Sonal Madhok is an ethereal soul, bursting at the seams with light. I accredit her for opening me up to a greater healing world than the one I created on my own. She instills positivity and love into the people she meets. She is compelling and intelligent. And constructs a forgiving space for all, including her friends and family to grow- to speak about the past without guilt or anger. She has taught me so much and continues to; about dealing with the thoughts in my head, diffusing the negative ones, and self-love. And has been so generous to me in sharing her culture and life. There is so much she holds within…
Sonal is Hindu Punjabi and was born in America. Unlike her parents, who are immigrants from India. Her mother originated in New Delhi, and her father, from Janakpuri. “My culture that I was given is beautiful. We would paint Mehndi (henna) on each other for holidays and dress up in vibrant colors that would match the vibrancy of the food on our plates.” When I was over her house, her mother made a traditional meal (puri cholé) for me to enjoy with them. The kitchen filled with scents of spices and warm energy as she cooked. Puri is a delicate, air-filled bread. And when it’s popped, hot steam rushes out. In the hollow center, you place the cholé, an Indian chickpea curry. A wonderfully memorable meal, but her mother’s hospitality was even more so- her unwavering sweetness and treatment as if I was one of her own.
While America is supposed to be a melting pot, a gorgeous and fascinating mix of cultures and people, there are still major culture shocks on both ends. Children grow up with their own ways of being at home, but in public, and in school, are exposed to each other and their differences. The majority of the time, these differences are not treated with the love they deserve and instead are met with hate. “Kids would call me ‘shit hands’ and I’d be made fun of for having dark hair on my arms and face.” And eventually, Sonal succumbed to their beliefs about it because it made it easier to fit in. “I went on the path of pretending and made fun of the other kids that were different too.”
The suppression of her culture eventually boiled over into bitterness and shame towards her family. And even in the inner realm, “There are so many norms that they had growing up that we don’t have here or vice versa.” And dating was one of the biggest shocks for them. They had come together from an arranged marriage, so the idea of ‘dating’ was hard to grasp. When her first relationship came around, she kept it hidden for a long time. Even when it was brought up, there was a lot of dismissal and refusing to even discuss the fact. But there always comes a point when you can’t hold it in anymore. “I was the first one in my family to speak out about it.” Although it was a tough process and took a lot of explanation, communication, and compassion on both sides, it ended up helping her whole family grow together.
It took years to undo all the thought processes and coping mechanisms she took on to adjust; blending not only what she knew in her household, but also what she experienced as a kid growing up in the United States. Subsequently, she spent more time celebrating her culture, instead of rejecting it. She began Indian Bollywood dancing again and learning Kathak, a classical style. And along with it came her deep affection for the arts. “I know that the instrumentals I heard while listening to the traditional Kathak music are the reason I was drawn towards classical music and eventually playing piano.” It inspires her to compose similar sounds that soothe her and the people around her. And lately, she’s been working on a 200-hour yoga teacher training program that has only strengthened her love for her culture.
As a student, she leaned more towards the arts and identified as a kid that could never be good at math. She loved creative writing. It was her dream to become a writer and have a publishing company. “Maybe to become a dancer on the side and have piano concerts as well.” And before high school began, she decided she should try a new type of writing- journalism. While there were many times she regretted ever having opened this door, because it meant getting uncomfortable, facing her social anxiety and thinking objectively, it was incredibly beneficial. She was able to work as the Editor-In-Chief at her community college’s newspaper, help revive it, and witness the growth it had on campus and in the community.
I even got to accompany her on one of her missions- a Gus Dapperton concert with an opening performance by Spencer., which ended up being an awakening moment for me. We were both going through some relationship “stuff” at the time and the crowd’s energy was beautiful. We danced- felt it reach through our bones and cleanse any pain we had inside. We barely knew who either performer was, but ended up vibing really well, discovering new artists, and being completely present with the music.
She thought she was going to be an English major, but found herself questioning why she couldn’t be good at math or science. So in her high school years, she took a computer graphics course, then a computer science course. “The way my mind was challenged in problem-solving skills, and also the frustration I had with myself on why I couldn’t understand it, motivated me to keep going.” And by the end of her senior year, she was determined to major in computer science.
“Impostor syndrome wore heavy on my shoulders every day because I knew I wasn’t a kid that grew up having a passion for computers. I was an editor of the school newspaper. I still loved my arts, but I also loved programming.” She didn’t feel deserving of being in the same classroom with people whose passions had many more years than hers. She even entertained those thoughts to the point of almost dropping out of her major in the second to last semester. Ultimately, she realized that it didn’t matter where she came from or what she did before. What mattered was what she cared for and wanted to do now.
“What was an even bigger lesson was that it is okay to change- to have differences, adversities, obstacles… Change can lead to confusion of who we are and our identity, but the confusion is temporary and necessary, and it truly is the journey that counts. I think we would rather spend our time trying everything we love and failing, rather than to limit our minds (for anything) and only follow the path that we are most comfortable on. It’s funny to look back on it now- going from arts to an English major and then somehow ending up in STEM, but I think it’s exciting to watch the growth and change of thoughts I had. I love mathematics now and I often spend time trying to relate laws in science to philosophical ideas. It’s fun for me to bridge the gap between STEM and the humanities because they are two fields that benefit when they mesh. We can learn so much from each other, truly.”
Her creative process usually starts with her feeling overwhelmed or needing time to be alone- that’s when her best work comes. Because she cares less about making things perfect and more about releasing stress. She’ll start with a small foundation of chords or a basic outline of what she wants to write. Then she’ll play around with notes or have a ‘stream of consciousness’ writing session. She has fallen in love with the progression of soft sounds that multiply and create something beautiful altogether.
Her writing is compiled of a release of the things she’s learned about herself and the morals she took from it. She journals regularly. Especially when she’s facing a problem, she’ll turn to her notebook to discuss it with herself and to look for consolation before reaching out for help. “Nine out of the ten times though, I mess up, and I’ll convince myself that I’ve ruined the whole piece, similar to what it feels like when you mess up a painting, but then I’ll work around it and eventually the one mess up usually becomes the best part of the piece.”
“I am so grateful for the past I was given and I am blessed to be at the point I am now with diverse friendships and diverse thoughts that have created a beautiful environment for me and my loved ones to blossom in. I still make a lot of mistakes, like most, and I will continue to make more, as we all will, because every day is an opportunity for us to learn and grow at any pace we feel ready to.”