We are all nothing more than the sum total of our experiences with other people. It defines us, makes us who we are and these interactions can make our lives either a joyful paradise or a living hell. We all have a story, of someone who took us under their wing, or someone who gave a timely hand when it was needed the most, who introduced us to our next job offer or put us on the path to our dreams. There are the everyday people who make our lives simpler or more miserable… our maids, the security guard, the guy at the carwash, the lady at the checkout, the irascible boss and the femme fatale secretary, the helpful colleague or the friend you make at the local sandwich shop… every single one of these plays a part in the story of our lives. In big ways, and small.
The fantastic thing about Dubai is that, from the moment you arrive, you’re thrown into the deep end of humanity’s pool and you encounter all sorts, from all sorts of places. It’s a cultural immersion like no other, and with this confluence of races and identities you get a heady cocktail of people that is absolutely addictive. I have met world renowned architects, professional expat wives, fascinating taxi-drivers and retired policemen, wealthy bankers and poor waiters… and each of them had a story that formed mine.
This story however is about just one of the many people I met in Dubai. It’s the story of the impact she had on my life. It’s a simple story, one that plays out every day in Dubai or any other place. One that doesn’t make it into books and movies. But these stories are worth telling.
It’s about a young girl who I shared a home with. And home it was, even though it was just a room with a bathroom and a cracked shower unit. But she made it home for me. She was so young when we met, but she had the wisdom of Buddha. And we would stay up late into the night discussing life, love and men, jobs and futures and we would fall asleep, our ears filled with the sound of each other’s voices. She went to work before I did. And to this day I remember the harsh blare of her nasty, green alarm clock that would wake me up, but never her. I would leap out of my bed in shock every morning and in fury turn it off and then shove her awake. We cooked sausages in a kettle, we went for long walks by the sea, we shared our clothes and we both did our first desert safari together.
She told me the story of her life. Of how her mother struggled to raise 5 children. How she had studied hard and was the first of the siblings to leave India. She told me how she sent most of her salary home to help her mother. She told me that someday she wanted me to write her mother’s story. I promised her I would. She was diligent in her work and she was faithful in her friendship and her merry laugh was so infectious that it always made me smile no matter how low I was feeling. She was very principled and her homely wisdom sustained me, the older one of the two, through the myriad ups and downs of my life. There was no TV, and no internet, and so conversation was our only entertainment. And the hours we spent together flew by on gilded wings as we tried to plan our lives and make sense of the circumstances that had brought us together.
We parted ways a year later, and in hindsight, I realised what a profound effect she had on who I became. She taught me by simple, elegant example the value of steadfast loyalty, the beauty of giving thoughtful little gifts, the incredible power of lending your time and a listening ear, and the absolute necessity to walk whatever noble talk may be spewing from one’s mouth. She taught me there is no greater power on earth than one woman sticking up for another unconditionally. From her I learned what it takes to be good. Truly good.
Her name is Monika Deol, and her part in my story continued long after we parted ways after a year of living together. We emailed once in a way, then Facebook brought us closer together even as the distances between us grew. Then Whatsapp kicked in and we got close again. Sometimes years go by and we don’t speak but often when I need guidance, I would ask myself, “What would Monika do?” Last year we did write and publish her mother’s story in the anthology, The Naked Indian Woman. Today she runs a successful fair-trade home furnishing company in Canada. She is married, owns a beautiful home and she struggles with a debilitating illness with immense grace and fortitude. And she still continues to pen her way across the chapters of my life 25 years later, with the same ease of giving as she did when we lived in a tiny, airless room together.
It was this young girl in Dubai who, by example, taught me to ask myself a very important question, one that has saved me from myself time and time again.
You see, we all are the composite of the stories other people write in our lives. And each one of us has reason to be grateful to someone, somewhere, who came along and put their stamp on our narratives and made it that much more beautiful. And yet, as we so busily drink from the cup of life, how many of us stop to ask what role we will play in someone else’s movie? Will we be the vindictive colleague or the helpful one? Will we lend a hand asking nothing in return if we see another struggling or walk on by? Will we compliment the stranger on the street that looks a little sad, and will we thank the checkout assistant by name at the supermarket? Will we be the reason for another’s joy? Or their tears?
Monika, in Dubai, a long time ago taught me to ask this of myself? What’s your story in someone else’s life?
Sangeetha Shinde Tee is an author of four books, editor of 3 international magazines, an acclaimed healer, and reluctant entrepreneur. Also an unconventional traveler, rebellious truth seeker, and inveterate animal rescuer, she is working on her fifth book – a collection of ghost stories from around the world. Find out more about her life, books, and work at www.sangeethashindetee.com