Friday, May 29, 2020

China Rose

On my way to work this morning, I picked up this flower. Bangla naam- Jawba phool. Scientific name- Hibiscus rosa sinensis. The two names have very different meanings for me. I taught a class on post-structural feminism recently. It took me a long time and multiple attempts of hitting my head on the wall to understand what is post-structuralism, what is feminism, and what is post-structural feminism in this context. However, it did help me develop an appreciation for the symbolic meanings of language once I vaguely understood the concept well enough to be able to teach it.

Jawba phool reminds me of Ma Kali. Of Shibpur, Howrah. And hajar haath Kali (goddess Kali with thousand hands, you should look up her picture. It gives me goosebumps, she looks so jagrata, so alive). All these are memories from my childhood, visiting hajar haath kali mondir in Shibpur and coming home to my grandparents’ place armed with two big bags of steaming hot boma. Boma means a bomb, and Chondi'r boma is the best alu’r chop that you will ever find. The story goes that Chondi, the inventor of boma, uses a secret spice recipe that no one else in the world has been able to replicate, and this humble family business over 3 generations did so well that he built a three-storey house. I do not know how much of this is true, but I do know that my mom spent years of her childhood bonding over boma with school friends, and I haven’t had it in decades now. So if anyone could get me hot bomas from Shibpur, you are my best friend for the rest of my life!

I don’t know how I jumped from jawba phool to boma, but the other name, Hibiscus rosa sinensis, opens up a whole new world of memories for me. I am in the ninth grade and Mrs. Khurana is our biology teacher. She has just taught us how to eviscerate the flower along its longitudinal axis to expose the reproductive contents using a dissecting needle. The catch is that during the practical exam, you only get one flower and one try to get it right. Sometimes, even surgeons are not as skilled as is expected of a 14 year-old. This would be followed by my vague attempt to neatly draw and label the parts of the flower, something I hated doing. I am so bad at drawing and sketching, I could not even draw a pumpkin, forget drawing the private parts of a dissected flower. I spent a good few months of my childhood surreptitiously plucking red flowers from the landlord’s garden and practicing my surgery skills on them. I might not know how to cook biryani or write R codes, but I can surely show you the reproductive parts of this red flower.

And of course now, the flower reminds me of the three-year old grandson of our neighbor who religiously sings me “mayer paye jawba hoye” in his mellifluous voice every time we meet. It is a devotional song dedicated to Ma Kali which means something like- I will be the flower of your feet.


Thursday, May 14, 2020

My first time in Jugarat

In 2006, when I first moved to Seattle, I met a girl at the orientation who could not say Gujarat. She would call it Jugarat. I had even written about it. However, I had never visited Jugarat myself.

Fast forward to about two years ago, I visit Jugarat for the first time, and what an introduction to the place I get! I was so excited to see what Jugarat looks and smells like. To me, it was the mystical land of Krishna and Gandhi and Amul and Garba. I had heard some odd stories related to Jugarat, about how a neighborhood family from Kolkata had moved there and when the child came back, she would only ask “Kem chho?” Not a word of Bangla. Or how that family’s daughter in Kolkata had eloped with a Jugarati guy after the tenth grade, or how an uncle whose first wedding we attended went there and found a new, Jugarati wife.

I stuck my nose to the window pane of the aircraft, trying to get my first glimpse of Jugarat in the fading sunlight that evening.

At the airport, I decided to use the restroom before picking up my bags. There were parallel stalls inside the restroom, all occupied, and I was surprised to see four parallel lines in front of those stalls instead of a single one. Back then, anomalies like this were out of my schema of understanding things; of course now, I am used to anything, even the lack of lines. So I had to choose any one line and hope that someone was not stuck inside that stall creating a bottleneck.

I waited patiently, and as the line moved forward, suddenly, I heard firing. It was the kind of fear-instilling firing that one does not easily forget. I heard loud firing from all the stalls- boom boom bam bam boom! And without realizing, thought bubbles started forming in my head. In those thought bubbles, I saw pictures of dhokla, thepla, fafda, handvo, khandvi, all under various stages of digestion. I clutched on to my chest instinctively, not knowing if I would survive the firing.

Finally, the firing stopped, almost all at once, and there was a deafening silence. The doors to each of the stalls opened. From inside, I saw four very fat women in saris emerging out victorious, slowly moving towards the wash basin.

Very wisely, I decided to turn back and run out, not looking back. I could empty my bladder later. I did not have it in me to go ahead and cross the war line after all that firing.

That was my first introduction to Jugarat.


Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Recapping the past decade

The one thing that Covid-19 has given many of us is a lot of time to stay at home and reflect. That is what I have been doing since March. I was thinking that if someday, my memory left me, I would not know who I am. My basic fabric, the blueprint of who I am will go amiss. I know that we are into the fifth month of the year, a year many want to wish away, but the start of this year also marked a fantastic end to a decade (2010-2019). Here are some of the things I will remember the last decade for:

I restarted my PhD for the second time and also earned it. This time, my PhD made me leave Seattle (the “best” coast) and head diametrically east. It brought new experiences, new friends, and new adventures. I miss those three years and keep wishing that one day, I could return. From the beaches of North Carolina and Virginia to the mountains of upstate New York, the ocean of Maine and the beaches of Florida, I drove everywhere. From Boston to Princeton to New York, Baltimore, Washington, DC, Richmond, and Orlando, I made new friends everywhere. 

The last decade also marked my transition from science to social science research. The transition brought its own challenges of learning an entire new field. Each field is a new way of looking at the world, and this new lens taught me to look at the world in a different way. 

I grew an inch taller.

2010 is when I first traveled Europe as a tourist. That was also when I got a taste of backpacking and traveling alone, and there was no looking back. 

Half-way into the decade, when I got a job in Germany, I was thrilled. Over the next few years, I lived, worked, and paid taxes in the USA, Germany, and India. Germany for two years was another nice experience. I lived right by the ocean and woke up looking at the sun rise by the water and the ships dock right outside home everyday. Germany is one of the prettiest places I have ever lived in. Again, this is another place I keep wishing I would go back to, maybe for a year or three. 

I got my first faculty job. And my second one too.

I traveled Cambodia with dad. And Thailand. And Nepal. I got to see Angkor Wat and the Annapurna range. The decade opened up Asia for me and made me realize there are so many places I haven’t traveled.

I discovered the joy of living in hostels. I discovered Airbnb. 

I got to work in one of the renowned schools in India. All these months later, I am still in awe of this place!

I became a home owner.

I traveled to 32 new countries. And I am not talking about airport layovers or watching television at a hotel in Dubai because my connecting flight leaves tomorrow.

I regret that I didn't learn a new skill or a new language.

Okay, I was kidding about my height!


Monday, May 11, 2020

Air (un)conditioning

I moved to a new home in December, then started traveling for work. I thought that once I am back in March, I will set up the home, buy nice furniture, buy an air conditioner. I was about to spend part of the summer in the US and Germany anyway, so I did not bother. 

And then, the pandemic happened.

Now, I am stuck in the 45 Celsius (and rising) heat, without an AC. And this is only May. This house is so intelligently built, it is freezing in the winter and blazing in the summer. Add to it cooking, cleaning, and all the household chores that make you hotter (pun unintended). Even in the middle of the night, the fan lets off a plume of hot air from the overheated ceiling. The mattress absorbs all the heat. I have never had so much hotness in life. 

I’ve moved my makeshift bed to every room to see which one feels a little better- the ground floor bedroom, the ground floor living room, or the upstairs bedroom. The suffering is all the same. 

I’ve considered sleeping on the open rooftop, but fear being bitten by bugs and mosquitoes. Worse, imagine waking up and seeing a monkey sidling up to you. I’ve also considered sleeping in the office, either on the floor or atop my wooden desk, but fear the bugs, the hiding lizards, and my own snoring alerting the security guards and a consequent email on the notice board the next day. 

Everything I cut for food, I try applying it on my face to see if it would cool me down. Cucumbers, lemons, melons, and papaya have worked out great! Tip: Cauliflowers and eggplants don’t help!

I updated my playlist to play all the Raag Megh Malhar songs. And it started raining in Kolkata!

Watering the plants is my favorite chore now. Most of the water goes on me.

I’m fantasizing about an ice bucket challenge. Right now, I could eat ice for breakfast, lunch and dinner. 

I am trying to look at the positive side. Less electricity bills. Absolutely no need to work out. Reliving childhood nostalgia when we had no AC.

When most people around the world are working from home, I am going to office every day. Even on weekends and holidays. I stay there as long as I can, staring at the AC and fantasizing about stealing it.  

I keep watching winter videos of Switzerland on Youtube, hoping that it helps. It has. By now, I know all the names of the Swiss counties. There is nothing left for me to see in Switzerland anymore. 

Some activities are a complete no-no. Not getting embroiled in Facebook fights. No reading romantic stories. No watching kissing scenes in movies. No horny thoughts. Complete abstinence from all activities that tend to raise the body temperature. 

I look at old pictures of me wading in the snow the one terrible winter I spent in Nebraska, hoping that it will produce some cooling effect. 

I chant this mantra to myself, “Evaporation causes cooling!” 50 times every day while sweating, hoping that all this positivity will get me through till the end of summer in November. Here is another one. Close your eyes. Imagine there has been a power cut. Now open your eyes. Look at the ceiling fan still working with gratitude. You will not feel as hot after that. 

I think of life as a Bikram hot yoga class, a meditation retreat, or a tropical vacation. People pay a lot of money to get some of these experiences. I’m getting it for free. 


Thursday, April 30, 2020

Activa(ting) talk

Imagine a day comes when you make an entry in your gratitude journal that reads like this: “Today, I was able to place an order with bigbasket.” It was truly a miracle. While making the online payment, I half-expected to see the familiar message that has been popping up on my screen all week, “All slots full. Please try again later.” But my order went through. After trying for nine effing days, my order went through. Delivery day was the day after tomorrow.

I was so excited, I called mom to share the news. Then for the next twenty-four hours, I kept staring at my order list, mesmerized. So what if they have stopped supplying meat and fish and eggs? So what if only about 60% if the items were available? So what if they showed delivery time between 6 am to 3 pm, which meant waiting in a limbo for the doorbell to ring and not being able to get to work in the morning? In forty-eight hours, I would have all these items in my fridge. The fridge that was starting to look so empty these days. I never thought that the biggest joy in my life would be to wait in anticipation for two kilo apples and two large watermelons to arrive.

On delivery day, the guy called and told me that the company has asked him not do a door delivery. I would have to go meet him at the main gate and get my stuff. The same order list that gave me a dopamine high not too long ago was now going to give me nightmares. Imagine lugging two kilo of apples, one kilo of pomegranates, two large watermelons, four liters of milk, one kilo of bananas, half a kilo of cucumbers, and other such heavy things from the main gate to home. No worries, I told myself that in this 42 Celsius heat, at 10 in the morning when the sun was already high up my head, I am off for my army-training. The kind of training they show you in movies where you carry heavy bags on your back and crouch and crawl on the ground. I can do this!

One look at the stuff and I knew that I cannot do this. In a bad attempt to use the poor defenseless woman card, I made a sad face and said to myself, loud enough for the security guards to hear, “No problem, I will make four rounds in this heat to lug everything!”

One of the security guards took pity on me and asked me to hand him all the stuff. He had a scooter (Activa) parked nearby. On a side note, I did not know what an Activa is when I moved here. Someone asked me if I have an Activa and I told her that I now eat Amul Masti yogurt (and wondered how she knew about Activia, the brand of yogurt I ate in the US). Anyway, the security guard was nice enough to drop my heavy bags home. That army-training I was fantasizing about never happened.

I told this story to my family on the phone, amid much gasps and oo-maas and ahaares from mom and grandma. Of all the things, my dad asked me somewhat suspiciously, “Did you sit behind him on the scooter?”

“I can walk just fine,” I shouted at him. Ridiculous!


Wednesday, April 29, 2020


Last year in Germany:

I am about to bunk one session of the conference to check out the city when a needy-looking student comes running and panting, looking for group 3 (I am group 3). We had to compile a PPT and our team had done 95% of the work. All this person had to do is put it all together and give a two-minute presentation. The person just got here and doesn't yet know me or what group I belong to.

“Hallo, entschuldigen Sie, have you seen someone from group 3? I need help with the presentation!”

I am all for helping people, but I know this student is going to take an hour of my time, the time I could be exploring a new city. PhD students are supposed to be independent anyway. Evil of me, I nod a “nein! nein!” to say that I have no idea who is in group 3. I pointed to the garden in the opposite direction of the exit to tell her that a bunch of people are there and she should check them out. She ran in that direction and I ran to my exit of freedom from needy students, laughing a loud, evil, Muhahahaha in my head.

Karma, however, is a B-I-T-C-H with a capital B! I take a tour of the city and come back to find that the student has found and followed me on Twitter. Fine, I was not going to see her again anyway, I reasoned to myself.

Goddammit, I was walking down my hotel stairs for dinner that night and found her again walking up the stairs. The one time in five days that I bunk one session of the conference, karma hits me like a ton of bricks. So glad for quick reflexes and hoodies that you can use to instantly hide your face, which is what I just did!

Please tell me we are not taking the same train to the airport tomorrow!


Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Foucault’s Panopticon

Late January, 2020

Winter is coming to an end, and I am grateful for the remaining few early mornings that are chilly. One such chilly morning, I was eating breakfast in the kitchen when I heard the bells ringing loudly in the neighbor’s house. I stared out of the kitchen window to see the big banana plant obstructing my view. It is the morning of Saraswati pujo. I was not sure if I found it odd or relieving that I was not invited. It’s one of those things where you feel left out when not invited but don’t get excited either when invited. There were clear signs of a pujo in progress. More bells ringing, some conch-blowing, and the telltale burning smell of incense sticks.

I did get invited though, to a different house. I went there shortly before class. It was a ghoroa pujo, not a large gathering, everything done at home. No selfies or videos, no photo shoots, no dressing up and posing in front of Saraswati. There was kool (the berry) offered to the goddess. I had kool after a decade. The priest is a fellow faculty I have never seen in a dhuti before. I met a few faculty and their partners.

A particular woman I met first thought that I am her husband’s student and was surprised to learn that my office is located next to his. “How come I have not heard of you before?” she asked me. I am torn between a witty comeback and a sarcastic one, but I decided to nod politely and not say anything. I was there to pay my respect to the goddess from the department of education. But she is not satisfied with my nod. She added, “How come none of the maids told me about you? I have never seen you during my morning walks either.”

“That's because I do not have a maid and I do not go for morning walks,” I replied.

“Well, even not having a maid is news on campus. Anyway, good to meet you, will look out for you during my walks.”

I am not sure why some old woman who has never met me before was so fixated on bumping into me during her walks. It reminded me of Foucault's panopticon metaphor. People tend to modify their behavior when they know they are being watched, as Foucault writes in his book, “Discipline and Punish.” I know that I am being watched, my garden is being watched, what plants I grow or not grow, the kind of clothes hanging from the balcony, the kinds of shoes and slippers outside my door, the lights from the house, everything is being watched. Do I care? I don't know. I know that a bunch of maids watch me every day, because some actually knock on my door every now and then and ask me why I am not hiring them. I know that the sweepers who sweep my walkway watch me every day, they keep asking me if I need a gardener. And now, an additional person on campus will be watching me too, unable to come to terms with the shock that she did not know me before.

I got down on my knees, paid my homage to the goddess, thanked my hosts for inviting me, and left for class. My immediate neighbors are performing Saraswati pujo and not inviting me. I am watching them too!


Thursday, October 24, 2019

A heavy conversation

I was standing in the corridor watching the grey skies, enjoying the nice breeze and minding my business, hoping that it would rain. I felt someone walk by behind me and then stop.

"You've lost weight, no?"

I cringed. I remembered attending a gathering recently when someone said that if you have to compliment someone, you don't have to say, "You look nice, have you lost/gained weight?" Just say, "You look nice," and leave it at that. Don't add your expert opinion about why that person is looking nice. I loved it!

So back to this impending conversation. Whenever someone tells me something like this, I have this inexplicable need to justify why they might be mis-observing. My usual replies are:

No, it must be an optical illusion... hahaha!

No, I just got a haircut and look different.

No, I am just wearing bright colored, fitting clothes.

These justifications are unnecessary. It doesn't matter whether I have lost weight or not, I could just give them the answer they want to hear, and they will leave me alone. In this case, I had two options- a yes or a no. If I said that no, I have not lost weight, that would prolong the conversation about why that person is right and I am wrong. Very calmly, I said, "Yes, I have lost weight."

I thought that the conversation is over, that the person would leave me alone and move on with life. They did not. I was not anticipating what came next.

"I will not be diplomatic and say that you did not need to lose weight. You did. And looks like you have indeed lost weight."

I grimaced as the seemingly well-meaning person walked away. I so hope that commenting on body weight becomes unconstitutional and banned by law someday! Like I say, there are mostly four unimaginative ways many people greet me here---

Roga hoye gechish!
Mota hoye gechish!
Kalo hoye gechish!
Forsha hoye gechish!

You've lost weight!
You've gained weight!
You've tanned!
You've become light-skinned!


Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Checking up the doctor

Humor makes light the gravest of illnesses. At the doctor’s office, the doctor turned out to be a cute guy. Back home, the discussion naturally boiled down to, is he single? Could he, all cute and nice smiles and nerdy glasses and all, be single? The discussion took various turns, with the over-protective dad frowning as if the daughter finding someone cute is a terrible thing to happen to humanity, and the mom going off on an unending rant about how she let go off so many opportunities by getting hitched early in life and how I should continue valuing my freedom to do whatever or live wherever I choose to.

Apparently I have a psycho-magnet inside me, which is how I attract all the psychos in my life, she claims. Very oddly, she reminded me of the last time a guy I was interested in came home (odd because I could not even remember who the guy was), and she had put on her designer blouse and silk sari in the summer heat and cooked up a storm, even forgot to serve him posto because there were so many things to eat, yet there was no tangible outcome (tangible meaning a wedding in the timeline). I have no idea why mom chose to wear a designer blouse to impress someone I was interested in, or why does she even remember what happened in the last decade, but that's beyond the point. Both the parents started reacting as if I am underage or the doctor is underage. They both looked like they are suffering enough in their own marriage.

However, grandma became my hero. In between all this verbal commotion, she spoke up.

"We need to find out if the young man is single to begin with," she proclaimed. And how?

"I'll come with you the next time and while he is examining you, I will start making small talk. Small talk how? Ki baba, kemon aacho, bari kothaye? Barite ke ke thake?"

How are you doing? Where is your home? Who else lives in your family?

Will old grandma accompany her grandchild the next time to the doctor, holding her walking stick with shaky hands? Will grandma make small-big-talk, like she promised? Will the cute doctor turn out to be single?

I may or may not get hold of the doctor, but I hope that I can hold on to my cute, loving grandma till the last day of my life.

Update: The doctor turned out to be single. I happened to lose interest in him.

Dad sighed in relief. And my mom acutely observed (and remarked): "I think you are looking for a manager in life, not a partner."

I think she might have a point.


Sunday, October 20, 2019

That deadly concoction of motherly love!

One of the big, big things about living in desh (country) is that I am only one short, direct-flight away from baadi (home). Given the law of averages, this had to happen after 12 years of hopping trans-continental flights for 36 hours and going through multiple immigration and security checks. I have visited home about ten times in less than a year now, and every time, I come back with bags full of cooked food that lasts me a few weeks. If you ever want to know what you could and should not bring in an airplane, ask me! But more on that later.

This time, I came back from a crazy mom slaving in the kitchen for days to cook up a feast-to-go and running after me to take it all. My Aviation-IQ went up after a comically dark stint with the mango, and if there is one piece of advice I could give, it is to NEVER take aam pora’r shorbot concentrate (raw mango concentrate) in an airplane.

Amid a crazy morning after momma and grandma painstakingly packed me food for an army, she looked at me with puppy-eyes to take that raw mango concentrate that I was resisting, the one she had prepared with a lot of love and spices (pepper powder, mint, and a gazillion other things). I was arguing that I will not carry anything in a yellow water bottle with something she made to shield me from the 45 degree Celsius weather and prevent me from getting heat strokes. I have extremely low karma ratings as far as being a nice child is concerned, so I finally gave up.
I don’t know all the chemistry that went into whatever happened, but that bottle passed airport security miraculously. That same bottle would have led to a 3-hour long interrogation in a dark room in the US, leading up to them labeling me a budding terrorist and denying me entry for the rest of my life. But I digress here.

I boarded the plane and settled in with a rather steamy novel that I was going to read in the next few hours. As I was stuffing my backpack in the overhead bin, something prompted me to take that bottle out, lest it leaks. I imagined everything that could go wrong, and the worst circumstance that came to my rather unimaginative mind was a loose lid and spillage. I placed that bottle in between my feet while the airplane took off.

I knew there was a pop-sound as soon as we were airborne, but I thought it was someone goofing around and recklessly popping open a can of soda. Looking back at life in slow motion, most things often make perfect sense. Within the next 5 minutes, just when Jack was about to kiss Stella after 2 months of abstinence following a one-night stand, there was a louder pop-sound. This time, I looked below, and to my horror, the bottle had popped open with enough pressure to spit raw mango pulp all over my white clothes. An onlooker would have wondered how scared I was of flying that I could shit all over myself publicly in the middle of the day, the one of the semi-liquid kind, with telltale signs of the yellow spillage all over me.

I rushed to the restroom, the bottle in hand. It broke my heart to throw it in the trashcan, but I could not have salvaged it. I spent the next 20 minutes wiping the yellow goo off my clothes and sat through the rest of the plane ride shivering from wearing wet clothes as well as getting dirty, judgmental looks from the passengers. The swag with which I had entered the aircraft was all gone. I sat nervously like a mouse for the rest of the ride, praying that I do not hear another loud pop-sound from the restroom with some poor soul inside freaking out with their pants half-on and the pilot rerouting the airplane because there was yellow goo all over the ceiling.

Looking back, I can see why it was a bad idea to bring something that releases gas in a pressurized cabin. Mom does not fly, but I do. The rest of me and my food made it safe, and in case you are dying to know, it had chicken curry with posto, jhinge posto, potol posto, uchche bhaja, lau er torkari, lichu, jamrul, ruti, half-a-dozen gondhoraaj lebu, and even the bhaja jeere moshla for the mango drink. All this because I have a crazy mom who gets powered up listening to stories of people carrying things like ghee made out of barir gorur doodh (unadulterated milk from a cow someone keeps in their home), kilos of maach bhaja, and dhoka’r dalna, and tries to outshine them!


Sunday, May 19, 2019

Thinking out of the dabba

The dabba (boxed lunch) is back in my life after more than two decades and brought many memories of school. For the last 12 years, I cooked my own breakfast and lunch and dinner every day. I ate cold lunch at my desk or microwaved food made the previous day. I continued the tradition here because I love cooking my meals and have major control issues with anyone taking over my house or kitchen.

And then, the knight in shining armor aka the dabba-waala showed up with his contact number and rang the doorbell. I still ignored him for a month. But the day I missed lunch because of deadlines and ended up chewing on raw bell peppers, I decided, enough is enough. I called the dabba-walla.

Sure enough, he was right on time with my lunch, freshly cooked and piping hot. Rice. Ruti. Dal. Curry. I had forgotten what it feels like to have a freshly cooked, piping hot meal delivered at work or home in a proper stainless steel dabba, sans cheap plastic. The food was heavenly. I had tears in my eyes.

Later that evening, when the dabba-waala came to pick up his box, he started gossiping in true Indian style. This must be his idea of bonding with the customers to make lifelong business connections. I didn't even ask him to sit, but he never took the cue. He stood in my office and gossiped away. I learned more about my colleagues through him than I would have cared to. I now know whose husband emigrated to Canada, what does the Dean like to eat every day, whose parents are visiting this summer, and where are so-and-so currently road-tripping. He tempered privacy in smoking hot oil and threw it out of the window.

No one who comes in contact with you in India will leave without telling you something about someone you did not need to know. Every time the driver picks me up from the airport, I learn which of my colleagues are currently traveling and what airline. This is so India! 

Lunch: 80 INR/$1.14

Gossip: FREE


Monday, May 06, 2019


I was recently invited to speak at Princeton University. The organizers there treated me really well. I have been invited at other places too, but Princeton clearly stands out as classy. They put me up at one of the best hotels, the food was excellent, and the invitation letter and all was once again, a class above the rest. But the icing on the cake was my mom's response to something they did. Yes, a mommy post again!

Princeton got me a chauffeur-driven limousine for the 50-mile, hour-long drive from the Newark Liberty International Airport to the university/hotel (I was planning to take the train/dinky). My jaws dropped open when I read the letter. I, for one, have never been in a limo before. Forget the limo, I am used to taking the public transport, and for a good part of my life, I have lived in hostels and crashed at people's living rooms to save money during travel. The world of upscale hotels is very new to me, but the limo ride was something I did not see coming.

I was very excited, and when I told my ma, she was excited too! I do not know how much she understands cars, but based on my response, she could sense that it is a big deal. Very sincerely, she said, "This is so exciting. Is a limo as comfortable as the Toyota Innova? Innova'r thekeo bhalo gaadi?"

It reminded me of my first year in the US. G drove a Honda Pilot then, so the Honda Pilot became my standard of excellence, "my" first car in the US. As our friendship grew, my emotional connection with the car grew too. A year or two later, I got onto a friend's SUV during a road trip to San Diego and sincerely told her husband, whom I was meeting for the first time, "Very nice car. Love the Honda Pilot!" To which, I got a very dirty look and a clipped response, "It is a Lexus!"

Oh, well!


Monday, April 29, 2019

Conversations with other women

This is a favorite movie of mine, but back to the post. My mother is in deep introspection. Our life-altering conversation went like this today:
Me: Why do you sound so serious? What were you doing?
Ma: I was introspecting!
(This will be interesting, I think to myself!)
Me: What were you introspecting about?
Ma: I was introspecting about you.
Me: What about me?
Ma: I was trying to understand if you are intelligent or "shorol" (not worldly-wise, a euphemism for boka or an idiot).
(This is getting really interesting now, I think to myself!)
Me: So what makes you think that I am intelligent?
Ma: Well, you are publishing papers, going places. So you must be doing something right in life.
Me: Fair enough. And what makes you think that I am boka?
Ma (very sheepishly): Well, many years ago, I bought an unripe watermelon by mistake that was all white instead of red inside. I did not want to throw it away, so your sister told you that white watermelons are really healthy and yummy and you ate all of it. 
Me: I think it says more about my sister and your lack of grocery skills than it says about me! Anyway, keep introspecting and let me know if you have an answer.

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 years 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!