Friday, June 24, 2011

The C’s and the V’s: A peek into the hilarious past

Sometimes you have a chance encounter with a picture of yours from a different era, and it is like being introduced to your Neanderthal twin from a different world. An emaciated look, sallow eyes, with the only thing worse than your sense of makeup is your sense of dressing, when wearing oversized tee shirts or yellow skirts were in vogue. You look at yourself from the past and wonder, who is this obnoxious creature? I guess it is okay to make fun of oneself publicly. I had one such chance encounter, but not with a picture of mine from the past. Well, it was a picture sort of, but more of my academic achievements, or the lack of it. I happened to bump into my first ever written Curriculum Vitae (CV), and it was like having a glimpse of the outdated, backdated, anything but the glamorous past.

The first time I had ever made a CV for myself was maybe 7 years ago, when I had suddenly had the desperate realization that I will be out of college soon and will need to fend for myself. The dreams for America had just started to take shape, and an impressive resume seemed like a good idea to make initial contact with the aliens. Yeah, the feeling was something akin to that. The only trouble was, there was nothing much impressive for me to show off. No summer internship, no fellowship, no real research experience. However, something had to be written, and that was what I did. Over the next few months, the resume was forwarded to a hundred different professors across American universities, of course after some serious feedback from the seniors. Then, my life witnessed a series of disastrous phenomenon of computers crashing, email ids getting hacked, and various other cyber wreckages, and I lost my first ever written CV. After years, a fortuitous phenomenon happened and I got back a copy of my CV from the hinterlands of don’t-ask-me-where. For the next few hours of my life, I sat there wide eyed, looking at the wreckage from a disaster movie my CV looked like.

It started with a very confused-looking (also known as boka boka in Bengali) picture of mine (who gives their pictures in CVs?) with that desperate look on my face, begging to come to the US. What was I thinking, they would take one look at my beautiful face and let me in? Then came the information no one cared about. Address. Telephone number. Father’s name. Ancestral property’s location. Name of the first pet. Some of these are exaggerated of course, but I will leave it to you to figure it out. What, were they going to write me letters? The next “ahem” part was, well, “Sex: Female”. It seems I did not have the distinction between sex and gender back then, but more importantly, who cared? I am impressed I did not mention caste, mother tongue native language, and the name of ancestral village.

Then came the “Biographical Information”, which was fine I guess, but for the parenthesis that said, “In reverse chronological order”. Yeah, as if the order mattered, and more importantly, as if it was rocket science to figure out what order things were in. Of course, every institution I attended had to be listed with the “marks obtained”, because how can one trust the transcripts of my great university, assuming the transcripts reached them on time? Then started the actual meat of the CV thankfully, institutions attended, random projects undertaken, with the mention of everything, from killing a mosquito in the lab to growing bacteria on abandoned lunch from last week. Even things like “had 95% attendance in class”, “recited nursery rhymes 28 years ago”, “sung a song on Teachers’ Day”, or “could eat during class without getting caught” found an apt place in the CV. Then there were awards and accolades. “Stood 10th out of 20 innumerable students in ICSE”, “won awards in debates and calligraphy” (who cares?), or “sat through boring seminars” would find a place as well. If only the keyboard had not taken over pen and paper, my calligraphy skills would have found me a great job in the industry. If this was not insult enough to my academic achievements (or the lack of it), there would be a separate section dedicated to extracurricular activities, because being a house caption, an indispensible member of the sewing club, writing rhyming poems, singing songs on Tagore’s birth day, or anchoring soporific events should also count. Not to mention learning 10,000 words from Barron’s, or writing research reports that would never see the light of the publisher’s shop.

Whether I like it or not, this will be an indelible part of what I was. It took years of grooming, feedback, and doing some actual research to build my credentials in the field, and to evolve as a professional. To put it differently, the present me is because that was the past me. I looked at my old CV with a mixture of both love and hatred. Is this who I used to be? Desperate to get recognition even for a seminar I attended and slept through? Or collecting chunks of tiger poop in the name of a scat encounter survey study? Was I hoping my experience with being a part of the nature club, or having a good handwriting was about to get me admitted into a good school?

Yeah, I know we all have to start somewhere, and build from there. Just that early men did not have that polish doesn’t mean they were any less successful in their environment. However, call me smug, arrogant, thankless, whatever, but it doesn’t hurt to make fun of thy own once in a while. Except that 10 years down the line, I would be reading my current CV and laughing again. “Went to Vancouver B.C. to attend a talk on the mating habits of the Hominidae family”. Who cares?


Sunday, June 19, 2011


It must have been a brief moment of something significant, a tug, a pull, a communication from above, something too brief and in passing, but something that definitely was. Call it a spell, call it hallucination, or counting the years misspent and in anticipation, the years that melted away into memories and more memories piling up, of a big, fat album in the mind. I would often turn the pages of the album in solitude, in loneliness, alone in a crowd, watching the world go by me. I would flip the pages in my mind and before I know, minutes, and hours would sift and slip by my fingers, like fine silk. If it had been a message from somewhere that was destined to be, and not to be at the same time, I would not know. For when something doesn’t make sense, doesn’t have a reason, or doesn’t seem explicable using the finiteness of the senses, science turns into philosophy. I sit for hours in a crowd, waiting to catch the next plane, and think of all the philosophy packed into the head, flipping through the pages of the album that exists only in my mind now, and like a movie, credits roll and things play by again and again right in front of me. I become a spectator of my own life. To think that it is but a faded memory, living far and deep into the recesses of the past now, to try and distinguish the fact from the fantasy, or the things that exist in the mind versus the things that exist, is an ordeal. To see a carnival of people walk by me, away from something, toward something, with something, and to wonder why I see the people I see, for is it but a chance event, a phenomenon of randomness, or something conspired and connived, is beyond me. I know not if they are but apparitions floating around me, tricking me into believing they exist, but not in reality. If one could see beyond the natural, they would see thin green lines connecting people, almost like a laser beam, the tug, the pull that we do not sense or perceive, but which exists nevertheless. There was a similar line between us, something that could potentially make me sense you, your existence in a crowd of unknowns. The sun that set from your window is the same sun I just watched rise. And we continued our efforts, trying to make sense of the atoms and the molecules around us, how they behave in particular ways, and why they behave thus. To think we were all a part of the grand scheme of things we had no knowledge of, and no control over, happily walking by the ocean in a perfectly moonlit night, not cognizant of the thousand forces that make paths cross, and the thousand more forces that make people go their own separate ways. Call it fate or destiny, or call it an accident, maybe a happy accident, it is the same feeling of deciding to choose to take this bus every morning, or wear this dress one morning, and not that one. Who knows where the other bus would have led. So true it felt when you said, the future is scarier than the past. For the past is what it already is, immutable, like an imprint, a page out of a diary, a picture out of an album of memories. I speak predictably, and in clichés, yada yada yada. But for the same reasons you give me, the past to me is scarier than the future, for it is what is already is, immutable, like an imprint, a page out of the diary that is already written, and cannot be erased. When accidents happen in life, things do not come crashing into one another. It is subtle, and perhaps more potent and dangerous thus. Sometimes, all it takes is an innocuous click of the finger, a nod of yes or no, an assent, or a dissent. And years into things, you sit as lonely as ever amidst a crowd, looking back and wondering. Wondering who you ended up being, and who you wanted to end up being. And then you close the album, get up, walk past me and take the next plane, moving onto newer things, continuing to pile on memories one above the other, totally oblivious of me. Life goes on, and so do you, and I, and everyone around us. But sometimes, a random face amidst strangers would remind me of you, make me slow down my pace and turn back to look, to wonder if it was indeed another sign to be picked up, a sign amidst the million ones that were already lost on me, and then some more.


Thursday, June 09, 2011

My Traffic Theory

A few months ago, I generated a social theory stuck in traffic for almost 2 hours. I had to visit the city to get some work done. Aware of the office traffic in a big city after living in one for years, I started at 5 in the morning to be able to reach there on time. The drive was just 2 hours, but I did not want to be held in traffic at any cost.

As luck would have it, I was caught in the worst form of traffic 18 miles prior to hitting city. I looked at the time. It was still 6:45 in the morning, and the drive had been smooth so far. However, little did I know I was going to spend the next two hours cruising through those 18 miles in bumper to bumper traffic.

As the minutes ticked by, traffic started to get heavy. My plans of being there on time, or even finding street parking were jinxed. Sitting in traffic having nothing to do, I observed an interesting phenomenon depicting a particular risk-taking trait of human behavior. The freeway had 4 lanes on each side. The leftmost lane was a High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lane, also known as the carpool lane. This means that at certain times of the day during peak hours (from 5 am to 10 am, and then from 3 pm to 7 pm), only vehicles with two or more people could use that lane. This is mostly to encourage people to carpool. Knowing the number of people who drive singly in the US, you would be amazed how empty the HOV lane usually is.

In the process of waiting in bumper to bumper traffic, I observed from my left mirror that more than half the people using that lane were single people in the car. It confused me somewhat, angered me all the more, not only because people were not supposed to break traffic rules, but also because here I was going to be stuck in traffic for the next few hours. None of these people driving singly had any expression of guilt on their faces. When observed closely, it is possible to notice the behavior or facial expression of other drivers. People drove in the “forbidden” lane with a stoic, business-like expression, without caring that they were breaking the law.

As I inched a little forward, I noticed that the cop got hold of one of the girls, and was giving her a traffic violation ticket. Since it was not possible to speed in heavy traffic, and since she was alone, I figured she was getting a ticket for driving in the wrong lane. However, during the entire 18 miles, I just saw 2 cop cars giving tickets.

Now let’s forget morality, traffic rules, and civic sense for a while, and see what’s happening here. I was frustrated as I was caught in heavy traffic for just one day. These people are regular office commuters who need to face this every day. They need to get to work on time. The traffic was horrible even as early as 6:45 in the morning, God knows what it would be at say 9 am. Now the entire 18 mile stretch of road (even more for some) was going to be like this. Who could afford to wait for 2 hours in traffic snarl every day? The daily commuters must have figured out that not more than 2-3 cop cars span the entire stretch. With hundreds of people breaking the law, and just 2-3 cop cars in 18 miles, what was the probability of getting caught? If 2-3 people get caught and fined every 18 miles, what is the probability that you will end up being one of them? We are talking probability here, and not morality, okay? For every person getting a traffic ticket, there were hundreds of cars that sped by. So let’s say you get caught once every month for driving in the wrong lane, and then get fined for say $100. That is the price you pay for getting to office on time every day. Since this is not a speeding ticket, I am hoping the insurance premium would not go up every time you got a ticket.

Of course it is all wrong, the idea of having rules is to stick to them as best as you can. But how does one cope when faced with dire situations like this every day? Should they start even earlier, maybe as early as 5 am to reach somewhere at 9 am? Every day? Or just take the risk, pay like a hundred dollars every month (which is about $5 everyday to reach on time, not a lot for people who earn), and move on in life? Certainly the roads were not equipped to handle peak hour traffic without people resorting to unfair means. Clearly there are more cars than what the roads can hold during peak hours. Thus, isn’t this a workable strategy to lessen your stress by not getting caught in traffic for hours? Surely when enough number of people do something that is wrong or forbidden, it does not remain that wrong or forbidden any more.

[To be clear here, I am not advocating for the phenomenon that was going on. I just observed a human behavior in a small sample of people, and tried generating my theory to interpret the risk-taking behaviors of these individuals]


Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The beast that would not let go

It was out of the blue that I was attacked. This time, I was driving. I barely had time to look in the rearview mirror to see that it was a creature with serrations all over its body. I somehow managed to park my car, but this time, the creature was trying to jump off, run away, and hide in the forest. I have never been a brave person, never the ones who would observe fasts for human rights or be vociferous about issues that plague us. I never thought I was bold, courageous, and fearless. But something in me snapped. I didn’t want this creature, half-man, half-beast, with a green skin and serrations all over it to scare me and hide away. Not knowing what to do, I gripped it by the arm.

What happened for the next few minutes was strange, surprising, and scary. I saw the world go by me without noticing me. I saw my mom, and then my sister, talking to others, laughing, and walking by me, without a look. It seemed like I was trapped in a glass shell, wherefrom I could see people, but people could not see me. I tried screaming as hard as I could. But as it always happen with me in fear, no voice would come out. I took a deep breath, and tried screaming again, but no sound this time as well. My grip was getting slacker, the animal was trying to wriggle itself free, but I would not let go. I felt tears stinging my eyes, for I was so helpless that my own family could not see me struggle while I could clearly see them. What made is worse was that no voice would come out, no matter how hard I tried to scream. I was resolved to not let go, so I remained the way I was, unable to scream, but my grip tightly on the repulsive creature. I had not noticed before, but the creature emanated a foul smell from its body, an odor far too repulsive for comfort. With one hand, I tried reaching my phone ad dialing 911. It took me quite some effort, but I eventually managed to do it.

Within no time, the cops were there, freeing the beast off my grip. What I don’t remember is, how did they know who I was or that I needed help, when I had lost my voice? I have no remembrance. However, they freed me, and I slumped on the ground, looking at the breast, now captured by the cops. I held my hand close to my forehead and started crying. I was stunned, exhausted, taken aback, relieved, tired, and had lost my voice, all at the same time. It’s true I did not let go, but I sensed a dreariness, a sense of loss, even after having won a battle. Who this animal was? What was it doing here? Why did it choose to attack me of all people? I had no idea.

I have seen different versions of this dream for years now. Different versions because the situation is different every time, sometimes an animal, sometimes a man. But I always lose my voice while seeking help. And the dream always ends with me crying. And then I wake up, shaken, tired, scared, and relieved at the same time that it was just a dream, and cry some more.


Thursday, June 02, 2011

The Big Three Ohhh !!!

You would foresee it years in advance, coming at its own slow pace like an ominous red signal prepping to stop everything fun in your life. Like a morbid, fear instigating animal sprawled on its limbs, slowly crawling and showing its claws and tentacles from a distance, you will never be more aware or petrified of something approaching. It should not be a big deal after all, it’s just another birthday. But then, it ends up being a big deal. In a way, it’s a milestone reached and crossed, a milestone after which you are no longer considered in the bracket of energetic, enthusiastic, eligible, and highly coveted age group that you call the twenties.
They say you do not hit thirty, thirty hits you. Whoever this “they” is, they could not be closer to the truth. Like a whack of reality on the head, it hits you hard. So what changes so drastically in that one day? Everything actually. You go to sleep being 29, and then you wake up the next morning not really knowing what hit your life and changed it forever. That is called turning 30.
I have been dreading this birthday even before I was 27. Call it social programming, cultural upbringing, whatever. It feels nothing close to the energetic Jitendra, white shirt, white pants, white shoes and all, gyrating his hips while playing badminton and popping those “30 plus” pills by the dozen. When I was a teenager, anyone 30 years old was just OLD. Plain and simple. When I was in my mid-twenties, I would not even look at anyone 30 years or older. Little did I know how I would feel while I approached that age.
The interesting irony is, I do not ever remember being so petrified of entering the twenties. Heck, I do not even remember my 20th birthday. Back calculating, I know I was in Kolkata, somewhere at the fag end of my undergraduate education. However, I do not specifically remember the 20th birthday as being a big deal or a milestone. If anything, I was happy to be done with my teens, and hoped I would be henceforth taken seriously and not be dismissed from adult conversations and asked to go entertain the kids of uncles and aunties who visited us.
So how would it feel like being 30? I thought I have two more months to find out, but I think I know the answer already. You have perhaps never been more aware of your bones creaking every time you try to shake your hips to the beats of Beedi Jalaile at a dance party. There are imminent health issues and you have suddenly entered the “more at risk” category. The acne and oily skin nightmares of the twenties are replaced now by the wrinkles and white hair nightmares of the thirties. In fact, you would be lucky to have whitening hair, which means you still have hair on your head to boast about. Some unfortunates with receding hairlines and balding issues will not even get a chance to color their hair.
99% of your friends are married by now, and you cannot relate to 99% of them. The career and job-hunting uncertainties of the twenties are now replaced by “mother-in-law is a pain in the ass” issues, “my husband never throws the trash” issues, or “the child needs to be reared well” issues. Your friends discuss alien topics animatedly, alien to you at least, which include, but are not restricted to paying off mortgages for that house, getting a citizenship, or investing in the college education of the child who is yet to be born in 3 months. Although you are in the age bracket eligible to be the president of the United States, you realize dishearteningly that you were never bright enough to be the President of any country, not in this lifetime anyway. It is a big accomplishment training the domestic partner to vacuum the house bi-monthly, let alone having big aspirations for changing the world. A moment of truth, faced with certain stark realities, you realize you have grown more respectful towards your parents, whose opinions never mattered to you before this.
Your worst nightmare is no longer related to maintaining a perfect figure, you are long past that age when you could even hope for a presentable figure. Now, you are worried about sagging bellies and mammary glands, dysfunctional hormones, plummeting sex drives, approaching menopausal issues, and imminent health issues like cholesterol, blood pressure, and cancer. You hear horror stories about someone’s colleague’s relative who died of a heart attack on his 32nd birthday in the process of cutting the cake. Blowing 32 candles with gusto just proved to be fatal for him. Going to the gym is no longer optional, it is the only option you have if you do not want to die like that colleague’s relative. Every time you try to sit, stand, or start fantasizing about running that half-marathon, your knees make a funny sound, mocking you. Your biological clock is not longer just ticking tick tock, it has gone berserk like the shrieking alarm that wakes you from your sweet slumber every morning. You are no longer a badass hiking the rocks of Badlands in South Dakota on the weekend. You are a well-settled, domesticated member of the species with a family to shoulder the responsibility for. Accept it, you are no longer the lion or even the wolf of the jungle, hunting singularly and living singly with pride. You are now a cow, a big, fat cow that only mingles with other cows and chews cud with other cows in herds. Your belligerent personality is gone. The mountain bike has been replaced by a family size SUV, strollers and diaper bags and all. You are found spending the once adventurous weekends (when you hiked 20 miles or had 20 straight tequila shots in a row without falling sick) at the farmer’s market or at Chuck E. Cheese.
To avoid complications, repercussions, and outcries, I will keep this as gender neutral as I can, which will still not dissolve the bleak clouds of possibilities the gates of thirties open for you. You can hate me for this post, or make strong arguments, which will only establish your lack of humor, or lack of understanding of humor as you approach your thirties. And it’s not only the lack of humor. You are slowly approaching that age of hormonal lull, and these days you can fall asleep, snoring and drooling and all, even in the middle of watching porn. You are more philosophical, sedentary, hang out in packs or herds of other people similar to you, and while you spent the previous decade being a party animal dancing away to glory high on alcohol, you feel more at peace singing bhajans and devotional songs in “satsangs” and learning the art of living (pun unintended), breathing in through one nostril and out through the other, to keep expectations low, anger in control, and to adopt pain, suffering, and the lack of materialistic greed as a means to obtain nirvana in life.
I can imagine how many people I have pissed off with this post. You would argue saying, “Hey, they say 30s is the new 20s”. Whoever these “they” are, they are a bunch of morons who either failed their math class or made a life out of bullshitting. 30s can never be the new 20s, you learnt your math way back in elementary school. If anything, thirty would always be forty minus ten. So if you are an optimist like I am, your only consolation is you are not turning 40 right away, an impending doomsday that would be approaching in a decade anyway if the world doesn’t lose you to heart attacks or high cholesterol. Although I would rather be in my twenties than in my thirties, I would any day be in my thirties than be in my forties. So I’ll stop inviting the same feeling of helplessness that I get when a dentist comes near my mouth with an injection, his assistant strapping my limbs so that there is no escape and I bear my pain and torture in silence, and stop resisting something that is so inevitable. I will try to stop mentally resisting turning thirty. For I have a few more months left to cherish the last bits and pieces of my twenties, or whatever remains of it.