Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Mr. Paypal

Most of the times these days, I pay the price of unemployment. And sometimes, I do not pay the price of unemployment. Call it a social faux pas from a friend who didn’t mean bad. Let us call him Mr. Paypal.

It so happened that I was meeting this long lost friend, Mr. Paypal, for dinner. Conversation flowed smoothly (though uninterestingly) in between chomping food. Once we were done, the waiter promptly produced the check (or bill, whatever you say). Impulsively, I reached into my purse for my credit card. To which my friend rather said in a pitch a few degrees louder,

“Don’t even think of paying. Aren’t you unemployed? You need to save".

The sudden outburst definitely had a few desi heads turn in our direction, and me shifting rather uncomfortably. My initial reaction was to protest, not just at the act of paying for my meal, but also at the unfairness that Mr. Paypal has to scream out something so personal so loudly at a public dinner place so very crowded (and the crowd being desi made it worse). I was still able to pay for my meal, I wanted to protest. I did not.

I am sure my concerned friend didn’t mean to insult me or hurt my feelings. But it is funny how sometimes we vocalize things we would rather say in the mind. Aren’t we taught to not call a poor person poor, or a blind person blind? It is considered rude and insensitive, making fun of people’s miseries. On one hand, I was hurt and mildly offended at the (unintended) social faux pas. On the other hand, I agreed that Mr. Paypal was probably showing concern and was vocalizing something that was so obvious- that I should not be spending when I am not earning. It was an uncomfortable, yet a funny situation for sure. Surely he could have been more polished in his approach. Surely he could have kept his voice low. Or surely he could have paid for me and told me in addition that it was a pleasure to pay for my meals (though this is far from the truth).

It’s interesting how sometimes we blurt out the truth without malice, not realizing it could be a major faux pas. Thanks Mr. Paypal for the meal anyway. I know you didn’t mean anything bad.


Monday, December 28, 2009

In Black and White

I met this friend of mine recently, telling her how bored I felt at times, to which she said,

“With the time you have these days, why don’t you write a book”?

I laughed it off as usual, thinking she was kidding. Writing a few blogs once in a while is fine, but a book? Later that night, I got thinking about it. What if I could really use my time writing a book? Would that work? What would I write about?

For years, I believed that I would grow up to be a writer of romantic fiction. I had grown up reading so many Mills n Boon (still do actually once in a while) that I knew the moment I held the pen, words would keep flowing. I thought I could write the same old stuff I read about a tall, well-built Italian dude falling in love with a plain Jane spinster material where sparks would fly and there would be undeniable chemistry. A few years ago, I grew out of the ambition of being a romantic fiction writer.

Coming back to the point, what would I write about if I wrote a book? I could write an autobiography, but then I don’t think I have lived half my life. So if I was planning to write something in the next few years, an autobiography would have to wait.

Instead, I could write about my childhood, since I have lived it all. Like the novel “First darling of the morning”.

I could write about the cultural divide between 2 different countries. Surely living in India and then the US will provide me enough substance. Like the “Namesake”.

I could write about all my travel experiences, given that I travel a lot. Like the novel “The ghost of Che” I have been trying to read for a while.

I could write about the field of public health I specialize in, and everything I have learnt till now. Like Robin Cook concocts fiction in the medical field, I am sure I could concoct something.

I could write a guide book to taking the GRE and the TOEFL.

I could write a stress management book to deal with unemployment and the visa hassles associated with it.

I could write about my teaching experiences from India.

I could write about the idiosyncrasy of the western world and the eastern world.

I could write about the struggles of everyday life, of learning how to cook and drive. Of learning strange accents and dealing with strange people.

Surely ideas are flowing in, now that I think about it.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Weekdays and Weekends

It’s been a week of not going to office now. I somehow realize that the transition between weekdays and weekends is something for the working class in the US. In India, there was not much difference between the two, barring the fact that I went to school and later college in the weekdays, studying, and in weekends, I did the same at home. I will not even claim that weekends offered the luxury of sleeping late, given that I had math tuitions early in the morning. The teacher, in a bid to earn extra money, had scheduled classes at pretty weird hours of the day. Weekends also meant having more time to have meals at home, but that’s the extent to it.

When I worked in India, weekends did mean spending more time at home, but over time, it turned out to be boring. How much can one watch TV and entertain relatives at home? I would eagerly look forward to the Monday mornings when I could go to work again.

Things somewhat changed in the US. As a grad student, weekdays meant classes and weekends meant finishing homework, assignments, and studying for exams. There would be fewer people in the lab and you could spend the entire day without having to see the sun.

My really fun weekends started once I started to work. One of the things about transitioning from student life to work life meant I did not have to bring work home for the weekends. So while back in India father still went to office on Saturdays, I went on to do my own things here. Parties, shopping, dance clubs, hiking, anything not remotely related to work happened during the weekends. Work life demands a certain pattern of your attention where you have to be available 8 hours a day for 5 days, doing whatever you are asked to do (in contrast to research life where you did your own thing). It was good in a way (less responsibility, less exercising the mind) but things often got difficult by Wednesdays. Monday morning I would somehow drag myself to office. Tuesdays acceptance had set in and I knew another 4 backbreaking work days were ahead. Wednesdays often meant middle of the week. People would put up status messages like “After Mondays and Tuesdays, even the week says WTF” (WTF stands for WTF and also the other 3 days of the week). Thursdays were spent chanting “one more day, yes I can do it, one more day”. Fridays breezed through because you knew the next 2 days were yours for whatever you wanted to do. The office would empty by 4-5pm (depending on summer or winter). People would put up fancy status messages on Facebook like “Can’t wait for the weekend”, “Thank God it’s Friday”, and so on.

I have never been busier on the weekends. This summer, I haven’t been home a single weekend. I was either traveling or learning to drive. Instead of feeling rested, I’d go to office Monday morning feeling more tired. Theoretically weekends were meant for sleeping late, but it never happened to me. Even during inclement weather, it was mostly partying and socializing. How I loved my weekends. Starting Sunday evening, depression and tiredness (aka Monday morning blues) would set in. The cycle went on for more than a year.

This week has been disorienting, given that every day is a weekend now. Since the weather is not at its best self, given the rain and cold, I have been mostly indoors. It happened so many times I lost track of the day or the date. Even today, I did not realize it is Friday. I can totally see how the contrast between weekdays and weekends has faded for me and everyday seems like the same to me. I did read books, watch movies, hang out with friends and shopped, but I somehow felt like a bored wife of a rich man, directionless (the worse thing being neither a husband nor richness was in the picture). I frankly don’t miss my job, but miss being employed and engaged. I do have important assignments to finish, packing, selling, finishing deadlines, sorting my life, but am not really rushed. How I empathize with people who have lost their jobs.

Come tomorrow, the weekend will be yet another 2 days for me, of the same color and flavor, with nothing extraordinarily nice to look forward to. I pray that this is just a phase, just a break for me before I venture out into something more meaningful. These are the times I wish I could look into the future.


Deeper (in) Thought

So this hypothetical person I was talking about yesterday popped up in my thoughts again during meditation. This time the trigger was a little more severe, and I was sure that unreciprocated signals do not take wings and fly to the people we want them to go to. We ourselves need to take a proactive step in order to untangle this web of emotions. I had this clear vision in my mind, and this surge of energy when I wanted to just go and do all the things I had procrastinated for days, months, and years. Unsaid things, unshared things, things that needed to be taken care of.

But then in parallel thoughts, I realized that the little problems and issues of our lives are lost in the broader frame of time or the broader perspective of the universe. In a universe where we are dealing with changes like planets changing shape and stars burning till they burn out, our wishes and desires are but as insignificant as a little molecule. In a timeframe measured in millions of years, our years of life (and the lesser years of happiness) are lost somewhere without trace. I realized how I had ignored the two things I was passionate about for years- astronomy and human physiology. There was a time when I read all I could about these two areas, not to get good marks or knowledge, but to be lost in the depth of these subjects.

So during the next few hours of meditation, my thoughts were again lost in issues of unsaid or unreciprocated feelings, astronomy, and the universe. I don’t quite realize how I kept flipping from one topic to the other. I guess meditation screws around a lot with your thought processes. But at the end of it, I was back to my question. Is it safer to not reveal feelings and opinions in the fear of rejection or a lack of reciprocation?


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Deep (in) Thought

Meditation gives you a surge of freedom of expression. It frees the mind of the barriers created by the mind itself.

During 2 hours of meditation this evening, this is all I thought about. Is it okay to reveal your feelings to someone not knowing if it will be reciprocated, or rather knowing it will not be reciprocated? One might argue that if signals have not come from both the sides, the feeling is perhaps not mutual, and it is wise to keep mum. Perhaps anything more than friendship would complicate things, and one would be putting friendship at stake. But then, it is not comforting to die not knowing if things could have been different, or if the feelings were mutual but latent. It is like running the risk of opening a box, not knowing the contents inside. The box might as well be empty, or maybe filled with all the goodness.

Of course one could come out of the emotional bondage and analyze things for what they are. One could go back chronologically and look for signals, any signal, even a slight one. Maybe the feelings were never mutual. Maybe the feelings were mutual, but well hidden. Maybe the feelings were not there initially, but needed a trigger, a sign, an indication to develop. Which brings us back to the original problem. One will never know until one asks.

And like a computer program (BASIC language I learnt in school), like a cascade mechanism, these thoughts wrapped themselves around my head again and again all the time I meditated.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

For the lack of a better word

I remember an incident from childhood when I was 9 or 10 years old. The big boss was supposed to visit us home. He was THE man in father’s office, some sort of the regional manager. I don’t see it these days, but inviting colleagues, especially the ones from the higher hierarchy was something people including my father practiced. While the home was spruced up and the best food was cooked, I was supposed to look neat, smile, and speak when asked to. Not that I particularly cared or looked forward to these meetings, but these “big bosses” were usually from one of the IIMs or XLRI, and it intrigued me to find out what did it take to become like one of these luminaries. On a different note, years later, I find that brand names like IIM, IIT, or MIT has kinda lost its charm for me.

I was always the one in my family known for my better English. The big boss turned out to be a big, obese man in a suit who sweated a lot. While father went in the kitchen to help mother with the food, I was asked to sit and chitchat with the big boss. Soon father summoned me inside and told me in Bengali to ask the big boss if he was feeling hot and wanted more breeze.

Now this has happened to be over the years. A thought goes in my head but when I am supposed to vocalize it, I just blank out. I seriously don’t know how to put the words together to make a coherent sentence. I looked at the big boss, clueless how to ask him in English if he need more breeze. I helplessly looked at the ceiling fan above me, hoping that he would get the clue. Words like “Fan, more or less, on or off, you want more air?” formed in my head, but I knew it was wrong English. Fan, more or less? You want air? I would have laughed (without malice) if someone had asked me that. The seconds seemed like hours and I wished someone would come to my rescue. The big boss got confused with my confused look. Helplessly, I pointed my finger towards the ceiling fan and arched my eyebrows twice. Sign language for the big boss? It was the funniest thing I have done.

Right at this moment, father entered the room and asked if the big boss was feeling hot and if the ceiling fan was helping. Inside, I wanted to shrink into a molecule and vanish. I wondered what the big boss made of a tiny girl pointing to the fan and arching her eyebrows.

And this has happened to be so many times. Just when I am expected to talk, I grope for the right word, desperately trying to come up with an alternative phrase that is still correct English. Last week I wanted to ask my friend when his girlfriend is graduating. Can you imagine I could not think of a simple word like “graduating”. After babbling for seconds, I ended up asking when she is passing out. The moment I said it, I realized how wrong it sounded. To which my friends replied grimly, “Passing out is fainting. Do you mean when she is graduating?”

My embarrassment knew no bounds.


Monday, December 14, 2009


Friday was my last day in office. The weekend was terrible. I was all lachrymose and low spirited. Even the rain and cold didn’t help much. Someone gossiped to another person that my unemployment related status updates on Facebook are mostly to get some unnecessary sympathy and I should get a hold on myself. Like it usually happens in these girly conversations where the speaker always tries to extract a promise of “Don’t tell her”, word reached me sooner than expected. I was livid. Here I was dealing with this shit, and here I was being subjected to some serious moral policing.

Friday night I drove home alright, turned off the lights, and went to bed. Not that I could sleep. After hours of crying and sobbing, a friend was nice enough to take me out for dinner. I came home and cried more.

The same continued Saturday and Sunday. I was tired, grumpy, hungry, and irritable. I snapped a few times at a friend and rightfully got back some dose from him. It was a wrong idea to watch a depressing movie [Jail] and I ended up crying more. I don’t think I ate more than one meal.

Come Monday, I feel disoriented. I woke up at 7 as usual. Only there was no hurry this time. It’s amazing on how many occasions I have cursed myself about waking up early, dreamt of long vacations when I would sit idle at home and not do anything. When it happened, I was far from my dreamland.

I think this is my first day of unemployment ever in life. I mean bachelors led to masters, masters led to my teaching job, which led to US. US masters led to another job. I remember graduating on a Friday and joining the very next Monday. Lack of time was always the problem, never excess of it.

So I have spent all day cleaning my house, scrubbing, dusting, and moping. I realize there is no need to do that. But I need to keep my mind occupied, else I’d go crazy. Too many times the last few days I have been tempted to get my tickets for Florida. But traveling alone I realize is not my forte. I admire my friend who is just back from her 6 week long trip from India and Europe, all on her own. My childhood programming comes in my way of seeking bliss from traveling alone. “Eka eka jaabe na, bipod e pore jaabe” [Don’t venture out alone, you will be in trouble]. So said everyone I have ever known in my life.

I need to do something more meaningful. Try finding more jobs. Apply to more schools. Maybe get into a routine, develop a hobby, participate in an event. It’s insane to sit at home all day, staring at the grayness outside. I am not thinking straight enough to figure out what I should be doing to sort this state of inner chaos. But something has to be done soon.


Thursday, December 10, 2009


Tomorrow is my last day in office. I am on vacation till the end of December. After that, I go back to India.

Surely I didn’t plan it this way. I wished my job would extend a little longer. But 4 months of uncertainty was long enough. And I don’t have a legal and valid visa without a job. Hence, I am left with no other option but move back.

Years ago when I was having difficulty in adjusting to life in the US, I had told a friend that the dream of succeeding in the US is like a baby. I don’t know if my baby will live. I don’t know how long my dream will live. That was 3 years ago.

Sure it lived a while, long enough for me to complete my masters and work for a year. But the dream had to die.

Right now the impact of what is going to happen hasn’t hit me. Very mechanically, I am wrapping up my work in office, planning to sell of stuff, and looking at deals for India. But realization is going to hit soon. I might get into school again and come back. But that is all in the future, and the future frankly looks quite uncertain. Right now the only thing I know is that I am going to be very busy the next few weeks wrapping up my life here.
A chapter in my life will soon end.


Test of Patience

I would never know the reason why admissions committee across the US decided that a masters degree from a US institution doesn’t exempt one from taking the TOEFL. One needs to have a bachelors degree as well as a masters degree from a US institution to be exempted from the TOEFL. What this means is that 21 years of my study in English, including the 2 years of masters in the US was not enough to convince people that I am well versed in English. The TOEFL scores expire every 2 years. Thus I was supposed to take the exam again.

My own alma mater told me they would reject my application unless a new TOEFL score was presented. This was when they had a copy of my almost perfect TOEFL score from 2005.

It was not so much the difficulty of the exam as it was the hassle of taking it again.

First, I was surprised to find that they had increased the fee to $170. Now that is a LOT of money to prove that you can understand English. Second, I didn’t find a single available date in my city for the next 4 months. This meant I had to drive to the nearest city that had an earlier date. The earlier date again turned out to be a 2 month wait. And the nearest city I could take it was in the neighboring state of Oregon, almost 200 miles or a 3 hour drive away. And the only time slot available was 7:30 in the morning.

You get the picture, right?

It wasn’t a test of my English. It was a test of my patience.

The pattern of the test was quite different from what I remembered the last time. First, there were now four sections instead of 3 – comprehension, listening, speaking, and writing. Second, the test seemed lengthier than it used to be. They gave me 5 passages in the comprehension alone, with 14 questions each. That sums up to 70 questions. The listening section had 3 passages with 17 questions each. That was 51 questions already. The speaking test was a new addition and had 6 passages. The writing section had 2 tasks, compared to the last time when there was 1. Difficulty-wise I don’t know, but more than that, it was an exhausting, five hour long exam. It started at 7:30 am and dragged until after noon.

And then they gave me two choices. Do you want to accept your score? Do you want to reject your score?
With a thudding heart, I clicked on the ACCEPT button.

Are you sure? It next asked me.

YES YES YES … I wanted to scream. I clicked on the YES button again.

Congratulations. You have successfully completed the test. Scores will be sent in 3 weeks.
What the …….

This isn’t a test of my English. This is a test of my patience.