As one of our Programme Directors, Natasha Parekh is used to helping leaders look within for insight. Recently she took time out to turn the mirror on herself. She shares how an unexpected encounter triggered some difficult memories - and how facing her past is changing the way she feels about the future.
Bali’s most sacred volcano Mt Agung erupted recently, upending my travel plans. Instead of sunning myself at a beautiful villa with friends, I ended up spending five days at home in an unusually wet Singapore – accompanied by an 8 year-old and his parents (friends of my husband).
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I don’t have much of an affinity for kids. I try to keep a safe distance. But with 8 year-old Shirom, I confess, I might have felt a tiny spark. I taught him top tips to befriend my cats, he learned to ride my push scooter (his first time, and his #1 Singapore highlight). I watched his favourite tv show (Boss Baby), we challenged each other to yoga asanas. In hindsight, a headstand in the middle of the room – after two glasses of wine – wasn’t the smartest move.
As I sat back, recovering from my failed stunt, I thought about my younger self. What was I up to at age 8? Playing cat and mouse with my older brother, that’s what! He was a troublemaker plotting his next scheme, and I was sometimes the victim and other times his accomplice. He practiced his WWE moves on me. “I am the Undertaker”, he’d say and roll his eyes into the back of his head – Undertaker’s signature hellish look. I’d scream and try to escape as he tackled me with the sharpshooter – a wrestling deadlock position. In time, I took on my favourite persona, got stronger and learned to wriggle out of his grasp. I became Brett the Hitman Hart, with my own moves.
Natasha as a child, with her father and brother
Another episode stands out from when I was 12 and we were living in Dubai. He decided to lock me in our bedroom and wouldn’t let me out till I learned the lyrics of Changes, by legendary rap artist Tupac. It was the most exasperating two hours of my life, but who would’ve thought I’d still be busting out that song 20 years later! Talk about an epic party trick. Good times.
As our Singapore weekend came to a close, I said goodbye to our friends and little Shirom. Flights to Bali had resumed, and I was heading off to my first ever yoga retreat in the mountains. Digital detox. I’ve never felt the urge to spend time with myself and my thoughts before. Maybe it’s this serious business of ‘adulting’. It creeps up on you when you turn the corner of 30. Marriage, babies, mortgage, career – it all screams responsibility and change! I’ve bigged it up in my mind and I sense myself resisting my next evolution. Heck, a hangover after 2 drinks? Who is this person? So I decided to take time out. To reflect and accept. Or was it to escape?
I packed Trevor Noah’s ‘Born a Crime’ (highly recommended), a notebook and a few other essentials, and off I went to find some answers. I wrote big, existential questions in my notebook to get the creative juices flowing. Who – and where – do I want to be? Life goals? What am I passionate about? When do I feel most alive? How can I create a more meaningful life? What am I proud of? What energizes me and what brings me down? What do I bring to my relationships? How can I be a great partner?
Turns out, I didn’t get to any of these labyrinthine topics. But what I did tap into was cathartic. A deep well of my memories: my childhood and the colourful cast of characters that shaped me. I found myself tiptoeing around my difficult experiences. Memories that I’d buried away (and some I’d almost erased) to lighten the burden as I got older. Bankruptcy, losing our family home, being uprooted, living away from my parents for a decade. The list goes on...I’d built barriers so thick that no-one could enter. A shy, introverted child became strong and fiercely independent. I broke hearts. I was a butterfly, flitting from one flower to the next. I rejected permanence. I feared love. Suddenly, Pandora’s box was wide open.
In Bali, perched on my balcony overlooking a lush green forest, I put pen to paper, and the words came pouring out. One piece of my story stands out.
20 years ago, our family was shaken to its core. Overnight, we left Pune (my hometown), and moved to Sharjah, then to Dubai and finally, my parents took a leap of faith – to America. My grandparents took my brother and me in. During this time, my father survived two heart-attacks and two strokes. A living miracle. My mother, brother and I became stronger, and closer than ever. We were a team. But my father had never managed to quit his gambling addiction (just as my mother had never quit him), and in 2009 he took his last breath at a Chicago casino. That same year, I met Phil, the man I eventually married – a huge step for me.
As I unpack my tumultuous past, I confront my fear of putting down roots. While being a ‘wife’ sometimes feels daunting and intimidatingly grown up, being the best possible team mate – that is in my blood.
Emotionally overloaded, I enter my final yoga session. I close my eyes for ‘shavasana’, and I hear my teacher say, “Breathe into the discomfort and let go of any tension”. I take a deep breath – into my scars. I remember a quote from one of my new favourite writers, Nayyirah Waheed: “Feel it. The thing you don’t want to feel. Feel it. And be free.”