This is my first attempt at poetry and like every post, my in-house editor in chief was Chitra. I also reached out to an in-house specialist, Yash. He is taking a break from his writing exploits, but obliged me with some edits. It was humbling to see my thirteen year old, with his inputs to my work and is a memory I will savor for long.
In 2021 when I started this tradition of publishing our annual family letter, little did I envisage living through such a forgettable year. Looking back, Chitra’s option of sending out a simple card now seems like a brilliant idea!
We celebrated and welcomed 2022 in Oahu, Hawaii which marked the end of an adventurous and memorable trip. Our first visit to a hospital this year, was on Jan 22nd, after Yash had a severe food allergy reaction. Little did we know then, it was a sneak peek to our year. For many of our friends, who may not be aware of these developments, we did not want to spread our distress around.
My saintly boy, Bambi, was attacked by a larger dog on March 4th. It was unprovoked and in a matter of 20 seconds, he was brutally mauled. We rushed him immediately to VCA Arboretum View Animal Hospital where he underwent a surgery. A prognosis was possible only after the surgery. He was away from us for a heart wrenching 14 hours. We went to see him the next day and despite being drugged up, he managed to take a few steps and walk over to us. We were all on the floor of the recovery room, holding back our tears and gently caressing him. That scene is etched in my memory as we all worried about him making it. Fast forward to today, he has recovered full mobility and is still the best behaved Menon!
This next part I am going to keep brief and sometime in the future, it will be Chitra’s story to share. In early 2021, Chitra was diagnosed with Glaucoma and underwent multiple treatment procedures on the Left eye. By November’21, her eye pressure had stabilized and vision loss was limited. However, in February ’22 her left eye pressure peaked, she underwent invasive eye surgery and a shunt was implanted. This brought her eye pressure under control, but she had acute vision loss. The doctor and surgeon have classified her case as ‘rare’, For folks who may not know, Glaucoma vision loss is not recoverable. Just when she had begun to turn the corner, her right eye pressure started rising. Between April and November, she underwent a few surgeries and now has a shunt implant in both eyes. She thought she had hit rock bottom, when she was informed that her mother (who lives in India) had a fall and a fractured vertebra. The guilt of not being able to travel to India, because of her eye recovery and treatment, was the final straw.
I assure you, that was the last depressing update you read. Given the experiences from the year, I was contemplating how to sugar coat this letter, then a realization, that we still have a lot to be thankful for. These next sections should give each of you some hope and joy.
I have asked my dad to officially change my name to Bambi “Rocky” Menon. I was bruised and mauled, was clearly the “underdog” yet made a full come back. I wonder when my family will install a bronze statue of mine, that I can run to and back every time I train.
Dad wants me to focus on the thank you message. So, I want to thank my family, who took loving care of me when I was stitched up and back from the hospital. My dad slept with me on the floor of our family room, because I wasn’t allowed to climb-up stairs or get on the bed. Mom cooked hot meals for me, which gave me strength and quickly healed by injuries. My brother sneaked in treats for me and spent time gently cuddling close to my bed. Can’t forget the nursing staff, doctors and the surgeon who acted fast and with love.
Lastly, I miss Sox and Snickers, whom I no longer see on my walks. I am told they have joined the stars above and are keeping an eye on me.
I, Yash Suresh Menon, formally announce my deep gratitude and love to the best parents in the whole world – Chitra and Suresh Menon! Papa, now can you please give my phone back?
My top hits for the year; Sherlock Holmes, Sundance, Rosie, $10 an hour, crafting & Bolo Zoology and Willowbook;
I dived deep into the depths of Sherlock Holmes, reading all his books and being inspired by his skills. My wardrobe also took some inspiration from Benedict Cumberbatch. If you have an unsolved mystery, give me a call
Sundance was my horse to take care of, during my summer camp at Danada Equestrian Center. It was a fun experience, but it was over too soon
Rosie was the tarantula I got to hold in my hands during our summer trip to the Rockies. She came from the Atacama Desert in Chile, was very calm and gentle. She was not defanged and helped me debunk myths about Tarantulas
My time and services were up for sale this year and with my Indian genes, I come cheap! At $10 an hour, who could find a better baby sitter and dog walker? My most challenging gig was to entertain 13 kids in our house, as my parents partied all night!! Book me soon, these are tough economic times and prices will go up
This was my second year doing the after school program at Willowbrook Wildlife Center. I got to cut deer heart into small pieces, feed injured birds, turtles and also study a bob cat
Before I close, remember I’m babysitting and dog walking, and $10 an hour is for a limited time only 😉 . Call me!!
Taking Yash’s cue, words I would reflect on for this year are love, friends and courage.
Selfless love from my family is what has kept me afloat this year. All my boys played their parts to perfection. Bambi was by my side after every surgery, as if he knew what mom had gone through. He knew everyone in the family had other duties to fulfill and it was his duty to keep his body in constant touch with mine, while I recovered. Yash focused on his academics and positive reviews from his teachers gave me peace of mind and one less thing to worry about. If he was to read this, his immediate comment would be “keep it coming, don’t stop…just keep it coming!” What do I say about Suresh? He has been my rock through all the turmoil and in my late father-in-law’s language, “remained as calm as a duck in water”. At home and outside, he has maintained his calm, when I know for sure he was dealing with a lot. I love my boys!
Sharing a Dumbledore quote from Harry Potter; “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” I have been blessed with friends from my high school years my first workplace, my yoga teachers, guides & sisterhood, and my neighborhood. Each one of you have turned on the light for me. Actions, that were simple in your definition, meant a lot to me. So whether it was your thoughtful deliveries (food, recovery gift baskets, flowers), including Yash in the car pool, spending hours on the phone with me (you know who you are!), checking in on me almost every day (I’m looking at YOU!), listening to me cry (and crying with me), wiping my tears, joining me for trail walks, driving me for a tea date, visiting me at home (one crazy one flew from India!) and for all the prayers sent my way. I wish I had more profound ways to say this – “thank you” and I am forever in your debt.
Living in fear is not an option, I know that very well. But when faced with literal darkness, it was hard to fight, to be brave and optimistic. Suresh jokingly says that marrying him was the craziest thing I’ve done. And if I could pull that off for 22 years then I can have the courage to push through this. I have not harnessed this courage consistently through the year but this will be what I focus on moving forward.
Wow! This is turning out to be a long annual letter, so I’ll be short and to the point.
The first thing I am thankful for is “me”! Yes, I will shamelessly be thankful to my body and my mind. They have both been fierce yet graceful in dealing with life.
There are a few friends with whom I have been open about my thoughts. These folks may not have realized it, but in the absence of my mom, they have been a huge support and sounding board. You encouraged me to continue working on my fun projects. Specifically want to call out two of them, who have regularly made me laugh loud and helped in releasing my pent up pressure. To all of you, thank you for being around and keeping a check on me!
Since 2005, I have participated in many running events, and Chitra has cheered for me, every single time; from the start line, on the course and given me a victorious hug after the finish line. No matter how I performed, her cheer, her smile, her hug and her encouragement was always through the roof! This year she was not there, and it felt like I forgot to carry an important running gear. From the start line, on the course and after the finish line, her “GO MENON” cheer was missing. My running buddy, on hearing this said, “that’s a good sign, your marriage will last a few more years!!” I’ll take that! I am definitely lucky & thankful for a few more years and into my next life!
Sharing the Menon family love
Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and happy holidays. May the new year bring your way good health and memorable moments with loved ones.
“We thought he was depressed!” remarked my batch mate Sanyo. This was over dinner with Chitra and me, in the early 2000s. In an evening filled with loud laughs, good food from Sanyo’s kitchen and old memories, that remark stuck with me. Sanyo was comparing my exuberance from that evening, to what she witnessed in our college years (1993-96).
Fast forward to Oct 2021, I was sharing a recent dream with another batch mate. In my dream, I almost missed a written examination and she was trying to help me out. My friend, Seema, commented, “You always took exams too seriously!”
Chitra knows me from our MBA days (1996 onwards) and can’t seem to associate me with either of these comments. She’s completely aware of my earlier life circumstances, but still finds it difficult to believe. She was able to express disbelief to Sanyo in person, and had a laugh after reading Seema’s message.
Was I depressed or just too serious? Who the hell cares! 🙂
I do have some stories to share from my college years and I’m using fictional names for my colleagues.
my Puma shoes & First Year of college
1992 to 1994 were difficult years for my family, financially. There were months when I knew my mom was grappling to make ends meet. I had large feet – size 13.5 and I struggled to find sneakers or sports shoes in my size. I relied on a maternal uncle, who worked in the merchant navy, to gift me sneakers that he acquired overseas. There were a few years when I would not get any shoes from him. As my luck would have it, one such year was just before I started at St. Xavier’s college.
Close to Crawford Market, in Mumbai, I had seen these Puma tennis shoe in a store’s window display. I walked in to check the price and see if they had my size. The largest size was the one pair on the display window, size 13. Mom managed to save up some money and I bought that pair a week or 10 days before college started. They were a snug fit, but I was thrilled and just too excited, to be wearing them to college.
My excitement was short lived, in 2 days there was a rip on the leather upper of the shoe. The leather was just breaking up (almost disintegrating) and we assumed it may have been on the window display for too long, in direct sun light. I went back to the shopkeeper, but he washed his hands off the issue. With no option, I took it to a local cobbler and he patched it up for me. Now, my new white sneakers had a black circular leather patch, right next to the lace area. In the next few months, I had two more patches and I put a fourth one just to balance the design!
Xaviers had an aura, where everyone dressed well and had some swagger. My confidence was down in the dumps and I was very insecure during the first year. My clothes were just about ‘OK’ and the condition of my shoes was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Shane became my good buddy during my time in Xaviers. He was from St. Francis orphanage, in Borivali. I thought we had a lot in common (especially with regards to fashion, or a lack thereof). There were a couple of times, when he wore something really cool and I asked him where he bought it. He answered with a smile, “Donations, man. We had good donations yesterday.” Interactions with him balanced my expectations in life. We lost contact after college, but I would sure “thank him” for his friendship.
Professor Dara Munshi Scholarship
During my college years, we relocated from Borivali to Mira Road, to Ambivali, to Kalyan, to Nerul. A couple of these transitions were rough. On a lighter note, I may have been the only student to have studied in Xavier’s and commuted in all local train lines – Western, Central, and Harbor!
Every expense on my account (tuitions, clothes, travel expenses, etc), pinched me a ton. I was always thinking of ways to reduce any burden on my parents. It was then that I heard about Prof. Dara Munshi Scholarship. I don’t recall the exact amount, but it was under INR500.00 ($8.00). Back then it was enough to repay my tuition, and also address some other college related expenses. My big goal every year was to bag this scholarship.
I managed to win it in the first year, however I had competition in the second and third year. Samudhrika from my class, was equally motivated and she was also someone I got along with. She was kind natured and I enjoyed our talks. However, in class or during our exams I was obsessed with bagging that scholarship. I would treat her to a good dinner, anytime we meet next, because she nudged me to perform better.
Doing well academically was my coping mechanism, and one factor that kept me afloat with all the turbulence back home. I am grateful to being awarded this scholarship all through my graduation years.
Train Rides & Counseling
As mentioned earlier, like many students, my commute to college was on Mumbai local trains. During part of my first and second year, I was living in Mira Road (a distant suburb of Mumbai). Vaman sir (Dr. Vaman Rao – then Department Head) lived in Dahisar, which was one train stop before Mira Road. There were many days we would end up traveling back home together.
During these trips I got to learn about his background, and life experiences. I was able to see myself in many of his earlier life stories. He instilled hope and the belief that I could have a life like him. Have a family, own a home and live respectably.
Back then I had not been introduced to the concept of counseling, but these were my free sessions! He became my idol and North Star. I could have very easily gone down a destructive or non-productive path.
This trend of train counseling continued for me, as I moved to the central and harbor line with Shinde sir (Dr. Rajendra Shinde – then Botany Professor). Sessions with him were more casual in nature, exploring life, politics and many social topics.
A big shout out to Mumbai Suburban Railways for my safe travels, and doubling-up as my counseling couch. To Vaman & Shinde sir, for their conversations, patient listening and coaching, you guys gave me the courage to take flight.
Field Trip & my Secret angel
Our Zoology department organized a field trip to Ranthambore Tiger Reserve and Bharatpur Bird Sanctuary. This was immediately after the first term exams, in our second year. Many of my seniors (3rd year students), batch mates and juniors (1st year students) registered for the trip and there was palpable excitement in the air.
A week or so after the trip had been announced, Vaman sir summoned me to his office. He already knew about my family situation, so was confirming my decision to skip the trip. From his perspective, this was a great opportunity for me to observe and learn two very diverse habitats.
A couple of days later, he called me again to his office and announced that I had been registered for the trip. Looking at my confused face, he shared that Smita ma’am (Smita Krishnan – then Zoology Professor) had decided to sponsor me. I don’t recall my reaction nor do I recall meeting ma’am specifically on this topic. It’s hard for me to express my gratitude in words. The best I can come up with is “I will always be in her debt”.
For me, that trip experience was a life changer. I established some tight bonds with a few seniors and many of my batch mates. I got to see Vaman sir in a new avatar, he sang Hindi songs and was not lecturing us. Smita ma’am was at her crazy best, playing card games, cracking jokes and also pulling pranks. But knowing her, she did not need this trip to be in that zone!
I ended up typing a detailed report for this trip and drew all the 44 bird species we spotted in Bharatput Bird Sanctuary. My professors were impressed with the output, and Vaman sir had taken this report to BNHS (Bombay Natural History Society). Later, BNHS displayed my report for an exhibition they were organizing. I guess, it was my small way of expressing some immediate gratitude.
The original report sits in my home office and Yash – my son, who is a wildlife enthusiast, has asked me many questions. Some interesting ones…what is a typewriter?…why did you draw and color these birds, and not take digital pictures?…who is that girl?
Many crushes and my first date
This will be an interesting section and I hope there are no surprises for Chitra! 🙂
I was focused and driven academically, but was also dealing with my raging hormones. So here I go on record, stating that, I had many crushes in college – most of them ‘one way’! With all my insecurities in play, year one was a wash and looking back I am very thankful for that outcome.
The first explicit crush started during the Ranthambore/Bharatpur field trip with a senior batch mate – Cassie. We spent a lot of time together, on the 7-day trip, and I am not sure how evident it was to my professors and friends.
On our return back to Mumbai, we continued to engage, very “naively” to be precise. With my birthday coming up, I informed my parents that I wished to take Cassie for a movie. My dad, in his usual style, sat me down and shared his expectations. How I need to be respectful and ensure she gets back to her home safely. With their consent, I was super excited to pick her up from our agreed train station and start my official first date. We had a wonderful time and I ensured she got back home safely. I was on cloud nine and many hearts flying out of me. Got to admit here, those flying hearts soon popped and this brief excitement came to a firm stop. If I am honest here, the closure of that chapter was initiated by my good friend Suhana. She was convinced of my naivety (she may use the word “stupidity”) and that I was being taken for a ride. I do have to thank her for it, because Cassie soon started dating my good friend Bill! 🙂
We had many fun Botany department excursions to Khandala and in one such trip, I got invited to an adventure walk through an abandoned house. Four of my seniors (3 females and 1 male), one of our professors and I walked after dinner, on a trail leading to this old abandoned house. The challenge was to walk in and out of this house without using torch lights. Vandana, my senior asked me to accompany her, and two other seniors joined us. Our professor and the fourth senior waited outside. It was a crazy experience and that was the beginning of my second big crush. This lasted a bit longer and I can take some credit in improving Vandana’s academic scores.
There were a few more in our third year, all very sweet and innocent experiences. Some of them making it to my free counseling sessions (train rides).
My time in St. Xavier’s
After my Higher Secondary School (HSC) year, I lost my free medical seat by a few percentage points. I was quite devastated and lost for a few weeks by that outcome. I ended up accompanying two of my friends to apply at St. Xavier’s College. With barely any research and no big plans or expectations.
Sometimes, life has other goals destined for us. In my case, it was to study at St. Xavier’s and fly under the wings of some very inspiring professors.
Lastly, a big shout out, to all my friends from Xaviers. I have only good memories of my time there and if I was ever a jerk, please forgive me. Stay well and be kind.
This is a new tradition we are trying to start and hope to carry it forward in the coming years. This project has been brewing for a few years and it was the Northenscold family’s annual letter that got me to act. So, ‘thank you’ Northenscolds for the inspiration.
We started 2021 under COVID-19’s dark clouds and have been blessed to be staying healthy. The year was a rollercoaster ride with many laughs, tearful goodbyes and moments of introspection. Sharing short perspectives from each one of us;
Did you know my father has been experimenting on my teeth with an electric tooth brush? At the end of every 60 second routine, he presents me with a treat. That immediately wipes out any trauma I suffered. Hope the ladies enjoy my fresh breath now!
This year, I visited Tennessee and with this visit, I have now travelled to 14 states in the country. Have to admit Chattanooga was a very friendly city, they welcomed me in many stores, restaurants and I also got to enjoy a full bowl of dog friendly ice cream!
I entered the senior citizen club by turning 9 this September and got introduced to new varieties of senior dog foods. My walks are a bit slower these days, however, when excited, I manage a good sprint.
I will like to end by welcoming Cash (I haven’t met him yet), Mili and Bruno to my cul-de-sac and remind Sparky that he needs to keep his nose out of my food bowl!
Do I really need to do this? Why? You guys always force me to do things!
The above sentence pretty much summarizes my year, but since dad is typing you’re all in for a long & boring read (sigh)!!
I celebrated my 12th birthday this year and like my 11th, we did not have any big gathering…”thanks COVID-19″. Mom certainly went out of her way to pamper me and I ended up having a great day. Loved all my gifts, so thank you again, if you sent me a gift and if not, I graciously accept extremely late gifts too! Just kidding (NOT).
It was great to be back at middle school in person and interact with my friends and teachers. Academics have been going great and this year I got to experience tennis, fencing, cross country and wrestling. Whined equally with my parents about all four, but I do like wrestling. Now, if only my parents listen to me and not register me for additional (outside of school) club wrestling! It messes with my video game schedule…after all, my thumbs need their focussed workouts.
I will call this year “creations galore”. Paper and pipe cleaner creations have been my forte, but I ventured into cardboard and 3D pen models. I continue to write and post poems to my website www.yashmenon.com. Feel free to visit it and praise every word!
Reviewing this 2021 summary, I seem to come across as an angel! That is not a good look for me – I better stop right now.
I wanted to send out a simple card…there, I have officially recorded my statement (eye roll).
This year has been a mixed bag. I started my 300 hour yoga teacher training with the goal of completing my 500 hours by mid next year. The schedule has been taxing but my teachers are super inspirational. They also set a very high benchmark and that has kept me going.
Yoga, running, long walks and my yoga community have kept me upbeat, but there have been days when the pandemic blues had me down mentally. My family and few good friends have supported me all along, which is always a blessing.
I lost my mother-in-law to Cancer and the most difficult decision was to stay back with Yash (the Delta variant was raging in India then). It is something that continues to weigh on me and I bring it up with Suresh often. She was a kind person and I cherish my moments with her. It may sound funny, but every time Yash wins on the mat, I know she is smiling over him.
The year is closing on a much better note. I was able to visit India in November and meet my parents, my brother-in-law and his family. Got to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary and get back to the US safely. Had a nice surprise from Prairie Yoga, to be invited to join their teachers circle. I am truly honored and delighted with this news, now looking forward to a much happier 2022.
If you have survived reading this so far, let me be brief. 2021 has been a challenging year with mom’s passing. I was fortunate to make it to India and conduct her last rites with my brother. Being the youngest one in the family, it was different to be there for my brother. Mom and I had spoken about this outcome, a long time back, and I had promised her I would communicate with my brother, like I did with her. Now, Ramesh bhai (my brother) has to deal with my almost daily calls! There are occasions when he has asked me (jokingly…I think!?) to stop this torture and call someone else. Too bad, he will need to deal with it till the end.
Compiling a short video to celebrate my Mom’s life helped me a lot, so did my new job at SAP and running the Naperville Half Marathon. Chitra has been the rock in my life and having the openness to share our vulnerabilities is a blessing.
Sharing the Menon family love
Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and happy holidays. May the new year bring your way good health and memorable moments with loved ones.
As her husband served far away, she stood her ground alone, bravely sheltering and nurturing her sons. Army life was adventurous taking her across the vast land of India. She embraced many cultures, won many hearts and toiled relentlessly for her family. Always protecting her sons from arguments that wives and husbands often have. Her sole purpose, tranquility in the family. And this she was a master at, till her last breath.
Her older son a rebel and her younger son a follower. She blended the right ingredients ensuring both turn out to be her best products to this world. And since I am the author, let me state, the younger one a shade better!!😊 Through the ups and downs of life, the one constant was her being a welcoming and generous host. Her kitchen, a magical place and every mouth fed, a devout fan.
Her biggest battle came later in life when cancer first hit her in 2010. Stage 4 breast cancer did not know it’s opponent well. This was Aruna Rajendran Menon. Both threw hard punches, one drew first blood but it was mom standing victorious as a survivor for 7 years. Then this stealthy, cunning cancer blind sided her, striking a second time in her lung fluid. Once again, she fought, she ducked and weaved, staggering but standing for another 3 years. Her body and mind weakened, this filthy cancer was back. This time she had little energy and the battle was short. We lost our mom on June 17, 2021 at 7 PM India time.
This journey of the last 11 years tested her the most. Many think of it as the worst of her life. I DISAGREE. Yes, it was not pretty, but it was during these years that mom, then a housewife of 47 years, started her Amul franchise. She ran this shop with the same dedication and love that she did her home. She went on to be lovingly known as “Amul Aunty” for the community at large! America also welcomed mom in 2014 and gave her beautiful memories to cherish till the end. Many friends from this distant land offered their heartfelt support and condolences for her loss…“Until next time” they say.
I never met Mother Teresa, but I sure did live with one. She always had this healing energy and a patient ear for everyone. Thoughts shared with her in confidence stayed with her and were never betrayed. I realized what a support she was to so many by the number of calls received on her phone by those who didn’t know she had passed. She touched many lives, in times of need and celebration. Each of these folks lost a friend, a guide and an inspiration.
Life, as I know it, will never be the same. Her void difficult to fill, her voice difficult to forget, her love never to be replaced.
My mom…a soldiers wife, a mother of two and a fierce opponent of cancer.
Chitra and I left Mumbai for Cincinnati on March 4, 2004 and have lived in the US since then. We started fresh in the city of the ‘Flying Pig’ – Cincinnati (Cincy) – blessed with wonderful friends, who lovingly introduced us to the American culture and traditions. In the gloom and unprecedented events of 2020, we finally became US Citizens, which was the only bright milestone for the year. Cincinnati, Procter & Gamble (P&G) and kind friends helped us setting our foundation and living this American dream. Sharing a few reflections from the early times of this journey.
Learning the American Accent or Not
In early 2004, we went in for our H1 (work) and H4 (dependent) visa interview. We were among hundreds who waited in long lines, our documents organized and ready for submission. In front of us stood an Indian teenager applying for his student visa. His father had accompanied him for support and assistance (only till the entrance of the embassy building). All through our time in the queue, we overheard him speak to his dad and occasionally to us. All of us were nervous and a sense of uncertainty loomed in the air. Once inside the embassy building, we noticed that kid again, at a distance, waiting for his interview turn. He was visibly nervous and had his hands clasped, head bowed low, as if in in prayer. We got busy with our interview process and later, walked out of the embassy in relief. The embassy officer had retained our passports, which meant they had approved our visa. While we were buying bottled water from a stall outside the embassy, someone spoke to both of us in perfect American accent ” How are you guys doing?”. He rolled his r’s perfectly in an American accent and now had an exaggerated swagger. It took us a few seconds to place the voice and the face. It was the same kid, now with a sparkle in his eye and new confidence in his demeanor. He was also headed to the US and was already speaking with his new accent. In the roughly 60 to 90 minutes since we had last seen him, he had changed into this cool American Indian kid! We still think of that and have a good laugh. In this matter, we are both quite slow – it has been 17 years in the US and we are yet to give up our “native” accent.
“Welcome to the USA!”
We arrived in Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG) on March 4, 2004. There was to be one more screening before entering the US, with the US Border Agents who screen all international passengers. You always heard and read stories about people getting sent back because the border agent officer was not convinced by the visa holders case. So, after the ~20 hours journey, once again, we entered a zone of uncertainty. They examined my visa and supporting documents first. I remember being asked a few questions and then it was Chitra’s turn. The officer asked her a couple of very basic questions, stamped her passport and commented “It wasn’t as bad as you had imagined, right!!?? Welcome to the USA and enjoy your stay”. Chitra had a big smile on her face – that was her first interaction with an American in the US. I have to admit people in general are very polite and welcoming with her. I wonder why…hmm? 🙂
Second Honeymoon Ends
My employer, Tata Interactive Systems (TIS), was relocating me to Cincinnati to manage our new partnership with Procter & Gamble (P&G). My manager, Nikhil Puri, prepared me for the assignment and was very clear about how long the gig will last. “Suresh, this is for 6 months and then you come back”. I had shared this with Chitra and we were both quite excited about it. We had mentally prepared ourselves for this 6 month assignment – it would be our second, extended honeymoon! I had taken an Executive Rental apartment (Garfield Tower Apartments), which was a few blocks from the P&G headquarters. This apartment was very well stocked with everything we could need, from cutlery to well designed furniture, even a house keeping service. 75% of my salary was going towards the rent and we were really living a lavish “second honeymoon”. We hosted several dinner parties at home with some of my clients and friends. Our guests were impressed with our apartment and thought well of TIS for taking good care of me, the expat from India! My 6 month tenure was coming to a close and while talking to Nikhil, it became clear that they wanted me to extend it by 6 more months. We had zero savings at this time and I negotiated a 12 month plan. Then came the tough choice of moving from our executive apartment to an unfurnished apartment in the same building. We were now in an empty apartment and had to set it up from scratch. The purchasing guidelines were simple; cheap, good looking and sturdy. During this time, my client sponsor’s wife, Brenda, was visiting Cincinnati downtown and requested to meet. I vividly remember getting back from work to find Brenda very delicately seated on our new dining chair. She looked uncomfortable and I can only imagine, must have had many, many questions buzzing through her mind. The TIS expat had moved to this bare walled apartment with zero frills. If she had asked me, I would have said “honeymoon period is over and reality has set in”!
Our First Dinner Invite in the US
Penny and Dick are two of the kindest people we know. Chitra started volunteering at Dress For Success (a non-profit) and developed a strong friendship with Penny. We were invited to dinner and this was our first visit to an American household. They lived in Asbury, Anderson Township which was ~25 minute drive from our apartment. We did not own a car back then, so Dick very graciously offered to pick and drop us back. They had invited us at 4 PM and we assumed it would be fun to talk and walk around their 4 acre plot. In our minds, we would have dinner at some point later in the evening. We were totally surprised when they announced dinner had been served at 4 PM. Indians are known to eat a late lunch and an even later dinner. We had had our lunch around 2 PM so I was quite shocked to be seated for a steak dinner so soon. I truly enjoy my meat and I had a strong sense of disappointment for not being hungry enough for such a special meal. We politely let them know about about our late lunch and they were kind enough to pack our dinner to take home for us. We had begun to view America through their home and family. We were also beginning to break many stereotypes in our minds about the American culture and the way of life here. Since our first dinner invite, we have spent many dinners, luncheons, movie outings, Christmas and Thanksgiving with them. Penny and Dick, if you ever read this, our interaction with you made us feel at home, loved & accepted and also helped us integrate better with America. Thank you and we love you.
Procter & Gamble (P&G) Set A Strong Foundation for My Corporate America Journey
Working for P&G as my first American client was a blessing. I worked with the best in the industry when it came to global business processes, innovative thinking, people maturity and program communication protocols. I have to call out Eric Brocious, who was my client sponsor then, and the brain behind the partnership with TIS. He mentored me and walked me through every step of the learning curve. There are many moments from those years which are memorable (some funny, too), however I would like to highlight a an episode of failure. We were working on a global learning program, developing modules for new hires across the world for P&G. This program – P&G’s Success Drivers – had high leadership visibility and more importantly, many senior executives who directly provided content for many of the modules. During the content creation phase we hit bad turbulence and it took us long to correct course. The delayed correction was in-part because of our my team’s quality control process and partly because of the delays we faced in getting these senior executives to provide their material in the correct structure. We got summoned to a meeting by Keith Lawrence, one of the key sponsors for the global program. Eric, Kim McGraw (Global Talent, Learning & Development Manager) and I were participating as one team. I was, however, representing the supplier team (TIS) and got roasted in the session. Honestly, had the meeting gone on a bit longer, tears would have rolled down my eyes. The meeting got over, we all stepped out and Eric told me to take the rest of the day off. The next day, I remember meeting Eric and he coached me not to take this failure personally. “What was stated was not directed at you but rather, at everyone in the room”. Although, for me, Eric and Kim getting lectured for the poor quality on my team’s deliverable was a personal failure. It took me a few days to recover and we did manage to land that program successfully. Eric was not my direct manager, he was a client, however, his people management and leadership skills are something I hope to have walked away with. Eric and I continue to be good friends and did I mention, big fans of Skyline Chilli (5 way!).
Penny was a professor at Thomas More University (Northern Kentucky) and she had invited us (Chitra and me) to guest lecture the Executive MBA students on ‘Cultural Diversity and It’s Impact on Work Life’. The objective was for both of us to share from our personal experiences how Culture Impacts Work Life in the US and in India. These were 30-45 minute sessions and it also gave us a glimpse into American life outside the Cincinnati + P&G bubble. It was interesting to hear the type of questions being asked and to observe how our answers were being received. Many of the students attending the program had never stepped beyond the borders of Kentucky. In one session, we were asked if India was a Monarchy. This came as a surprise to us because CNN was running an advertisement campaign on air where their anchors were answering questions emphasizing CNN’s global reach. One such question in the campaign was “Which is the world’s largest democracy?” to which Anderson Cooper would answer “India”. We were once asked “what was one aspect that impressed us most about America?” We were not prepared for this question, but replied unhesitatingly and in tandem, “The public library system”! The students looked back at us almost in disappointment. Coming from India, the large, well stocked, friendly Public Libraries in the US were a marvel for us – it was a very honest answer. We undertook ~5 such sessions and in every interaction we would learn something new. I have to say that living in Cincinnati and working in P&G was a cosmopolitan bubble that is rare and we were lucky to experience it.
Finding Her Passion, Yoga!
Moving with me to the US was a big step for Chitra. She was going to be on a dependent visa and would not be eligible to work. We had both done our MBAs together, she was the second individual in our batch of 1996-98 to get campus recruited with a company that was her dream workplace – Shoppers’ Stop (the first corporate retail chain in India). She had always been sure about her decisions and goals. When I was offered the P&G role, she was once again sure about leaving behind her career and joining me on our “second honeymoon”. So, after the initial high of being in a new country, she wanted to get busy and my client Bea Davis directed her to Dress For Success (DFS). DFS’ vision is to provide assistance to women in need with appropriate clothing to interview for a job, and also provide a stable, safe and caring environment as they reclaim their lives. DFS’ Cincy office was walkable from our apartment and she began volunteering with them. Soon, she had a small circle of good friends and was in a happy place outside home. When we moved to a larger apartment in Mount Lookout, she ended up walking into Delta 1018 Fitness Center. That led her to meeting her first yoga teacher, Mary Kemper. Little did she know, that it was the start of her Yoga journey. Mary introduced Chitra to all her students saying, “This is Chitra from India and she has never done Yoga before”!! Yes, it is a shame that back when we were in India, Yoga did not get the respect it deserved (I know it has changed since then). I personally thought Yoga was for senior citizens, a slow moving activity that I did not want to be associated with yet. Since 2005, Chitra has been blessed with gifted teachers who have inspired and encouraged her. Today, she continues diving deeper in her practice and is a certified Yoga teacher. It gives her joy and balance. For that, we both say “Thank you, Mary”!
“Listen People, Suresh Jogs!”
Among the many people I interacted with in P&G, Deb Lowell is a name I can’t forget. We did not work on a project, neither were we close friends. We ended up working in the same work bay and got to interact as office colleagues. She was curious to learn about my experiences and would often pull my leg over my choice of words. She was a firecracker with a great sense of humor. We were once talking about our routine after work and I said, “I jog in the evenings”. She asked me to repeat what I had said, which I easily did. She then proceeded to stand up from her chair and announced loudly “Listen people, Suresh “jogs” in the evenings!”. I don’t remember if anyone paid attention to what she had announced, but she later explained to me that I should be “running” and not “jogging”. Growing up in India, going for a ‘jog’ or ‘jogging’ was part of my vocabulary. More importantly for me, my ‘jog’ was like a punishment. When I would get in trouble, papa insisted I go for a ‘jog’ or when our soccer coach made us ‘jog’ around the field for not performing. She went on to share her wisdom on the word ‘run’ and how that fit well with my age, fitness level and action. That led us to exchanging notes on how much we ran etc. She sowed in me the idea of running the ‘Flying Pig Half Marathon’. On May 1, 2005, I ran my first half and since then ‘running’ has become a big part of my life. I have completed two full marathons and it no longer feels like a punishment. Chitra, too, has been bitten by the bug and has run two half marathons. So ‘running’ is now an integral part of our lives gives us joy and balance. Deb, wherever you are “Thank you”!
Jai Hind Jai Maharastra
While staying in the downtown apartment, we met Bhavesh Parmar, whom I fondly call “Bhavesh bhai” (Bhavesh brother). He also hailed from Mumbai, Maharastra, and as we Mumbaikars say, our wavelengths clicked immediately. He lived in the same apartment building and we started hanging out together – movies, dinner/lunch, tea/coffee, Indian temple trips and ping pong (table tennis). Bhavesh was single then and a very mild natured, kind, human being. He had been living in the country longer than us so, in that respect, a senior with more experience. Chitra always narrates the story of serving Bhavesh bhai his first cup of tea in our house. She asked him how many spoons of sugar, to which he replied “six”. Chitra confirmed that twice and then proceeded to make Bhavesh’s special sugar tea! To his credit, he has now curtailed his sugar intake drastically. He owned a black Volkswagen Passat and would never hesitate in offering us rides to Newport on the Levy or the Indian Temple. Did I mention he is a devout Hindu and takes his Monday evening trips to the Hindu Temple in Cincy very seriously. We were not as religious but dinner plans after temple visits used to be a good motivator to tag along. As our friendship grew, we would greet each other with “Jai Hind, Jai Maharastra” (Victory to India, Victory to Maharastra). Till date, every time we talk or meet, this greeting makes both of us smile. He continues to flourish in wonderful Cincinnati with his beautiful wife – Dipali, son – Bhavya and their pet dog – Fufi.
Meet the Davis Family
While working from Mumbai, my first P&G project was with Bea Davis. It was also her first project with TIS and an Indian team. As a Project Manager, my role was to make Bea successful with her clients and leadership. She was responsible for the learning and development activities for the Supply Chain Operations group. This project of mine was a success and I think she had given Eric a good thumbs up for my performance and selection as the Cincy based Key Account Manager from TIS. Her late husband Joe and she were one of our first dinner party guests. They were open to exploring the Indian cuisine and Chitra churned our her best dishes – Bhindi Churi Muri (thinly sliced and spiced fried Okra), Yellow Dal (lentil dish), Indian Fish curry, Roti (Indian Bread), Rice and Gajar ka Halwa (grated carrot sweet dish). They loved the food and Joe, specifically, loved the fried Okra, which became standard on our menu every time they came home. Two points about Joe, he could talk intelligently about any topic and he had a towering yet gentle personality. They reciprocated by having us over to their home for Thanksgiving, Christmas and other occasions. Bea’s green bean casserole is the best ever and I haven’t had better anywhere else. She may never realize this, but the confidence her words instilled in me, gave me the courage to fly higher professionally. Bea, you will always have a soft spot in my heart.
Reflecting back on our American journey, we were lucky to have started in Cincy, at P&G, and surrounded by friends who brought positivity into our lives. We love you all and look forward to many more memorable moments together.
Summer of 1985. I was in Jamnagar, Gujarat, India. Dad was working for the last Maharaja of Nawanagar (Jamnagar) – H.H. Jamsaheb Shatrusalyasinhji Jadeja – and we lived on the palace grounds in a bungalow (single family home). We were accustomed to living in huge homes because Dad was with the Indian army for 23 years and many of our cantonment homes were similarly styled. The only difference here was that we were cut off from the rest of the city by a huge wall running around the ~50 acre palace grounds. There were many wild animals – Monkeys, Black Bucks, Indian Gazelles, Blue Bulls, Spotted Deer, Wild Buffalos, Monitor Lizards, Crocodiles and many more – roaming free, like in a private preserve. Life was royal when we first moved here. We had our tea/coffee/milk and snacks while peacocks roamed in our yard and danced to impress the peahens.
In those years, Jamsaheb did not have any sustained cash flow. He owned many large palaces all around Jamnagar and hundreds of families had been working for him from generations. ‘Eccentric’ would be a very mild characterization for him. My dad managed his operations and administration – people and property. There were months when employees did not get paid and the growing dissent would nudge Jamsaheb to travel abroad or to Mumbai. Not sure what he did there, but on his return money would be available and employees paid. There were rumors that he would sell his ancestral treasures in these trips like antique swords with embedded gems, antique jewels, gold, vintage cars etc.
My dad ended up using much of his retirement funds for our family expenses and many a times paying salaries to folks working in the palace. Now is not the time to dwell into the ‘eccentric’ nature of my dad. However, this lifestyle led to my dad exhausting all his savings and finally deciding to pursue new work in Mumbai, Maharastra, India. Since it was the middle of the school year, it was decided that Mummy, my older brother and I would stay back to complete the year. Also, our presence would be a reminder to Jamsaheb that he owed dad and needs to stick with his promise to pay up.
A couple of months into our stay, Mummy had not received any payments from Jamsaheb and money from dad was only trickling in. I’m not sure of the exact reason but we lost electricity in our home. On enquiring with Jamsaheb, we were told it was temporary and would be restored soon. Electricity and water charges were paid for by the Palace. We continued living in that home for around 7 months with no electricity and facing severe financial troubles. I was in 6th grade and my older brother in 10th. Honestly, that phase in life did not scar me for long but two stories have stayed with me till date. These are linked to Parle-G biscuits and a used cricket bat.
For readers not from India, Parle G is a biscuit brand that was super popular (and back in the 80s, probably the only nationwide brand). Not too expensive, I enjoyed them by stacking a few and dipping them in milk before devouring them (Yummy!). However, 1985 was no ordinary summer and Mummy had to ration these biscuits for me. Many times, I ate the last biscuit and had to wait for mom to buy another pack at a feasible time. Till date, I dig Parle G and love its taste and texture.
I was introduced to the sport of Cricket in 3rd grade and had begun developing good skills. During the same year in Jamnagar, I had outgrown my first cricket bat but continued playing with it. I did not want to ask mom for a new one, knowing well that we could not afford it. It was during this time that we got invited for lunch to a friend’s place and the hosting family had a son the same age as my brother. During this visit, that older kid played some cricket with me and commented on how well I was batting. When it was time to leave, he brought out a used cricket bat, which was pretty knocked up (chipped, dinged & had a shaky handle). He was planning to junk it – instead, it came home with me. I was super thrilled to have got a bat that was a good fit to my height. Since we did not have electricity at home, I had to try and finish all my school work during day hours. We used multiple Petromax lanterns around the house at night and there was a proper routine for getting them ready and started to ensure we had enough light around the house. My playing hours were cut short and the fact that we lived inside the palace grounds resulted in me being largely cut off from friends who lived away from us. Before nightfall, my mom would come to the backyard and ask me to bat. She would pick pebbles and throw them towards me, my goal being to hit them clean and far. This was her way of keeping me engaged in an activity I enjoyed.
Fast forward to 2009, when Yash was born, I was determined that my son would never experience financial hardships on account of my folly or stupidity. We have managed and planned our resources well. We live a balanced lifestyle, take vacations regularly and Yash has always lived in a home owned by us. I love buying him his sports gear and equipment. This activity gives me such joy that he would probably never comprehend. We celebrated and welcomed the new year – 2020 – in Hawaii and it started out as what seemed like another memorable year. Then our lives got consumed by Corona Virus (COVID-19) and the “normal” changed for everyone. From late February, I started working from home and Yash’s last elementary school year (5th grade) moved online. Soon it was time for his summer break and we hunkered down at home. Both Chitra and I wondered how this isolation would impact Yash. Little did we know then, how 2020 will go down memory lane as an unprecedented year changing social behaviors for all humans.
All through the year we have counted our blessings and have reiterated this message to Yash. He may never have experienced first hand family financial troubles, but Chitra and I have tried to instill in him a value and appreciation for his lifestyle and it’s associated comforts. I am not someone to celebrate too soon and he has many more years ahead as he further develops to being a kind human. But it would not be a stretch to say that he has value for money and has never begged/bugged us for unnecessary or expensive gifts/toys etc.
Summer of 2020 was a test for Yash and eerily similar to my 1985 experience. He was largely confined to home and had to entertain himself with whatever was available in and around the house. Looking back at the year I give him an ‘A’ grade. He made good choices and did not let COVID-19 restrictions break him. I want to go on record, listing down activities that he spent time on during this lockdown. In the future whenever I lose it with him or question his actions, I can read this blog and remember his resolute and happy energy during the summer of 2020.
We had given him a choice to buy something to keep him physically occupied in our yard. After some research we boiled down to buying a monkey slack line and he was on board with that plan. Honestly I was equally excited about it and had visualized swinging my 45 year old body from it with the agility of an olympian gymnast! After a great deal of effort, we managed to hook up the line and very soon my dreams of swinging across the line went swinging along. The ‘slack’ in the line makes you (well ‘me’) feel like a sack of potatoes and my arms would give way to a slow-motion drop on the grass. Yash was initially very excited but soon realized the effort it took to swing across the line. I remember telling him to keep trying “you will be able to swing back-n-forth five times by the end of summer!” After many attempts he got the hang of using his core and soon began to enjoy the challenge. He spent many, many hours just hanging about and displaying his monkey spirit in full color. He was able to cover the 25 feet long swinging adventure and back, six times by mid summer. He had begun to develop calluses on his hands and I may not have acknowledged this enough, but I was proud! Etched in my memory is the thrill in his eyes seeing me struggle, barely making it to the second grip and falling down not so gracefully.
Yash explored creativity with his hands, building stuff. Small things with paper, hard cardboard, scraps he would salvage from packaging materials etc. We had a new neighbor move in and he approached them for empty boxes they were recycling after the move. They were very kind to share with him. That only meant one half of our basement was a war zone…sorry creative studio (!) This artist has a special ability to push his mumma’s blood pressure through the roof! I have to admit, Chitra has lowered her benchmark for tidiness for Yash. Mind you, that’s Chitra’s low benchmark, which in a majority of households would be their best home showings. He started exploring paper based models, initially these were Minecraft characters, airplanes, guns, swords, shields. Later he picked up a glue gun to create interactive gaming models. And recently he has been exploring with clay. My dad too would build stuff with his hands, like ship models, airplanes models etc. He would showcase them in local exhibitions and gift them to friends and some strangers too. There is some gene of my dad in Yash…the building part, sharing with others – not so much yet!
His poetry writing and comic illustrations took a back seat, however he explored random activities…being Batman all day long, jumping out of closets to welcome mummy home…put together a green super hero costume – Night Vision – and wore that for many days, inside and outside home (even in the summer heat)…and recently after watching Robert Downing Jr.’s Iron Man movies he created an Iron Man helmet! He wanted to explore camping on his own (with Bambi), so we pitched a tent in our backyard. Bambi and he did make it through all night. Do note, I was ordered to be the night watchman sleeping on the family room floor to keep watch on “her” precious son!
Dad had introduced me to many classic war movies during my middle school years. So this summer with the COVID-19 lockdown, we bought a few blu-rays for our home collection. Yes I still collect (!) physical movie Blu-rays. Every weekend we had family movie nights and watched them, hopefully creating some more good memories with Yash. There were a few that Yash really liked and we ended up watching them multiple times. Listing some of these classics from our home collection: Guns of Navarone, The Bridge on River Kawai, Von Ryan’s Express, Where Eagles Dare, The Longest Day and Kelly’s Heroes. Yash’s favorite were Guns of Navarone and Von Ryan’s Express. Many of Yash’s art projects (guns, planes) were inspired from these movies and he also does an awesome German officer imitation!
Another form of entertainment, if I can use that phrase, was the 2020 presidential election. We followed key events – debates, town halls, election night etc together and it was largely limited to PBS Newshour. I was impressed with how Yash was absorbing the words spoken by both candidates and also what political analysts were sharing. Later, on election night we swapped between multiple news channels to understand how election results were being presented. Yash was very tickled by all the frenzy around “CNN Projecting Now” immediately followed by “Too close to call”.
This year marked Yash’s venture to online gaming and interacting with his friends over video (Zoom/FaceTime). He has now explored Minecraft, Pokemon and also follows a couple of YouTubers. This last bit gets me to roll my eyes, as I wonder what excitement or entertainment value it has. Watching a 21 year old live stream his game and thousands watching it. As Yash will say “Papa you are just too old to understand this!” There is a character called ‘Technoblade” and he is Yash’s new hero. Yash narrates words of wisdom (!) spoken by Techno or funny quotes by him. We (Chitra and I) have also been subject to some of Techno’s animation – music/action – videos on YouTube, multiple times. I did google him today and realized he has 3.79 million subscribers to just his YouTube channel and more than half a billion views to his videos! Someone has planned for his retirement in his twenties, while I still continue to figure out my path. Technoblade, more power to you as long as you instill more thoughts of ‘kindness’ (!) into Yash.
2020 has been a challenging year and there is much to forget. As a parent, this was a test for us. These were events outside our control and certainly impacted Yash’s school and social life. I don’t recall him bugging Chitra or me with the dreaded ‘I am bored’ statements or getting into trouble at school or at home because of all the energy he has in him. Being a single child, he either went out and entertained himself or created new stuff. We sincerely hope he carries this trait forward and leverages it more.
In closing, as a family we have been blessed to have a steady household income, a stable job, ability to Work from Home (WFH) and retain our sanity staying hunkered down at home. We have been able to contribute to some of our favored charities and hope 2021 is a better year for the world. Bambi, for sure, is the most delighted Menon this year, as he has all his humans around him…always!! Until next time, be kind.