Nonconformity is always a risk in a conformist society. It’s safer to trudge along a pre-planned path as ‘fitting in’ is the natural expectation.
Ploughing the same old furrow and living out a script written by society was never part of my journey. I’ve always been determined to live my life by my own design and not by default. I was never really any good at following the ‘rules’ anyway!
📷 Joshua Coleman
Breaking free from cultural codes and social beliefs, and with my parents giving me the free will to choose, I was going to ignore everyone else and study Modern European Languages (German and French). Having never been exposed to either language before – because under apartheid, we were all required to learn Afrikaans as our second language – it was a rather unconventional choice, especially for a young Indian woman.
Traditionally, in Indian culture, education is an important institution that plays a central role in our lives with medicine, pharmacy, accountancy, law and science being the top five favourites. If you studied any of the ‘Big Five’ you were guaranteed a lifetime of success! God forbid if you broadened the scope and studied … well, let’s say … French and German. What can you do with a language degree, hey?
Well, one thing’s certain – I wouldn’t have any problems ordering a croissant or a baguette when in Pah-ree (a much-improved version of ‘Emily in Paris¹) or get my hands on Glühwein² – while browsing the German Christmas markets, that’s for sure.
But most importantly, I studied German because of Boris Becker. Yes – that’s correct, my passion and desire to study German had EVERYTHING to do with my love for tennis, categorically a ginger-haired teenager and the youngest Wimbledon champion at 17.
It was the way he played his tennis that was most thrilling and inspiring – hurling himself around the court, reaching seemingly unreachable shots with an unsurmountable amount of power, energy, exuberance and self-belief – something that would inform the rest of my life.
Well, I was hoping (fingers crossed) that I would get to meet him one day and impress (the hell out of him) by speaking in his mother tongue. Still crossing my fingers as despite numerous visits to Wimbledon, Deutschland and celebratory sporting events, I am yet to meet Boris :(
For me it’s always been about the journey, and not the destination.
Studying French and German opened so many doors of opportunity including a full scholarship that covered the duration of my studies, the purchase of my first car - a purple Corsa (bold, definitely not regular, of course); and (having graduated at the top of my class) my first international scholarship and first international trip, and not forgetting, my first experience navigating the wrath of a major tropical cyclone.
And it was during my studies on Réunion, a little-known gem and remote French-governed island right in the heart of the Indian Ocean, that I received a call with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet my idol, the legendary Nelson Mandela, affectionately known as Madiba, back in my South African homeland.
I burst into tears and cried like a baby (and excuse me as I burst into tears again recalling that exact moment). It was an impossible situation, seeing that I was currently located on a tiny speck of land over 2000 miles away from home. I was absolutely inconsolable for a long, long time after, as although the time spent on Réunion Island was one of the most enriching experiences of my life, the missed opportunity to meet the man who sacrificed 27 years of his life behind bars fighting for a colour-blind South Africa so that I could have equal rights and better opportunities such as living and working in the UK, was utterly devastating.
In the end it all turned out perfectly, with my parents meeting Madiba at his home in Durban (my home-town). It was a dream come true for both of them; especially my dad who like myself (and so many others) was actively involved in the freedom movement that helped spur South Africa's transition from an apartheid regime to a multi-racial democracy. Proudly clad in his Madiba shirt,³ he described the once-in-a-lifetime occasion, meeting the man himself, as awe-inspiring and humbling. As an individual, Nelson Mandela was a man of great charm, natural warmth and incomparable sincerity.
Almost a decade later, my dream came true! It was wonderful finally seeing Madiba (in the flesh) and although very brief, it’s an experience that will be treasured for many lifetimes.
Thus far my life hasn’t been a spreadsheet; instead it’s been a story with ups and down as I have excelled at breaking the rules by not always doing as I was told or what was expected of me.
And by ignoring conventional wisdom and having the courage to question long-held assumptions, I am living out the scripts I've re-written with an independent mind that never takes anything for granted and questions everything.
You have to decide what kind of difference you want to make … and I have had many defining moments in my life that made me reflect on everything that has come before, but this time around, I feel it with all my might – this steadfastness of purpose to share my bold, tad italic and truly irregular self with an enormous personal openness and a spirit of adventure – to fight the good fight and to try to get others to do the same.
How different our lives are when we realise what’s truly important and when we indulge passionately in what matters most.
This piece is dedicated to:
My parents – thank you for letting me spread my wings and fly. If it wasn’t for your open-mindedness, your courage to let me walk my own path and your unconditional support, I wouldn’t be who I am today.
My baby brother – I’m thankful for your willingness to make many a sacrifice at the very young and tender age of 21, so I can be where I am today.
My husband - having a partner who understands and contributes mightily to my bold and irregular life and work ethos is a blessing beyond measure.
¹ An American-comedy drama about a twenty-something American woman who adjusts to the challenges of life in a foreign city, when she moves from Chicago to Paris for a job opportunity.
² Germany’s favourite winter drink and festive staple
³ Signature printed informal shirts worn by Nelson Mandela to identify with the majority of the population, who never wore suits