Thursday, July 21, 2016

Ten random observations from Germany

1. Most shops are closed on Saturdays. All shops are closed on Sundays. Most stores are open between 9 am and 8 pm on the weekdays. Imagine, no grocery stores or shopping malls are open on Sundays. 

2. If you forgot your grocery bag, you need to pay to buy plastic bags.

3. I have seen green traffic lights change to orange and then red. Here, there is a one second of orange light before the red light changes back to green.

4. While filling visa forms (written in Deutsche, English, Arabic, and Russian), I had to write my parents' name for the first time in many years. In fact, I even had to write my mother's maiden name.

5. I is enunciated as E. So Ikea is Ee-kay-yah.  

6. J is enunciated as Y. And Y is also written as J. So "year" is written as Jahr (plural, Jahre), and "ya" is written as Ja.

7. The Cs as in cat and not chat are replaced by Ks. Klinik. Oktober. Kaffee with Karan. Kamera. Kanada (not Kannada). Kalkutta. Disko.

8. I haven't seen people hug so much here as a form of greeting. Instead, I have seen colleagues put their hands on my elbow sometimes when they speak. I must say, it startles me a little bit. 

9. Very few people take selfies here. They browse their phones all the time, but they seem to be far less obsessed with themselves.  

10. Long words in every day life. Andreasgaykstrasse. Auslanderangelegenheiten (foreign affairs). Begegnungszentrum (meeting center). Einbahnstrasse (one-way street).


sunshine 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Te(e)thering onto old memories

I have been in bed for the last 30 minutes, reading, and too lazy to get up and brush my teeth. I know I will at some point. But inertia afflicts me right now, big time. And while I try to build enough momentum to break this inertia, a memory from Nebraska resurfaces. I do not have too many remarkable memories of Nebraska, but this one, for the weirdest of reasons, I remember.

Who is the first person you see in the morning on a daily basis? I am not talking about your reflection in the mirror, but a real person. A partner? Parents? A pet? A colleague perhaps? For me, it used to be the man whose name I never got to know. He had white, back-brushed hair and he used to man the parking garage where I parked my car before heading to work. He used to smile and wave at me religiously as I scanned my parking permit to enter the garage Monday through Friday. And while he smiled his gummy smile, his dentures used to sit in a bowl by the table on the side. Every month, I stopped by to pay for parking, and he put on his dentures before writing me a receipt. Sometimes, he forgot, and those dentures sat there on the table, giggling at me as he wrote my receipt. It used to freak me out. This memory alone is enough to yank me off my bed and make me go brush my teeth.


sunshine

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A post in questions

Whatever you are doing right now, pause for a moment to sit back and think of this question.

“What would you do if the biggest problem plaguing your life right now is taken care of right away?”

The problem could be anything, but had to the biggest one in your life right now. What if you got the job you wanted in the city you wanted as well? What if your ailing child suffering from autism is miraculously cured? What if you found the person after waiting in loneliness for years? What if you got into Harvard Medical School? What if you got pregnant after years of trying? What if after being estranged for years, you and your partner got together? What if all your financial worries are taken care of?

In short, what if that one biggest thing worrying you right now is solved? How would your life look like from tomorrow? Would you go back to living a carefree, cheerful, fearless life just the way you wanted it? Would you start doing the things you promised you would when your worries are taken care of? Or like fluids, would the rest of the worries occupy the empty space in your life now?

I am not asking this question to the readers as much as I am asking it to myself. I wonder if I might temporarily start lacking a purpose, a direction in life if my biggest worry for the moment is taken care of.


sunshine

Monday, July 18, 2016

Less open borders

I am on a bus from Kraków to Berlin, and my reverie is suddenly interrupted when the bus stops in the middle of the lush green fields. This does not look like a bus station, I tell myself. I look out to see if the road signs are still in Polish or if we are in Germany by now. My line of thoughts is answered as soon as two uniformed policemen get on the bus and start speaking rapidly in Deutsche. "Passport" and "Photo ID" are the only two words I recognize. Quickly, I get both out of my backpack.

Sometime during the trip, this thought did cross my mind. Germany and Poland have open borders, so technically one need not show any documentation. But we live in different times now. This has happened on my way back from Brussels and Amsterdam too. The thing is, this ID checking happens only on the way back to Germany and not while the bus is leaving Germany.

The officers are quick and efficient. It is only when they check my documents that I realize that they are only trying to match my photo with my face. Whether or not I have the paperwork to live in Germany, they probably do not care about. But then, I could be wrong, since almost everyone except me looks German. Both these men are armed, I can clearly see their guns jutting out of their waists. This makes me nervous. They check everyone's photo ID and are gone in less than five minutes.

Later, I ask the coach attendant why the police were here (although I know that it is probably because of the refugee situation) to which, the man shrugs and tells me he understands no English. I am trying to understand social barriers here, but am caught in the web of linguistic barriers. So I keep quiet and go back to my contemplation. Sometime later, the attendant comes back and points me to go to the driver. He probably felt bad that he did not understand my question. So I do, and ask the driver the same question. The driver (whose English is only marginally better) shrugs and tells me that he does not know. I am not entirely convinced. So I ask him what would have happened if I had no photo id on me. Would I be asked to leave the bus? Leave the country? Which country? The driver tells me he has no idea. I am left with a lot of unanswered questions, but I leave him alone.

I am certainly witnessing very interesting times in Germany. The situation was not like this when I had arrived here two years ago. At least during the Amsterdam trip, the cops got on the bus with sniffer dogs to check if anyone was bringing back drugs. This time, I am not sure why they checked everyone's photo ID and why they had guns on them.


sunshine

Friday, July 15, 2016

Cab and Gab

The older I grow, the more I become like my parents.

Back in Calcutta, whenever we went out as a family and took a cab, my dad would always hop in the front and start chatting with the cab driver, totally ignoring the rest of us. The rest of us would sit back bored and clueless. This was routine. While mom and sister and I loved hanging out with each other, my dad loved hanging out with the driver. We always wondered how come he had so much to talk to with every cab driver he met. With those who migrated from Bihar, he would start talking in Bhojpuri, and the conversation between long lost friends would never end. My mother, usually feeling ignored, would try giving subtle, sarcastic hints about the newly found member of the family. Dad would cleverly ignore all the hints. 

And now, every time I take a cab (which I did a lot during my recent trip to the US since I do not drive anymore), I somehow found myself chatting up with every cab driver. Inconsequential conversations about what they like about their city, how long they have been doing this, why they do what they do, and what interesting things they see on the streets everyday. It's not that we exchange phone numbers and become Facebook friends, the conversation ends every time I get off the cab. Talking doesn't even come to me very naturally. But when you are in a vehicle with a stranger, it only makes sense to talk. The conversations are interesting all the more because these are short-lived, with someone whose life is poles apart compared to mine, someone I am never meeting again. I wonder what my dad would say to that, other than, don't talk to strangers when you are alone. 

If I had a job where I had to take the cab every day, I would write a little book about all my conversations with the cab drivers.


sunshine

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Kon-Maried

My parents are worried about the recent change they saw in me where stuff and clutter makes me uncomfortable and jittery. I am ready to get rid of anything I possibly could. In Kolkata, I bought nothing other than perishable food to bring back. I left behind most gifts that people gave me this time. I am always after my parents, urging them to throw away things, constantly annoyed by that non-functional treadmill that continues to stay in the living room as a makeshift clothes rack, more to appease the guilt of my family for not exercising. I made Ma promise that I will only enter that home the next time the treadmill is gone. I think that sitting there and doing nothing, it just brings bad energy.

My dad could not believe that I spent 500 rupees buying Marie Kondo's book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up" to actively learn how to declutter. They don't get it because they have never lived out of suitcases. They have never had to pack up their life within a week and move because their visa was not approved. I exactly know that this difference in mentality is coming from having had radically different life experiences. My Ma was telling me today how they often argue about whether to sleep in this apartment or that apartment (there are two on the same floor, one is south facing and has more breeze at night, and the other is east facing and gives a nice view of the sunrise). The irony of the timing of her comment is not lost on me when my apartment lease in Germany is going to end pretty soon, leaving the possibility that I might be homeless.

Let's see what interesting experiences life brings after my lease ends in July.


sunshine

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Why traveling is a pain?

Please share widely any post you like or identify with because:

1. I am trying to increase my reader-base.

2. I will be launching my first book (It is a travel memoir and I am the editor, more details later) by the end of the year. I could use my blog to spread the word.

3. Remember the short survey you filled out on the right side of this page (you did not?)? A primary data analysis shows that my reader population is very homogenous. All Indians from India/Europe/US between ages 30-40 who never share my posts. I was hoping to have an international readers' base, people from lesser known (or not so lesser known) countries, but none. Not even a German, although I write a lot about Germany. I wish my readership had more diversity.

Now back to today's post-
----------------------

Traveling is a human experience, and it has a darker side I seldom write about. I am backpacking for the rest of the week, and it's only been two days. Every day is different- there are good days and there are bad days. I'll just tell you things from this trip.

Traveling alone means being constantly alert about your passport, camera, and valuables, mentally calculating the number of things you have with you all the time.

Traveling means having to figure out maps and directions. Without a car, GPS, or even a phone and relying solely on maps and human beings, especially humans who do not speak your language can be challenging and exhausting. The lady at the ticket counter just told me she understands no English and I just explained to her, solely by drawing and acting, that I need to take the night train to Poland tomorrow and I need a sleeper reservation. Any one information in this gone wrong (Poland, tomorrow, night, sleeper, reservation) can mean trouble.

Traveling means not eating at times, since you are running to catch a train or there is nothing edible in sight. I could eat cardboard right now, I am so hungry, yet too tired to get off my hostel bed and venture out. I am craving meat and carbs, but I am munching on an apple instead.

Traveling means constantly keeping track of changing time zones, currencies, and languages. Keeping track of the Hungarian forint and the Polish zloty and how they compare with the Euro. 1 euro = 320 forints = 4.45 zloty. I've been constantly doing unitary method mental math for the last 2 days now.

Traveling means sometimes getting extremely homesick. When it happens immediately after a Kolkata trip, you don't even know if you are actually missing Kolkata or Germany. It can be pretty confusing. I will never do a yearlong backpacking trip. Homesickness will kill me. Two weeks on the road is my limit.

Traveling alone means going to the bathroom, lugging all your stuff.

Traveling means waking up and taking the trains at odd hours. Or not sleeping at all.

And being wary of cab drivers who fleece you. Or entering the wrong side of the metro with a heavy bag and having to take the stairs all the way again since many old stations have no elevators. The more tired I am, the more I make bad decisions. Under stress, even figuring out your east and west in a new city can be daunting. Not to mention the amount of walking I am doing in the summery heat every day. The sweat, the calluses in the feet, and the constant body pain that comes from waling and carrying heavy bags. Or sleeping in humid rooms since most of Europe does not use air conditioning. When you tell your hostel that you forgot to pack a towel and they charge you a euro, you go like, "really?"

Yet traveling is educational. It needs to happen. Just like getting an education is hard but one cannot escape it, traveling is that way too for me. It imbibes confidence. It builds character. It teaches you to be patient and learn to wait. I was all set to take the 8 am train from Budapest to Bratislava this morning, but my hostel never told me that their reception does not open until 9 am (they had some refundable deposit to return). So I waited, and missed the train, and took the 11:30 am train instead that was jam packed, and now I am all late. Sure, I could lose my temper and spoil the rest of my day. Or just move on.

I was dead tired from exhaustion by the time I reached Bratislava. But when the person at the reception told me that if I can get on a particular bridge, I can see the windmills of Austria at a distance standing on the Slovak side, it filled me with childlike excitement. I do not know why seeing the Austrian windmills should excite me. It just does. Just the way when I discover a random word meaning something totally different (and usually bad) in other languages, I get all excited and pause to take a picture of it.

Traveling under duress is hard. Traveling under time and monetary constraints is extremely stressful. But traveling must happen. For it keeps the brain active, the mind open, the heart loving, and the body fit.


sunshine

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Questioning the mass tags

"Thanks Bogola Kanti Basu for nominating me. Let's start a game. I am an Indian gentleman and I love to wear lungis. I love lungis. Silky, flowing lungis touching my skin in fifty shades of colors, giving me a taste of freedom, liberating me and making me feel twice the man that I am. I am tagging some of those men who I think look excellent in lungis. I would request them to post their pictures in lungis and nominate/tag some of their man friends to post their pics in lungis and nominate others. Thus we would carry on the game. You can tag me also if you wish. Please copy-paste the text on your timeline along with your photo. It is not mandatory to play, but I shall be happy if you join. Come on dashing gentlemen, just do it."

The "instruction manual"-like tone of this post aside, this is what gender equity looks like when we talk of awards and nominations and playing tag on Facebook. It's a different story that I have never known a man who would start a thread like this.

In school, I never understood why (many) girls always went to restrooms in groups and giggled there. I need my privacy and the last thing I want is company in the restroom. And now, I don't understand why it is mostly women who indulge in these herd-based self-glorifying tag ceremonies. Sari wearing tags. Motherhood tags. Single women tags. Handbag tags. Wearing a sari is great, and so is being a mom. Why glorify it into a narcissistic obsession of elevating it to a mass-level ceremony? This probably stems from a deep-rooted conditioning (most) women have, where they derive their worth from how they look- the clothes and jewelry they wear (even modern women with careers), the makeup they put and the way they raise their children. I use the word “they” and not "we" on purpose, since I do not identify with them. What is the need for playing tag anyway? And why do men never do it (unless it involves pouring ice cold water on yourself)? Book-reading and movie tags are still useful since I get to know about new books and movies at the end of the day. But why should I care about the saris you wore and the makeup you used?

On a similar note, far more women post pictures of their wedding and continue to do so than men. I am not talking about the outliers. And none of the tags going viral involve career achievements, incidents of personal courage, or overcoming a disability. I wonder why?


sunshine

Monday, July 11, 2016

The need for Plan B

People often stress the need of having a plan in life. I have gotten away without a plan many times. What helped me is having a Plan B instead of an overall plan.

I timed my return to Germany from Kolkata to have my US paperwork ready. I would have been in Berlin this week getting a visa, and getting ready to move. But that did not happen. The paperwork is delayed and I must wait. Had I known, I would have spent more time in Kolkata. So what do I do now?

I spent the day staring at Google Maps until I had a plan. Sunday 5 am, I sleepily hopped on a long-distance train, and continued to sleep in the cramped seats until my neck was almost dislocated. I got on the road for a week, traveling in trains and seeing new countries. Hungary. Slovakia. Poland. Close your eyes and touch the European map and you could be wherever you please.

This was not even a part of my conscious until Friday, let alone be a part of my plan. But since Plan A is taking forever, I decided to make the best use of my time. And why not? I brought my work with me. I am seeing places I have no spiritual connection with and have no reason to see otherwise. The hostel in Budapest has an interesting balcony lining the inner perimeter of the building (If you have seen Julie Delpy's "2 days in Paris", this building looks exactly like that). A good looking young man was on the phone at the other end of the balcony for a long time this morning, wearing nothing but his boxers, unaware that he had a curious spectator. Imagine waking up to a view like that. Ma would have said, "Why are you spending money, you could have lazed around at home.” She has a point, but this might be a good plan to have at age eighty.

From perfect jobs to understanding partners, healthy and well-behaved children, efficient cars and cozy homes, we want to have it all. But life isn't perfect, mine far from it. I've set my heart on things that never happened, giving way to things instead I had never considered. Doing a PhD was my Plan B. Moving to Germany was my Plan B. Learning to drive was my Plan B (I was so scared that I resisted it for years). Learning to travel alone was my Plan B. It all worked out great. If life had been predictable, I’d be a resident of the Bay Area in California whose husband works in one of the software companies, owning a townhouse, driving a Lexus, rearing American children, taking them to piano and ballet lessons and celebrating Durga Puja with the fellow “probashi” or non-resident Bengalis, whining about how dirty India is and how corrupt the politicians are. But my life is not predictable, far from it thankfully. I can be homeless and jobless in a day. I can also plan a road trip to any European country in a day. My life is that steroid-driven. So Plan B for me is absolutely possible. Why possible, it is the Plan Bs that have kept me going, making my life interesting and different from the rest.


sunshine

Friday, July 08, 2016

Remembering last week

A few days ago, I wrote about the stark differences between Kolkata and the western world that hit me whenever I visit my family. Within no time, I not only got used to those changes, but also immensely enjoyed my time there. It’s been a little more than 24 hours since I came back to Germany, and those differences are popping up again. Yes, there were these entire ranges of differences I immediately noticed. It was raining and much chillier. I was no longer sweating like I used to. I was suddenly surrounded by entirely different kind of people around me, all White, sharp-featured and much taller than I am. I almost scalded myself after having forgotten that even a slight left in the faucet ejects extremely hot water in the bathroom. My dilemma for dirty bathrooms outside and wet bathroom floors at home in Kolkata is gone. Every little change that had happened in my life a few weeks ago was reset. It’s as if, these differences did not even matter. However, there are two things that hit me hard. Really hard.

1. Being surrounded by silence and the utter lack of sounds.

Sure, I heard the cars zoom by on the Autobahn through whatever I could hear from the thick window panes of the bus, but I am talking about human noise. Hours went by, and I heard not a word I could understand. The immigration officer and the cab driver are the only two people I spoke to very briefly, mostly thanking them. As I put the key in my door and stepped in at midnight, the utter lack of any kind of sound started to get deafening. I involuntarily opened my jaws, thinking that my ears must have popped and I could not hear well. Still, nothing. Not too long ago, I was surrounded by people who came to mostly talk to me- my family, friends, neighbors, even strangers. I had recently befriended a young fruit seller who often fed me kalojaams for free as I talked to her. The few times I took a cab, I chatted up with the driver. I even chatted up with one of the crew members in Emirates, in Bangla. We briefly spoke about traveling trends and why the flight was running empty. And suddenly, all these people in my life are gone. They will only exist henceforth in my memory, or on blog posts.

I woke up jetlagged and really early the next morning. It was little past 4 am, and the sky was just beginning to lighten up. Hundreds of sea gulls filled my head with their rather shrill and cacophonic voices. I drew the curtains to see the beautiful view of the sea. There was no one to ask me what I want to eat. Grudgingly, I dragged my feet to the kitchen. It wasn’t until I reached work that I had a real conversation in a mix of broken German and English. I realized I was dying to hear Bangla.

2. Being surrounded by foreignness.

It didn’t take long for me to get back to the zone where I understood absolutely nothing of whatever little people spoke around me. I don’t know why the immigration officer asked me to remove my glasses in German. When the airline agent in Dubai wished me “Guten Flug”, I was momentarily surprised after all these weeks of hearing Bangla. So I mustered a weak “Danke” with a smile. My flight, and later the bus were filled with people who spoke German. Naturally, I was transformed to a distant foreign spectator from someone who actively conversed with strangers with no difficulty. Even if I understood an occasional word or two, there is no way I was going to be a part of that conversation. The same happened at work. Colleagues spoke animatedly with each other in German, but stumbled and slowed down as they struggled to speak English with me. Naturally, I did what I always do, shut myself in office and work.

When I checked my mail after getting home, I was not surprised to see a bunch of letters waiting for me, all in German. Trust the German efficiency, the Ausländerbehörde (Aliens Office) sent me a 5-page letter (in German), scheduling my next appointment with them in August where we will discuss about extending or not extending my visa. They have no clue that I will hopefully not be here in August. My bank continues to send me credit card statements in German, totally oblivious to the fact that I have specifically asked to send me emails and mails in English. Although these are routine struggles for me now, I am still not used to them. At work, I got three wrong number calls. Even before I could ask them to switch to English, all three of them spoke volumes about something, someone they wanted. On asking them to switch to English and that this is a wrong number, all of them politely, but curtly apologized and hung up. I was tempted to ask one of them, “Do you speak Bangla? I am rather homesick. I could talk to you for hours.”

I have a core group of friends from different parts of the world we speak to regularly. Technology came to rescue as we chatted up on Skype. I am doing things I haven’t done in weeks, like listening to my own music as I go to work or Skype with friends. There was no time for all this in Kolkata. Last time this week, my life was very different. I was walking random streets near Chandni Market or Southern Avenue, sampling street-side food. I was chatting up for hours with my mom’s professor, having met her for the first time. I was on the terrace every evening, watching sunset with grandma and asking ma and kakima to join us. I was being fed like a royal, not just by family but by the neighbors. Ma has packed me food for a week. Only last week, I was taking the metro and buying kalojaam and custard apples in kilos. I was having tea every morning and chatting up with our domestic help who spoke of a life I had no idea about. And now, instead of these people, I am surrounded by a whole lot of work, data I am supposed to analyze and papers I am supposed to write.

I never cry while saying goodbye. While ma and grandma cried buckets at the airport, not a drop came out of my eyes. I am always alert and cautious, trying to remember if I have taken my passport and travel documents. It was much later, suspended at 36,000 feet in a cramped airplane bathroom that the first tears came. And I let them. I cried like a baby, but not just for leaving family and close friends behind. I cried for leaving a whole way of life behind, a way that is familiar, and my own, and a place where I will never need to justify my visits through visas and travel documents. I usually read myself to sleep every night. As I shut my book, switched off the bedside light and closed my eyes, another tiny drop of tear involuntarily came out before vanishing in the pillow. For work or for vacation or for whatever it is worth, I cannot wait to go back to Kolkata.


sunshine

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Whitemares

When I was little, my grandma and I had a deal. Summer afternoons, she would lie down to rest, and I would earn 10 paise for every white hair I plucked off her head. It was a sweet deal, and I am sure many children growing up in India had such deals with their grandparents. I would play with her long hair, comb it, oil it, and braid it, and she loved the comfort of me touching her head with my little hands.

Fast forward life 25 years. I am glad that I had that practice. I am now using those fine motor skills on myself. I am living my nightmares! Those are called the whitemares!


sunshine

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Self-assembled machinery

In Kolkata, I do not need to look far for inspiration to write. Most things around the house are things I grew up with but never noticed as an insider. But now, I do. For example, we use a piece of self-assembled, unique machinery. A really long frayed rope is tied to a 500 ml plastic bottle at one end, and to a jute bag at the other. We live on the fifth floor and do not have an elevator (which thankfully keeps many unwanted people away). So we use this bag-rope-bottle thingy multiple times every day. When the domestic help arrives and needs the keys to the outside door, we lean from the balcony and get it to her. When the mailman arrives with the mail, we use this. Limited amounts of grocery, clothes, books, and other assorted paraphernalia get exchanged between the different floors using this. When I ordered two books online, this thing came to my rescue and prevented me from climbing up and down 160 steps in the summer heat. Of course it needs a little skill to not create knots in the rope while using it, something that I had forgotten. So now there were a couple of tight knots, and the bag would not go beyond the third floor no matter how much I leaned in and out. For me, running data requires less patience than untying these knots, especially when under time pressure. It's also a wonderful workout for the biceps, not to mention an interesting F=mg kind of school physics problem. The bottle cannot be too large, the bag cannot be too heavy, and the rope cannot be too thin, given the mass of the stuff we normally transport. Sometimes, the bag gets caught in a jutting television antenna or a lowly hanging clothes drying rope from another balcony on another floor. Barring that, it is quite a handy tool around the house. Who needs IKEA after this?


sunshine

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Homelessness

This morning, I re-signed my rental lease, shortening it to the end of July. An immediate and familiar feeling of fear hit my stomach. My paperwork for the US visa is taking forever, and it might happen that by the time my documents arrive and I have to go to the US consulate in Germany, my German job contract is over and I might not have a place to live in anymore. Am I looking at potential homelessness post-July again? It has happened before. The first time was for 3 months when I was transitioning back to graduate school. For months, people in Seattle opened up their homes as I spent my time babysitting, cat sitting, even house sitting. The second time was right before moving to Germany when I had spent 4 weeks on the road. Every day, I slept in a new place, in supercomputer labs at universities, people's homes, seedy hotel rooms with names scribbled on distastefully done wall papers in the hinterlands of Wyoming, and even sometimes inside my car. Every time a major transition in my life happened, I became homeless, although momentarily. However, that was the US where I have hundreds of friends, where G will open up her home and kitchen indefinitely in return for digging up her garden, doing yard work, painting the walls, cleaning the garage, breaking coconuts, lugging heavy grocery from Cash n Carry, freezing myself while getting milk cans from the Costco freezer, and accompanying her to every temple within a 200-mile radius (I have done it all). Germany is different. I hardly know anyone in Germany, especially outside work. Without a cell phone, it will be even more fun.

However, these transition periods also open up possibilities of newer, unique experiences. With no paycheck and not much money to stay in hotels, I might go backpacking and sleep in overnight trains (some of those trains in Prague have showers too). I might start sleeping in my office and use the emergency shower in the biology lab. I might invest in a tent, backpack and sleeping bag. There are nice benches in the park right outside my home. If nothing, there is always Kolkata to go back to.


sunshine

Monday, July 04, 2016

Knowing a city

Today, I spent a few hours by the banks of river Hooghly, and then took the local train from Princep Ghat. In those few hours, I saw more of life and everyday living than I have seen in the air-conditioned floors of City Center, South City Mall, Mani Square, or any other mall. People buying and selling. Lovers holding hands. Buyers and sellers negotiating. People playing cards in groups. Devotees offering prayers in the temples by the banks. Families enjoying the sunset on a boat. Friends taking selfies in groups. Commuters waiting for the train. Life in tiny shacks under the Howrah Bridge. I also saw so many photographers with their expensive cameras and gears taking shots of life around the river. Life continued to happen for people as it does everyday while the smell of jhaal muri and phuchka wafted in the air. If you really want to understand even a little bit of a city, and this is true for every city, you need to move out of the usual places and find your own lanes and bylanes where everyday stories happen. And you need to take the train. And walk till you are ready to drop dead.


sunshine

Friday, July 01, 2016

2016 by 2

And just like that, half of eventful year is over. And what happened in these last 6 months?

1.     True to my word, I wrote more than 100 blog posts, a record.

2.     Got a faculty position.

3.     Lost my grandpa.

4.     Got robbed.

5.     Visited Kolkata.

6.     Traveled five new countries.

7.     Published a research paper.

8.     Got three grants rejected.

9.     Got two new passports.

10.  Almost got killed.


sunshine

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Viewing the world differently


We are very close with a certain family. Whenever I ring their doorbell, auntie shouts from inside, asking who it is. It leaves me a little confused, since she could look through the eye hole.

"It's me!," I shout back, instantly realizing how useless my answer is. Who exactly is this me? My parents have given me such a weird pet name that I am reluctant to shout out my name and let the entire community know. So I keep mum until auntie opens the door and tells me the story.

A petty thief got in the building, and on not being able to find anything better, stole their eye hole. So now, their door was left without anything to peep from. Uncle bought a new eye hole. Their daughter decided to take matters in her hand, and ended up gluing the new eye hole, but in the opposite direction. Auntie is still unable to see anything through it. So now, their son mocks his sister and decides to take things in his hand. He gets even stronger glue, takes the eye hole out, looks at it this way and that way with one eye closed like a detective would, and ends up gluing the eye hole exactly the same way again- the correct side reversed. Now the glue is so strong that it will not even come out. I actually saw it for myself. When I ring the door bell now, I can peep from outside and clearly see their living room while auntie comes up to the door to open it from inside. Auntie still has no idea who is standing outside.

The irony of this situation is not lost on me. For this could have only happened in a household with two engineer-siblings.


sunshine

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The art of doing nothing

Grandma goes up the terrace twice a day for her walks. I do not accompany her at 6 am, but I try to accompany her at 6 pm. And while she walks and rotates her hands and her neck this way and that way, I do absolutely nothing. This time with grandma has taught me the art of doing nothing. Sometimes, I bring a book with me, but barely read it. Sometimes, I bring my camera to take a few pictures of the coconut trees, the sunset, or the high-rise buildings under construction. But most of the time, I do nothing. I lie down on my back and take a short nap or look at the sky and the airplanes. Sometimes, I bring a bowl full of kalojaam or black berries with me. And while I munch on them, I deliberately try spitting out the seeds from the terrace in a projectile motion to see how far each one can go. I look at what's in other people's rooftops. Someone is growing bitter gourds or pumpkin flowers while the others have hung clothes to dry. I try to spot the different landmarks of the city- The Howrah Bridge, the Salt Lake Stadium. I try to identify the different kinds of birds, although my knowledge about birds is restricted to the crows, sparrows, and pigeons alone. I hum a tune or two, or think of some research ideas that I could pursue. But mostly, as grandma is working out and sweating it out, I take great pleasure in sitting with her and doing absolutely nothing. Because doing nothing for an hour everyday actually frees up my mind later on to do much more.


sunshine

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Fruits of labor

Imagine a life where the only responsibility you have, even if for a few weeks, is to buy seasonal fruits from the market while returning home. This started when I got my first job in 2005. Although earning, I was not expected to contribute anything at home. So I started buying fruits on my way back, as much as I desired for the entire family (although I always ate the lion's share). Kalojaam (blackberry), jaamrul (Java apple), lichu, safeda, you name it. I would happily come home, two large bags of fruits in hand. With my meager salary, I had never felt richer.

The trend continues. No matter whether I am in a bus or taxi, I always get off at the local market to buy fruits while returning home. I get on my haunches and hand-pick fruits. This time, I spotted a particular woman seller in between a bunch of men. Being appreciative of this, I started chatting up with her.

"Kalojaam koto kore?" How much? I asked.

"Ten rupees for 100 grams." she said.

Fruit sellers always quote prices for 100 grams here possibly because it tricks the buyer into believing that they do not have to spend much. Kaalojaam, or black berries are a close favorite after mangoes and litchis, and I have never found these in the US/Germany. So when I ask for 2 kilos, her jaws drop, and she gives me a 10% discount. I never haggle for prices, something that Ma and I always keep arguing about. Ma's point is, sellers always inflate the prices because people are going to haggle. My point is, if the price sounds reasonable enough (most things do now, since my euros give me even more buying power), I do not want to haggle with a poor man who is sitting in the sun and trying hard to make a living. If one does not haggle at Pantaloons and Westside, why haggle with fruit sellers? Those 10 rupees I save is not worth the kicks one gets.

So I continue to buy fruits from her whenever I go out, and we chat up. Now, she starts to watch out for me as well. One day, she gave me good quality plastic bags for things I had bought from another place because I was not carrying a grocery bag. The other day, she gave me a handful of kalojaams for free to chew on as we continued to chat. Every time I put a few in my mouth, she would choose a few good ones and place them in my hand. Who would have imagined making a new friend at the local market over buying kalojaams?

She was thrilled when I asked her name. She was even more thrilled and blushed profusely when I asked if I could take a picture of her. So she posed nicely and gave me her best smile.

Grandma and I have forgotten to eat other things, and have been happily overdosing on kalojaams ever since, our teeth and tongues perennially violet in color now. 


sunshine

Monday, June 27, 2016

T(r)oothfully

Every time I landed in Kolkata, he was among the first few people I would meet. Sometimes, we set up a meeting date even before I had reached Kolkata. With a thumping heart and sweat trickling down my face due to my nervousness, I would go meet him. And then, he would usher me inside, close the door behind him, ask me to lie down, grab my hand, and without wasting much time, go straight for my mouth. A quick summer romance, not really. For in the aftermath of all this action, we would often be left in tears, mine shed due to all the pain, and my father's, not shed, for the deep holes it made in his pocket.

This is the first time in many years that I have not had to see the dentist in Kolkata. Touchwood. Needless to say, my life is so much better for it and my smiles, so much brighter!


sunshine

Friday, June 24, 2016

A sweet gesture

I am always drawn to places and societies where one can have real interactions with real people. Going out in Kolkata makes that happen everyday. I am headed home and get off the bus to walk some 10-15 minutes before I reach our apartment. It is extremely humid, and I am drenched in sweat, about to die of thirst. So I stop by the local sweets shop, and ask for the water jug for a sip (it is free). I don't know the owner personally. The owner not only forwards me the water jug, but also hands me a gujiya, a kind of sweet, for free. He smiles and says, "এটা খান, ভালো লাগবে।" (Have this, you will feel better).

I don't think he goes around distributing free sweets, but it is that moment, a moment when someone is dying of thirst and a kind man not only offers that, but offers something to eat as well. Your Big Bazaar and other chain stores with uniformed people working there and talking to the local customers in English will never do this for you, even if they wanted to, because there are cameras watching them and they are accountable for every rupee. My ma does not understand why I try to boycott buying from or going to malls and chain stores. I do not care to choose from ten different varieties of rice and wheat, or get that 10% discount when I purchase goods for a thousand rupees or more. I do not care about fattening the pockets of the already rich. I want human interaction. And I want my money to go to the local people. I don't just care about the product I am getting. I also care about where my money is going.


sunshine

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Water we waiting for?

A disaster of the somewhat innocuous kind brought all the 12-15 odd families in our building together. Usually, we do not keep track of the ongoing of our neighbors. We nod curtly and smile if we bump into someone in the stairway. But last afternoon, the water pump malfunctioned and we lost running water. We waited until evening, but nothing. The supply of stored water was slowly running out. Late evening, ma started making a few phone calls, asking when it would be fixed. We were supposed to visit a family friend nearby, so we showed up at their place with 6-8 empty bottles to stock up on drinking water. While coming home, we saw that all the men of the building were assembled together discussing what needs to be done.

Early morning, people were ready with buckets to fill up on municipality water that stops after 8 am. This actually gave people a chance to say hi and make small talk, since everyone was queued up with a common goal. As the line was getting longer, ma went to the neighbor from the adjacent building to stock up on buckets of water (which I dutifully carried upstairs). The neighbor also invited us to come back and take a shower if the water problem was not solved. This water crises forced me to meet at everyone from the building I usually do not go out of my way to meet.

9 am. The problem is fixed. Water is back. We are back to living our normal, isolated lives, watching TV with family and getting back on the internet. No more communal gatherings with buckets in hands, chatting up with real people. We are back to chatting virtually.

Water crises is bad. But thank god we did not lose electricity or internet. I also got a good workout first thing in the morning. I always look at the brighter side.


sunshine

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Old place, new things

I am not stranger to Kolkata. It annoys me every time I land at the airport and stand in line for immigration, always surrounded by a bunch of NRIs who cannot stop complaining about how slow the line is moving or how Kolkata is never going to change or flash their foreign passports to get ahead in line. Yes, the first thing I step out of the plane, I smell the warm, humid air mixed with phenyl/floor-cleaning chemicals. And that is the smell I associate with the airport, my gateway to my home. When in the US, I used to visit annually. Now from Germany, I visit almost twice a year. But every time I visit, there are certain things I relearn or unlearn. Day 1 is always the hardest, reorienting myself to a different, if not new way of doing things. It's like a switch in the brain that turns on and off. Here are some of the things that always surprise me anew in Kolkata.

1. Sweating. Every time I step out of the airport, my glasses fog. And I slowly start sweating. It's an alien feeling, since I do not sweat in Germany. Not even for a minute, unless I am working out seriously. The seasons are differentiated by the number of blankets and comforters I heap on myself, and summer means using only one instead of three. So suddenly when I am standing outside the airport, not lifting anything or working out and I start sweating, my clothes clinging to me, the feeling is very disconcerting. 

2. Roads. It takes my brain a little bit of re-programming to remember that we now drive on the left hand side of the road. It always surprises me how much smaller, bumpier, and un-geometrical the roads look. The first few times of crossing the roads without signal are scary, and I involuntarily look for the traffic lights with the red hand or the green man walking. It doesn't take long to unlearn the western ways and relearn the Indian way though. On our way from the airport this time, dad asks me if I see something different about the roads. Unmindful and still thinking about why I am sweating, I reply, "Yes, it's so much smaller and we are on the left, which is freaking me out." Dad was pointing out to how much cleaner and organized the roads now look, with road signs and all, thanks to our chief minister. His message was completely lost on me. 

3. Mosquitoes. Two days after I arrived, I woke up one morning, my right arm completely riddled with mosquito bites. In a strange way, it felt very nostalgic. Sensing a mosquito that’s sitting on my leg and killing it without seeing it is a skill that has taken me years to master. I don’t even know why we switch on the electronic mosquito repellant. I don’t think it works.

4. Lizards. I am used to staying up late. I am also used to raiding the fridge at night. Often, when I switch on the kitchen light, I see a lizard or two quickly crawl by on the floor. We have learnt to accept each other's existence. It feels assuring to know that someone else is up and scouring for food as well this late.

5. The ceiling fan. Eventually, when I am done working, I switch off the laptop and the tube light before hitting the bed. In bed, I lie on my back, looking at the silhouette of the ceiling fan moving. And I always wonder what if it falls on me? I wonder when they last serviced the fan and how well they checked the screws suspending it. Sometimes, I am afraid that my thoughts alone will change an unlikely event into a likely one. So I try to think of something else until I fall asleep. However, every time I lie down, I always wonder if I should switch it off.

6. The door bell. It’s amazing how many times the door bell rings here. In Germany, I don’t think I even have a door bell. If I am expecting someone, they just call beforehand.  There is no domestic help or newspaper person or mailman or the plumber or electrician to ring the bell.

7. Food. I am always thrilled by how much stronger fruits and vegetables smell here- garlic, ginger, onions, mangoes. My hand smells of food all day long. Back there, fruits and vegetables are four times the size, but hardly have any smell.

8. Wet bathroom floors. This is one more thing that takes me some time to get used to. The fact that there is always water on the floors. And buckets, yes. I don’t have any buckets or mugs back in Germany.

9. The domestic help. In Germany, I am the cook and I am the cleaner. I do the dishes and clean the floors. I wash my own clothes. I make my tea. Not here.

10. The clothes line. I do not have one back there. The dryer dries my clothes, although I feel so much better drying my clothes in the sunlight.

There are so many more, including experiencing extended periods of time when there could be no water or no electricity or no internet or all of the above. Electricity-wise, it is so much better than it used to be when we were children. I actually miss those one hour in the evening summer power outages when I would do nothing but lie on the terrace, looking up and admiring the night sky and the blinking airplanes while riddled with mosquito bites.


sunshine

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Living up to the image

My friend and I are dining at an upscale restaurant in Park Street, Kolkata. We have a lot to catch up on, but neither or us are ravenous hungry. So we order soups, appetizers, and drinks. Hours later, the person attending to us, polite and well-dressed and so far attentive to our needs, asks us if we are ready to order the main course. As we are very full, we politely decline, asking for the check/bill instead. At this point, our man laughs loudly and asks us, "Oh, are you dieting?"

A seemingly lame attempt to make small talk although an innocuous question, right? Wrong. Context is always important. Would he ever ask this to his male guests? Not only it is none of his business, questions about food, dieting, clothes, etc. are deeply tied to body image. I am tired of every friend and relative in Kolkata, male and female, commenting on how I look, how much better I used to look in the past, and how I must do certain things to make sure I go back to looking my older self again. These people are no brand ambassadors of good looks and fit lifestyles themselves, although I see them as people and not as balding people, pot-bellied people, smoking people, unfit people, or obese people. These people have no curiosity about my life other than my looks- nothing about where I work, what I do for a living, what I think of some of the pressing issues in the country, and so on. And now, this comment about dieting comes from a complete stranger, a person whose job was to serve us food. Because women are supposed to diet and look pretty and deck up and please others according to set societal norms. And women are either too thin or too fat or too dark or too bold.

Inadvertently or otherwise, stop reinforcing gender stereotypes, or any stereotype for that matter. It is not cool!


sunshine