Wednesday, July 19, 2017

That picture (im)perfect day

The excitement of the first faculty photo shoot stirred up a lot of drama in my otherwise less happening life. The university photographer had contacted me many times to remind me that I needed a professional portrait for my webpage. And yet, I tried delaying it for as long as I could. Six months, to be exact. We all know people for whom, the excitement of the wedding shoot surpasses the excitement of the wedding itself. I could be going through something similar.

When I was scanning graduate schools in the US to apply many moons ago, what struck me (rather odd) was how happy faculty looked on their webpage. Where I was coming from, most people went “statue” in front of the lens. Yet here were professors rolling on the grass, sunshine lighting up their faces and showing perfectly aligned teeth, balancing pets on their lap as they posed for that perfect shot depicting the deceptively Utopian faculty life. The Utopian life where grant money flows freely, students flock to you looking for a project like ants to honey, and receiving awards and promotions are monthly affairs. Professors were supposed to look glum and serious- that was what I thought based on my worldview back then.

But more than a decade later, here I am, waiting for my picture to be taken. While procrastinating for all these months, I had hoped for miracles that involved fantasies of magically toning up, temporarily making the double chin disappear, or bringing an academic glow on my face. None of that happened. Instead, I developed dark circles under my eyes and grew lots of grey hair in these six months of chasing everyone and everything- department chairs, students, grant money, and deadlines.

I had to look like those happy people rolling on the grass for whom academia was like a carnival. And I now had my quirks too. I wanted an outdoor picture by a red brick wall. I even spent days wondering what I should wear to bring out the perfect faculty look in me. Should I match my clothes with the color of my eyes? Should I wear formals? Well, a formal jacket would be too formal and a casual shirt, too casual. I mean, given my role, I needed to look serious. But if I looked too serious, no student would want to work with me, and God knows that I have been having a hard time finding students. Since I am averse to pets, nothing or no one would be sitting on my lap. Considering all the time I spent in these weird, inconsequential thoughts around a portrait, I could have published a peer-reviewed paper in that time.

The day of the shoot, I had to wake up really early. I had to wash, blow dry, and straighten my hair. I had to apply makeup. It took me 90 precious minutes to do all this, minutes that I could have spent sleeping blissfully. In a forced bid to show me as me, I had lost touch of the real me. The real me woke up late every day, procrastinated until she had to spring out of the bed, get ready in 20 minutes flat, and leave home while combing her hair. If combing was too much, she would simply tie up the mess into a high ponytail.

What happened at work was even more anti-climactic. It rained like never before, washing away all my dreams of an outdoor photo shoot in front of a brick wall. Other faculty members gave me strange looks, some of them completely failing to recognize me. It happens when you show up at work every day without a trace of makeup, and then one day, you look like you are going to a carnival.

And then, I met the photographer- a petite woman a good ten inches shorter than me. And guess what? After months of procrastinating and planning, the shoot lasted exactly five minutes. Even shots (at the doctor’s place) last me longer than this shoot. As I was adjusting my shoes, she asked me not to worry as she would be only taking portraits. I might as well have showed up in my pajamas. The lady jumped on a stool, asked me to look a couple of different directions, and smile with different intensities. The stairway doubled up as the dark background. As I was trying to get comfortable thinking of striking a slightly sexy pose or pouting my lips, the dean of the school walked by. In between, I did manage to find a spot that had a brick background somewhere at a distance. The pictures were ready in a few days. I still don’t know if I looked faculty enough in them, but the selfies I took on my cell phone that morning before leaving for work looked way real and way more like me.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

A summer- in transit

I am in India this summer, as a visiting faculty. Campus life here comes with the comforts that are not a part of my everyday life. My home to my office is a good 3-minute walk. I do not have to take buses that run once in half an hour. I do not have to wade in the snow. I do not have to find parking. And then, just like all good things in life boil down to food, I make my pilgrimage from my office to the canteen four times a day- for breakfast, lunch, a meal in between lunch and dinner, and dinner. Meals are heavily subsidized, in price, not quantity. Suddenly, I do not need to go grocery shopping, cook, or clean up. And yes, breaks in between 3-hour long classes also come with tea, coffee, and sandwiches. Made. Served. All I do is show up, sit with my meals, and observe people. Some known faces. Mostly unknown faces. Some now-known faces that were unknown until yesterday. I continue to have trouble remembering names and putting them on the right faces. I just forgot that the canteen guy and I used to speak in Oriya many years ago when I first visited until he recognized me right away and started speaking in Oriya. But all that is irrelevant. My three main priorities these days boil down to teaching, remembering to hold Skype meetings with my colleagues in the US, and making that pilgrimage to the canteen multiple times every day.

If this honeymoon could last even a few weeks every summer, I'll be a happy academic.


When success sucks

A recent conversion with a colleague hinged on women in academia who are single. Although this conversation was based on anecdotal evidence, I would love to collect data to examine some evidence-based trends someday.

Back to the conversation, we felt that there are far more single women than men in academia- women who have faculty or non-faculty careers, women who are highly educated. In the US, I see so many women academics roughly my age who are single. Conversations with more men (those who are highly educated as well) confirm what some of them want- women with jobs but not necessarily careers, women who will have the mindset to shift cities or countries or continents or careers. That is why, perhaps, I see so many Indian men making their annual pilgrimage to get married to someone living in India, but the reverse is so rare- a guy moving with the uncertainty that he may or may not become gainfully employed in the US right away. Count the number of women you know who got married and hence moved to the US, and the number of men who did the same. Not to mention that we shared sad, yet funny stories about women who have been called "too educated," "too independent," "too liberal," and "too ambitious." The same traits like ambition, independence, and education that make men attractive may not have the same magic effect on women. Then again, we are speaking anecdotally here, and trends always have outliers. So for every ten or hundred women who have experienced similar things, one of them will always say that the world is not as bad as we think and they did not have any problems finding their suitable boy or having to choose between a suitable degree and a suitable boy.

This reminded me of a fictitious short story I had written sometime back.

The matrimonial ad said- “PhD, research professor, based in the US.”

“How many responded?” she asked.

“Three hundred,” he said, sipping his coffee.

“How many responded?” he asked.

“Three,” she said. “A schizophrenic, an unemployed man, and you.”


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

(Py)airport Drama

Every time I land in Kolkata, something funny happens within the first 30 minutes. This time was no exception.

I had a seat at the very back of the aircraft. By the time I got off the airplane and stood in the long, serpentine immigration line, I realized that I was among the last few to stand in line. It didn't escape me that US or Kolkata, I always get to stand in the longer line. The line for immigrants like me is usually longer than those of US citizens and permanent residents, just like the line for Indian citizens is much longer in Kolkata. Anyway, I was tired, disoriented, and could not wait to be done. I had been traveling for the last 30 hours, mostly over the North Pole and parts of Russia, which meant that I had only seen daylight in those 30 hours. I could barely stand straight.

When my turn came, a young guy at the counter asked to see my passport. He barked, in a rather gruff and rude voice, "Passport dikhaiye." (Show me your passport, in Hindi).

One, I was a little put off by hearing Hindi (and not Bangla) in Kolkata, and two, I was a little confused about how to address him. In the US, one usually starts a conversation with a polite, "Hi, how is it going?"

Without thinking, I translated it and asked, "Bhalo achen to?" (Are you doing well?)

What happened next was unbelievable. You see, I had no interest in knowing how the guy was doing, I was merely being polite. But I had forgotten that cues of politeness vary across societies. In India, (usually) no girl smiles at a stranger and asks how he is doing. People get down to business without spending time on niceties.

Holy rangoli, the man actually blushed 50 shades of pink and purple. He avoided further eye contact, grinned like a monkey, and started shuffling uncomfortably in his seat and staring at his crotch while fiddling with my passport. He almost looked like I had married him recently and he was the coy bride. With utmost care, he stamped my passport and handed it back to me, nodding slightly, a nod that probably meant, "You stay well too!" He barely managed a whisper while asking me, "Aapni Dubai te thaken?" Do you live in Dubai?

"Na, US e," I replied, before taking back my passport and walking away. I have no idea why the gruff, Hindi-speaking guy was suddenly cooing and blushing and making small talk. My only explanation is, no stranger chick had ever asked him "Bhalo achen to?" (Are you doing well?) with a smile before.