The Night We Fought Off A Bear

M husband Nikhil and I are as different as night and day. He is athletic, while the only sport I will compete in is ‘who will sleep the longest.’ He is organized and methodical, I thrive on chaos. He will not read anything that is more than five lines (his made-up rule) while my love for books is like a drowning man’s love for oxygen. He is an extrovert, I am introvert…..You get the point. A lifelong fan of romantic Bollywood movies (yes, I unabashedly admit I have watched ALL Karan Johar and Yashraj movies multiple times. I am sure some of my friends have unfriended me by now), maybe there is something to the theory of ‘opposites attract.’

About two years into our relationship, when we had been newly engaged, Nikhil suggested we go on a camping trip. Now, he is a seasoned hiker, who has been hiking since childhood with his family and friends. He has led several camping, rappelling, and trekking trips in India. He will happily spend his life in the mountains. I, on the other hand, am a ‘city’ girl through and through. My ‘camping’ resume was….BLANK. Zero, Nada, Zip. I had never been camping, and while I love Mother Nature, I am happier when I am looking at her from inside the safety of my concrete house. However, I knew that for this relationship to last any longer, I had to try “roughing it” in the wild with my man. He was a keeper in many ways (I have already done a blogpost on that!) and I thought a little adventure might be nice.

To spice it up even more, my dear fiancé (he was only a fiancé then) suggested that it be just the two of us going alone. I gulped (quietly) and like a love-struck idiot, agreed. He reassured me he “would fiercely protect me from all forces of nature” (I am rolling my eyes writing this as to how naïve I was then). So, we booked a campsite in the beautiful Smokies, a mountain range in Tennessee, U.S.A. I feverishly researched camping recipes, not wanting to starve myself on the mountain. I am not kidding when I say this- Nikhil has a large car, and it was LOADED with food. We were going for only two nights but I had packed hard boiled eggs, lots of cut vegetables (I was so intent on grilling stuff at the campsite), bread, butter, jam, soda, milk, lots of water bottles, etc. We actually bought special coolers to fit all our stuff.

In my enthusiasm to make sure we have enough supplies, we ended up leaving our apartment in Ohio at 5 pm instead of the decided time of 10 am! It was an 8-hour drive to our campsite. With stops for bathroom breaks and dinner, by the time we finally reached our campsite, it was close to 2 am in the night/early morning!

The pitch black of nighttime in the mountain was, to put it very mildly, TERRIFYING! To top off my fears, our campsite was right next to a river, and there were warnings posted all along the route that animals, including bears, tended to use that river as a watering hole. And of course, we had no cell phone reception that deep into the mountains. I had already started imagining us falling to our deaths in a valley like the movie ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’ (told you, I am a sucker for sappy Bollywood movies!).

I guess God had other plans though. We found our campsite (I am pretty sure I pledged eleven coconuts to Lord Ganesha and vowed to ask my father to fulfill that wish at the Siddhi Vinayak temple in Mumbai as soon as I got my cell phone reception back!). I stayed in the car, with the headlights on, while Nikhil quickly set up our small tent. Thankfully, our location was very close to the restroom on the campsite and the light was on in it. Exhausted, we crawled into the tent, into our sleeping bags.

Right as I was about to doze off, I heard the sound! At first, it felt like a scuffling noise, and I thought that something was sniffing right outside the tent. I was petrified,like a stone. I shook Nikhil awake, whispering to him urgently, “I hear something!” He mumbles sleepily and then he hears something too. He sits bolt upright, and I am pretty sure my heart stopped beating. It was then that we saw the shadow- a long, towering shadow over our tent! If I had been an old person, I truly believe I would have had a stroke just then. My mind rapidly went through all the pages of research I had done online about the possibility of bears on the campsite. The Smokies were famous for them, and this one looked like it was going to knock down the tent. I knew our time was definitely up!

Out of the blue, Nikhil takes our flashlight and starts jabbing vigorously at the roof of the tent. I looked at him, very worried that he was losing his sanity. I make him stop. “Are you like TRYING to get us killed?” I hiss at him. He looks embarrassed and then comes up with another “brilliant” idea, “I will go out of the tent and distract the bear. You run to the car and get it started.” I look at him, quite at a loss for words. Then I say, “so, you do want to get us killed.” “Do you have a better plan?” he huffs. “Yes, pray,” I retort.

We sit in silence for a few minutes, sweating through our clothes despite the cold weather. The shadow is unmoving. Finally, I whisper, “why isn’t that thing attacking us?’ He looks as confused as me. He then says, “I think I am going to have to unzip the tent and poke my head out.” I am pretty sure all the blood drained from my face when he said that. Before I could protest, he unzips the entrance, the only flimsy protection we had. I brace myself for claws and teeth and instead……. IT WAS A TREE! The whole time, it was the shadow of a tree that we had mistaken for a bear in the light from the bathroom!

He crawls back in, and we both look sheepishly at each other. An unspoken agreement between us that it had been a long night. We could finally laugh wholeheartedly about it when we woke up the next morning, to the beautiful wilderness around us and saw that the campsite was actually packed with a lot of other humans. It was definitely a memorable trip- not only my first camping experience but my first time having smores, grilling on campfire, white-water rafting, and learning to properly enjoy nature. It also reaffirmed my belief that I was going to marry a man who would ensure that I never had a dull moment in my life. I admit- I do feel a tiny twinge of disappointment that we never saw any actual bears on that trip. However, I am intensely glad that those moments of terror that we experienced, where my life literally flashed in front of my eyes, were all for a tree!

Written on the prompt: Opposites attract.

Featured Image: It is a picture of me with our tent.

“This post is a part of the Valentine’s Day blog train hosted by www.prernawahi.com & www.vartikasdiary.com, sponsored by ShilpSa, Kalpavriksha farms & Neha from @bloggingmadeeasier

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True Beauty

I was born to a very dark-skinned mother, and a very light-skinned father. Whenever my mother spoke about my birth, which happened after almost 15 hours of excruciating pain for her, she shared how her first question to the doctor hadn’t been about the sex of her child but whether I was light or dark-skinned. She used to remark proudly that she felt so happy when the doctor told her that I was light-skinned, because she didn’t want me to go through all the taunting that she had faced in her life for being dark. I would see her beam with joy whenever people used to remark that I looked exactly like my father; I also heard disparaging comments about her dusky colour, when they didn’t realize I was listening. My father tried to counteract the negative narrative, by reassuring my mother several times that he had married her primarily because he was attracted to her dark skin colour, and because her skin colour reminded him of the skin colour of South Indian Goddesses. His words would make my mother smile, which in turn would make me happy, but we could never get away from the larger negative atmosphere around her colour. This obsession with fair skin was to the extent that my grandparents had a huge problem with my parents sending me to swimming classes. They were angry because “the chlorine was making me dark.” So, swimming, an activity that I enjoyed, was stopped.  

The older I grew, the more aware I became of how much being light-skinned is valued in the Indian culture. By the time I reached college, I was a few shades darker than I had been as a baby, but I was still light-skinned for the South Indian community. It shocked me to have relatives and family friends make teasing remarks about me marrying someone whom they knew in a few years, primarily because I met their skin colour requirements and came from an upper middle class family. The Fair and Lovely ads, the marital columns where grooms wanted a ‘fair, homely, cultured, etc.’ woman, the innumerable lotions that women around me applied in order to avoid getting tanned by the sun, the dire warnings that I was given about getting more tanned because of playing out in the sun- all of this increased my anger towards the prejudice that existed about dark skin colour. I remember telling my mother that I would only marry a dark-skinned man in the future because I wanted to have dark-skinned kids and make them very proud of their skin colour. My mother would laugh and tell me not to say such things (not sure whether that was the primary reason I did marry a dark-skinned man, but I definitely like to tease him about it!).  

Besides being aware of skin colour politics, my concept of beauty was also influenced by experiencing fat-shaming. In my early childhood years, I was a skinny, waif-like child who often had health issues. My health improved with the birth of my sister, when I was 7 years old. My sister was my pride and joy- a companion whom I could play and go to school with. I started eating more- it was almost like my body had finally discovered how good food could be. I also started gaining weight, and filled out in certain places like my hips, thighs, and cheeks. That was when I started getting unwanted male attention, at the tender age of 8! The heckling, cat-calling, being fondled, and being grabbed- I faced these from some male passers-by, and our family doctor. For several years after these incidents, I felt guilty that maybe I was responsible for these experiences happening to me. I didn’t disclose what happened to my parents because of the shame. Additionally, I attended a convent school which didn’t do much for sex education, except scare me about the concept of sexual activities. By the time I reached high school, food had become my primary means of coping with all the stress and I had gone from being ‘chubby in a cute way’ to obese.

Along with weight gain came the resulting low self-esteem, fad diets, and never-ending advice on exercise and food habits from “well meaning” people. By the time I turned 16, right before entering college, I started wearing exclusively Indian clothes (salwar-kameez), because it hid my large body. I would always keep my hair tied up in either a ponytail or a braid with a lot of oil. Puberty pockmarked my face with acne, and my unhealthy diet eventually led to me developing PCOS (PolyCystic Ovarian Syndrome), which further ensured that the acne never reduced. I also got glasses, not the chic, cool ones but the cheapest ones that I could find (why would an ugly girl need cool glasses?). I definitely succeeded in my goal of diverting male attention away from me. Unfortunately, this also meant that I stayed single while most of my closest friends in college, whom I had always considered to be more beautiful than me because they were slim, took care of their skin, and dressed much better than me, got asked out for dates and started romantic relationships. I got obsessed with reading Mills and Boons, and watching all the sappy, romantic Bollywood movies, which further fed the notion that in order to attract a man, I needed to become slim and keep myself as light-skinned as possible.

I applied myself academically, because I was determined to not be considered “fat, ugly, and stupid.” I applied for graduate school in Psychology in the U.S., and about 6 months prior to coming here, I decided that I wanted to start life in the U.S. as a slim woman. I got into exercising and really decreased how much I was eating. As a result, by the time I got to the U.S., at the age of 22, I was quite slim. I started wearing “fashionable” clothes and was beginning to attract the attention of Indian men again. U.S. however complicated my notions of beauty further- from being considered light-skinned in India, I was now one of the darkest people in my class (I attended a predominantly White university called Boston College for my Master’s degree, and this university didn’t attract many students of colour). A lot of my White female classmates envied me for my “tan.” I also experienced racism because of my skin colour, including on occasion being mistaken for being a Middle Eastern or a Mexican woman and have people say racist and xenophobic slurs because of that. There are some who get visibly uncomfortable to be around a foreigner like me (the current political climate, under Mr. Trump, certainly fuels the xenophobia and racist tendencies!). While these experiences are certainly unpleasant, they don’t mask the larger learning that has happened because of my move here. It is in the U.S. that I confronted my own prejudices and stereotypes about what is considered beautiful. Being in the field of Psychology, I meet people of different races, colours, political beliefs, genders, etc., and my notion of what is true beauty has changed so much! I read articles and have discussions with my peers about how much beauty is defined by cultural standards and how women across the world are taught to hate their bodies rather than love them.

Today, I have my Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, and I have completed almost 10 years of living in the U.S. Looking back on my life now, I see how my socialization and prior traumatic experiences shaped what I thought was beautiful. I cannot honestly say that I completely LOVE my body now, but I have definitely reached a place of more acceptance with it. I still have PCOS, because of which my face still has acne, but it is no longer a mark of shame for me. I have gained back most of the weight that I lost in my early 20’s, because of PCOS and the experience of anxiety and depression after the death of my main support person- my mother. I continue to hear disparaging comments about my looks, from some relatives in my husband’s family and some Indians whom I have met here in the U.S. However, the love and support of my closest family members- my husband, sister, father, and in-laws- combined with the love, support, and acceptance I have received from my closest Indian and American friends, no longer make me doubt myself. I hope to have my own children one day, and I often think about what message I would want to give them if they experience the same doubts and insecurities that I have. And, in my lowest moments, I think about what one of my roommates in Boston had said to me- “Shraddha, physical looks don’t matter. It is all about how confidently you carry yourself. If you are confident, you can pull of any style, any colour, any dress, any body shape. And, you will win hearts!”

I believe every woman has TRUE BEAUTY within her in all the roles she plays. For over 18 years across 650 plus salons across the country, Naturals has been helping the Beautiful Indian Woman get more Beautiful.

Today Naturals Salutes the Beautiful Indian Woman.

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