Here is a story of reinvention that is happenstance! Incidents in her life, coincided in a manner that helped carry her on a wave of rethink and discovery. Anuradha Shankar is a versatile woman with an ability to balance the traditional with the modern, an ability to adapt to change quickly and with a sharp eye for detail. Her unique journey from a wannabe scientist with no travel experience to a travel blogger, story writer, book critic and most amazingly a fantastic amateur photographer is a story that is very inspiring. The decisions and choices she has made at every step shows us her unique ability to focus on what is closest to her heart and to pursue it with excellence. I am always fascinated by her wonderful view of the world and her blog “The Wandering Mind” is a great way to see it…
This is her story, in her own words…We Celebrate another reinvention on March 8th: International Women’s Day!
The first phase
I was born in Delhi, on the 5th of Feb, 1975. I guess I must not have wanted to leave the safe comfort of my mother’s womb, because I arrived way past the date the doctors had given for me, and being patient people, they decided to wait and see, rather than hurry my way out! Thus, my mom spent weeks in the hospital, while I probably made the most of the time before I would be forced to face the real world. The much awaited and cherished granddaughter that I was, I was pampered beyond imagination by extended family and friends, all of whom were in abundance in Delhi at the time!
The pampering and indulgence only increased, added with an element of worry and fear, when I was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect and thus, my mom’s tryst with hospital continued; eventually leading to my operation at the age of 3. One worry ceased and another began, when my father was diagnosed with Hodgkins disease, a form of cancer. This grapple with hospitals only ended with his eventually passing on in December 1979.
How my mother would have coped with widowhood, no source of income and a sickly child, is something I can only imagine, but her biggest source of support were her brothers and my aunt (my father’s sister). Eventually, we left Delhi and shifted to Mumbai, then Bombay, where my uncle (my Mama – mother’s brother) worked. That is how another phase of my life began.
The next Phase
My memories of Delhi are sketchy. Most of them are scattered ones from the years I went back for holidays. It is Bombay I have felt most comfortable in and the city I can call mine. This is the city of my childhood and youth, the city which has made me the person I am. I came here as a shy, fatherless girl, too hesitant even to talk to people. I had too few friends in my early days of school, and kept to myself, rarely speaking to anyone, building up a reputation as an introvert. I had few friends, but those I had, were staunch ones, who stuck with me. However, my best friends during this period were books and my mom… yes, in that order!
It was to books that I turned to for every problem, and whether this worked or not, I shared everything else with my mom. I relied on my mom for every issue, but it was my uncle whom I turned to for advice and support. It is he who has influenced my life more than anyone else, giving me room to grow, make my own decisions, helped me stand by them, and above all, stood by me through thick and thin.
His marriage when I was 14 was probably the biggest event in my life then. It brought two more members to our small family – my aunt and later, my sister. My aunt came into my life at a critical point. I was then in the 9th standard, and by anyone’s reckoning, completely unprepared to take the SSC board exams, a prospect which scared everyone but me. She guided me through the maze of preparation with books, and sample question papers, adding her expertise as a lecturer to inspire me to do better. That I spent the last few weeks leading to the exams happily playing with my new-born sister certainly didn’t help matters. Thankfully, I performed reasonably well, and everyone heaved a huge sigh of relief.
My choices, my decisions
My mother had long harboured dreams of her daughter becoming a doctor. However, I told her quite early that there was no chance of that happening… ever! She made her peace with that, but seeing me do well in science hoped I would at least become an engineer.
By then, I had discovered that I was good at two subjects – English and Physics. By that time I had grown into an avid reader and read anything I came across, my teachers encouraged me to write as well, correcting my mistakes and making helpful suggestions which have stayed with me through all these years. But the one subject I really enjoyed was Physics. It was the only subject where I consistently did well, without any help whatsoever and it was no surprise that I chose to study this when the time came.
Topping my junior college in Physics both the years I was there just made me even surer of my choice. This was my decision alone, one made with the idea that I wanted to follow my heart. Not everyone was happy with it, least of all my mother. But I knew that this was where my future lay, and with my uncle’s support, finally managed to convince her.
And that is how I ended up in Ruia College as a B.Sc student, choosing the unusual combination of Physics, Maths and Statistics.
Ruia opened up a new world for me. I began travelling by local trains, learnt how to navigate the crowds, how to manage during dire situations, like riots and bomb blasts and above all, it gave me the confidence to explore the city by myself. This was when I began walking around the city, buying cheap paper at wholesale rates near Crawford Market, joining the British Council library, walking along the footpath bookstalls at Fort and sighing over a book I couldn’t afford to buy.
B.Sc gave way to my Masters, again in Physics, this time at the University Campus in Kalina. This was yet another interesting world … the library is where I spent most of my time, but more interesting were the possibilities…of research, encouraged by prominent scientists who came over to talk to us and with easy access to the labs at TIFR and BARC, it made me yearn to work there.
But above all, it is those two years at the University which brought out the social side of my life. This was the time I first began making new friends, talking to complete strangers, laughing with people I had barely met. It was then that I realised that this was what I had been looking for – the confidence which comes from doing what we do best!
It was inevitable by then, that I would continue my studies, leading to a Ph.D. My mother yearned for me to get married, but I had an agreement with her – she could go ahead and look for a match for me and I would look for jobs as well as further studies. We would weigh the options we had, and take whatever seemed best. As it turned out, the way ahead lay at IIT Mumbai with a Ph.D course in the Physics department.
An Unexpected change
My first two years at IIT were sheer bliss. Living in a hostel was a new experience, and I discovered what it meant to make friends and live with them! Besides, it was a world of its own, one I loved, and enjoyed living in. I opened up even more, and discovered an interest in music and drama which I didn’t even know was there within me. However, to mar all this bliss was the fact that scarcely within a year, I was told to change my topic, and my guide – a situation I wasn’t happy with, but had to comply with. Then, even as I found my way around a new topic, a new lab, a new guide, things started to go wrong. I fell down and sprained my ankle, an injury that hurts me to this day, I started having health problems, and above all, my mother fell sick. By then I was 4 years into the Ph.D. programme and while I saw people around me progressing with their work, I realised that I was stuck in a rut, mainly due to lack of proper guidance.
The breaking point came when I was at a conference in Delhi. Some stray comments made me realise that my guide had no intention of helping me complete my research anytime soon. He was all set to drag things along for years, with no progress at all. On the same day, I received a call from home, saying that my mom was to be operated on, and so I had to rush home. It was in the train, sitting all alone in a coach that it struck me; I couldn’t possibly go on. I could understand delays due to practical issues, but dragging things along for no reason was unacceptable. Besides, I wanted to do something meaningful and a Ph.D for the degree alone wasn’t what I really wanted. If things continued as they did, that is exactly what would happen, as I kept seeing with students all around me. “Do I want this for myself?” was the question I kept asking
Even then, I tried not to give up. I asked the department to give me a sabbatical so I could stay at home with my mother and think things over. They refused, and that’s when I decided that I would hold on to my ideas and principles and like always, follow my heart. My heart told me to leave, and that’s how I left IIT, abruptly.
It almost seemed like the end of the world, but my family stood solidly behind me, never once questioning my choice. They after all, knew everything I had gone through. As my mother recuperated, unwilling to stay idle at home, I decided to do something different.
A fresh start was what I needed and I found one at the Alliance Francaise, Mumbai. Learning French was an interesting experience, but more interesting were the people I met. I made friends, explored the city, lost weight, excelled in the language, and had so much fun that a year passed by before I knew it!
Then again, life changed once more, when my mother found a suitable alliance for me and Shankar came into my life. The months before our marriage passed in a blur and before I realised, I was settled in a new house with a new family and soon looking forward to my own child.
Samhith was born on the 6th of May, 2003, and for the first couple of years, kept me really busy. I had never intended to be a working mother, so I left my French classes and decided to be a stay home instead. There was so much to learn and so much to do, that the years flew by!
Meanwhile, my new family loved to travel. Till then, travel for me had meant trips to my grandparents’ or uncles’ houses, and the occasional temple visits. Shankar and his family, on the other hand, travelled often, and everywhere! They visited temples all the time, some of which I hadn’t even heard of; they took short breaks as and when possible. Driving somewhere, suddenly they would recall some interesting place and we would take a detour! This was all new to me, but I enjoyed it to the hilt, even with my new born son in arms!
There were so many places we visited that I started a diary to keep track. Seeing me scribble something one day, my sister in law, Sandhya, asked me why I didn’t write an article. I answered, “Who will publish my articles?” and she replied, “You can start a blog!”
I had learnt some basics of computers at IIT, but still wasn’t comfortable around them. But Sandhya on the other hand, was a computer professional and we had a comp at home with an internet connection. That is how my life changed… yet again!
“A Wandering Mind” was the only thing that struck me as I sat facing the monitor, wondering what to name my blog. Little did I know then, that the blog would take on a mind of its own and wander into the most unexpected places. Over the last seven years, I have diversified from writing only about my travels, to writing book reviews, articles, stories, and even about events and festivals! I have had articles published in newspapers and online magazines, but the best part has been the people I have met (well, not all face to face, but many just on the net) through the blog. It never ceases to surprise me just how many like-minded people I have met, whom I would never have known otherwise!
When I first began the blog in 2007, it was just an online diary – a place where I jotted down things about places I had visited. All I had then was the old, manual Kodak Camera and photos were clicked rarely, after much thought and printed and saved for posterity. They simply served to brighten up my narrative and nothing more.
Then I bought a Sony Cybershot, and before I knew it, morphed into a photographer. It wasn’t the story of the place alone that I could write about now. I could even show my readers the place, as I wanted them to see it. My relationship with the Cybershot lasted all of 5 years, during which time; I grew increasingly impatient with its limitations.
I was tempted to buy a DSLR, but with a naughty son who constantly demanded attention, I knew it was more than I could handle. Then thankfully, I had met other bloggers and photographers, and on their advice, bought myself a bridge camera – a Nikon P510. Its extended zoom allowed me to capture birds and insects, beautiful landscapes, and allowed me to change settings without the trouble of changing lenses. With my newfound love of bird watching, my son’s interest in anything that moved and my roving eye which wanted to capture everything in sight, this camera seems to work perfectly. For now!
Along the way, ‘A Wandering Mind’ started growing a mind of its own and I felt it was time I diversified. A visit to Kashi with my in laws made me realise just how little people knew of the rituals we perform for our ancestors, though almost all of us perform them. My posts received so many questions that I decided they needed their own space. Thus was born ‘Kashi Yatra’. The posts are almost 6 years old now and yet, I continue to get queries from people eager to go to Kashi and perform rituals.
Storytelling had been an integral part of my childhood, with an extended family of aunts and great aunts who are inveterate story tellers. My mother, to this day, tells the best stories and my son had the benefit of all these years of stories. However, with all these stories in my head already, I wasn’t really happy with the books on Indian stories in the market and thus was born ‘Indian Stories for Children’. The height of my satisfaction was when I was approached to write a series of stories based on mythology for a spiritual group. Though the book isn’t for sale and only for private circulation, it was immensely satisfying to write stories my own way! The stories are available on my blog for anyone who wants to read them. What else could I ask for?
Also along the way, I found recognition as a blogger, invited to blogger trips and meets and have received accolades galore. While my responsibilities as a mother and wife prevent me from taking all of them up and also restrict my travel opportunities, they all simply go on to reinforce my belief that following my heart and changing tracks was the best decision I ever made!
It has been a roller coaster ride of many choices and decisions made at different points in my life, some may have been right and others wrong. But there are no regrets – possibly because each and every one of those decisions has been my own. The credit goes, not to me, but my mother and my uncle, who gave me advice, made suggestions and stood by me, but never, ever made any of my decisions. They gave me the freedom to make my own choices, and today as a mother of a son fast approaching his teens, I only wish I have the same wisdom they showed!