In pursuit of being (something)

So, it’s exactly a year to the date since I began my journey in search of … being. On reflecting back, I was operating on a hunch that being something must first start by … just being.

Modern culture, and certainly South Asian culture, is very demanding of an identity related to what one is going to grow up to be. (Somehow, doing is confused with being.) Professor? No, doctor, engineer or lawyer? So dogged is the emphasis on what one will be, that the conceptualization of such an identity begins unnaturally young. When one is very little, one may not need to be any one thing. Then, one is four or five years old and someone asks the inevitable question, “What do you want to be when you grow up, beta?” And one might say somewhat imaginative things like “bus conductor,” or “pilot,” but very quickly, parental and societal conditioning quells such ridiculous ideas, and by age seven, one might begin to tow the line and respond with a more reasonable or respectable “teacher” or “doctor.” I thought that I was breaking new ground, when at age 13, I finally announced, “journalist” or “architect.”

As a little girl, and well into my teenage years, I did many different things. I began singing (classical) music at the age of 3 and performing it by the age of 5. While musical training and proficiency remained a consistent backdrop in my life, I was also an avid artist, drawing and painting prolifically from the earliest time I can remember. I competed in painting competitions, as well as in debates and essay writing competitions, played inter-school sports and performed theater. If the artistic fields appeared to be an obvious choice, well … I also excelled in Math and Science. I remember feeling free to do just about anything, and having boundless energy to do it all.

When I finally chose to be an architect, I thought I was combining the best of all worlds. I had also always searched for a humanistic mission in my work, and the thought of creating the environments in which people receive shelter at the least, and thrive and flourish in at the most, had great appeal. So, straying from the scientist / academic background of my parents, I joined the “professional” world. At the graduate degree level, I found myself returning to scientific inquiry by studying a still relatively obscure subject – environmental psychology – or the relationship between physical environments, design and human behavior. In the following 8 years of practice in a global, corporate design firm, I managed to integrate my design and research backgrounds to lead a compelling shift in the large firm’s culture towards a more human-centered, inquiry-driven design practice.

Despite apparently stellar achievements, I gradually became exhausted and disillusioned. There was a sense of depletion … a depletion of artistic muse, a depletion of purpose, and concomitantly, a depletion of energy. (I had, alongside, also experienced a turbulent marriage and divorce, not a small experience to have.) Life in a corporate world, driven by hierarchies and power plays, the increasing gap between words and actions, an illusionary grandiosity that sucks you in so that nothing is quite enough … caught up with me. I looked in the mirror (and much like in my marriage) felt like I couldn’t find the little girl who had done so many wonderful things with wild abandon and a free spirit. (I felt like I was plugged fully into the Matrix.) Music, my most loyal friend, had run away, far, far away from me. The paintbrush seemed alien in my fingers. Writing flowed with least resistance, but only once in a while. I was hardly reading anymore; I had become an expert in scanning. And as for a purpose for my existence, well, it had become hard to articulate. Then on a sudden whim I broke away, taking a jump off the corporate bandwagon, with no where to land. 

“What are you going to do?” “I don’t know.” “For how long are you going to do this?” “I don’t know.” “Are you going to travel?” “Maybe, but perhaps not.” I had a hunch that I needed to be still. Physically, mentally … I needed to … meditate! So I went to my first ever Vipassana course and was blown away (see: This too will change). A powerful shift into being with the present moment had already begun since the year of my divorce (see: Future becomes past without being present), and I now had a an experiential framework through the body and mind to understand it even better. Emerging from a 10-day vow of silence and 12 hours of meditation a day, I began having many, many ideas for things to do, including several entrepreneurial ones.  

I started with little, baby steps. Writing, as I said, came the most easily, and just then, my cousin began encouraging me to write on Bloggermoms. I told her I had no idea what I was going to write about. “But I’m not a mother!” I protested. “So what? We mothers need other things to think about, especially since motherhood can become so all-encompassing,” she insisted. So, in spite of some initial hesitancy, I began to write about my reflections on life experiences – big or small.  

Reading my blogs, a local film organization Tasveer, became interested in me as their publicity writer. As a promoter of independent thinking through cinema, they wanted a community-based writer’s (as opposed to a professional film critic’s) reviews of their film festivals and other activities. In parallel to blogging, I began developing some short story ideas I had shelved for a long time, after penning a couple. Some months later, I had a collection of nine short stories, and a 10th underway.

About the same time as I began to blog regularly, a close friend – a Seattle-based Pakistani writer and activist – who had co-starred with me and other South Asian women in Seattle’s production of Yoni ki Baat, told me that she really wanted to train her voice in order to sing in a friend’s documentary to be made back in Pakistan. She said she had always loved singing but had never formally trained her voice, and she was really rusty. I said “I can help you with that!” Soon, she began coming over to my home weekly, and after a cup of chai and animated chatting, I would teach her basic alankaars. Slowly, I began to find that along with her voice touching notes in a way they may have not done previously, my own voice began to find its old, familiar strength, timber and quality. I was polishing two voices at once, and our souls were connecting, to each other, to the music, to our selves. Before I knew it, another friend of hers, a Caucasian guy, who was just releasing a CD, wanted to join. Now, I have 4 students in all, and even a harmonium along with my electronic tanpura and tabla. We meet on Monday evenings and music is slowly returning to my home, heart and voice.

Yoni ki baat had been an annual tradition for 2 years in a row, co-sponsored by Tasveer and Chaya, the latter being a local anti-domestic violence organization for whose cause I had done other (musical) fundraiser performances as well. This January, the same friend of mine who started music lessons with me was asked to direct the show. Quickly, I became a partner to her, helping to recruit women from the local community and playing a role in extracting powerful stories from these courageous women, speaking out for women’s rights, sexual freedom and identity … and a quest to end violence and foster a world of peace and love. This year’s YKB, performed in 2 shows on April 9 and 10 managed not only to recruit fresh voices to its stories, but also whole new segments of the South Asian population into its audience, raising thousands for Chaya’s cause. I am currently working on the first YKB book – a photo journal memorializing the stories presented this year, and all the moments of courage, vulnerability and deep, moving sisterhood. I hope that this account will spur on many more women to join this quest and share their lives. As one wise person once said to me, “We are only as ill as our secrets.”

As I prepared to write and perform in English for YKB, an interesting email arrived in my inbox – a call for Hindi speaking (and Devanagari-reading) actors for a local, Seattle-based Hindi play production titled Ek tha Gadha, urf Aladad Khan! I had enjoyed and admired this particular director’s work for the past few years, and wondered what it might be like to speak and perform in Hindi – reconnect with an Indian language. (My mother tongue is Bengali, but having grown up in large part in Delhi, I am also fluent in Hindi.) On a rainy January morning, I shyly showed up for auditions, and was given the role of a “chintak” – a philosopher in the nawab’s court. The play is a political satire, skillfully anachronistic, and uses the “nawab” as a metaphor for any political leader, really. As one of his vapid, self-serving and spineless philosophers, I had to play quite the antithesis of myself, and this proved a wonderful challenge. Alongside, I found the Hindi slowly coming back to my tongue, and eventually rolling smoothly, and this felt exceedingly delightful. As the Hindi play rehearsals ran parallel to the Yoni ki Baat sessions, I was also able to find balance through the two simultaneous experiences, working through serious issues with my fellow women in one, and moving through a comedy and acting like rambunctious college freshmen with a segment of young Indians I may have never crossed paths with otherwise, in the other. 

Through this time, a house I had designed for my parents over a period of over 2 years, had moved into the final stages of construction in Shantiniketan, India. Encouraged by the surprising beauty of this first child, I got down to designing a house for my boyfriend. JW had expressed his dream to tear down and build on his existing lot in the woods of Edmonds, from the time I had first met him, and told me of his disappointing experience with an architect he had paid to come up with a schematic design a long time ago. I had not been able to help spontaneously sketching something out on my first visit to his place, and he had exclaimed with evident surprise, “That’s just what I want!” So during this continuing sabbatical, alongside writing, music and performance, I began to bring the design of “Wildcat Hideout” to life. Several rounds of schematics later, in January, I built a fully dismantling model of the scheme, and we began talking to structural engineers and builders. Most recently, we met a design-build team who seems to understand my vision perfectly, so I am now hopeful that a second child will be born some day!

In March of this year, I also created a partnership with two of my old colleagues and friends, which aspires to be a consortium of integrators: those who will integrate human-centered research and design for the built environment. Our working mantra is Architecture for Human Potential, and my dream is that this little enterprise will grow into a transdisciplinary consortium of design thinkers from various design fields – architecture, interior design, graphic design, industrial / product design and interaction design – all of whom will bring their collective commitment for the integration of human needs and aspirations, nature, and the future of our planet together with transformational design ideas. Three days ago, I flew back to the midwest to present a paper at the Environment Design Research Association’s 40th annual conference in Kansas City and was very grateful to receive critical input and encouragement for my thoughts and ideas.

Finally, but as I have discovered – most importantly – I have also made significant advances in recovering my health through completely natural and holistic ways. With the recent discovery of my allergies to gluten, soy and casein, I have great hope that my chronic migraines and stomach problems will heal completely through the nutrition, meditation, and exercise principles I am following.

Today, at the close of my 35th birthday, I have stopped to reflect on the past year, write about it, and share. I am pleasantly surprised by and terribly grateful for the few things I have managed to slowly bring into my life: Writing to share and influence others’ perspectives … Art and performance as activism … Music and its soulful sharing … Meaningful design … A possible entrepreneurial venture … a return of health and vigor … but most importantly, through all this, a sense of community, connectedness and shared purpose with many, many other lives.

I am certainly not rich, but I am indeed having rich experiences. Through simply being, I am hoping to move naturally towards being something. In my heart echoes the Japanese Zen saying: If you’re in a hurry, take the long path.


Last 5 posts by Shahana Dattagupta


  1. ranu

    Bravo Tana! What an achievement that too only in 35yrs. I wonder what willcome in next 35yrs! The long path definitely hard but it pays. GODbless you.

  2. khushi

    Bon voyage for all your ventures

  3. Indrani

    Tana, Congratulations for so many achievements in 35 years. simply superb. In my view, you are truly a woman of substance.

  4. Tana

    Dear Indrani, Khushi and Ranu, Thank you all for such kind words and encouragement. It means a lot.

  5. Shahana – I was very moved by this account of your life journey to date. Your struggle and my own, although different in details, have many parallels. Freud wrote: “One day the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful.” I found you because I searched for “Getting Beyond Migraines” – my work is to help people with headache or headache history to carve out a meaningful life. I have established a Facebook Page called ‘Migraine Independence Coaching’ and I would be honoured to have you contribute your unique voice to that page…..Gerry

  6. Shahana

    Hi Gerry, Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful and warm post. And what a unique endeavor you are pursuing! I am sure you make a significant difference in people’s lives every day. I will surely contribute to your page as possible. (Have you seen my 3-part migraine series on this site?) Thank you again.

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