Success? What is that?
I have never viewed my life or my future in terms of success or being successful. I have certainly never equated any notions of success with cold hard cash. For me, success has resulted from the pursuit of smaller goals that have evolved and altered over the course of my life.
What I wanted most out of life, from an early age, was happiness. The desire to be happy has always driven me, and thankfully I have had more than an adequate measure of it! Luckily, I realized early on that happiness was not something to wait or hope for, or to look forward to. Happiness is in the here and now. There are many ways to be happy, and to make oneself happy. The most important, I find, is to be happy with myself and within myself and to greet each day as a new beginning.
The great film director, Ingmar Bergman said in Bergman Island, a 2006 documentary of his life and work, “The demons don't like fresh air. What they like best is if you stay in bed with cold feet. I always go for a walk after breakfast." I agree. I like to wake up happy and ready to go.
In my mind there is a critical connection between happiness and success. When I was 8, success was the joy of being given another mystery storybook as a gift. When I was 12, it was discovering that I enjoyed writing and wanted to be a writer when I grew up. At 16, success and happiness meant knowing that the man I was in love with reciprocated my feelings. At 20, it meant getting into the journalism school of my choice, then getting to work as a reporter at a reputed newspaper. When I was 26, it was the opportunity to write a book. By the time I was 33, it was getting pregnant when the ringing of my body clock had become most insistent. Three years ago, it was getting my green card approval so I could finally start Un-Curry.
Success is the feeling of satisfaction and relief when after five years of hard work my cookbook was finally published last year. But it is also the look of enchantment on my daughter’s face when I read her a story; the reaction of a friend when I offer a shoulder to lean on; my husband’s delight when I cook his favorite meal.
Perhaps my ideas of ‘success’ come from growing up in a family where money was never very high on the list of priorities. Learning, friendship, caring and compassion were. My parents are both professors of English literature. They traveled a lot for pleasure and work and made sure never to leave my brother and me behind. Growing up, I lived in different parts of Asia, Europe and the United Kingdom. I often think of Rudyard Kipling’s famous, frequently misquoted line, “East is east and west is west and n’er the twain shall meet...” in terms of myself because in my life, east and west have met, providing me a unique insider-outsider perspective to the world’s politics, writing, culture and foods.
Part of the striving for success -- of any kind -- is to work hard, study, learn skills and practice them ad nauseam till you have the necessary experience and expertise. It is never too late to start. As a writer, I often meet people who tell me they wish they could write; that they cannot write well but would love to; that they have stories to tell but no skill with which to tell them. I tell them to just start. “Do it regularly. The skills will come, the experience will build, before you know it, you will BE a writer.”
That applies to almost anything you set your mind to doing. Cooking, skiing, mathematics, surfing. I believe that if we and the people around us don’t limit us, most of us can acquire a variety of skills (think Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences) and pursue several professions successfully throughout the course of our lives. This is what I, as an immigrant to the USA, admire so much about Americans. They pick themselves up from misfortune and start over at any age, acquiring new knowledge and skills as needed and rebuilding their lives with determination and energy! This way of approaching life, as a constantly shifting but achievable set of goals and aspirations rather than one distant star to aspire to, is admirable.
What is also important to remember and what I, as a perfectionist, had to teach myself, is that, while striving for your goals, you also need the ability to let go and to go with the flow. I have motherhood to thank for helping me acquire this.
As many of you know, the only thing that is predictable about parenthood is its unpredictability. Nine years ago, with the birth of my daughter, I stopped being the A-type, driven journalist who had to do everything -- from writing and editing to house cleaning, cooking and entertaining -- excellently or feel she had failed.
The first thing I let go of after my daughter’s birth was the dish washing! That might sound trivial but for someone used to cleaning her home, refrigerator included, once a week from top to bottom, it was very difficult to see dishes piled up in the sink. Did it really matter though? It was an education not just in understanding the pitfalls of perfectionism but also in prioritizing. Dishes or daughter? Daughter! Cleaning or cooing to my baby? Definitely cooing!
And going with the flow? Strolling in our neighborhood with my toddler was good training. A solo walk might take me 15 minutes. With a child meandering, squatting to observe some ants, pick up fall leaves, stare at birds flying overhead or smile at other walkers, we might be out for a good hour, no matter what deadlines awaited me at home. Not only did I learn to go with the flow, I remembered the importance of stopping to “stand and stare.”
These abilities have since come in handy. At Un-Curry, my catering company and cooking school, I have to deal with clients, plan menus, shop, prep, cook, teach, cater parties for 8-125 guests, with precision, efficiency and passion. I have to know where to spend my time and where to cut my efforts short. I have to put aside my own opinions sometimes and go with the flow of my clients’ predilections, the limitations of ingredients and kitchens.
At this point, you might be asking, how did a journalist get into teaching Indian cooking classes and catering home cooked, regional Indian food? I have been fascinated by food for as long as I can remember. Many of my sharpest memories are connected with it. As a very young child in Maharashtra (one of India’s largest states), however, I was a fussy eater and had no interest in cooking. My mother and grandmothers were superb cooks and came from a culture where one cooked every day and rarely, if ever, went out to eat. My mother’s family also entertained lavishly and frequently. I was constantly inhaling the aromas of their cooking -- chicken drenched in cilantro pesto, guava fudge, tomato jam, garlicky brown lentils -- and I was encouraged to ‘taste’.
My food history is not typically Marathi (of my state). I spent my childhood in Canada, Wales and different parts of India, moving every few years, and eating a variety of foods that my mother liked to experiment with: it might be chana masala one day, pork chops with mushrooms in wine the next, falafel the third. This was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when exposure to international cuisines was not what it is today.
Perhaps because eating the traditional food of my ancestors was a rare treat in my mother’s international kitchen, as I grew older I cultivated a great taste for the food of my state. In my early 20s, I wanted to learn more about it and so began my forays into the world of cooking. Marathi food – with its flavors of coconut, rice, jaggery (raw sugar), mango, and kokum (Garcinia indica); its characteristic seasonings of mustard seed-turmeric-asafetida, or ghee and cumin seed; and its delicate crunch of stir fried vegetables – was a means for me to reconnect with my past, to delve into my ancestry. It also has become the way to my future.