In Pursuit of Happiness

I should probably be heading to bed but I wanted to write one more entry before the year is out. It's that time of year when people start evaluating their lives and thinking about the year ahead. In 2008, I made a to-do list for the next year to roughly complement my 'life to-do list'. It felt good to cross off all the items (ok, most but let's face it, I was never going to get fit). I made no such list at the end of 2009.

My life had just begun to settle down after the acrimonious breakdown of my marriage. I moved back to East London to be closer to family but things were a little scary for a while. All my money was tied up in the house I left behind – and the ex-husband refused to sell. Eventually I sold my half to him at a 25% loss because I just wanted to move on. I moved into a pretty flat that had a second room for my study, got a new job and published my second book that year. I kinda felt that I owed myself some downtime, hence there were no plans for 2010. The concept of making plans and setting goals made me think about the meaning of happiness and its complete capriciousness.

Humans are forever in pursuit of happiness but it is always transient. No-one is ever in a permanent state of happiness – it comes and goes in fits and starts. You may feel generally content as I did for some of 2009 and most of 2010 but true happiness never lasts. You might have a great job, the perfect partner, a beautiful home and wonderful friends and family, but you can still feel a great degree of unhappiness on a day-to-day basis.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that we should stop worrying if things aren't perfect. That is not to say we shouldn't make plans and have goals, or try to steer the course of our lives, but we should accept that we will never achieve a state of perpetual happiness. A writer friend put it well when he said "when you get there, there is no there there". Having everything you want can feel very similar to when you had a mere fraction.

So, my friends, as another year draws to a close, make your plans and set your goals as I have done below but enjoy happiness when it comes because there's no guarantee that it will visit you again this year or the next, even if you tick off every item on every one of your lists.

Visit two countries I haven't seen (22/04/11)
Complete an intermediate Spanish class (07/07/11)
Learn to ride a bicycle (11/09/11)
Learn to ride a horse (23/10/11)
Start writing the third book (24/12/11)
Go fishing for the first time
Oh, and get fit ;)

Happy New Year. Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose.



Late Expectations

A female friend recently tweeted the following: ‘Work colleague has just come back fuming from a first date where they went dutch. Should the man always pay?’

I replied with: ‘On first date - yes! The woman should offer but the man should insist.’

A few days later, a male friend tweeted: ‘This morning I learn that an engagement ring should be worth twice the groom’s [monthly] salary. Never been told this before.’

I tweeted that it would have to be at least a carat (a clean well-cut one), that I was a size H and I liked Hearts on Fire in case he wanted to pick me something up too.

I realised that this made me seem much more high-maintenance than I am in ‘real life’, whether you’re talking about my beauty routine, spending habits or expectations in a relationship. I've said before that I would rather spend £400 on a holiday than a Mulberry bag. My 'life to-do list' is relatively non-materialistic, and I have never expected a man to pay for anything other than the first date. This last point, however, has made me wonder if I’m being naive.

I remember how my first ex-boyfriend told me that he was amazed I paid for half our dates throughout our 4-year relationship and that he would have been more than happy to take care of everything. "You can pay for our dinners for the next 4 years," I joked, but seriously I wondered if my feminist principles were somewhat misplaced.

I think singer Mariah Carey summed it up well when asked if it was true that she insisted on paying for half her first marital home (a sprawling mansion) out of principle. "Oh yeah," she said drily. "Quite the silly little girl, I was."

I guess my insistence on paying my way is linked to the Superwoman Complex (i.e. the aggressive fight to prove one’s independence), which makes me a silly little girl rather than an independent young woman.

Perhaps my expectations should be higher. I understand that this is selective feminism (we want equality but, hey, can you pay for dinner?) but if a man wants to pay, then why shouldn’t the woman let him? I know plenty of men that are traditional at heart. They encourage their wives to work but, ultimately, they see it as their responsibility to look after the family financially. I get that. Am I being regressive simply because I get that? Is it okay to expect the man to pay majority of the time or should I continue stamping my feet and crying independence like I have been all my adult life?

I do wonder if this debate is still relevant – whether couples don’t just fall into a natural rhythm anyway – but the polarised reactions to my friend’s original tweet proved that there is still a lot to be figured out.



Me: Is 12.30pm too early? We could meet at Canary Wharf, have lunch at Carluccio's and then walk over to West India Quay for a movie? Buried is on at 2.30pm. The trailer/premise is terrible but it's got good reviews.

P: Sure, but it all seems a bit disorganised... Could you put into an Excel doc and email it over to my PA? I'll discuss it with the board and see if it's workable. Have you got any 2009 data that will support this?

Me: Ok, point taken.


Private Eye

I’m a teensy bit under the weather today so am using that as an excuse to spend (waste) some time on Twitter. I found a link to a really interesting blog entry: Flickr Perversion by Dr Alec Couros (via @labnol and @mathewi). In short, it describes how pictures of Alec’s four year old daughter were ‘favourited’ by a person whose account linked to pages and pages of pictures of semi-clothed pre-teen girls. If you have a look at the screen grabs, you’ll get an idea of what the images were like.

My first reaction was: ‘That’s disgusting’. My second reaction was: ‘What the hell is he doing posting public pictures of his kids online?’ He explains that he is a bit of an idealist, likes to live his life openly and believes in the greater good of people. I wasn’t convinced – but was I being hypocritical?

I never have posted and never will post pictures of my nieces and nephews in public but my personal Facebook page has plenty. I justify this by the fact that I’m not publicly searchable and that I only add people I know.

Right now, I have 170 friend requests. While I’m sure these are from lovely, normal people – some of whom are readers I deeply value – I don’t really know them and I don’t want to give them access to my personal account with or without customised privacy settings. I share a fair amount anyway via this blog and my Twitter account; my personal Facebook account is where I can interact with my family and friends without exposing them to the dangers of the ‘Flickr Perversion’ mentioned above. But is that protection strong enough? Should you ever post pictures of your children or any child publicly or privately? Is the parents’ permission enough? What about the child’s right to veto a picture? Do you know if you even own those pictures anymore?

If I’m honest, I think taking a hard-line approach to this isn’t the right way. I’ve had some fantastic times with the kids in my family and I want to share that – but where do the boundaries lie? Should there be some guidelines about this sort of thing or are we swaying into nanny-state area?


Little sister: I feel all grown up and responsible. I record delivered that letter.
Me: Lol. You can call yourself grown up and responsible the day you graduate.
Sis: The day I have a kid Ill call myself responsible – not right now.
Me: How about the day you learn to use apostrophes?


All Animals Are Equal

A couple of weeks ago, as A-level students began their scramble for the last university places, I read a statistic that made me want to weep: last year, of 80,000 children who were eligible for free school meals (i.e. the very poorest kids in the country), only 45 got to Oxford or Cambridge (less than 0.06%).

I’ve read disheartening statistics before (e.g. that Oxbridge gets over half of its students from the privately educated 7% of the population or that the 70th brightest pupil at Westminster or Eton is as likely to get a place at Oxbridge as the very brightest pupil at a comprehensive) but this statistic in particular just made me want to weep.

I would like to meet those 45 kids and shake their hands and tell them how incredible they are. You see, I was one of the kids who got free school meals; who got vouchers to buy their uniform; who wore a hand-me-down coat for six years running. I never thought of myself as a child who grew up in poverty – I still don’t – but some of the markers indicate that I did. It doesn’t really matter either way because I had a family I loved (for the most part), and I had ambition and smarts.

I’ve banged on about those smarts before but I’ve also admitted my regret in not aiming higher. Say what you want about Oxbridge and its alumni, there’s no denying that few UK universities can compare when it comes to future prospects (I won’t go into more stats but some relevant ones can be found here - pdf).

I’m not one of those bleeding hearts that think every poor kid should get a university education. It’s not for everybody and, as Aditya Chakrabortty explains in this piece, it can actually turn out to be pretty useless. I DO, however, think that there were more than 45 kids in that 80,000 that could have/would have/should have gone to Oxbridge.

These kids are being failed – by teachers, parents and politicians. They’re being failed by the system. We need a way to help the ones with potential. I’ve always believed that intelligence is more to do with nature than nurture. Either way, I don’t think it’s difficult to identify those with the most potential.

Take my nieces and nephews for example. There are 16 of them and I can identify the brightest two very easily (sorry sisters, I’m not saying which ones). I would like to pick out these two and help develop their ability. I know what you’re thinking: it’s unfair on the others and as divisive as the current system. That may be somewhat true but it’s not the majority that I’m heartbroken over; it’s the ones that can really make it but never do. They don’t constitute anywhere near 80,000 I’m sure but, for fuck’s sake, there’s got to be more than 45.


A (Not So) Suitable Boy

When do you know that the person you are with is not ‘the one’? And, more importantly, what do you do about it?

I think I realised mere months into my relationship with my now ex-husband. In fact, I remember the exact day. It was five years ago today. Four bombs had gone off across London and our beloved city lay frozen in disbelief.

The ‘sign’ was utterly trivial compared with everything else that happened that day, but it had an impact nonetheless: At the end of the working day, the man I was with didn’t make his way to me despite working minutes away in the City. He didn’t ask to walk me home despite living on the same street I did. In times like that, you reach out to the people closest to you, but there I was, picking my way through city streets – crowded but alone.

We married three years later after one ‘break’ and four other ‘signs’ that I ignored; small infractions with deep implications. To guard against those implications, I trained myself to be as indifferent towards him as he sometimes was towards me. And it worked – for a while. I convinced myself that companionship and stability were apt substitutes for real passion, real love, but illusions never last. And so the cracks began to appear. I started to spend more and more time alone, upstairs in my study while he caught up with work in front of the TV. The cracks eventually gave way to a river of distance – one neither of us knew how to cross.

The first time I found an incriminating message to another woman, I didn’t quite believe it. He was one of the good guys, you know? The sensible, respectable Ronan Keating type. Now I know that innocent faces are often the most deceitful of all. I ended it as soon as I was sure he was being unfaithful. He tried lying, begging, crying to keep our charade intact, presumably to 'save face’, but my shock and disgust were tinged with a tiny wisp of relief. I didn’t have to spend the rest of my life with someone that didn’t want me unequivocally – and so I left.

I once read that infidelity is not about ugly or beautiful, stupid or smart, boring or charming; it’s about old and new. While that soothed my wounded ego, I think it was more a question of right and wrong. We were never right for each other, but we were too cowardly to admit it.

The thing is, I’m not convinced that people who are right for each other are immune to infidelity. It’s why I refuse friends’ offers to matchmake. It’s why I’ve been apprehensive about dating since the break-up a year ago. I can’t be with someone I don’t trust. I have never been, nor do I want to be, the type of girl that feels the need to check text messages and emails or constantly question her partner’s whereabouts. Until I’m sure I won’t turn into that girl, I will happily stay single.

Some have questioned whether I’m truly happy alone. The truth is, being with someone you love is better than being single, but being single is infinitely better than being with the wrong person. So many people stay in relationships simply because they’re comfortable with the status quo, or because they’re scared of hurting the other person, or because they’re scared of being alone. I went through a lot of trauma because of my ex’s unfaithfulness, but at the end of the day, I’m glad my hand was forced. You see, cowardice is an easy option and I may just have stayed comfortably numb forever.


Sisters in Arms

A few days ago, I watched The Godfather for the umpteenth time. I’ve always loved gangster films; Goodfellas, A Bronx Tale, Carlito’s Way, The Untouchables, Scarface and possibly Donnie Brasco are some of my favourite movies of all time. The blood, violence and loose morality of our anti-heroes have never bothered me – in fact, I think they’re necessary to the genre. I watched the horse’s head scene, the restaurant scene and the Luca Brasi strangulation scene without blinking an eye as usual, but there was one scene that made me flinch this time: As Carlo whipped Connie with his belt, chased her into the bathroom and then beat her as she screamed for mercy, I started to cry. It was probably partly to do with the Fallen Soldier syndrome (i.e. becoming more sensitive/emotionally weak after the loss of a loved one), but it was also partly to do with memories of my childhood.

The ‘Images’ page on the main site mentions that I grew up in a violent household with a drug addict brother, but I’ve never really spoken about it on the blog. I don’t want to exaggerate the situation; the actual violence wasn’t frequent (depending on what you define as ‘frequent’). It possibly happened 5-6 times a year and usually to one of my less headstrong sisters who wouldn’t defend themselves as carelessly as I would. It was the weekly threats and screaming matches that were worse; the smashed plates and broken furniture when he couldn’t get a fix; the knowledge that my parents would continue to support his habit with money they couldn’t afford so he wouldn’t flare up. It was the anger at their inaction and the feeling of total instability and insecurity. It was having to lock my bedroom door every time I went to the bathroom so that my money, phone, books, shoes, clothes, underwear wouldn’t go missing, peddled for pennies or maybe a few pounds where possible.

Life is difficult in that type of situation, yes, but I don’t think we realised the severity of what was happening. Despite having to call the police to our home several times every year, for us, it was just par for the course. It was getting up and going to school and coming home and getting through the day, and then doing it all over again. And so it went for years and years. Only now I look back and realise that it was an unacceptable environment to raise children in. What breaks my heart is that this is happening all over Tower Hamlets. I got out. Most of my sisters did too. But my mother still spends part of her weekly state pension supporting his habit, same as mothers all over the borough; mothers who can’t or won’t let go of sons who have been hopeless for almost two decades. Perhaps that’s what mothers are meant to do. Perhaps that’s why I never want to become one.

The one thing that helped me survive was my sisters’ presence. The eldest two left home after marriage, but the three of us in the middle bore the worst years together. I was usually the one who spoke out, unable to bite the tongue that has got me into much trouble over the years, but I couldn’t have been strong without them. My youngest sister is still at home. I tell her I know how she feels, but, more than fear or anger, I know she feels abandonment. And it’s true. We all abandoned that house the first chance we got.

Today, I live alone and I’m happy. Or, at least, happier than I used to be.

The dedication in my second book says:

For my sisters, five of the strongest, most beautiful
women I know.

And I mean it. They truly are the strongest women I know. And I’m more thankful for them than anything else in my life.

Right, it’s 2.30am now – I can be forgiven for a bit of soppiness, alright?

Goodnight x


Fair Share

In the last seven days, I’ve told complete strangers the following seven things:
  • I’m nursing a celebrity crush on Michael Bublé
  • I hate flying American Airlines
  • I watched Shahrukh Khan’s interview on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross
  • I have Facebook friends in common with Salman Rushdie and Hanif Kureishi
  • I eat a lot of pizza
  • Where I was on Saturday morning
  • Did I mention the crush on Michael Bublé? (Don’t laugh. I haven’t felt his way since Jordan Knight.)
These things are all pretty general and inane, I’m sure you’ll agree, but go back a bit further and you’ll see that I’ve also told strangers about the bitter consequences of having an arranged marriage, the utter naiveté with which I entered my second marriage, my less-than-perfect relationship with my mother, and, the most affecting of all, my father’s death in 2007 and what I felt in the years after.

I guess that kind of explains why a few people I’ve been introduced to in the past have said “I feel like I know you.” Some of them will have read my first book, others will have developed an idea from my blog and articles. This is flattering on one hand, but disconcerting on the other. Invariably, people will probe further, using my candour as some sort of license to demand an explanation as to why a “bright, modern, intelligent girl like [me] would ever agree to an arranged marriage”. (That one was at a dinner party a few months ago.)

I always take it in good humour. At the end of the day, if you’re sending personal information out into the ether, you can expect a little curiosity in return. However, a recent post by the wonderful Nathan Bransford got me thinking about the line between an author’s personal and professional online presences. I wondered if I was oversharing, but, having thought about it, I realised that this blog has always been a personal thing. It was never set up to sell books or gain exposure (especially since I was giving books away for free at the start); it was a way for me to share my thoughts, experiences and frustrations – just a tiny piece of the internet that belonged to me. I don’t deny that I’ve used it occasionally to push the books, but overall, I leave the commercial stuff to the official site.

So, for me, the blog isn’t a question of "How much personal information should this author share here?" but "How much professional information should this person share here?" I like my blog the way it is. Yes, I share personal information, but, for me, that’s kinda the whole point.


Nothing Gold Can Stay

Things change after you lose someone close to you. For a while, the change is big and dramatic. You wake up every day and you feel the loss echoing through your chest. Your movements seem slower, your regrets cut deeper. But as time passes, life slowly begins to resemble normality again. First you find that you can get through the day with dry eyes. Slowly, you stop crumbling when people say ‘I’m sorry’. Eventually, you remember how to smile again. For some, this happens within days; for others, months – maybe years.

You think you’re doing okay because those big, dramatic changes have slowly drifted away. But then something subtle will bite you so hard, it leaves you breathless. It can be an old man with a beard like your father had or the old Dunhill catalogue you kept because it was the last piece of post addressed to him. It can be something more obvious like the birth of a nephew that will never know his amazing grandfather, or opening a closet in your old home and realising your mother still hasn't packed away shirts and jackets three years after your father's death. It can even be something bizarre like a blue alien daughter losing her blue alien father on a 3D screen in a darkened movie theatre. Those moments, those quiet, subtle, everyday moments, are when the loss cuts deepest, when you realise you didn’t say enough, didn’t do enough.

We all complain about our families, but we can also tell the difference between a ‘normal’ dysfunctional family and one that’s simply not worth knowing. Chances are, those of us in the former group don’t see our families as much as we should. Or, if we do, we don’t tell them we love them as often as we should.

I grew up in a conservative Asian family. I get that ‘I love yous’ don’t tally with tradition, decorum and etiquette. I get that love is unspoken and often takes second place to respect. I get that Asalaam Alaikum is more appropriate than a hug or a kiss. I even get that some people are better loved from afar.

But that understanding, however complete, fails to help in those breathless moments; moments where regret feels like a spider in your veins, crawling through the very fabric of your being. In those moments, you wish you had expressed your love, by words or by actions. In those moments, you wish you had spent more time, called more often, made an effort. That’s the funny thing about time. Yes, it lasts forever, but it leaves everyone behind.

Do I really need to tell you what you should do now?