Tuesday, March 12, 2019


I've never seen my ma obsess about gods and goddesses, not even a fraction of what my grandparents did. Yes, she offers incense sticks to a laminated picture of Ma Kali every day, and that is it. One's relationship with god, or the lack of it, is a very personal thing, and I am glad she never followed socially dictated norms of letting the entire world know that she is praying.

So it surprised me when she very enthusiastically told me, Kedarnath jachchi! (Going to Kedarnath). It's a holy pilgrimage place in the Himalayas. We have never been there, so it made sense for her to visit. Maybe she was really happy about my new job and move to India. Who knows? People do change with time, although, she could have visited and thanked god in less expensive ways by going to our neighborhood temple or maybe Tarapeeth or Dakshineshwar Kali Mondir or someplace more accessible. But Kedarnath Badrinath? It seemed a bit of an overkill, but then, one's relationship with god is personal! Who am I to judge?

To add to the confusion, she said that she is very excited to see Sushant Singh Rajput. Now I have no idea who this guy is, so I just assumed he is a cricketer who plays for the Indian cricket team. Ma is even less interested in cricket, and too many things seemed wrong in this conversation.

"How far is Kedarnath from there? Are you going with baba?" I asked. I am still trying to understand the logistics, wondering if she is taking the train or flight, and who else is going.

"No, I am going alone."

I am even more confused by her sudden show of bravery by traveling the world alone now!

"It's walking distance, and Tuesday morning shows are half-price."

And just like that, everything suddenly made sense. It was never about god or cricket. It was about a movie called Kedarnath playing in the neighborhood movie theater.

"Ufff, You are growing old rather fast! Tube light ekta," ma told me. Well, I might be getting old real fast, but I am relieved to learn that no supernatural spirits have possessed my ma, and she is just the same! I would be very worried if she suddenly started visiting holy places looking for god or developed an interest in cricket.


Monday, March 04, 2019

Cut to the chase

I am in the middle of a haircut, chatting up with the guy. He tells me that students get 25% off and faculty get 30% off because faculty are more likely to go for more number of services since they can afford it. I am impressed with his business model, a far cry from my you-earn-less-you-get-more-discount way of thinking. This guy is quite entertaining. Ran away from home after 10th grade because his family was against his interest in being a stylist. He didn't mistake me to be a student (possibly because he was holding my graying hair and looking at them up close like Ma Kali holds those decapitated heads). One of those guys who, instead of giving compliments, gave me a harsh dose of reality- Madam, your scalp is dry, your T-zone is oily. It did wonders to my self-confidence!

I asked him where he gets his hair cut and styled, and with great pride, he told me that he cuts and styles his own hair. I am impressed, I even crack a bad joke that thank god, he is not a doctor. Things seemed to be going well, this guy seemed to know his stuff. I ask him where he learned to do all this, where he got his training, and he drops the bomb.

"Madam, by watching YouTube videos!"

Imagine my shock. With the glasses gone from my myopic eyes, my vision was blurry anyway and I had no idea what he was doing. My head started spinning a little faster, and as he held my hair in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, I sent a silent prayer to god for some divine intervention so that I am able to go to class later today without having to hide my face.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Middle-men ecosystem

In India, one thing I quickly found out is that the ecosystem is built in such a way that unless you do your own thing, you will be bleeding money. Take visa applications for example. All my life, I have done my own visa applications (and I have done it many times, thanks to my foreign student/worker status as well as my love for travel). US visa applications from Kolkata are easy. I have driven to Washington DC at 4 am to reach the German consulate on time. I have driven all day to apply for a German visa in Chicago, struggling with finding parking more than driving. I have traveled for 8 hours in a bus to go to Berlin for a US visa. Long story short, I am used to spending a lot of time to get a visa.

Back in India, I have an upcoming conference in Canada and need to apply for a visa. The travel agent my employer hires assures me that they will take care of everything. That, they do. They do the paperwork and get me appointment dates. They compile the application together, book me a car, and come to my office to give me my file. All this looks great on paper. But here is the catch!

I don’t need a car, I can take an Ola/Uber. Yet, they hire a car for 4 hours that will wait till I submit my visa paperwork and bring me back on campus. It roughly costs 1,500 INR. I could have taken a cab for less than 150 INR round trip. But they do not let me do that.

They tell me that “their man will be waiting in front of the Canada consulate.” I am still not clear what the role of this man was. All he did is take the stairs with me to the second floor office, hold my bag (although I asked him not to), and wait for a few hours till I came back. Yes, I needed a photocopy in the meantime, which I could have totally done on my own. I ask him to go home but he assures me that his travel agent office is next door and he is happy to wait. Till date, I still don’t know what his job was, but he would have taken a commission in the process.

And yes, he put me in some premium waiting lounge without asking me. All that premium lounge does is seclude you from the suffering of the common man. While everyone waits in the common area, only six people get to wait in a special room. They ask you for tea and coffee, which I never needed anyway. They have a bowl of unhealthy chocolates and cookies in front of you to munch on. They assure you with bold letters on that application you signed that up to six sheets of photocopy is free for people in the premier lounge. How much does 6 pages of photocopying need? I am used to carrying 2 extra copies of all documents anyway. I still had to wait there for 2 hours. The man whose role I did not know assured me that I would have had to wait for five hours otherwise. I was half ready to stay there for a few more hours and see if his claims were true. Oh, and they charged me 2,000+ INR for access to the premier lounge I never wanted in the first place.

You might be wondering what a miserly, complaining woman I am. Yes, I am careful about my money, that money came from my grant and I have a limited budget. The visa itself cost me 14,000 INR, but with a car and a middle-man and a premier lounge, I will be shelling close to 5k INR more in my estimate. I watch my money like a hawk, and I am proud of it. And other than money, I also have problems with the lack of transparency. The travel agent I worked with never told me about these add-ons and the amount I have to shell out in the process. If you are not careful, you end up wasting a lot of money. The ecosystem is built in such a way that there will be a middle-man at every node asking for money.

It has been a sharp learning curve for me the past 6 weeks. Surviving and thriving in India takes a different mindset. I am very happy that I am back for many reasons. But I have quickly learned to get my alert radar very active. Every person I do business with, I clearly ask them how much money they will charge and how many people will be getting a share of that money. Talking about money is somewhat of a taboo in our culture, but screw all that. I have quickly learned to unlearn a lot of my prior programming. I know that if I have to survive here for the next 30-35 years, I will be encountering a lot of middle-men after my money. The only way I can deal with it is by keeping my alert radar at high levels all the time and doing as much of my paperwork as I can on my own.

PS: On a different note, I am considering moving away from blogging. I have found other platforms on social media that are way more interactive. The only reason I keep writing here is sheer nostalgia for having owned this space for 13 years now. I started blogging way before I knew of Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter or Instagram. Now, I have found all those platforms and no longer know what I am doing here.


Monday, December 10, 2018

I’M in India

More than ten years ago, I used to write about my life as a teacher in India. I used to write about my aspirations of moving to the USA.

Then, I went to the USA and spent a number of years getting an education. In between, I did a backpacking trip to Europe and absolutely loved it. I even started dreaming of living in Europe.

Soon enough, about four years ago, I moved to Germany. Loved my stay there. Spent the next two days traveling all around Europe.

I was also looking for a faculty job. So I found one, and moved back to the USA. Between being a school teacher, a student, and a faculty, this blog continued. Between tales of India, USA, and Germany, this blog continued. I didn’t write as often, but I continued to write. It was my comfort space.

To complete the circle of things, I have moved again. I am still a faculty (thankfully!). And I have moved to India. Only last month, I would struggle to spot an Indian within a 10-mile radius. And now, I hear Bangla outside my office all the time. It's a very comforting feeling, not having to work hard to fit in, not losing sleep over visas and work permits, not being asked when I am going back, and not being a minority anymore.

My entire family, with their limited means, have already made their own, individualized plans of visiting me, although I have not yet invited them. My dad told my mom that the next time he is nearby for work, he is going to take a day off and visit me and mom cannot say no or throw a tantrum. My mom, in return, went to Google and figured out that there are five weekly trains from Kolkata. She has also figured out their timings, schedules, and fares, and has made a plan of everything she will cook and bring on the train ride. But my grandma's plans take the cake.

My 76-year old grandma recently called up a few of her siblings and close family members. She inquired about the current ages of everyone older than her in the greater family who is still alive. She sort of created a spreadsheet of ages and figured out (using her own calculations) that she still has about 10-12 years to live. Armed with this information, she is preparing to take a flight and come see me!

Stay tuned for more updates. And holler if you are around. This blog space has been very quiet of late!


Monday, October 22, 2018


I had a profound moment of skelessism today (there, I made up a word!). I saw the image of my own skeleton on the X-ray display board at the dentist's and fell in love with myself (skelessism is skeletal narcissism).

A skeleton cannot be fat or thin, dark-skinned or light-skinned, but just a skeleton. If you look closely, all skeletons look like they are laughing. So there, I saw the image of my own face, bony, and laughing back at me. It had tooth number 14 missing, and in that gap, there was a tiny implant (like a metal screw), giving the image that a cigarette is tucked in between my teeth. I forgot that I was at the dentist to get treated and started laughing at my own image.

Later, a male doctor with a resounding voice saw me in my most awkward position, gaping like a crocodile, an oxygen cylinder taped to my nose, lying flat with a thick piece of cloth on my eyes to block out the light. Boy, I am glad he could not see my face, I wouldn't want any man to see me in such a flattering pose. He introduced himself as Dr D, and I extended my hand in the air to shake his, solely based on the direction of his voice. A strong grip, I liked it! I had no idea what he looked like.

During the brief, 20-minute procedure of exposing my gums, he gave me an odd compliment. Not something another man would tell me. He said that I had grown a lot of bone around my gums since my procedure in February, and today, he had to shave off some of the extra bone to do this procedure, which is great! "You can grow a lot of bone in a short time" is the oddest compliment I have received.

The procedure went well, they stitched me up, took an exit X-ray, and that is when Dr. D entered the room and shook my hands again. Boy, he is a good-looking doctor! He spent some time talking about the floods in Kerala and how one of his colleagues was stuck there. Every American who has been to India either tells me about their trip to Rajasthan and the Taj Mahal or a natural disaster of epic proportions someone he knows got stuck in. He talked briefly about his work in Karnataka. It was all small talk. It's so strange, good looks can even momentarily block out dental pain. As I left Dr. D's office, I was left wondering how someone could be so good looking. To complete the circle of thought, I reminded myself that at the end of the day, and at the end of all that skin and muscle and fat and cartilage, he too is a skeleton.


Thursday, October 11, 2018

A fin(garlic)king tale of crazy things I’d do for good food

Over the years, I've taken many things back home. Fancy chocolates. Interesting kitchen gadgets.

This time, I took home two pounds of unpeeled garlic! Yes, you heard me right.

My visits to Kolkata mean lots of good, rich food. I sometimes eat two breakfasts or two lunches on the same day. And all that food means my grandma chipping her nails while peeling a lot of garlic. If you have seen the almost two-dimensional, stick-thin garlic pods in India, you'd know how hard peeling garlic is. On the other hand, the garlic pods in the US are fatter than almonds and walnuts. The best thing I could bring home was garlic (my idea, completely).

Naturally, people at the US airport were not happy, although they should not care, since I was leaving, not entering the country. They eyed the garlic with a lot of suspicion. They ran it through scanners, tested with litmus lookalike papers. They might have wanted to ask me to chew some of them too. In their long experience of all the weird things they have seen people transport, the humble, innocuous garlic had never made the list. They did not ask me anything directly, but were holding up the line and had mobilized a tiny army of people to figure out what the hell was all this garlic doing here?

“I am attending the holy garlic festival in India this year. Have you heard about it?”

I got skeptical looks.

“You should look it up. Very pious festival. They ward off evil spirits.” As I said this, I held out my hands in front of my eyes to do a nomoshkaar.

And so, they let me go without any more questions, and off I flew thousands of miles with all the garlic.

The amount of good food I got to eat increased manifold as a result, and it might not be entirely my imagination. It did turn out to be a holy garlic festival in India after all. My own, holy garlic food festival at home.


Friday, September 28, 2018

Country Rap

Have you noticed how Bengali expats who congregate with other Bengali expats at the airport and bond while bitching about how India will never improve usually share certain common attributes?

One, they usually wear GAP or Nike clothing.

Two, the farther they get from the US (or the closer they get to India), the louder their rants get. They might not be as vocal in Houston or Seattle but will be very loud in Dubai. Perhaps the humid Dubai air makes them realize that shit is about to get real in a few hours.

Three, the rants are always, always in English. Ninde korar belaye accent diye Ingriji.

Based on what people say, it is easy to predict who is who.

"Ayi saala suorer bachcha plane ta deri koralo" -- A Bengali from India.

"Can't believe nothing runs on time. It's always sooo hard to get things done in India. This country will never improve" -- naak oonchoo expat whose patriotism is confined to missing and discussing aam jaam lichu tyangra lyangra on Facebook but dreads every moment of their trip to India. 

A curious spectator (sunshine).

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

None of my business (class)!

I had my first ever business class upgrade recently while flying from Kolkata to Dubai. When the attendant at the gate called my name, I thought that the flight was full, and they would elbow me out and emotionally manipulate me into taking the next flight.

An upgrade meant that while there was a long line in gate 11, I got priority boarding and took gate 10 with a bunch of pretentious people from a certain demography as mine who documented, through selfies, their momentarily luxurious life every few minutes. The flight had a lot of blue-collar, daily-wage workers commuting, and it is no coincidence that none of them got upgraded.

I always wondered what first class looks like. Now, I know. It's a brilliant marketing move. While coach class walks by passing the business class (and wishing they were sitting in business class), business class walks by passing the first class.

All these years, I would enter the aircraft and stare down at the business class people before moving on to coach. Now, I was one of those people I would stare down at. I had befriended a few strangers in the baggage drop off line. Now, I felt guilty as they walked past my seat, nodding to me briefly and acknowledging my luck rather than stare me down. I shifted uncomfortably and almost mentally apologized to every person who walked by me to the back of the aircraft.

And then, there were switches and buttons. Lots of them. One, to pull my personal TV closer to me. One, to raise myself. One, to recline. One, to lie down like you would lie down on bed. One, to make my arse more comfortable. One, to find my foot rest. I experienced complete cognitive overload and felt out of place trying to figure everything out. The menu was a fat booklet I stole as a souvenir, since the chances of another upgrade or eating lasooni murgh (garlic chicken) for appetizers, braised lamb shank with borlotti beans for the main course, and carrot halwa with dried fruit compote and dark chocolate sauce for dessert 34,000 feet above ground in the next ten years is slim. The gourmet food was out of the world, mostly with long, esoteric French names that were better eaten than enunciated. No plastic, but heavy, high quality china. The headphones were noise cancelling. The pillow was softer, the blanket was a soft, silk comforter. The space was child-free; this is the first flight where I did not hear a single child wailing.

No food trolleys unceremoniously hit my knees. They took your food orders personally, and served you personally, appetizers first (clear table), then the main course (clear table), and then, dessert. They provided hot towels many times, assuming that I was getting tired without doing anything and hence needed to be periodically rejuvenated. The restrooms had fancy perfumes, toilet seat covers, and free dental kits. They cleaned the restrooms and swept the floor dry every now and then. They even gave me a shiny red card for priority visa through a fast gate channel. I was one of the first to deplane.

I have never experienced such opulence and attention to detail in an airplane before. All this, and I kept looking back at hundreds of people huddled like cattle and kept thinking, this business class is not my reality, that is my reality. I had no business taking up double the space and double the resources, eating gourmet food with obscure names, drinking champagne, and pretending that this is my real life. The real me actually walks out of the plane with huge bumps on the head every time after dozing off by the window and banging my head continuously against the window glass. The real me hugs the window during take-off and hungrily takes in the view of Kolkata for the last few moments, teary-eyed, before disappearing among the clouds. This time, I was in the middle of the aircraft and could not even bid a proper goodbye to Kolkata! I think these first-world problems become even more first-world in such opulent spaces.


Sunday, August 19, 2018

Speak your language, not theirs

At the Kati Roll Company, we were enjoying our kati rolls, adda (conversation), and the reunion we had after a year. A group of young girls sat at the table next to us.

Soon, an oddly dressed young man joined their table. Given my ignorance about popular American fashion, I could not say if he was a style icon, or generally poorly dressed. When the girls smiled sheepishly at him, I thought that they knew each other. But the girls started to leave their table, clearly uncomfortable. They might be planning to leave anyway, but our young man surely facilitated their departure.

By now, my colleague and I were curious spectators. The man had a drawl, maybe he was drunk and stoned and anything in between. The girls left, and the man walked further inside the restaurant with confidence, calling out to more people. I could not see any further after that. I told my colleague about my disappointment that four girls could not confront a man and ran away, validating him and fueling his courage in the process.

Sometime later, the man came back to us, of all the tables. I could not understand what he said but recognized a mishmash of words that occasionally sounded like baby and boob. Sure, all babies need boobs for nourishment, but I don't think that was what he meant. I saw red! I am allergic to people calling me baby, and I didn't ask for an assessment of my boobs. He walked towards us with an intention of joining our table.

“Dada, ki bolchen bujhte parchina, Banglaye bolun,” I said out loud enough to turn a few heads in our direction. (Please speak in Bangla, I cannot understand what you are saying, I said).

The man was momentarily stunned. Of all the things he would have anticipated, a sharp reply in Bangla was outside his syllabus of imagination.

He has some nerve, he asked me to speak in English, with more references to baby and boobs. I lost it.

“Banglaye katha na bolle hobe? Boshe boshe meyeder theke khisti khachhen, bujhteo to parchen na. Ingriji te katha bolte parbo na, amake niye jokhon katha bolchen, amar bhashaye katha bolun aage.”

The more I spoke in Bangla, the more confused he got. It had never occurred to him that he would not be able to communicate to a girl something as simple as a lecherous remark about body anatomy. With a horrified expression, he started to leave the restaurant.

“Arrey paliye jachhen keno, adda maarben na?" was the last thing I said before he scampered out.

Looks like my “confuse your enemy” ploy worked wonderfully, although it was unplanned, untested, and impulsive. Whatever the guy had expected from us (shame, discomfort), being reprimanded in a foreign language was outside his imagination. This strategy might have failed if he had a gun or knife or if it was late in the night. I do not know. What I know is that in the heart of Manhattan, my mother tongue gave me the confidence to confront, confuse and belittle a man, and drive him away. I could have given him a piece of my mind in English. However, communicating and engaging with him was not my goal. Whenever you speak in the language of the enemy, you validate and empower the enemy.

Speak to your enemies and speak to them in your own language (and not their language). Chances are that the enemy will not understand your language. If they did, then they would not be enemies. I use the word “language” metaphorically here.


Monday, July 30, 2018


She was whining for some time now, starting to give me a headache. I did not want to engage in a rather monotonous monologue that sounded to me like the first world problem of married people, but I couldn't just disengage and leave. So I nodded as she whined about the emotional disconnect she has felt for a while, and how she has been contemplating leaving him. It took me great effort to stifle a yawn. I had my own problems in life to deal with and wondered how long this whining would last.

At this point, I sensed a hint of empowerment in her voice.

“I’ll leave him if he does not start communicating with me. It's his loss. He will be the one left alone. I will have no problem finding someone.”

It felt a little odd to me after she iterated in a few different ways that she would not have trouble finding someone. Leaving your husband is one thing, power to you for following your heart, but where is this finding someone coming from? I know enough about the grown-up world to know that finding someone you like who likes you back isn’t always easy.

“Are you already seeing someone?” I asked.

“No, I am not,” she said.

“Then who is this someone you keep referring to? How can you find someone so soon?” I ask, in a moment of naivete.

At this point, the 60-year old wearing a sleeveless, body hugging top thrusts her boobs in a rather provocative way that came out more comic than provocative and says, her voice laced with passion, “Because I have a nice body. And I have a great personality. Because I am quite a catch.”

It might have been inappropriate to burst out laughing, but I am human. Even when I was half her age, I never had the conviction, the confidence to say out loud that I am quite a catch. Like they say, attitude is all that matters in life (no idea who said it though).


Saturday, July 28, 2018

A Trashy Mindset

I haven’t written in a long time. This summer has been lousy, one of the worst summers, but more on that later. Somehow, I have forgotten the immense joy I used to feel writing here.

Anyhow, back to the post, which is also a another rant. I try to avoid buying anything wrapped in plastic. But my surroundings make it very hard for me to stick to this resolution. Beans, spinach, chicken, mushrooms, and many other things I like to eat always come in Styrofoam containers wrapped in plastic at that store.

I was checking out my purchases when I pointed to the chicken and asked the guy at the checkout counter why they don't lobby and pressurize the suppliers not to use Styrofoam and plastic wrap.

“Do you know that as of 2018, China has stopped buying plastic waste from the US and other European countries?”

The guy had the deer in the headlight look. He was not even aware of it, and I am not surprised. Most people I talk to have no idea (just Google it).

“Do you know where all this waste is piling? It has to go somewhere, right? Guess where? At a site in Oregon, not too far from here.”

“Aren't there any more suckers out there who would buy it?”

I was a little taken aback by his comment, not even considering the casual way he used the word “suckers” -- kudos to China for refusing to buy waste anymore, but it also makes me afraid that the next vulnerable target, or sucker, like this guy calls it, is India.

“Why would you want any country to buy your shit?” I asked.

This guy is not unique, a lot of people I talk to share this mindset. Rather than think about how to reduce waste output, the man wonders what other country might be willing to buy his waste. He also told me that I can buy beans at the next grocery store. Well, I am not going to walk 15 minutes further to buy beans at an overpriced organic store. I might just as well not eat beans.

The person in line after me was listening to the conversation, probably also thinking if I am crazy. As I was leaving, I heard the checkout guy ask, “Paper or plastic?”

“Plastic,” I heard him say, unsurprisingly.

I am always surprised at how ignorant and environmentally unfriendly so many people here are. The “don’t care” attitude is so apparent when you talk to them. It’s almost like a cultural thing.


Saturday, June 09, 2018

Why I am not likely to fly Qatar Airways again

There are mistakes. And there are expensive mistakes. 

The shortest life span of a US-India airplane ticket I bought was 4 hours. Things in my life changed in those 4 hours. I had to cancel my ticket.

Flights from the US usually come with a free cancellation clause for up to 24 hours of initial purchase. I have done that with Emirates and United. You just cancel your ticket online and get a full refund in a few days. No questions asked. This is the first time I was flying Qatar.

Apparently, Qatar Airways works on a different model. There is a button "Hold Ticket for 24 Hours" that I never saw. It could be that I was distracted, stressed, or maybe it was written strategically so that a first-timer who does not know will not notice it. Large business, after all, care about making money. They do not care about customers. Perhaps they design their websites accordingly.

When I cancelled the ticket after 4 hours, the system said that it will refund me the price of the ticket minus $305.00. It seemed odd. I called customer service. Apparently, Qatar Airways does not have a 24-hour customer service either. If you do not call within normal business hours for eastern time zone, congratulations, you have just been screwed. Again, the customer service is not really meant for serving the customer. 

By the time I could have talked to a human the next day, I might have crossed the 24-hour mark. I had to decide quickly. Note that I still had not realized that I have overlooked the "Hold Ticket for 24 Hours" button. How would I? When I had bought that ticket 4 hours ago, I had every intention of making that trip. I was doomed the moment I bought the ticket. Whether I was stuck to the plan or not, my money was stuck there.

If you watch air crash documentaries, it is never one thing gone wrong that brings down an airplane. It is usually a combination of different things, a chain of events gone wrong, often combined with human error. My situation was something like that. 

It took a couple of email exchanges and phone calls the next day to even understand what had happened. I admitted my mistake, told them that I am a first-timer with Qatar, it was a weekend and I could not talk to a customer service agent to understand what was going on. They train their staff well to maintain a robotic voice and keep apologizing for my inconvenience when they are far from being apologetic. For every line I said, they kept apologizing for any inconvenience. 

I wrote to the E-commerce support. I explained what had happened and said that it was my fault. I wrote about four emails in a week. In every email, I admitted to my mistake for not noticing that “Hold Ticket” button. Yet, after a week, I got a vague, impersonal, copy-paste email with words like “we regret to inform you,” “as per policy,” and “we look forward to welcoming you on-board on one of our flights soon.” I wonder if policy is meant for people, or people are meant for policy.

My final reply to them was short. I wrote that I hope this profit of $305.00 will supersede the loss of a customer, and hopefully, they never have to welcome me on-board.

Here was an opportunity for the airline to rise above their policies and make a lasting impression. I even told them that I was willing to buy a new ticket with the correct dates right away, a ticket that would cost me 5-6 times this $305.00 penalty. The math was simple. The intention to help was never there in the first place.

Sheryl Sandberg, in her convocation speech at MIT this year, said something that hit home. To quote her:
They [the community leaders] understood that the most difficult problems and the greatest opportunities we have are not technical. They are human. In other words, it's not just about technology. It's about people.” [Link]

It’s about people only when the intention is to serve people. Technology forgets. Human beings don’t. My first impression of Qatar Airways will always be my lasting impression.


Wednesday, April 25, 2018

My Bleddy Fears

Water travel makes me nervous. One, I cannot swim. Two, when I travel international, I not only carry my camera gear, but my passport too. That summer, two years ago (when I did this trip), three passports had changed hands (the stolen, the intermediate, and the new). After debating about whether or not to take the boat ride in Lake Bled, I decided to give it a shot. I sat tight, clutching on to my bag and chanting some permutation/combination of God's name in a loop. However, people around me aren't perturbed a bit. They are in this urgent need to take selfies, and every time someone shifts, the boat slightly shifts too, giving me many butterflies in my stomach. The children are leaning out and difficult to control, as usual, the parents have kind of given up, and the guy rowing the boat tells us that the lake is only 31 m deep. Only? Even 31 feet is going to make me nervous. People are changing angles to take pictures of the lake, tempting me to ask them if they have never seen a lake before. But the father of a family of seven (parents and 5 children) take the cake. Ten minutes into our ride, he decides to play music on his handheld device. Céline Dion starts singing her Titanic song. Shit, this is a bad omen, I tell myself. God, please don't let me die like this, due to a capsized boat in Slovenia, of all places...


Thursday, April 05, 2018

My husband’s wife

Once in a while, I see a glimpse of human nature that broadens my horizon about the endless possibilities of human relationships. As I read a very interesting book, I am beginning to understand why concepts such as "one and only" and "happily forever after," concepts mostly in the human imagination have been persistently fed over generations. The idea of a husband and wife and two happy children playing on the lawn with the pets to make a perfect family. More on that book later.

I asked a colleague if she has plans for the weekend. She smiled happily and told me that she is organizing a birthday party for her husband's first wife and both are spending the weekend together with all the kids. I don't know why I heard husband but thought father, my social programming perhaps, but I embarrassed myself by asking, "Your step-mom?"

She was amused. She corrected me, "My husband's first wife, not my father's."

Wow. It takes a certain mindset and maturity, a certain degree of evolution and acceptance to be friends with your husband's ex-wife and plan her birthday. Most people I know in this awkward triangle would be ready to kill each other, and understandably so. I imagined a hypothetical situation of hanging out with my husband's wife (I don't know if I would want to be the second one or the first one if it came to that). Honestly, I don't know.  

I applaud people who can willingly be friends in complex relationships that might have involved anger, jealousy, hatred, and tears at some point. Especially because the husband, the binding agent in this case passed last year. So this birthday planning was obviously not coming from a place of compulsion.


Monday, April 02, 2018

Week 8: Traveling when not traveling

Lake Bled in Slovenia

Read other posts with the label: 52 small changes

I did not start traveling either seriously or solo until I was in my late twenties. But once I did, it opened up a whole new world of learning for me. It boosted my confidence immensely and taught me how to pursue things independently, without waiting on people whose travel frequency does not match mine. In a span of six years, I had ended up traveling more than thirty countries, and many of them, alone.

However, I had to recently factor in the reality of my new position- being pre-tenure at a research university, which is not for the faint-hearted. It requires years of immersion in research, being very active and productive in terms of publishing and bringing in grant money. Therefore, I do not get to travel as much these days.

Scratch that. I do get to travel, but it is a different kind of travel. I travel mostly for work and conferences, and these are mostly to urban cities within the US. Baltimore. Atlanta. Boston. San Francisco. Such travel would have thrilled me many years ago, and I once used to spend my own money to visit these places during national holidays, but no more. After a point, all US cities look and feel the same. Sometimes, I do not even get to step out of the conference venue and explore the city.

When I think of my happy travel experiences, I think of hiking and driving around the Grand Canyon. I think of those beautiful sunsets and good food in Puerto Rico. I think of the blueness of the ocean in Hawaii. I think of the geysers of Yellowstone and the glaciers of Montana. I think of eating fried crickets in Mexico and Cambodia. I think of flying over Mount Everest in Nepal. I remember the flavorful stew in Dubrovnik (Croatia) and the church I hiked in Montenegro. I think of the cruise ship I took to Norway and the largest ice caves in the world I hiked in Werfen (Austria). I think of Mount Etna in Sicily (Italy) and the goosebumps I got visiting a concentration camp in Auschwitz (Poland). From the forts of Malta to the oceans of Portugal, from the mountains in Sikkim to the cobbled streets of Estonia, wonderful travel experiences have filled my life. Naturally, after visiting most US cities, the lure of Washington DC, Miami or San Diego is not much.

So how does one travel without traveling?

Once a week (during the weekend), I routinely spend a few hours watching travel documentaries on YouTube. I was amazed at the wealth of resources travel blogs and YouTube provide. It gives me a vicarious sense of travel pleasure. I randomly pick a country on the map and go find everything I can about the country. This is how I learnt about the Pamir Highway connecting Tajikistan to Kyrgyzstan, the amazing bhortas and the biryanis one can eat while visiting Bangladesh, the mountains of the Himalayan range, some of the higher motorable roads in the world in Leh and Ladakh, the different seasons in a country as small as Sri Lanka, the fanciest trains in the world and what they offer, the history of Burkina Faso that was formerly called the Republic of Upper Volta, the monasteries of Bhutan, the island of Bali, and so much more. Although I would much rather visit these places in-person, this experience gives me a travel high and enriches my knowledge about the history and the geography of a place when I am cooped up working for months and do not even get to visit the downtown nearby. I find it to be a much better use of time than following the hyped shows and sitcoms.

If you want to see the beautiful, awe-inspiring, rugged mountains of Pakistan, watch the movie Dukhtar. And if you have fascinating travel experiences and itineraries to share, I would love to hear from you.


Monday, March 26, 2018

While you were sleeping

The advent of winter brings with it the early morning chills and my need to sleep in a little late, hugging the comforter a little tighter. It was one of those chilly mornings, plus I had worked late last night and I was also on vacation. All I had hoped was to sleep in a little late without waking up to the shrill cries of the alarm clock. 

However, my slumber was prematurely cut short by a sudden shriek, "Devammmm! Devadhi Devammmmm! Where are you?" 

It was the kind of shriek whose frequency could tear through any medium, shake the ground and cause tsunamis. The shriek that would wake Akbar from his grave, no matter how deeply buried (in the ground, not in sleep) he was. Buried I was too, under layers of winter bedding, comfortably sleeping. But that shriek got my eyes wide open. 

Where was I? In whose home? And why was someone shouting the name they had for me? My memory had gone out of focus for a few seconds. It must be a nightmare, I thought. I keep getting nightmares all the time, bad dreams where my teeth are falling off or I am losing my voice. I tried in vain to go back to sleep.

Within less than a minute, the shriek came again. "Devammmm!" Like contractions during labor increase both in their intensity and frequency with time, the shriek only kept getting louder, more intense and out of hand. Feebly, I tried croaking, "Yes, I am up!" However, my vocal cords, just like me, had been abruptly woken up and their power was no match for the voice that was calling out my name. I could dig my head deeper into the pillow and say, screw you! But the (radio)active power of her voice could penetrate any lead chamber. My feeble voice was no match for these vocal cords that have been practicing Carnatic music for many decades now. There was some latent power in its timbre, it could bring back the dead to life.

Maybe she slipped on the bathroom floor and needed help. Maybe she was hanging from the pillars and could not get down. Reluctantly, I extracted myself from the comfort of the bed, my joints creaking unceremoniously, the warm and tousled comforter still luring me to spend fifteen or more minutes napping. I wondered if this voice had a snooze button. I hurriedly groped for my glasses and put them on, unwillingly crossing the narrow corridor and making my way downstairs, to the source where this baritone voice was coming from. Maybe the owner of this voice swallowed a set of Bose speakers for breakfast by mistake that morning.

"Coming! Coming!" I tried to find my voice before the call "Devammmm! Devadhi Devammm!" traumatized me again. There I find her in the kitchen, all fresh and bathed, vibhuti smeared on her forehead, slathering dosa batter on a cast-iron skillet. 

"What happened?" I asked, groggy and irritated. "Why are you bringing the roof down?"

"Nothing much," Gundamma says in her most calm, casual and charming voice. "Just checking if you are awake or still sleeping. You can go back to bed."

So she screamed her vocal cords out just to see if I am awake or asleep? I will not be able to sleep without getting nightmares for several months now.


Sunday, March 25, 2018

Week 7: A clean sink and a made bed

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Waking up to a clean kitchen sink really makes me happy, and so does coming home to a clean, made bed. So I make sure I do both every day. 

Long back, I came across this talk about the value of making your bed and really liked it. It is the joy of accomplishing at least one task every day. I know that throughout the day, I will have many triggers, things that will stress me out but I cannot control. There will be multiple rejections coming my way- papers and proposals rejected, decisions that do not go in my favor. I do not have control over those things. However, I do have control over the little things that I can do for myself.

For example, waking up to a sink with dirty dishes puts me off. Cleaning dishes is not my most favorite activity, and that is not what I want to start my day with. So no matter how tired I am, I try to finish off the dishes before I go to sleep. For this, I have to portion out the cooked food into little containers and store them in the fridge. I have to pack my lunch for the next day. I have to clean the kitchen counter. Once I have done all that, I try to finish the dishes, leaving them to dry overnight. That way, the next morning, I can start my day finding a clean, dry cup waiting for me to make myself coffee of milk. It saves myself useful morning minutes too. 

Similarly, at the end of a long day, it feels calming to come back to a made bed. It makes me feel grateful for having a home and being able to stay warm and comfortable. After a long day at work, I'd want to be nowhere else but home. So every morning before I leave home, I make sure to leave it in a condition that I would long to come back to it.

As a kid, I used to do other chores every night to prep for school the next day. I used to clean and polish my black leather shoes. And I used to organize my school bag. I especially miss polishing my shoes every night. 

When the bigger things are going wrong, I find comfort in these little things going right. Waking up to find the dishes clean and dry, coming home to a clean bed, and packing my lunch with me every day instead of eating outside. 


Sunday, March 18, 2018

Week 6: Visible-eaty

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I was craving ruti for lunch that day. So I opened the fridge, stooped, and retrieved the open but sealed packet of uncooked phulkas that Gundamma had packed me the last time I visited her. I had already cooked 5 or 6 out of that packet a while ago.

As I opened the sealed, plastic bag of phulkas and carefully took out an uncooked one, my heart sank when I saw a patch of green growing on the surface of the first one. Carefully, I peeled each phulka to see the patch of green on every single piece but the last, the patch increasingly getting smaller. I knew I could do nothing to salvage this, the green was a patch of mold growing on the uncooked phulka. With a heavy heart, I tossed all of them in the trash.

I felt horrible that day. Wasting food makes me feel like I have attained a new low in life. I had spent money on those, and since I am not familiar with the desi stores here, I got them all the way from Seattle. Since I had already consumed more than half the packet, I wondered what made me leave the rest uneaten. I knew that I was traveling, and before that, I was off solids for a while after my dental surgery. But I knew the main reason why I did not finish all of them.

The reason was because I had stored the packet inside the vegetable tray in the fridge, a spot that was out of my line of sight. Hence I had conveniently forgotten about it.

An empty vegetable tray 

So now, I try to store all my food in the fridge in my line of sight. I try not to store anything in the vegetable tray (see picture).

I try to do this with dry food too. Instead of storing them in some obscure nook in the pantry, I keep them all at eye level so that I do not forget about them. It often happens that I go to the desi store and cannot remember if I already have something. As a result, I have often bought multiple jars of pickle or ghee, multiple packs of spices or flattened rice or chaatu, and then they sit there and go stale. I am still learning to get better at letting things sit and go waste. When you do not see something regularly or do not have ready access to it (where you have to bend or struggle to find something), you tend to forget about it.

This is not only for food in the fridge or spices in the kitchen. I have often forgotten about clothes and accessories, the pair of jeans, a pair of gloves, and bought the same thing twice because things were tucked in an obscure corner of the wardrobe. Now, I try to put everything I have in front of me so that it is easier to remember how much I already have.