On ‘Knowing thyself’

One of the most important insights I’ve ever had into myself was about five years ago when I came home from a party and found myself inexplicably exhausted. In fact, I had left early after someone I was trying to engage in conversation with told me I looked like I wasn’t interested. I was actually surprised to hear it.

I was living in Nairobi at the time, and there were always fascinating people around to meet— entrepreneurs, world travelers, athletes, and journalists. Every weekend and nearly every night of the week you could take it for granted that there was a group of people getting together, and nearly everyone was exceptionally warm and friendly. You could generally expect that the invitation was open and that the group would be intelligent and engaged. 

It was also a favorite conversation topic: how easy it was to meet likeminded people and, if you put in the effort, to build lasting friendships. Even after moving back to the U.S., many of my dearest friends I know from my time abroad. 

On that particular evening, I was still somewhat new in Nairobi myself. I had decided that I ought to go out often and take the opportunity to meet new people. So, although I felt a bit drained from work that week, I convinced myself I’d feel fine once I was talking to people and soaking in the scene. 

In just a few short years from that night, I look back on myself and smile knowingly. If I could write a book on what I know now and share it with my slightly younger self, the advice would fill several volumes. I suspect most people feel the same. 

And while I think that life delivers most lessons through experiences when we’re ready for them, there is one thing I wish I had known earlier about myself: that I’m an introvert.

That night, the comment from the person I was talking to triggered some realizations. There was a part of me that was interested, and that was why I was at the party at all. But there was another part of me that was terribly exhausted and irritated. It dawned on me that the mild headache I had developed while I was out wasn’t generic. I realized that I had become quite skilled at ignoring what my body and mind were attempting to communicate to me (although it had become plainly obvious to my companion).

From then on, I made it a point to respect my own boundaries for socialization. I read a few articles about introversion and I learned that introverts generally prefer socializing in smaller groups or one-on-one. It was certainly the case for me. So, whenever I received an invitation for a larger get-together, if I didn’t have the energy, I would explain to my friends that I’d love to spend time with them but large groups could leave me feeling completely drained. I was grateful for the realization at the time, and as a result I was able to choose social settings that I found relaxing and invigorating. I even figured out what worked for me at big parties.

Now, I’ve found myself diving even deeper. 

What exactly is introversion? And in what other ways does it show up aside from the way we socialize? If changing the way I go out had that much of an impact on my wellbeing, what other areas of my life and my routine could I bring awareness to? And most importantly, why had I been so unaware that I was exhausted?

On recent a trip to visit my family, a book on the bottom shelf of a bookcase happened to catch my eye: The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World. My sister, also an introvert, had used it as a reference to write a paper for school five years ago. I was quickly absorbed. 

A few things became apparent to me as I read the book and reflected on myself. First, when I think of what is ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ behavior— it is most often that of the majority of the human population. Extroverts outnumber introverts 3 to 1. 

Even after a long work week, some of my extroverted friends can go out to happy hour, dinner, and a party. They enjoy networking. Banter and debate are energizing. Bar hopping is a great time. Naturally, growing up, I thought I ought to learn how to enjoy all of these things too. If I was feeling a little low, it was because I wasn’t putting myself out there enough.

This was the very first myth that I busted.

In my view, the most intelligent thing we can do for our happiness and wellbeing is to pay attention to the signals that we’re constantly getting from within. 

Since I was a kid, I had felt uneasy in large group settings, including in many classrooms. In my twenties, I noticed over and over that despite having studied a topic at length and having a great deal to share, I struggled to explain verbally the wealth I had inside. There were so many instances I felt overlooked and ignored because I wasn’t able to keep up with the quick pace of a conversation. When I did speak up, it could feel forced and forceful. What I wanted to do was speak softly without interruption. Instead, it seemed that in order to be heard, I had to adapt myself to a world that was speaking loudly, quickly, even aggressively. 

Socializing and conversation— it all seems relatively harmless enough— after all there is a great deal to be gained by going outside one’s comfort zone. This was what I would tell myself in these situations. Yes, you might feel strained at times, but challenging yourself and taking on things that don’t come as naturally is healthy…right?  

The experience that night when I left the party early carried with it an important message— one that I only started to decode in its entirety relatively recently.  

We are not all the same.

It is a myth that if something is difficult or feels uncomfortable, you just need to try harder, practice. While some challenges are healthy, without realizing that as an introvert both my physiology and psychology predispose me to a temperment that is less common, I was constantly overexerting myself. Both my professional and personal life seemed to demand more than I could give. I felt exhausted and under-appreciated. As the patterns deepened, I felt worse. I started to feel that I didn’t have power to respond to people and situations in my life, that what I felt didn’t matter and that I didn’t have the option to decide what was best for me. 

That was exactly the reason why that night at the party I hadn’t even noticed that I was tired— I was so used to ignoring the signals. I was used to the feeling of being drained and stretched beyond my comfort zone. It might seem obvious to some, but I never knew that it was perfectly alright to stay in as often as I like; to spend many nights in a row reading, writing, contemplating. I also didn’t know that at work, I had the right to ask for the space and the time I need. I didn’t realize that it was ok to speak softly and ask people to stay with me when I took time to explain something. I didn’t realize that it was ok to be different. Or that there were a lot of other people who felt just like me. 

The Introvert Advantage, written by psychologist Marti Olsen Laney, is extremely useful, especially if you or someone close to you is an introvert. In it, Laney dispels a number of myths around introversion— including that introverts are shy or socially awkward (which both introverts and extroverts can be). Some of these myths are the reason I didn’t realize I was an introvert until my twenties. 

In one of the most interesting chapters she examines the physiological differences between an introvert’s brain and an extrovert’s. Using PET scans, researchers have been able to track the flow of neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals that relay messages across the brain. Of the dozens of neurotransmitters, there are ten that do most of the work. 

It’s relatively well known that the release of dopamine signals a pleasurable experience. When researchers examined the introverted brain, however, it was another neurotransmitter that was dominant in signaling pleasurable experiences: acetylcholine. When dopamine was released, the introverted brain did not need as much of it as extroverts did. For introverts smaller bursts of dopamine from external stimulation were satisfying; too much was quickly overwhelming. The extroverted brain on the other hand craved more hits of dopamine, and the release of acetylcholine was not pleasurable in the same way. 

Likewise, the pathway acetylcholine took in the brain was longer and slower and passed through the regions of the brain involved in contemplation, problem-solving, and long-term memory. Dopamine on the other hand took a shorter path through regions that process sensory inputs from sight, sound, touch, and taste, as well as short-term memory. It seems apparent from the differences in brain chemistry why introverts find time spent quietly and reflectively so rewarding, while extroverts are excited by external stimulation. It also explains why banter might come more easily to extroverts— the information in their short-term memory is more accessible via their shorter dopamine circuit. 


Image from The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World

Laney goes on to make more points in the chapter on other physiological differences between introverts and extroverts which result in additional key differences in temperament and behavior. It is well worth a read. It’s helped me understand that there is an entirely different ‘normal’ and it’s perfectly alright to be that way!

This process has been illuminating, to say the least. When you’ve spent your life convinced that you ought to be different than you actually are— it’s bound to result in tremendous frustration. I’ve had the fortune of realizing that qualities I thought were flaws are actually unique assets of mine. Introversion is a single example— I’m sure there are many other as of yet undiscovered facets of myself that will reveal themselves down the road.


A love letter

For Kevin.

When I came to visit you at your art studio that very first time, I was enamored. I still remember so well when you told me the name of your website. We were in front of the skeleton and I was standing to your right side. You tilted your head when you looked at me and said ‘lie to me harder’ with a twinkle in your eye. I knew then that I had never met anyone like you in my life.

I still vividly remember standing in front of the skeleton for the first time. Do you remember what I said? That it reminded me of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. It was a work I saw first in print back in grade school– I was probably 8 or 9. All the art I had ever seen until then was frozen in time. Mere attempts to capture an ephemeral moment, a fleeting rhapsody. But that one was different.

Do you remember when you brought your study of the Buddhist scripture from the temple on 8th St. out from under your drawing table? You showed me your attempts to translate what seemed to be incoherent sentences. You asked if I could make sense of them. I was in awe of your sincerity.

And do you remember when you asked me what I would do with my life if money wasn’t a thing? I gave you an answer then.

I am still, however, trying to answer that question– but with much more honesty and courage. It seemed to me that you weren’t merely posing a hypothetical question, like a brain teaser or a ‘would you rather’ scenario. For you it was real life. It was a question you were asking yourself, perhaps monthly or weekly. And it wasn’t that I’ve never been asked that question before, but rather that the person asking me has never been as true. As you.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve begun to understand why it’s ever more important to watch what people do, rather than what they say. We live in an age where it’s easier than ever to project an image: a click of a button or a swipe of a card can transform. Just as we can adorn our bodies, we can now also adorn our minds with information. But I want to ask: what’s the use if we are still unwise?

Wisdom. It’s hard to see, even in plain view.

Probably by design, I guess.

Your garden says otherwise about you, though.

In your studio, you offered me tea from your collection of loose leaf varieties stored in jars on a miniature bookshelf. You heated water in a kettle and poured it slow. It steamed inside the small clay pot. You served it to me in a blue and white porcelain cup.

I’ve never had tea like that.

For my sister, after the election

“Today, after the 2016 elections in the U.S., we are living out the example of what happens when what goes unacknowledged surfaces and it feels like a new reality but you know in your heart it is not. To suffer based on expectations is to live haunted and hunted. But we are fortunate. There could be no other answer to our meditation and prayers in dissolving hatred than to be placed front and center with it and be exposed. When a shift in a system has occurred, especially one that causes fear and discomfort, it allows for something strikingly different to appear, furthering our evolution as people. We can only know where we are going when we get there…

Our rage, pain, and anger are to be exposed if only for us to transform and mature with it. In Buddhist practice we say congratulations because now is the time we have been practicing for. No more just practicing the dance. We must now dance. And this is not a dress rehearsal.”  

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

My sister Nadia is 18 years old and in her last year of high school. She lives in Florida with my parents, where we grew up in our family home on a tree-lined street in our sunny Tampa suburb. On November 8th, my sister sent me several photos of herself beaming in front of their local polling station. She had exercised her right to vote for the first time in her young life. 

Nadia is the first one in our family to have been born in the U.S. The rest of us are naturalized citizens. My parents are first generation Indian immigrants, and I consider myself something in between first and second generation— generation 1.5, if you will. 

There are a few things I know about my sister— like the fact that she took an entire extra year and half before applying for a learner’s driving permit, and that she isn’t all that concerned about grades or college. She’s respectful and kind. She’s a musician. She keeps a photo of a child from Syria in her bedroom. She sends me handmade postcards. What I admire in her the most is that she knows her priorities— she’s got laser beam targets on the things that matter to her, sees through bullshit like a boss, and she holds herself with the sort of confidence that make the rest of us wonder its source. 

On November 8th just a few short weeks after turning 18, she had the opportunity to exercise her rights as a citizen in a presidential election– one for the history books no less! This ballot even carried the name of the first woman running for president as a major party candidate (hat tip to Shirley Chisholm).  

It was a clear choice for Nadia when she showed up at the polling station. She had spent the past eight years of her life in a liberal echo chamber. Since age 10, President Obama had been in office— and despite growing up observing the consequences of bigotry and fear across the world, Nadia had mostly known the effects of what appeared to her to be a system that was mending itself. Reforms in the right direction, inclusiveness, a political discourse that was starting to make sense— a kerfuffle here and there, but positive movements overall, right?

So when I received a message from my mom the day following the election on November 9th, that Nadia was in tears and had come home early from school— I can’t say I was entirely surprised. 

Let the present state of the nation not be a surprise to any of us. 

I am grateful to be a citizen of a country where I do trust the political process. The election was free and fair. Despite 43% of the American population not voting— those who did cast their ballots have made a clear choice. That is what I told Nadia. That what we are seeing today is the honest-to-God truth. I would not have it any other way. 

Nadia, as real as your experience in life has been, half of this country has had the opposite experience— and their’s is every bit as legitimate as yours. I urge you to ask questions, and not make assumptions. They too have perspectives and stories that deserve to be heard. May you exercise your capacity to listen without judgement, just as you exercised your right to vote earlier this week. 

Nadia, I know those tears are a result of the hateful and ignorant words and actions of our nation’s President-elect. Again, I would not have it any other way. You will see as you get older, fear is the second most powerful force in the world. And out of fear, people will act with hate, with ignorance. There is a great deal of hate. Better it comes out in the open than be covered up where it can fester and spread deeper. There is no ignoring the wound when it is in plain sight. 

Nadia, you will find as you grow in self-awareness that there is also a great deal of fear within yourself. That the divide outside is nothing but a reflection of the inside. May that realization, whenever it comes, inspire even more understanding and patience. 

Nadia, know this— there is at least one person in the world whom you have moved with your love.


A poem. For Rosario and Kevin.

Damn your honesty. Damnit.
Tell the soothsayers to go home. They’re not wanted here.
Don’t you ever utter those words. Not here. Not now.
You see, we didn’t have the heart to tell you.
When you arrived, the light was so bright.
So bright, it burned.

You tumbled straight down from the sky.
Beauty so rare, the very heavens quivered with delight!
Who is this child?, they cooed.
O innocent one!, eyes filled with tears.
You will choke a thousand times.
On your own spit.
Crystalline eyes, and
Lips red like crow’s blood.

They will lie to you, child.
They will hold your face in their palms with the intention to deceive.
They will speak to you in absolutes,
But their actions will be murky.
They will say, “God blessed you.”
But at what cost?
There is always a cost, child.

A cradle, riddled with holes.
Seeds, sown in the sand.
An audience rapt, with disgust.
Dead men, walking.

Seer, you.
Sorry, you.
Silent, you.

This elegant knotted throbbing mass of blood, sinew, and flesh– not owned but on loan.
A fistful of existence clutched fearfully to the chest.
A thread-bare delusion. A life-sized wrinkle.
An inconvenience.
What would you say if I could give you a glimpse of the beyond, O loved one.

Eyes that were made to see


Rays of sunlight pierce through rainclouds over Kenyan farm country. Over Aberdares Mountain range, 2013.

“What is that you express in your eyes? It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life.” Walt Whitman

Yesterday, someone proposed a beautiful idea to me that has changed the way I choose to view many of the actions of those around me and of my own.

I’m in a very interesting phase of my life– marked by transition, growth, and self inquiry. What have I learned in my life so far? What is important to me? What is my personal truth? And how does that crystalize into the life choices I make in the coming months and years?

At 21 there was perhaps only a single thing I knew for certain. A single truth in my existence: that I knew very little about life and the world at large. School had taught me a few things — and somehow looking back, I think the most valuable things I gained from 17 years in a classroom were not academic in nature but human, rather.

As a kid, I had caught a rare glimpse through the matrix– and I couldn’t ignore what I had seen. I had gazed long into what seemed murky, shifting waters, but once, I glimpsed the stillness underneath.

Let me explain.

As a child I had the feeling that we as humans have always searched for some truth to hold on and cling to. This truth might take any “form” — a person, an institution, a belief, a cause, an idea. The form is just a placeholder, a proxy for something far greater and more valuable– truth. Growing up I asked myself, ‘What can I put my full and complete trust in? What never changes its nature; is never subjective, situational, or conditional; never falters; never ends; never dies?‘ Because if there were such a truth, surely that would mark the end of this universal restlessness I was observing.

My personal attempt to understand what is true in this life is what led me to East Africa in 2010.

Another observation I had made growing up was that despite experiencing deep discomfort and a particular variety of torturous doubt — I perpetually felt like nothing was real and everything and everybody was an impostor, including me– facing adversity had helped me uncover some realities about myself, and about what my mind and body are capable of. I suppose that was the logic when I thought to myself, What is the hardest thing I could possibly do after graduating college? Could intentionally choosing to challenge myself show me truth, and hopefully in the process relieve my discomfort and doubt? Why do difficult things seem to open our eyes? And why can’t comfortable things do the same?

Again, I looked for evidence in the world around me. There seemed to be three sorts of people: those whose eyes were wide open, and those whose eyes were closed.

Those whose eyes were closed fell into two further categories– those who were attempting to open their eyes, an occasional fluttering of lashes, sincere, concerted attempts to wake; and those who chose to keep their eyes shut– resignation, numbness.

The lash flutterers, the restless, the truth seekers — the pursuit, the search– shallow or deep, depending on ones own capacity for courage; I knew them all too well.

And the resigned? I feared them deep down. Life’s breath and blood coursing through a corpse? I was young (and restless), I hadn’t given up yet.  I was terrified of becoming one of them.

But what of the ones with their eyes wide open? I couldn’t say I knew any, very well at least. But I knew of their existence. Are they real? Are they human? Are their eyes really wide open? And if so, how did they manage to open their eyes? What truth did they know that they rest of us didn’t?

The hardest thing I could imagine as a 21 year old was to move to a foreign country in a very far away part of the world where I was forced to challenge my every assumption, could take nothing for granted, and where I would have just my own self to rely upon– nothing more, nothing less. I hoped that if I walked outside with the courage to see reality as it is and try my hardest not to run, perhaps some truth might be revealed to me.


Yesterday, I had the great fortune of receiving some wisdom from a young teacher. Her name is Keri and twice a month at the Seattle Insight Meditation Society she offers groups of young people a chance to use creativity and curiosity to challenge their notions about what it means to be human. We do meditate together. But we also engage in insightful dialogue. A roomful of (mostly) strangers sharing some of their deepest and most treasured thoughts and emotions.

A young man in the group yesterday remarked how someone else can forcibly take anything from you, except your thoughts and emotions– those are two things which can only be offered willingly, and are therefore the most valuable things a person can offer to another. I could have hardly appreciated how rare and precious such a group is even just a couple of years ago.

The topic of the evening was generosity. Keri offered some provocative questions: ‘Could we try to look at generosity beyond the concept of the word or from a perspective outside of our respective cultural lenses? What is generosity actually? How do you receive generosity? And what prevents us from being generous?‘ She asked.

To offer something to another– be it a material object, a service, a favor, a hug or kiss, or to share a thought or emotion for that matter is an act of generosity. Even if that act is coming from a person who is fulfilling a role (for example, a mother feeding her child) or a person doing a job that she is paid to do. Keri explained that each and every thing that we offer to another is an act of generosity, regardless of whether we “feel” generous or giving in the process. We might feel mixed emotions or be unsure of our intentions while making an offering, this became apparent during the group discourse, but the action remains an act of generosity.

Generosity is something I have not understood and at times found uncomfortable in the past. I derive a great deal of joy in offering what I am able to those around me, especially my close friends and family– be it a gift, a homemade meal, a hug, a kiss, a joke, or a word of support or encouragement. What’s life if not to share these things? Simple acts of love. They make life worth living.

But I have also struggled with the idea of having the right intentions behind generosity– Do I sometimes give out of a sense of duty or obligation? Do I expect something in return deep down? What if my act of generosity is misunderstood or goes unappreciated? Will I make the recipient of my generosity feel obligated to reciprocate? When I am being paid, does my hard work count as generosity, or am I fool to do more than what is expected? Is there such a thing as being too giving?

I read a book a couple years ago called Give and Take by psychologist and professor Adam Grant, which brought me to tears. It’s the only piece of non fiction, aside from Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, that utterly moved me and created an irreversible change in my perspective. It did put to rest my fears about being too giving.

Keri however helped me see generosity itself in a completely new light– that we can be generous even when we don’t “feel” like it, that conflicting intentions can be separated from the act of giving. Like a painter or writer who sits down to create art even when inspiration has not yet struck, we can be generous even when we don’t feel it inside– the act of giving can inspire the emotion, the emotional connection can come second. This was truly a revelation.

Afterward I felt a tremendous amount of gratefulness towards Keri and the rest of the group. As I’ve grown older, I have also grown in my capacity to appreciate the things that, when I was younger, I only appreciated casually.


It’s shifts like these that cause our lashes to flutter. When we are ripe for understanding, the truth bursts forth, it’s unstoppable.

Today I know something else for certain–

That I have eyes that were made to see.

May we all grow in truth.

Introducing: Tales from the Deep (or A Retrospective Recounting of my African Debut) 

Balinese man in prayer at Hindu temple on Mt Batukar

Balinese men in prayer at Hindu temple on Mt Batukar

In 2010 at the age of 21, I graduated from college with a bachelors degree and moved to Zanzibar, a semi-autonomous island nation in the Indian Ocean, off of the Tanzanian coast.

Seventeen years spent in a classroom had left me starved for real life. Enough with theory, I wanted practice. 

Boy, did I get what I asked for. I spent the next few years as an ardent student of the School of Life, matriculating at classrooms in Zanzibar, Uganda, and Kenya, and accompanied by an unforgettable cohort of peers.

Within my first month in Zanzibar I pruned my long curly hair into a short boyish cut because I thought I could avoid catcalls on the street that way. I spent those days at the local hospital managing a research study on family planning and abortion. A year later, in Kampala, Uganda, my housemate Paul the OBGYN, would come home to share new tales from the maternity ward at Mulago Hospital, the same one featured in the Last King of Scotland. While riding to work one morning in Kampala, I was followed down the street by a tank with a soldier firing warning shots into the air– a clear message to opposition party supporters during election season. One chance August afternoon in Nairobi I found myself sitting across a table on a date with Sibongiseni Shabalala, a member of the South African a capella group, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Within a couple of years, my work would take me from Rwandan maize fields to negotiations at the Ministry of Agriculture, all within the same frenzied day.

You really couldn’t make this stuff up.

The more I have thought about these past few years, the more I realized that I really ought to recount these tales in detail. This past year has marked a turning point in my perspective– these stories have started to provoke just slightly less emotion and a little bit more laughter. Thus, today marks my embarkation on a new set of vignettes for this blog I call– Tales from the Deep (or A Retrospective Recounting of my African Debut) .

Tales from the Deep could be considered, among other things, a coming of age story. I was after all just 21 when I first moved to Zanzibar; green behind the ears, a spring chicken, Dr Sultan called me.

As I first sat down to write this series, a quote by Robinson Davies came to mind: “There is absolutely no point in sitting down to write a book unless you feel that you must write that book, or else go mad, or die.”

I‘ve felt an unsettling gnawing from within for a very long while that I thought might be helped by writing, but did not know what to write or how to express the knotted tangle of thoughts, emotions, and experiences swirling in my mind. I thought perhaps a story, a work of fiction, could serve as a metaphor for the journey I have taken and would help me unload the volumes I have accumulated.

My attempts however, were shallow and felt to me entirely too contrived. It wasn’t until a trip I took to Indonesia in December last year where I encountered an Englishman, a fellow of 34 years, who had spent the past three years living in a Balinese village atop a mountain, that I realized fiction was entirely unesscesary– my reality without any embellishment was entertaining enough. Simon seemed to me like a 21st century Paul Gauguin (minus the paintings and death by syphilis). Replace banker from Paris with IT start-up guy from London, and Tahiti with Bali, and you have Simon.

Simon could recount to me endless stories of village life in Bali. He lives on a small farmstead on Mt Batukar in Bali’s Tabanan province, and runs an ecolodge where I stayed. He cares for a rescued Sumatran pig tailed macaque, and several dogs, cats, and ducks all of which he acquired purely by accident or happenstance. For example, his dog Walu, which means pumpkin in Balinese, he explained to me is a sacrifice dog who would have been otherwise slaughtered in a ritual had Simon not made him his own pet. Lola the macaque on the other hand, was poached from her jungle habitat and raised in a dress as a little girl by a childless lady before Simon adopted her. She has a grave aversion toward all women due to the early trauma she suffered in her monkeyhood– I can attest to her loathing.

Simon’s world ran tangentially to mine, however we differed in one critical way. His ability to not only see the comedy in his daily tribulations but also maintain a sense of wonderment long after the romance of Bali was no longer so fresh and the mundane had settled in was so very refreshing to me, and it was exactly the example I needed. I also needed the necessary distance from my time in East Africa to be able to understand it and comment on it from a slightly more neutral and removed perspective.

In fact, what being in Bali did for me was exactly what I had hoped for: I could suddenly see the past five years of my life through a new lens, and it started to make a little more sense. I suddenly had a moment when the immortal words of Johnny Nash rung loudly and clearly in my ears:

I can see clearly now that the rain has gone, I can see all the obstacles in my way.

Here’s to new beginnings and clarity. Stay tuned, my friends.



Today it has been two years since my friend Ravi was shot in a terrorist attack in Nairobi by a member of Al Shabaab.

We realized by mid afternoon on Saturday, September 21st, 2013 that he was missing. For a day and a half my friends and I searched for him. Those 38 some odd hours didn’t and still don’t seem real. Every minute that passed, I expected that I would wake from the nightmare. But I did not.

Even when Woubie and Sean came upstairs at 4am on Monday to Toni and my apartment, it felt like a horrible dream I would wake up from at any moment. Toni had fallen asleep on the couch and I sat at our dining room table listening to a Third Eye Blind album on repeat, willing someone to update twitter with some news of an ambulance leaving the mall. I didn’t even hear Woubie say they found him. I just sobbed into her shoulder, because I already knew.

I haven’t thought about that night until today. My heart pounds still and tears flow. I still don’t know how to handle this kind of loss. My reaction for the past two years has been to avoid any real discussion of Ravi or Westgate. Sometimes I say it out loud, just to see if things seem different. Pictures elicit a knee-jerk reaction. That day left me so cold. I have a shiver no blanket can console.

I could not have known the depth to which that event would change my life, and those of my friends, irreversibly. It continues to change us.

For me, Ravi’s loss initially triggered a phase of machine-like steeliness by which I coped for the first six months. That quickly gave way to a hellish period of nightmares and dysfunction. I left Kenya last year after there was an armed robbery at my apartment complex. It has been a tumultuous year.

I feel like a character in a theatrical performance, cast with only half a script. The easy part was acting. While he was missing, there was something I could do. But now, we have said our goodbyes, and his parents have long laid him to rest. What comes next? What am I supposed to do now?

I cope by ignoring. By compartmentalizing. But mostly by ignoring. I have learned that this is not healthy.

If death was hard enough to fathom, to loose a person to an act of violence is incomprehensible. Really incomprehensible. It has been in the aftermath of this loss that I have begun to realize how little we know about our own minds. How our coping mechanisms can turn on us after a while. How it seems that on the surface we can convince ourselves of anything, but we can never escape the truth no matter how hard we try to keep it buried. Violence is a sharp blade. And it leaves a deep scar.

Ravi was one of the most honest people I have ever met. When I say honest, what I mean is that he was self-aware, he was so real and unapologetically himself. That was the first thing you noticed about him, whether or not you consciously realized that quality is what made him stand out among so many. No pretensions. Good, bad, or ugly– he stayed with it. He was at ease with his own self.

When you’re with someone like that, they unconsciously permit you a moment’s relief. We could all be a bit more human around Ravi. We could accept ourselves as we are, even if for just an instant. When our friends write about the person and presence that he was– it’s about laughter, dancing, and food. There are a lot of bright people in this world, but he was truly intelligent. Compassion starts within oneself and flows outward. Ravi not only knew this, but he lived it.

He was a lion of a man. He is so dearly missed.


“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”  –  Rainer Maria Rilke

I took some advice a couple of years ago.

Back when I was still in college there was a chance summer, in 2009 to be exact, during which I ended up in a particular professor’s office. It was a seemingly random and unconnected chain of events that led me there. By that time, my very short life experience had taught me one real thing: do work that is meaningful, or risk loosing my fire and potential to lethargy and apathy. My brief stint in corporate America had left me feeling like my brain was rotting inside my skull. My attempts to find a summer job in the development sector had yielded a couple of awkward interviews with the World Bank, but no position. My head was spinning. I was not qualified for the jobs I was seeking. I needed tangible skills.

I finally decided I was ok with not earning any money that summer. I remember I was at a crossroads. I asked myself, what do I want out of life? What do I care about? I wrote to my local PBS station and asked if they could use a young person who was hungry to learn about the world and about herself. I wrote to others as well. The responses were overall positive.

At some point I cast an email to a professor in the African studies department at the University of South Florida, where my parents live in Tampa. My email was forwarded to another professor with a funny name. It was a shot in the dark. I said I was eager to learn social science research methods, and that I’d give my time in return for mentorship that summer. The professor told me to come in to his office at 1pm the next day.

I went in prepared for an interview. Dressed the part. Had my elevator speech and padfolio at hand. I hoped with near desperation that a 19 year old with far too many questions swirling in her head would finally find some luck that day. An answer, perhaps.


Dr. Sultan and I met again two years later on another continent. June 2011. Nairobi, Kenya. I felt like I had been sucked though a wormhole when we reunited in Africa: the land of both of our dreams. His of childhood, adolescence, the Sahara, old loves, and the lingering aroma of coffee. Mine of answers lived into. Who was I again? 

We met several times over the course of a week. Long and thoughtful conversations. Never heavy. Always light and lighthearted. But intense, subtly.

I was different by then. My values were the same, but I was not the 19 year old college student who was living on the periphery of life. For all I knew when I first met Dr. Sultan in 2009, my life was a full one, my universe complete– except for these questions– and they bothered me so.

But by 2011 I had seen just enough to realize that up till then in my life, I had only traipsed the very edge and had not dove in. I had lived in East Africa for one year by then. And I knew just enough to understand that up till then, all that I had felt in my life were just shadows of real emotions. I was a child on whom the true beauty of a life wholly lived was lost. Up till then in my life I had lived only in my own mind.

Dr. Sultan and I walked to an Ethiopian restaurant in the living room of a lady’s home one Friday evening. My mind was preoccupied as usual. I was expressing to him my concerns about one thing or another. Work, friends, love, purpose, intention, happiness. Matatu routes, time zones, a new city, a new pulse. I’m confused, I’m hurting, I’m alone, I’m lonely. How do I do this again? At some point he looked over at me and said something I only slowly began to absorb.


There was no interview.

I sat in Dr. Sultan’s office that chance afternoon in 2009 and he did not ask me about my resume. He did not ask me the behavioral interview questions I was prepared to answer– about a time when I worked on a team or showed leadership ability when no one else rose to the challenge. He did not ask me what skills I would bring to the table.

What he did ask was: Who are you? What do you want? What are your dreams? And what would you like to gain while you’re with me?

I think back, and it is like the conversation that started in 2009 just simply continued. It continues even now.


When I was 19 I lived by very strict rules. Discipline was essential. Focus, determination, goals. I was obsessed. No distractions.

One day at lunch Dr. Sultan asked if I would like a glass of wine.

I replied that I didn’t drink.

He said that it was ok that I was 20 and that I’m technically not supposed to drink for another year– one glass was fine. I replied that my non-drinking had nothing to do with my age, or laws, or even morality. Dr. Sultan said, what then? Would you object if I dipped a Q-tip in some liquor and rubbed it on your teeth?

Incredulous, I said no of course not, but that’s absurd!

Laughing earnestly, Dr. Sultan warned me then about having hard and fast rules. Discipline is a good thing, but the reasons for having rules can be lost when they are followed indiscriminately, he said.

I entertained these ideas– and there were so many we tossed back and forth that summer. I can’t say I could understand all of his advice and musings. What I remember is that we laughed a lot. I went home really happy every evening. I didn’t have all my answers, but this I was ok with. I learned my research methods, yes, but I was just getting started with my real education. My reality was expanding. I was not aware of this at the time.


I have recently been asking myself a lot of tough questions.

Fear and insecurities. It’s ugly to look at. Easier to push these away to the recesses of my mind and distract myself with the everyday. But every now and then life makes you confront them. A wake up call. A point where bad habits start biting you in the ass. The point where you can’t pretend any longer. Life becomes volatile. The slightest provocation can prove terribly painful.

I wrote to Dr. Sultan this time. He responded swiftly, poignantly: Please remember that you have about 3 times the life you have already lived ahead of you. You have time to adjust to everything. 

Oceans and decades later, perhaps I will have adjusted. Perhaps I won’t be so resistant to change. Or be so afraid of myself.

For months I thought long and hard about the advice Dr. Sultan gave me in the restaurant in the Ethiopian lady’s living room:

Don’t be too rational. Don’t logic your way through life. Make mistakes. Screw up. Get messy.

I took his advice.


Temple scene from my hometown in Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu

My mother and father were 29 and 32 respectively when we moved to Montana with just two suitcases. It was about the same time of year as it is now, and I was a couple weeks shy of my fourth birthday. This year marks 20 years that our family has called the United States home.

I never fully understood the limbo-state that my parents have always lived. We talk about settling down, we talk about citizenship, we talk about retirement plans. But over the course of 20 years the dialogue has shifted. It’s no longer about dreams of moving back to India, but rather how many months out of the year we would ideally spend there. Back in India, just a few rusty trunks contain what little remains from homes long bulldozed. Old photos could be all that we have of our former selves.

We left India for a chance at something new. In a place and time where paid work for so many was incredibly difficult to come by, employment within one’s field and course of study was truly a rare chance. Both of my parents had jobs within the fields they were trained in. Yet, when presented with the Opportunity to learn and to earn, to deepen one’s pond of existence, to see what else the world had in store– there was no choice but to take it. And never look back.

In Nairobi, we talk about the expat life. We talk about missing out on family milestones, we talk about loved ones moving on without us, we talk about a lonely existence in a foreign city.

But it’s sort of glamorous. We did something that not many have done; we congratulate ourselves. So it’s alright that during the two, perhaps three, years we spent as an expat we were uncomfortable. Yes, we were stretched across two continents (maybe three)—but it was worth whatever it was we each thought we’d gain by being away those years.

When I think of my parents and so many others like them, I think about what it’s like to be torn across two continents. As long as we are at home we cannot appreciate all that is familiar and comfortable that we attach ourselves to. Yet when we are away from home it is these things we never could appreciate that hurt us the most. Today I thought I smelled the distinctly tart aroma of dosa batter as it hits hot oil on a cast iron griddle, and it immediately put me at ease. It’s the aroma that wafted through my house every single morning of my childhood. My reaction was visceral. But my heart sank when I realized that I imagined it.

I think that in the long run, having to redefine ourselves, our identities in relation to our new homes is what hurts the most. In two or three short years, we sample that pain. But none of us can truly claim to know it.

The smells, the quiet, the noise, the spaces, the textures, the lights, the sights, the human beings we long for! It is not unique. The millions of immigrants who came before us, they too have mourned the loss of Things they left behind.

It is in this that I find solace.

The Idiot

Mountain gorilla who rubbed his face on my thigh

A few days ago I came to the startling realization that in two more months, I will have lived in Nairobi for a year.

That also means that it will have been two years since I left the U.S. and moved to East Africa.

Two years is an odd and startling benchmark in my own mind. When you are 21 years old and freshly graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree, two years seem like an eternity. Two years in a land so foreign where, as my roommate Kimmie likes to say, the only thing you recognize is your own shadow. Two years in a place so far away that, looking forward, you can’t even imagine life on the other side of that finite stretch of time. I am nearing that point. That point at the end of two years. And it is so very, very real.

When I was 21 and a fresh graduate I thought I would spend two years in East Africa. I think the ‘about me’ section of this blog still even says that I would spend two years here. I am trying to remember what I thought would come after that. Graduate school seems the most likely next step I would have imagined for myself at the time. Let me start by saying that I am not ready for graduate school. But let me end by saying that I have never before felt like I know and have experienced so little as I do at this point in my life. At this very moment, it seems to me that I have spent two years in East Africa learning how much I don’t know. Continue reading