical improvised lyrics people invented about daily life. I wish I could remember the exact lines of the ditties, but all I can recall is many were men lamenting how hard it is to understand women and their observations resulted in tears of laughter pouring down the faces of both sexes. The festival also celebrates the region’s products, including wine, custard apples, guitars, limes and oranges, hydrangeas, healers and sombreros.

Ño Carnavalón is the festival’s spirit and king of the carnival. He makes an appearance at the beginning of the event and moves throughout the crowds as people sing and dance. At the end of the carnival Ño Carnavalón is ceremoniously burnt, covered then buried by the villagers.

I’ve been lucky enough to experience many festivals throughout the Americas, but Cajamarca is one that still lives on in my heart. The warm, friendly people and combination of tradition, culture, and craft is fabulous. The best part, though? Getting involved in a water balloon fight and being covered head to toe in water and talcum powder and looking something like the Pillsbury Doughboy. My sides ached for days from so much laughter.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Archer Who Brought The Rain

Statue of Arash Kamangir,
Sa'ad Abad Palace, Tehran
According to ancient Persian legend, King Manuchehr of Iran and Afrasiab of Turan (which covered the territory of present-day Central Asia) waged a long and bitter war over the disputed border between their countries. The war raged on for many years without either side gaining an advantage until even the rain stopped falling and an eight-year drought ensued. Presumably the war angered Tishtar, the Zoroastrian angel in charge of rain and fertility, and he figured a good, long drought would bring the two embattled kings to their senses.

The angel was right (aren’t they always?), for eventually the two combatants decided to settle their differences once and for all. They found a brave archer named Arash Kamangir (literally: Arash the Arrow-Thrower), who was known for the lightning speed of his arrows. He was to go to the top of Mount Damavand in Iran’s Alborz Range, shoot an arrow to the east, and wherever the arrow landed would be the new border between the two countries.

Arash climbed the mountain and remained under the stars all night, praying to the god, Ahura Mazda, to give him strength. When dawn crept over the land, he released his arrow, putting all his vigor into the effort so that afterwards he lay down and died. The arrow flew for thirteen days and finally landed on the bank of the Oxus River, which is known today as the Amu Darya, the longest river in Central Asia. As soon as the new border between Iran and Turan was established, the rain began, bringing peace and prosperity to the whole region.

Arash Kamangir is one of the most popular heroes in Persian folklore. Iranian children learn about him from a story in the Shahnameh by the 11th-century Persian poet, Ferdowsi, and an account can also be found in the Zoroastrian holy book, Avesta. Some Iranians today—mainly in the northern province of Mazandaran (believed to be Arash’s birthplace)—still celebrate his remarkable feat with a rain festival known as Tiregan. It falls on the thirteenth day of the Iranian month of Tir (one of the names of the angel, Tishtar), around July 1 on the Gregorian calendar.

Many of the traditional rituals associated with Tiregan have to do with water. Children swim and splash about in streams or, where no natural body of water is handy (and they can get away with it), run through fountains and man-made pools. In Iran, where the old Zoroastrian belief in the sacred power of water still can be felt, fountains and reflecting pools are found in nearly every public space.

Three days before the festival, people perform a rite known as chokadula, where each member of a family places a precious object in a clay pot, usually gold coins and rings or objects made of iron such as keys and locks. They fill the pot with water, tie a cloth over the top, and place it under a pomegranate tree. On Tiregan, they remove the pot, and each person pulls out his or her artifact while the family elders sing or recite a poem. Then they interpret the poem to see what the future will hold.

In another ritual, people take strips of cloth in seven different colors and twist them into bracelets, which they wear for nine days. On the tenth day, they remove the bracelets and toss them into running streams in a symbolic act of casting out bad luck.

A third custom is to hide bowls of water behind walls or on balconies and pour them over the heads of people passing in the street below. This may seem like a nasty, practical joke, but when you consider that summer temperatures in Iran can reach 100 degrees or more, it probably feels like the rains returning after a long drought.

Many of these traditional rituals have been lost over time, and Tiregan is not widely practiced in Iran anymore. A pity, for who can resist a celebration that involves splashing about in cool water on a hot summer day?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: A Poem By Hafez

The small man
Builds cages for everyone

While the sage,
Who has to duck his head
When the moon is low,
Keeps dropping keys all night long
For the

~ Hafez

(Translated by Daniel Ladinsky)

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Few of My Favorite Things

By Edith McClintock

When I was young, my parents preferred breaking traditions to following them. But Christmas, luckily, they left to my Midwestern Irish grandmas. One Catholic and one Protestant. And each year we rotated between them, one year in Florida, the next in Missouri. New and old. Hot and cold.

My Missouri grandmother always made my favorite pecan puff cookies and allowed us to open one present on Christmas Eve. We’d spend hours circling the tree, shaking and measuring, contemplating the hidden secrets of each box. Choosing right meant a night of gloating over siblings and cousins. Choosing wrong, despair and jealousy—for seven long hours until we could open the rest.

My Florida grandmother always made her jello-marshmallow Christmas salad—a tradition ripe for return! Either my aunt or grandfather dressed as Santa Claus, in a plastic red suit that fooled no one. After dinner, we’d ride out in her golf cart searching for lost golf balls, or lounge poolside reading Archie comics.

In high school and college, my sister and I began looking for our own holiday traditions, trying on various religions and foods and decorations. My sister introduced us to midnight mass, still one of my favorites. And with friends I celebrated Hanukkah and the Cuban Nochebuena, a Christmas Eve dinner with a roasted pig as the centerpiece. While living in Suriname in my twenties, a good friend informed me December is for family and relaxing, not work. A splendid idea I decided, adopting it immediately, although life rarely allows as long as I'd like.

But now that I’m living in the Pacific Northwest, my favorite Christmas tradition is to visit family and friends in Miami, and, as anywhere, curl in front of a Christmas tree with a good book and a fat cat. So as an ode to Christmas in Miami, I present a few of my favorite things (along with abject apologies to the original):

Café con leche and laze about days
Bright neon buildings and warm ocean waves
Pythons and ‘gators twisted in rings
These are a few of my favorite things

Long South Beach nights and salsa till three
Chickens in backyards but no hipsters to see
Sailboats that fly with the moon on their wings
These are a few of my favorite things

Two separate Christmases for both mom and for dad
A tree all in purple makes my mom twice as glad
My cute little nephew dressed in nothing
These are a few of my favorite things

Poolside at Audrey’s with all of the girls
The magic of sunset and islands scattered like pearls
Cool moonlit nights and hammocks gently aswing
These are a few of my favorite things

When the fog looms
When the rain falls
When the nights come too soon
I simply remember Miami is home
And soon I'll be quite tanned and new

Awful, I know, but I'm still following the rule that December is not for work.

For more, visit my author website and/or personal blog, A Wandering Tale. Even better, order a copy of Monkey Love & Murder on AmazonBarnes & Noble, or the Book Depository (free shipping nearly anywhere in the world).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Supriya’s Favorite Things

Oh, this is HARD! Where to begin… J

In no particular order…

The holidays! Gosh, I luv this time of year. And this year in particular, because preceding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, there’s a whole slew of lovely Indian festivals, such as Navratri and Diwali, that we’ve just started celebrating, and in grand style too. It’s been non-stop partying this season, though we haven’t had a moment to catch our breath. As it should be, right?

My family, including my precious hubby, who at 11 p.m. is digging for material our nine-year-old daughter needs at school by 6 a.m. tomorrow. The brilliant witticisms said daughter comes up with at the tip of her tongue on an hourly basis. That she asked Santa if he was related to the tooth fairy. That she is my real-life Hugo Cabret, inventing and tinkering and making blueprints. And our other daughter, all of six, who when asked to put on her shoes before school, performs a rap song about “rules, rules, rules” that she makes up at the spur of the moment. Who, when brushing her teeth, hears music. Love them!

Books, lots of books. Being surrounded by books. Swimming in books. Having endless hours to read and soak up well-strung words and ideas that transport me to new places and perspectives. This month, Jo Nesbo, Miyuki Miyabe, Helen Simonson, and Tin Tin.

Food. Cooking for friends and family. Trying out new recipes. Learning something new about ourselves and other cultures through their cuisine. We’ll be entertaining this Thursday, which happens to be Shabeh Yalda. As maybe you did too, I learned about this ancient winter solstice celebration through Heidi, and I’m adopting it. I’m cooking our favorite Persian stew for dinner, then we’ll eat pomegranates and watermelon while reading poetry aloud around the fire. (Shhh, don’t tell our husbands the part about the poetry. It’ll send them running, even with the addition of fine wine.) We’ll read bits of the traditional Rumi and Hafiz, as well as some Shel Silverstein and possibly a little T.S. Eliot.

Being surrounded by good people. It took me time to recognize so many of them in my crowded life, but now that I have, I’m awed by my great fortune and will make sure to appreciate them all year round.

Writing. When it flows. Er, to be continued...

Meanwhile, we hope you're enjoying your favorite people and activities as well, now and into the new year. 

Happy holidays to one and all!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Feliz Navidad

I spent my first Christmas away from Australia in South America. I had figured it wouldn’t be dissimilar from the Land of the Long Weekend. After all, South America was in the same hemisphere, and experiencing 40 degrees C on Christmas Day wasn’t unheard of at home either. Catholicism was common in Australia, as in South America, so really, how different could things be? You got it—our traditions were poles apart. I was living in Peru at the time and had the pleasure of celebrating with friends from various parts of the globe, including many South American countries. We decided to group together our Christmas traditions and make it one big cultural mash-up. Since then, I've adopted some of the following Christmas traditions into my own celebrations, and I love that I can travel the world in one day and remember the wonderful friendships I've made over the years. Here's what my friends taught me:

Colombia: The nativity scene is made of clay figures, known as pesebres. The Mary and Joseph figurines wear traditional Colombian attire, such as a poncho, fedora hat, and shawl. El Dia de las Velitas (Day of the Candles) is held on the seventh of December and that’s when Advent prayers start. December 16th marks the start of La Novena de Aguinaldos, a prayer that is said over nine successive days up until Christmas Eve. These prayers tell what happened during the nine-month pregnancy of Mary and Joseph. This Colombian tradition dates back to the 1700s, and little has changed since the first prayer was said.

Peru: Nativity scenes are called retablos. Historically, priests carried small altars from house to house with a nativity scene similar to the one in Colombia. Nowadays, priests use portable boxes instead. (I guess their muscles got tired). Dances and plays are put on throughout the festive season, and traditional Peruvian food is served up during these celebrations. As an act of good will, churches and generous people make choclotadas (cups of hot chocolate) and give gifts to those less fortunate.

Venezuela: On December 16, families display their pesebres. (They’re called the same in Colombia.) At dawn on Christmas Eve, church bells chime and firecrackers explode to wake up all the worshippers. On the 5th of January, children leave out hay and water for the camels of the Magi (the wise men) and, in the morning, they find their offerings are replaced by gifts. If the children wake up and have a black smudge on their cheek, they believe that Balthazar, King of the Ethiopians, kissed them while they were asleep.

Ecuador: Children write letters to baby Jesus and place their shoes on their windowsills on Christmas Eve. The next morning, the children usually awake to find noise-making toys in their footwear. Firecrackers, brass bands, and dancing in the streets are popular, and most families attend midnight mass.

Brazil: Christmas is influenced by the Jesuit monks. But over the years, Brazil has adapted many North American traditions, which means the old traditions are falling by the wayside.

In South America, the commercialism of Christmas is no way near the frantic extent it is in other parts of the world, and to be honest, it's a welcome relief. The focus is on family and friends and celebrating beliefs that at times combine modern-day religion and the traditions of the ancestors. Santa and his presents are not the be all and end all. For me, I found the true spirit of Christmas in South America.

The mother of my “adopted” family in Peru did a great deal of volunteer work for the children’s hospital and a psychiatric home for children in Lima. On Christmas morning, she invited me to join her in her own Christmas Day tradition—handing out presents to children at the hospital and psychiatric home who either had no family or were so poor their family couldn’t afford gifts. Armed with sweets and books, we set off. I had no idea this particular morning would be the one that changed my whole view of Christmas. Previously, I had thought it was one commercial rip-off. But in that moment, when I was surrounded by children who just wanted a hug and were happy to see someone show them some love, I finally got what it was all about.

Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year because of the beautiful friendships I've made. I now celebrate these with my husband and our children, and I hope that as my kids get older and explore the world, they'll find their own favorite holiday traditions.
How about you? Have you adopted favorite traditions from other cultures to make your celebration of any holiday more special?

Monday, December 19, 2011

Seasonal Traditions, Old and New

Christmas is not a huge celebration in our house. We don’t trim a Christmas tree, bake holiday cakes, or hang colorful lights around the eaves. There are no milk and cookies waiting for Santa to come barreling down the chimney, hungry and thirsty from his sooty exertions. But before you get the idea that we’re a couple of Scrooges who do our best to ruin the joy for everyone else, let me reassure you that Christmas doesn’t pass us by entirely unnoticed. We have a rather eclectic set of holiday traditions, mixed and matched from my childhood memories and my husband’s Persian culture.

So even though Christmas is fairly low-key around here, we still manage to get into the holiday spirit. Here are my favorite ways to celebrate this joyful time of year.

My favorite ancient Persian ritual:
A few days before Christmas, we celebrate Shabeh Yalda, a winter solstice celebration whose roots go back to ancient Persia and its Zoroastrian rulers. (I blogged about it here last year.) On this longest night of the year, we stay up late eating pomegranates, preserved peaches, watermelon, and pistachio nuts, while reading Persian poetry, usually Hafez or Rumi. There is something about eating summer fruit in the deep freeze of winter that makes me think of people long ago who hoarded fragile produce as an offering to the sun god in hopes that it would give him strength to overcome the darkness and bring back spring. In our modern age, with our confidence in science and knowledge of the ways of nature, it doesn’t hurt to remember people who lacked such certainty yet paid greater attention to the world around them.

My favorite holiday meal:
Christmas dinner at our house is a far cry from the meal I grew up with. My mother used to serve a ham baked with pineapple slices and a brown sugar glaze. After the feast, the bone and remaining scraps of meat would go into a German-style split pea soup that would last us well into the new year.

Ham is not a big hit in my household today, so I make javaher polo instead, a Persian dish whose name means “bejeweled rice.” It may come from a culture that doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but I can think of no more festive dish to serve on a holiday table. The white rice sparkles with ruby-toned barberries, slivered green pistachios and creamy almonds, glistening orange peel, and a splash of golden saffron. No matter how much I prepare, this dish never lasts as long as my mother’s pea soup did, but paired with a roast chicken and served with a glass of sparkling wine, it looks and tastes just like Christmas should.

My favorite holiday decoration:
I may not deck the halls with boughs of holly or my house with garlands of lights, but my one nod to the neighborhood decorating frenzy is that I hang an evergreen wreath on my front door. I love wreaths of all kinds – herbal ones in the summertime, fragrant with mint, lavender, and thyme. Fruit wreaths in the fall as a tribute to bountiful harvests. A circle is such a comforting shape, with no beginning and no end.

My favorite family tradition:
Throughout the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, I slice up a Christstollen, a dense German cake filled with dried fruit and almonds and iced with melted butter and powered sugar. Arranged on a special plate along with a few decorative rosemary sprigs (which are usually putting out their tiny blue blossoms at this time of year), it makes a sweet addition to breakfast.

This tradition started many years ago with a crotchety old aunt of mine. She lived in Dresden, a German city that at the time lay well behind the Iron Curtain in the German Democratic Republic. This aunt despised my mother (and, by extension, my sister and me) and never wasted an opportunity to criticize everything we did, from the way we dressed (not fashionably Parisian enough – and this from a dyed-in-the-wool Communist) to where we lived (in the decadent heart of Capitalism). But she saved up her kindness for one act of generosity at Christmas, when she’d send us an authentic Dresdner Christstollen, purchased from a famous bakery whose holiday confections were intended only for export. You had to have serious political connections to buy one in its city of origin.

The pastry arrived in a metal box with a picture of a medieval city sketched on the side, and it took metal cutters, a hammer, and a chisel to pry the container open. But the treat inside, a gift from one of the most unpleasant people I’ve ever encountered, always reminded me that everyone, no matter how nasty they may be, has the capacity for kindness. Isn’t that what the holidays are all about?

Friday, December 16, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Is 50 The New 30?

This week’s guest, Jayanti Shukla, is a busy career woman living her dream in Mumbai, India. After 24 years in the insurance sector, gaining her fair share of success, she decided to take that leap of faith to follow her true calling. Jayanti is now in charge of a major non-profit organisation in Mumbai.

I completed 24 years of service in the insurance industry in 2008, and I had enjoyed these 24 years. I got my promotions in time, was paid well, lived in a company-given flat in a posh suburb of Mumbai, and enjoyed all the trappings that came along with my comfortable job. I enjoyed the positions I held and the respect I received in the corporate world. But I knew by then that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, even if I was one of the youngest managers in the company and not done moving up the corporate ladder. I was 48 years old and the vice president of a major insurance brokering company.

For many years, I spent my spare time working with voluntary groups involved in social and civic causes. These interactions kept me grounded and closer to reality. When I turned 40, I told myself I would quit my corporate sector job at 50 then do only what I really wanted to do. But I was lucky. When I turned 48, I was offered a job to head a non-profit organization. The head hunters believed that my experience with voluntary groups combined with my corporate sector experience made me a suitable candidate for the post. Without thinking twice, I agreed – it seemed to fit into my long-term plans and, even though it was two years early, it felt right.

At a centre that United Way of Mumbai supports,
offering classes to slum children
I knew nothing about this organization, though United Way as a non-profit movement is huge in North America and some other countries. Still, I’d never heard of them before interviewing with them. It was only after I began understanding the work that the Mumbai chapter of United Way performed in the non-profit sector in India, did I realize just how lucky I was to get into this particular organization both in terms of the work the United Way did all over the world and how this opportunity supported my own career plan! My salary took a huge hit as did all my old perks. From a posh office in the business district, I moved into a small office tucked away in an old industrial neighborhood. I have never regretted the decision.

The two years to my turning 50 were life changing. I had a bonus two years' lead time to plan and work towards doing just what I had planned to do when turning 50. Now no two days were the same. At my new workplace, I found myself working with a bunch of well-trained social workers and, believe me, if you want to look and feel young, spend your time with young social workers. Friends I met after a long while mentioned how I did not look a year over 30, and I would mentally thank my new assignment and my colleagues for this. My office staff was in the social sector by choice, and their aspirations from life were so different from the more career-oriented young professionals I worked with in the corporate sector. Community impact, resource mobilization, campaigns supporting the girl child, fund raising for the cancer afflicted, microfinance programs for women’s self-help groups, how to stem farmer migration to cities due to failed crops – my world changed overnight and took on new meaning. 

With my young team of social workers
I was free from worries about the next promotion increment, performance parameters, and business targets, and at home, I was content my daughter was now a responsible adult, independent, and doing well. Now 50, I felt totally liberated and decided I wanted to throw a big party to celebrate my birthday – for me, a personal celebration of the more confident, focused, and happier me. After I lost my mother to cancer in 2005, I had run in the Mumbai Marathon – in the easy 6-km run – to raise funds for victims like her. It was cathartic. My interaction with other non-profits brought me closer to the challenges organizations face for funds, and I began participating in the marathon again, now with renewed vigor, and raised so much more. Participating in the Bangalore and Delhi Marathons were just logical next steps.

At the start of the
Bangalore Marathon 2011
My association with the voluntary groups I’d worked for before I joined United Way continued. For over a decade, I have been involved with a community trust that organizes a hugely popular community festival, the “Celebrate Bandra Festival,” where an entire community comes together to celebrate the uniqueness of its suburb, its multicultural population, its status as an education hub and the restaurant capital of Mumbai, and so much more. This festival is the only one of its kind in Mumbai that showcases the best a community can offer. In a unique model, the proceeds from the festival contribute towards funding projects that ensure a better quality of life for residents – solving water shortages through rainwater-harvesting plants, powering solar water heaters, and donating school buses for orphanages. After moving into the social sector professionally, my life seems to have come full circle.

With college-student volunteers

Is destiny my companion, or is all this just a coincidence? I was running the marathons even before moving to the non-profit organization, but I did not know when I joined my new job that United Way of Mumbai had, just a few weeks before, been signed on as the official charity partner of the Mumbai Marathon. Now I was heading an organization that was mandated to create and implement a strategy to get as many non-profits, working on just about any cause – education, disability, tribal welfare, sports promotion, mental health awareness – to register with the marathon’s charity partner and use the marathon as a platform to raise funds. There I was until just a few years before raising funds for cancer-afflicted patients, and here I am now, spearheading efforts to facilitate fundraising for a humongous number of causes. In fact, I was now responsible for heading the largest philanthropic exchange in the country. I knew for sure I had an angel above looking after me!

With my family at an awareness walk on the occasion of
World Disability Day earlier this month

Life could not be better. My energy levels have increased, my family life has improved, and my circle of friends greatly diversified. I look better and am at peace with myself. I am in my 50s, and I thank god for it. I was fortunate enough to have been able to change tracks at a stage in life when one doesn’t really want to risk rocking a “steady boat.” Well, nothing ventured, nothing gained! 

So I look forward to 2012 with anticipation and continue to set goals for myself as I do before every New Year. This time, it is learning how to swim and joining a piano class. Is there anything special about what I am doing? Hardly so. It is just a question of following your calling – the calling of your heart and mind!

What about you? What are you going to make happen in the coming year?