Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Uncovering my grandmother's mysteries

For the past couple of months I have been working on a number of various projects, one of which is trying to track down information about my Russian grandmother.

A few months ago (right around the time that Maya started school) I started getting these dreams about my grandmother - whom I have never met. I started to have these strange dreams about Russia - a place where I have never been. I woke up with a feeling that "now is the time - I need to start looking" - for some strange, intuitive reason.

While husband-ji is so certain in his ancestry - coming from a long line of arranged and inter-family, inter-regional marriages, my family heritage is quite mixed and all over the place, filled with chance meetings, love stories, and immigration from the East to the West. A huge hole in our heritage has been the lack of information regarding my mother's biological mother.

My maternal grandmother was such a mystery to us. She was born in Russia to a family in theatre, and when the war broke out she was forced to become a child soldier. A female child soldier. In World War 2. Can you imagine? She picked up a gun and defended her country alongside the men.

Post-war, she immigrated to Canada, speaking hardly any English and not knowing a soul, leaving her war-torn homeland behind...forever. She met my Canadian grandfather - who was twice her age and already married with six children - and had my mother. She named my mother "Zonda" after her best friend in Russia, who was gang raped so violently by German soldiers that she could never have children. On their first date night after my mother was born, both my maternal grandparents were tragically killed when their car collided with an oncoming train at midnight in rural Ontario. My grandfather died instantly, but my grandmother survived the car crash only to die hours later in the hospital from her internal injuries. She was listed as an "unknown female" until someone identified her, only to misspell her oh-so-foreign name. She is buried in an unmarked grave in rural Ontario, which we have never even seen. My mother was orphaned at the age of 2 weeks old.

That dark night that she died....our entire connection with Russia was lost. With my paternal grandmother having been such a huge impact on my life, I often wonder about my other grandmother - how different would our lives be if she had survived? On that night, we not only lost our grandmother, but we lost our connection to an entire culture, language and family.

A few years ago, Ontario's adoption records were made public so my mother decided to request hers. At the age of 60, she saw her birth certificate for the first time with her mother's handwriting on it - stating her full name, date of birth, and place of birth. We knew she was from Russia, but we never knew where in Russia. Turns out she was from this very remote small town in Southern Russia - basically the middle of nowhere.

After I started randomly dreaming about her earlier this year, I decided to use my online detective skills to try to track down some more information, but I just kept hitting roadblocks. My mum said that a family friend told her she may have come to Canada with the Red Cross, so I contacted them and they said all their records from that particular year were lost in a flood. What luck! Then, I wrote to Citizenship and Immigration Canada to try to get a record of landing - I was hoping it would say where she departed from. If I could find out which city she departed from, I could then track her movements and determine if she was displaced during the war, or if she stayed in the same city. Citizenship Canada got back to me and said they have zero record of her ever landing in Canada. So, now I don't know if she even came here legally!

I was beginning to feel a bit defeated, until something happened that was completely random. Sometimes in life, I find that if you pray hard enough, God will send you some angels in disguise - which is exactly what happened....

At preschool, there is often this woman dropping off a child in Maya's class whom I have felt very drawn to since I met her. I don't know why - it is one of those inexplicable things. We never say much more than small talk as we are rushing to pick up/drop off the kids. The other day, I started talking to her a bit more, and it turns out SHE IS FROM THE EXACT PLACE IN RUSSIA that my grandmother was from. That small remote town!!!!!!!! What are the odds?

So, of course I had to tell her the big story (which by the way - is only 1% of it) and she seemed eager to help me and use her resources in Russia and translate for me. As I am writing this, I am still in shock that I found someone from her town. She even kinda looks like me - same blue eyes, eyebrows, and nose. Anyways, I hope I can find something....but that's just the start. At this point, it's like a needle in a haystack. But I do feel like I'm on to something....

So, this Mother's Day, I am thinking about my maternal grandmother - someone who I never had the pleasure to meet. Because of her bravery, our life has been untouched by the perils of war. I think of that young woman getting on a boat, leaving her war-torn country behind and heading to Canada for dreams of a better life. Because of her courage, we are here...

Monday, May 4, 2015

Maya's reading nook

Recently, as I was shifting things around in Maya's room, I decided to make a cute little reading nook for her since she is such a book lover!

Reading has been a huge part of our life and I love to read to my daughter as a bonding exercise. Also, I have noticed that reading together has increased her vocabulary. While I am an avid reader, husband-ji is not - in his family, stories were all told by memory. He has a negative association with books as the only books he was forced to read in school in India were boring textbooks. Luckily, he has gotten into the routine of reading to Maya before bed and quite enjoys it!

Every night, we read Maya anywhere from 10-30 books - time permitting. Sometimes during the day, she also wanders into her room and reads the books independently. We have popular children's books, Hindu based stories from India, and I also have all of my grandmother's children's books from the 1950's and are currently on their third generation of use.

My main goal for creating the space was to make it comfortable and cheerful. I used one of her blankets from Masala Baby, paired with her beautiful pink curtains from Anthropologie, and lots of great cushions - some from India, some from my Etsy shop (notice the pink Ganesh & Shesha cushion!). Then I hung a beautiful little painting we got in Jaipur. Overall, it turned into a masala pink explosion!

It is really nice to have a dedicated space for the love of reading books. It is so quiet and comfy....maybe I should make one for myself too!

Saturday, May 2, 2015

My Intercultural Love: Tans & Sat

This beautiful Afrikaans/Malayalee couple respect each other's individual cultures equally and celebrate the differences!

I am South African (Afrikaans) and Sat is Indian (born in Mumbai to a Malayalee family). We first met in South Africa when Sat came there on a work secondment in 2009. Two months ago, we moved from South Africa to London UK, where we are currently living now. We also have a cat and a dog who unfortunately had to stay in South Africa when we suddenly moved.

Three words that describe you...
Curious, bibliophile, wanderlust.

Where/how do you feel most inspired?
Away from the noise and rush of city life is where I feel at my most peaceful and inspired. I get very frazzled being around too many people for too long!

Where/how did you meet your spouse?
My husband and I met at the office. We are both chartered accountants by profession and he was seconded to the same firm that I had joined one week earlier. We ended up in the same induction training and just hit it off.

How long have you been together?
We started dating immediately after we met - we were just immediately attracted to each other. It felt more like I recognized him, rather than meeting him for the first time. It was a case of thinking: "Oh, here you are; I've been waiting for you!" Now we have been together for 6 years, of which we have been married for one and a half beautiful years.

What qualities do you admire in your spouse?
He is sweet, charming, intelligent, a good cook (both Indian and Western dishes) and has a very kind heart. On a lighter note…his weirdness matches my own!

Favorite memory together as a couple...
There are many amazing memories from our travels, but my favorite memories would have to be at our house in South Africa, having a barbecue in the garden, drinking champagne and having our two animal kids with us.

What did you know about your spouse's culture prior to your relationship?
Not much at all. The area where I grew up did not have many Hindu Indians, therefore it was quite a learning experience once we started dating.

How did you tell your friends/family about your intercultural relationship?
It was not a big deal telling either of our families, as they were all quite open minded. They took it well and just once expressed concern that things may be a bit difficult for us. We got to know each other’s families quite well when we were dating, so they were happy when we finally decided to get married!

How has your relationship enlightened your life? How has it changed you & your outlook on life?
I've learnt to be a lot more tolerant of people’s different ways of doing things and I had to accept that one way is not more correct than another.

Who proposed and how?
Sat did the traditional romantic proposal at one of our favorite game farms in South Africa. He proposed after dinner doing the whole thing with red roses, chocolate, down on one knee... He has never been so romantic before or since!

Describe your wedding...
Well, we actually had three weddings:
- South African Christian ceremony: traditional white wedding, elegant and formal.
- Indian Hindu ceremony: a large, colorful and exuberant wedding reception.
- Legal marriage: this was just to get us formally married.

We were very lucky that some of our family members and friends were able to travel with us and attend the weddings in both India and South Africa.

What does being married mean to you?
Being married means having your best friend by your side - throughout life.

What are your dreams for your future together as a married couple?
To travel and experience as much of the world as we can.

What's the best marital advice that you received from elder family/friends?
The best advice that I received was from my mother and grandmother, who told me not to rush into marriage. Both of them got married quite young and they regretted not having had more adventures and experiences before settling down.

What do you do to keep your relationship alive? What kinds of things do you do to connect with your spouse?
At least once a week, we go out for dinner, have some wine and just talk. It is great to get away from distractions at home such as the TV, iPads, internet, etc. We also try and take regular holidays or weekends away, so that we don't get too stuck in a dull routine.

 In what ways have you adopted aspects of your spouse's culture?
I understand a bit of Hindi, and can cook some Indian dishes. When in India, I do wear appropriate dress for the functions we may attend. Within our own home we both recognize that we are from different cultures and neither of us needs to lose ourselves in the others culture. I will always be South African and Sat will always be Indian.

Has your family adopted aspects of your spouse's culture?
No, there is no need as one family is Indian and one South African, so they have their own distinct cultures.

What aspects of your spouse's culture do you find difficult to embrace?
I find it hard to embrace the community style of thinking, which sometimes can come across as the lack of respect for individual choices.

What was the most challenging time in your intercultural relationship?
Earlier in our relationship, I felt that I needed to fully understand Indian culture and their way of doing things. I was also concerned that my partner would get tired of the “difficulty” of being with a Western woman. It finally got better once I realised that he fell in love with me, not an Indian girl, so I did not need to change my personality or habits to be more “Indian”.

What's the best and the worst part of being in an intercultural relationship?
The best part is that it is always interesting and we get to have the best of both cultures (e.g. Christmas and Onam). For me, the worst part is when people judge us based on certain preconceived notions that they may have.

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions that people have about intercultural relationships?
I think that some people feel that you have to give up on one of the cultures, in order to fully assimilate in with the other. My experience is that it is not necessary, as long as you balance and respect the requirements of both.

What are the biggest misconceptions about Western women?
The usual stuff such as not being able to cook or keep a household. The one that really gets to me though is the idea that Western women are selfish and do not care for their children very much and that is why they keep working after having kids.

What are the biggest misconceptions about Indian men?
Some people have ideas that all Indians treat their wives as second class citizens and don't give them any say. I was even warned that an Indian husband would mistreat me and not allow me a divorce!

Have you come across people who disapprove of your intercultural union? If so, how do you deal with them?
We have met some people from both cultures that did not appreciate our relationship. Luckily, it is usually limited to stares and comments. In the beginning it used to be annoying, but we both learnt to just ignore it.

Take-away advice for other intercultural couples...
Be proud of who you are and don't lose your own identity.

Friday, May 1, 2015

New ink / Tattooed couple

Last year, husband-ji got his second tattoo sleeve done (of Vishnu) which got me thinking that I should get something done too. You know...because we're just a *bad* influence on each other like that! Ha ha!

(Hers & His)

The only thing that was holding me back was that I take Maya to her weekly swimming classes, and if you get a tattoo, you can't swim for a few weeks while the fresh ink is healing. Since husband-ji is scared of the water/can't/won't ever swim, I am the only one who can take her to her classes. Last month, the swimming classes were paused for Spring Break, so I saw a perfect opportunity to get the tattoo done.

I decided to get an "eye" tattoo. It is actually the symbol for the Greek evil eye, which my Greek godmother absolutely loved. But for me, it means something different. I wanted to have a third eye symbol to remind me to keep my eyes open for inspiration - as an artist I often see things that others do not see. You only have to open your eyes, and inspiration is everywhere...

For me, it is a simple reminder to keep my eyes open: to continually do fresh and innovative work. And if it is a protective amulet, then I'll take that too!

Since I was getting one done, I decided to get another one updated. Next to my "Madhavan" tattoo (in Tamil), I decided to get Maya's name right beside it. A lot of people don't know that I have 5 tattoos!

I can't believe that I waited so long to get these done - the last time was in 2007! There are a few more that I need to get updated. The pain was nothing compared to having a natural childbirth - in fact, I found it oddly relaxing!

My tattoo artist was Jackson Clarke from Australia. I highly recommend him!


Dear readers, do you have tattoos? If so, what do you have?

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