Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Connecting and communicating

"Ma'am, I have a doubt. How can I write this in the CV?"

There is language. And then, there is the culture of language. This line written in an email by someone seeking career advice from India opened floodgates of nostalgia. I used to speak the same English many years ago. "I have a doubt" in Indian English equates to "I have a question" in American English. Doubting something is a different thing altogether. I went back to my old documents, looking at the research statement I had written for graduate school in 2005. In my current age and wisdom, that can hardly qualify as a research statement, a page full of lofty ideas and goals of changing the world with no clear focus. If I was in the selection committee reading my essay from 11 years ago, I would have never admitted myself in the program. It's a miracle I made it. 

As I prepare to say goodbye to my host in Berlin, she tells me in a mix of broken English and German that she will miss having me around and will look forward to seeing me again. She was the one who hosted me last year as well, and although this is a pay-money-provide-service relationship (I was staying at her family-run place), she goes out of her way to touch my hand warmly and make me feel at home. I reciprocate, this time in my broken German and English, that her place is the only one I know as home in Berlin. I call her a day later to thank her and let her know I have reached home, and she is delighted. Language is not a barrier between us anymore.

And then, I receive an email from a close friend saying that she has been offered a faculty position at one of the top schools in her field. We have known each other for decades, and I am thrilled. But her words are filled with doubt and anxiety. In her email, she confesses that she is scared as hell and does not know how she will do well. Her self-doubt mirrors mine and her humility and honesty renews my soulful connection with her. That is the exact way I have been feeling as well. I have no idea how to be faculty. To see the same sentiments reflected in a person of high caliber with extensive training from several Ivy League schools only shows me how we are all human, sometimes terrified and vulnerable. I assure her that it will all be fine, that she is already a role model to many (including me) because of her achievements, and she will do great. I tell her that I have decided to frame those damn degrees on the wall facing me in office (as brilliantly suggested by a friend) so that whenever in self-doubt, those degrees will remind me of the immense amount of hard work and motivation it has taken to get to this point. In my friend's insecurities, I feel a renewed connection with her.

And just like that, in three different events with three different people on a random day, language connects my past, present, and future. A young and starry-eyed girl from India whose writing reminds me of who I used to be through our shared cultural nuances of language, a German lady who makes me feel at home in an unknown city despite her broken English and my broken German, and a childhood friend with a stellar career in whom I surprisingly see my insecurities mirrored because of the honest note she writes me.  


Monday, August 29, 2016

24 hours in Berlin

“Sushi on conveyor belts looks the prettiest. Colorfully decked up, as if going to a Halloween party,” I thought, sitting at a Japanese restaurant at the Hauptbahnhoff and eating an early dinner. I have just arrived in Berlin for my visa interview the following day. A little hungry, I wanted to finish off dinner before heading to my hotel. I saw the usual around me, a McDonald’s, Burger King, Turkish kebab place, and a coffee shop. None of them appealed to me. I was craving for something hot and soupy. That is how I found myself at Tokio, devouring a steaming hot bowl of udon noodles with seafood as my mind went in ten different directions.

“Berlin has always been a city of necessities for me,” I further reflected between mouthfuls of body parts of sea animals I did not recognize. I only visit the city when I needed something. Berlin never gave me a chance to woo her.

I sadly reminisced about my life in Germany for the last two years. This trip was like getting closure. I had first planned to visit Berlin in 2010. The trip never happened. I injured my leg on the streets of Sicily, pulled a muscle, and after covering a dozen different places in that first Europe trip, Berlin is the only place I did not visit. I went there for the first time last year, to get a US tourist visa. I had a whole lot of things on my mind then, including why I am visiting the US as a tourist. I did take an extra day and saw some of the usual suspects, but I never saw Berlin extensively. Over the next year, I went to Berlin many times, but every time to catch a train or plane to somewhere else- Budapest, Hamburg, Poland, Croatia. I never stepped outside the very coolly designed Hauptbahnhoff with four different floors of trains and restaurants. My ICE trains always arrived in the basement floor. The U-Bahn and the S-Bahn and the Regional Bahns (different kinds of trains) always left from other floors.

Post-dinner, I had to take the S-train and then a bus to get to my hotel. Déjà vu, I was not only in the same hotel, but also in the same room I stayed last time. I had an 8 am interview the next day, so I tried going to sleep early. I wasn’t even carrying a laptop or camera. I have been practicing living minimally and traveling light these days. Even without the internet distractions, it took me a long time to fall asleep. This never happens, I am usually asleep even before I hit the bed, and wake up much after it is time for me to wake up. But tonight was different. I had a hundred different things on my mind.

I went there armed with everything I had, my passport, every degree and accolade earned since high school, my 80-page long petition, a CV, and of course my knowledge. I was prepared to talk about anything. The future of research. Women in science. NGSS. NCLB. The training process in medical schools. Grant writing. My next five papers in the pipeline. Full form of ERIC. H-index. How tenure works. Why I think I deserve this job. The names of Native American tribes. The future of education globally. And a 5-minute synopsis of the history of the United States. I was going to rock this visa interview.

And the only question they asked me was, "Your tourist visa was in your stolen passport. Did you report it to the police?"

"Of course," I said, taken aback. How else would I get the new passport they were holding?

"Visa approved," they said rather impassively, momentarily throwing me off-guard. I kept standing there, expecting them to ask at least some questions from my HLM class.

"You can go home now," they said, their voice laced with impatience. "Next?"

Seems like my passport thief in Greece was more on their mind than understanding the intellectual mind of a budding faculty member.

And as for going home, of course I'll be going home now. A new home in a new city to start a brand new chapter of my life.

I was inclined to see a little bit of the city, since my train back was not until evening. However, I was carrying all important documents except my passport, and did not want to risk another robbery attempt. I have seen 16 new countries in the last two years, including 10 new ones in 2016 alone. I was kind of done traveling and sightseeing for now. I paid four times more for a new ticket and took an earlier train back home.

People have different favorite memories of a city. Berlin could mean a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, my personal little haven in Berlin will remain that triangle between my hotel, the US consulate, and the nearby metro station. Those are where I have most of my memories of Berlin, of getting visas, walking those streets, taking the bus, drinking coffee, or eating. In a strange way, this is where I got closure. This is where my journey began, and this is where it is ending after fighting a long battle of finding my way back to the US being exactly who I aspired to be.


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kon-Maring My Facebook

Of late, Kon-Maring my Facebook feed is the best thing that I have done for myself. As clichéd as this complaint sounds, I was being inundated with life-changing updates from people Facebook has bestowed celebrity status upon, updates I did not care to know about. I tried a couple of approaches of weeding these updates out, but like weeds, they kept growing and coming back, haunting me and showing me how meaningless and devoid of color my life was. Finally, I found my way out of this maze from the public propaganda of private matters.

Why was this important?

Unwanted information on Facebook is of two kinds.

I. Fast poison: News of violence, death, rape, murder, and the millions of opinions surrounding it from people who have no stake in it. Terrorism in Kashmir. Irom Sharmila Chanu’s fasting and the AFSPA. The outrage caused by Trump. Gun violence in the US. Terrorism in Europe. And the millions of discussions surrounding it that at the core level spark nothing more useful than anger, fear, sadness, and apathy.

Newspapers were meant to inform people. Now with Facebook, everyone had a voice, and everyone wanted to talk about what they thought of what they read. Looks like it doesn’t take much to outrage people either. Why is everyone looking for the recent Olympic medalist’s caste? Why are Indians not winning medals at the Olympics to begin with? My response would be why do you care about people looking at castes? Or why are you outraged by India’s Olympic performance when chances are high that you have never trained for one yourself? Why do you have to take every piece of information you read like a pile of shit and fling it around for others to smell on Facebook? Why do you need to engage with everything?

Friendships are put to test under the weight of political stances, armchair activism and people’s inability to respect differing or alternative opinions. In short, these things poison you fast.

II. Slow poison: Things I do not really need to know about. What you ate. What color lipstick you wore. How frequently your baby pooped. How Twinkle Khanna lashed out on Naseeruddin Shah and Karan Johar followed suit. What Shobha De said about India’s performance in the Olympics. Motherhood dare. Black and white challenge. Sari and ghagra challenge. How much shit I can spread around challenge. People engage. People bicker and argue. And people keep stoking the fire.

I was beginning to feel a growing sense of claustrophobia in this virtual space. Earlier this month, I turned 35, and now see more grey hair on my head than I have ever seen before. I am probably past half my time here, and still have so many things to experience. Is this what I am meant to read every morning? The brain-excreta of 900-odd people I had accrued as “friends” at some point? I have the right to shut-out information, just like I have the right to seek-out information. My wall was beginning to look like a battleground, and sometimes, an excreta-ground. Everyone had opinions. No matter how neutral I tried to keep it, everyone wanted to tell me how they disagree. I knew that it was time for me to disengage. My brain has a limited ability to soak up information, and I was done with this he-said-she-said and they-did-they-didn’t spatter of words. I wanted to read things that are more calming, creative, and uplifting.

What I was doing wrong?

I disappeared from Facebook once in a while, but kept coming back as it felt lonely. It’s a lot like dieting to lose weight. If you suddenly give up on food, you will only come back to binge before you know. Then, I started to weed out people. People I did not know. People I have never met. People I am not likely to meet. People I have not spoken in five years or so. But that only took me so far, bringing down the number close to 800.

Then, I started selectively “unfollowing” people whose updates were toxic. I recognized strange patterns in people’s behavior. Some only posted close up images of the makeup they wore. Some only shared news of shooting and violence. Some only spoke in numbers. Published five papers in six months. Ate nine kinds of starters in two hours. Traveling my seventeenth country. Visiting the ninth national park. Giving my eighth talk this year. Wearing my twenty fifth sari. Did ninety pushups at the gym today (hashtag loveyourbody). This quantification of achievements was perhaps coming from a place of lower self-esteem, where one constantly needed to validate one’s awesome life in front of an audience. I am guilty of doing the same at some point too. The yearly memories on Facebook make me cringe when I look back at what I used to write three or four years ago. Looking at others doing it made it more obvious. I unfollowed a 100-odd people who wrote the most toxic posts. However, it still wasn’t making me feel better.

What I did right?

One day, I woke up and knew exactly what I was doing wrong. I finally found the right way of culling through the clutter. Instead of unfollowing people who wrote toxic things and keeping the rest, I decided to do just the opposite. I unfollowed everyone by default, only keeping those whose posts I really cared about, posts that "sparked joy" like Marie Kondo writes in her book. Instead of making this a process of elimination, I made it a process of selection. And that changed everything. I started to unfollow people unapologetically, even my close friends, and soon, more than 90% of the people were gone. But I did not stop at that. I “unliked” most photography pages, food blog websites, and other random local community pages like “Durga Puja in the USA”, “Tulip festival in Seattle” and “Bengalis abroad.” Now, I only get updates from some 50-odd people I really care about, and a handful of other websites such as the HONY, NPR, Brain Pickings, TED, and Upworthy. Individually unfollowing some 750 people was hard, but a little bit of Googling helped. Looks like Facebook has a feature where you can mass unfollow people.

How did that change things?

Now, I don’t have to start my day scrolling through anniversary pictures, birthday cake recipes, silly kid videos, and restaurant and movie check-ins. What I read doesn’t elevate my blood pressure. I don’t have to be a shuttlecock in heated arguments and discussions. Power to you for hiking Peru on your wedding anniversary and taking 4,000 odd pictures, but I don’t have to be forced into looking at them now when I have a paper deadline in two days. It doesn’t mean I do not care for you or do not wish you well. It just means that I choose not to know every little detail going on in your life.

Since we act as mirrors to the society around us, my own posting on Facebook has also gone down. I don’t feel a compelling need to share everything I read that inspires me. I go to bed on time and get my full 7-8 hours of sleep (there is only so much scrolling one can do). I am reading more books. I am watching more interesting videos and TED talks. I recently discovered Jojo on Instagram and YouTube who is adorable. She cracks me up with her sass. I am reading more research papers on my areas of interest. I am beginning to think of new research ideas. I am looking for research collaborations in Asia. I have a lot to fill up my time meaningfully and even if I did not, I do not have to be a slave to your colorful and scintillating updates that sometimes borders around narcissistic posts of your travels or your child winning a handwriting competition. I can always follow you back someday or look you up if I feel the need to. But if you cannot keep me engaged in a good way, I do not need to engage in your life’s drama anymore.

Adopting the process of mass-unfollowing changed what I do with my time. Let me know if you have other time-tested creative ideas of disengaging from things that surround you but do not matter. 


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Small Talk

Small talk is probably cultural. Because the content of small talk, although mostly meaningless, varies across cultures. While talking to many in Kolkata, a question I am often asked is, "Ki kheyechish?" What have you eaten? It always baffles me. First, it takes me some time to even remember what I last ate. But then, how does it matter what I ate? Not that you are going to eat it too. How is the knowledge important? I keep forgetting that this is small talk. It has no meaning, no purpose, perhaps other than a cultural basis because food is considered god (Annapurna) and having enough to be able to eat well is a sign of prosperity. The other question is "Kothaye jachhish?" Where are you headed? This also perhaps comes from the imagination of a tighter-knit society where everyone used to watch out for one another. If a woman is venturing out alone, one needs to know where she is headed. I don't think my dad will get asked this question as much though. It still takes me by surprise when someone I barely know asks me this question. Maybe they do not care about the answer. It is just small talk after all.

In this part of the world that is Germany, when we make small talk, we talk about the weather a lot. What a lovely day it is! What a gloomy day it is. The weekend is going to be nice. August and so cold already? When we meet at work first thing in the morning, we talk of the weather. When we meet in the office kitchen to heat up our coffee, we talk about the weather. It could be perhaps because it is so cold for most part of the year that good weather makes news. But then, bad weather also makes news. It is cultural after all. No one talks about the weather with as much gusto in Kolkata. 

Talking about weather, the week started on an extremely cold note. The first day, I went to work shivering. I still did not want to believe it, I thought that it was a figment of my imagination. This is early-August after all, and only last week, I was wearing summery clothes. So I conveniently told myself that I am so cold perhaps because I am PMSing, or the hypothalamus (the temperature regulator) in my brain has blown off a fuse. The tendency to point to the self for everything gone wrong around you is also perhaps cultural. When I boarded the bus on Monday, my teeth chattering despite my jeans and full sleeved shirt, everyone in the bus was giving me strange looks. They were all wearing sweatshirts, jackets, with snug fitting tights and woolen socks. It was reassuring to know that my hypothalamus wasn't malfunctioning after all.

I continued to chatter and shiver to work the next few days. The leaves are still green, and it is nowhere close to fall. How can winter come before fall? Just like at first I did not believe the eminent signs of winter in August and blamed it on PMS, I also didn't believe that my new work visa is still not here. I am officially to start work next week. I have started to get all the group emails from my new workplace that start with "Dear faculty members,..." Wait, am I still a postdoc? Or am I already a faculty? It's probably as confusing as being single for a larger part of your life, and then suddenly one day, not being single anymore. The rational mind knows, but belief takes longer to sink in. But how is waiting for a visa related to not wearing winter clothes? Well, you see, my suitcases are all packed and ready to be shipped. I neatly packed and weighed and labeled them back in May, when it was the peak of summer. I was about to ship my stuff in June, hoping to open them in the US by now. Thank god an inner voice asked me not to ship them so soon. After four days of living and shivering in denial, I finally came home to open those bags and take out my winter clothes today, all neatly folded. Although I am slowly exhausting all my kitchen supplies (rice got over yesterday), I keep telling myself that maybe I could wait a few more days before I start restocking on the grains. Maybe a few more days, and I will not need to buy anything. What a shame it would be to leave things behind. I keep reminding myself to stay calm, keep breathing, and not lose perspective because there are greater troubles than a delayed work start that afflict the world right now. I have a job to be thankful for. I keep telling myself not to lose hope and enjoy my last few [insert time span] in Germany. However, I find it a little hard to stay calm right now. Because just like me, my apartment manager hasn't realized that it is freezing cold already. She hasn't turned on the central heating, making me cocoon inside the only two blankets I have. It's a relief that I have a candle that still has a few hours of life left. As I write this, I am cupping my hands every few minutes and holding them by the flame for some much needed warmth. Because my fingertips are freezing already. I have a feeling that I will have to stock up on candles sooner than rice. 


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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


Thursday, July 14, 2016


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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


Thursday, July 07, 2016


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!


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?


Tuesday, July 05, 2016


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.


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.


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.