Friday, April 30, 2010

Old School Thoughts

While summarizing my entire trip to Kolkata, this is one moment that takes the cake. This morning, I visited my old school, my first job ever months after I had finished my masters. Readers who have followed my blogs during 2005-2006 know how much the school meant to me. I would regale tales of interesting (and sometimes not so interesting) episodes of what happened at school, with my colleagues, the kids, and even their parents.

After almost four years, I visited my old school. Even as I got off the metro and started to walk the 10 minutes stretch towards the building, I could feel reliving my old life again, when I used to walk that stretch at 7am everyday. Donning a saree or a traditional salwar suit, dupatta in place and all, I would be ready by 6am every morning, 5 days a week, happily taking the metro. Not a single day had felt monotonous or filled with drudgery. I used to be a mass of high energy, smiling and running about with the attendance register at 7:30 am sharp. At 24, I was the second youngest teacher in my school.

I left that life I so very loved for two reasons. First, it paid me peanuts, and unless I was contemplating marrying a banker or a software engineer minting money in Kolkata, I had no chances of doing well financially. Secondly, I had already set my mind (and heart) on getting a taste of America ever since I had entered the masters program and realized I wouldn’t be doing anything worthwhile if I continued to live in Kolkata. The job was a fortuitous accident.

Back to the present, it was an amazing experience to visit school again. I didn’t really get to meet the students I taught because they are all (thankfully) out of school now. But being a small school, I remember the face of every kid from junior classes I did not teach. My shock came when I saw the same faces on much taller bodies now. The kids I last saw in classes 4 or 5 are now preparing for boards, and have doubled in height. Some of them recognized me and smiled shyly, but I had come at a wrong time when the kids were getting ready to go home. I am surely going to be back in school again to meet them all.

The teachers were as shocked seeing me as I was seeing the kids, this time due to breadth issues and not height issues. Thanks to the way people socially conduct themselves in India, no one made a secret of their shock in seeing me look much “broad” than what I used to be. One of the teachers actually told me what the kids had told them 4 years ago, that they liked me because I was not old and not fat. I could laugh out loud at their innocence, knowing well that probably every teacher they have had was old, stern looking, obese, and taught them in an extremely boring slash soporific way or gave them lots of homework.

I received a grand reception from the teachers and my principal. I sat there for hours in the staff room, chatting about old times. Even the new teachers knew my name, so much they had heard of me. They told me about school, asked me how my life was, and even told me that I had not changed a bit (except for my breadth of course). I was made to sit in the same chair I used to, and it felt like going back in time and living all those moments you had spent teaching, correcting, laughing, arguing, and enjoying. I remember how I used to call G almost every day then, animatedly regaling everything that had happened in school that day. G was in B-school then and am sure barely understood my reason for excitement at how a kid had cleaned his hand using my dupatta or had discovered some weird law of multiplication to get an answer that matched the answer at the back of the math book. Later in life, I have worked as a toxicologist, at a much higher pay scale, attending conferences and preparing scientific reports (though the term sounds more fancy that it actually is). But my teaching job still remains (and shall always remain) my favorite.

So I decided to go back to school to teach, and to volunteer helping the teachers with the exams before the school closed for summer vacation. Of course this would mean waking up early and reaching school by 7:30 am everyday. But I have decided, much to the disappointment of my mother who feels I should relax at home and enjoy my vacations, that I am going to spend my time doing something I really love to do, even if it is just for a few weeks and doesn’t pay me anything. My incentive doesn’t lie in earning a few thousand rupees here. It lies in doing something I really love to do, and to get back to the routine of a regular job.

I’ll always love being a teacher. I know this for sure, given the way I felt living through every happy emotion once again in those few hours I visited school. So this blog will hopefully see a few interesting posts on how the children behave themselves in class and during the exams next. I am all smiles.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Things you notice when you visit India: Part 2

The list is endless, but I will try to list a few every now and then.

Old doesn’t seem gold anymore. Your old clothes that mommy had so nicely preserved for you, neatly washed and starched, fit you no more. There are dozens of expensive clothes you wore years ago and could not take along with you to the US due to weight restrictions that just refuse to contain you with all your substance. Your ex-wardrobe (as I call it) that you took so much pride in becomes a living mockery for you. Those colorful bandhni print clothes you wore, those skimpy tops you hid in between decent Indian clothes and wore them only after dad left for office, those hip hugging skirts that accentuated your curves have a lot more to hug these days. You try to hold on to the clothes (in vain) resolving that someday you’ll make yourself fit into them. But soon you realize that’s not happening and you have only eaten more and put on more weight out of frustration. Imagine how depressing it was donating an entire wardrobe of carefully chosen and loved clothes to others just because you don’t fit into them anymore.

The other self-mocking situation arises when you see your old pictures around you. Your mother, out of love or whatever she felt while she missed you, has hung dozens of your pics on the walls, by the bed frames, and in every conceivable corner of the house. The family albums are full of your pictures. You sift through them and realize you no longer look the same you once used to. Yes those were the days when you had less money and almost zilch sense of style or makeup, but you were thin and young and vivacious and had more voluminous hair crowning your head. You looked happy and zealous, full of energy and vitality. The hairline has receded since, the waistline has exceeded, and other lines have appeared on your face. You realize with shock that you have grown older and out of shape. I don’t say this happens to everyone, but this has been my story so far. I look at all the old pics with fondness and nostalgia, even the ones less than 5 years old when I was still in college, and realize how much I have changed for the worse. Of course the realization hits you harder when you bump into old pals while walking on the streets. They would surely make it a point to remind you, though not in as many words, how old and fat and unkempt and haggard you look since they last saw you.

Ever since I’ve been back to Kolkata, I’ve started to realize all the more how I have changed more than things have changed around me. I never thought dealing with the notion of getting older would be so hard when you visit home after so many years.

To be continued …


Tox Talks

Many (used to) ask me what I do for a living. I used to be a toxicologist by education and training before I decided to experiment a little and join grad school. Now being a toxicologist is not an easy job. First, you need to deal with a deep and profound understanding of the nature of cells and toxins and the way either interact to cause cellular injury. Then you have to deal with the knowledge that most people around you are not going to understand beans about what you do for a living.

Not that I am offended or am hurt, but it is interesting to observe consistent behavioral patterns amongst people who are told I am a toxicologist.

A tox what?


Understandable, given that we mostly hear of doctors who operate, computer engineers who code (yes that’s as much I understand of comp engineers as they understand of my field), architects who design and build, and so on. Managers. Singers. Interior designers. Journalists. Those are the words we have grown up hearing.

But definitely not a toxicologist.

The situation is different when I am hanging out with my colleagues and professors and professional peers. I am the one then, groping to understand the stuff they do, the big words they throw at me.

I’ve of course had hilarious responses from people.

So do you examine snake venom?

So is global warming going to destroy the world?

So do you design toxins?


I enjoy the responses and the blank looks I get most of the time. No matter how mundane a job I do for a living, I can always make the word look fancy and give a bunch of ideas that makes people think I do something cool.

Forensic science? Criminal investigation? An Erin Brockovich in the making?

Anyway, I am glad that I do something that isn’t understood by many. That way, the toxicologist can finally talk.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Things you notice when you visit India: Part 1

The list is endless, but I will try to list a few every now and then.

The feeling of “weightlessness” flies the moment you land. Meaning? Everyone thinks you are fat. A walking blob of adipose tissue made in the US. People might have seen your pictures and have had a visual update of how you transformed every year, but nothing prepares them for the first time they look at you in person, painstakingly dragging huge suitcases et al at the airport. You have just survived a 40 hour flying experience half way across the world amidst erupting volcanoes and are glad you made it in one piece. You are tired, jet lagged, bloated, and haggard from 2 days of sitting upright in an aircraft, in between cranky children and snoring desis, dealing with real issues like jetlag, flying sickness, and separation anxiety with the boy friend you have left behind, but the moment you land, the world looks at you in a mixture of awe, utter shock and mockery as if they would be gazing at an animal in the zoo. Worse, people don’t hesitate to call you fat outright on your face. You know it is the result of years of living an American life, McDonald’s and fast food chains and a comfortable, physically less demanding existence and all, but you are not quite prepared to hear it from random people at that rate. Your neighbor calls you fat while chomping on those Hershey’s chocolates you offer her. The milkman gives you a quizzical glance of recognition, yet fails to recognize you. For me, my mother failed to recognize me though I was standing right in front of her. Later she blamed it on the excitement of meeting me after years. How do you excitedly wait to meet your daughter after years, look at her and look elsewhere? Beats me. Relatives and neighbors invite you home and treat you to generous amounts of sweets and savories, lunches and dinners, appetizers, main courses, and 3 rounds of desserts et al, amidst threats of killing you if you didn't eat well and eat them all, and then call you fat. They stare shamelessly at the tummy tires you have acquired, so the dreams of wearing those body hugging clothes you bought from Macy’s can be safely shoved till you reach the Macy’s land again. The more polished people euphemize it by fancy words like “Looks like you are doing well in life”, “You are glowing and look mature”, and “You don’t look like that broom stick anymore” while the more direct ones call you “fatso”, “fatty”, and “chubby” outright.

To be continued …


Friday, April 23, 2010

What taxation

W2, or the tax form is one document that gets shoved in between the grocery lists till it is the 11th hour. Come April 15th and everyone’s Facebook wall is filled with updates about how much they hate doing taxes. Frankly, filing for taxes is worse than doing laundry, a task so unchallenging that you postpone it till you run out of underwear and are compelled to wear mismatched socks. In one out of my four years of tax filing, I have actually missed the deadline. It is something that keeps sitting like a log in your work schedule and you never want to get started.

However, things get somewhat rosy once you are done with your taxes. As a student, you pay a meager amount as taxes and get most of it as returns. The same continues once you graduate from school but are still on OPT. Last year I actually made a trip to Hawaii after getting my tax returns. This year I was hoping for something similar, wondering whether to go to the Bahamas or to the Virgin Islands when I get tax returns. Things changed and I had to come back to India, which also meant I needed to finish my taxes a month before the deadline. It took me 2 days to find my W2 hidden in the hinterlands of somewhere and then another 2 days to figure out what I am supposed to do. I was still hoping I would make a small fortune from the tax return money and fund myself a trip to Europe when I realized with a broken heart that not just do I not get any refunds, but I owe the IRS some $ 1,000.

Don’t even ask me about the rationale behind it. It seems part of the fiscal year was spent with me being on my student visa and other part on a work permit, and there was some sorry story about how not enough was deducted while I was earning. Not that I was too interested in listening to the reasoning, given that I was left without a job, without any earning, without a husband to fall back on, without any self-esteem, and without a trip to Europe or the Virgin Islands. IRS could take all my money, all the social security taxes I paid and got no benefits in return, my savings, my ancestral property, and more if needed, and kiss my big you-know-what !!! No prizes for guessing, I was livid.

If only I could claim the sexy bartender I met at Hawaii as a dependent. If only I could claim buying a new car or a new house. If only I was dating an IRS guy. If only I had carefully saved those receipts of furniture donated to Goodwill. If only there were tax-deductible lay-off packages. If only I was retiring. Or getting myself a brand new husband. Or a job. The possibilities of saving on taxes seem endless now. If only ….


Monday, April 19, 2010

“Rab”bing it in

Note: The reader is responsible for his/her own pinch of salt (s)he will be taking this with. The stuff you read is solely my opinion and it doesn't really matter whether you agree or disagree.

In a world where truths like mate hunting, grooming, courtship, and exist, not necessarily in that order, the alternative school of belief that preaches that God takes care of your soul mate hunt is somewhat worth debating. Of course reverting to anything remotely related to God for things gone wrong in life is instinctive and age old. But I find it amusing that God challenges the evolutionary school of thought and thereby mocks the concept that man must find his own mate, and in the process, learn the basic skills of grooming, hunting, and courting.

It’s a relief for many I’m sure, especially those belonging to the frustrating, unmet and un”mated” life. A very starry eyed teenager preparing for my boards, I’d sighed in relief when Madhuri Dixit in Dil To Pagal Hai (DTPH) had beamed with confidence upon SRK’s question of how to identify if the person you just met was the one, pointing Heavenword, “Woh tumhe batayega” (God will tell you). I had happily gone back to my chemistry books, a heavily bespectacled and pimple faced high school aspirant, believing in Madhuri’s theory combined with ma’s theory that a good student always finds the right husband. And that too- on time.

Over and over again, Bollywood has tried resurrecting the belief that God is going to take care of something as important, and also as painstaking, frustrating and time taking as finding a mate. 5 years before DTPH, Kajol, in a similarly starry eyed role in DDLJ, had reverted to finding the “anjana chehra” and “jise maine dekha nahi” (The unknown face of the lover she had never seen). The force of God, and equally powerful being the force of the invisible and unknown, had surely made every teenager believe that the man of your dreams was the unseen, unknown stranger who’d knock your doorbell one fine morning, and was of course Godsent.

A decade after DTPH, Rab ne banaa di jodi (RNBDJ) once again tries to infuse similar beliefs in the name of God. Matches are made in Heaven, and are sent to us on planet earth in the most unlikely and untimely way. How else would you explain the wedding of the two protagonist right after the lady lost her fiancé and her father in a matter of days? Because God had made the match long ago in Heaven, and by some quirk of fate, had sent your mate on planet earth and had conspired a co-ordinate crossing in the most unusual circumstances.

I can think of many other movies that preached the concept of God match making and sending us out mates in a weird array of coincidental events. This was meant to be a relief for not just the ones who hadn’t found their mates (God will take care of it), but the ones with mismatched mates. The day you realized you’d married a buffoon for a husband, you could conveniently blame it all on fate and God, that it was God who decided the match, and the only thing important was, not money, not status, not the make of the car he drove, not the team he worked for in Microsoft, but the fact that “Woh tumhe deewanon ki tarah chahega” (He will love you insanely) (Courtesy: RNBDJ). Frankly, I once bought into this theory of God taking care of my single status and sending me the right man at the right time. Probably my stupidity explains the reason why I am still single, and highly run the risk of dying a spinster.


Sunday, April 18, 2010

Two lives

Yesterday while coming back from my cousin’s place near the airport, we saw a small congregation of people in the middle of the street. Craning my neck to get a better view, I saw a young man, wearing a white shirt and dark trousers, lying unconscious in the middle of the road. A mob of people had gathered around him. I wondered who was it driving who had hit the man, left him on the streets and had taken off. My cousin remarked about the sorry state of things, where the mob, if sufficiently angered and provoked, would target the nearby vehicle and set fire on it. Needlessly to say, my cousin didn’t risk stopping, or offering the person to be taken to the nearby hospital. There was no point in risking our safety, and the police and the ambulance would take care of things.

A few miles down that accident spot, we took a turn into a narrow bylane. There was barely any room for 2 cars to squish in, and there was a cab in the opposite direction. That cab tried swerving a little to the left, and in the process, injured a sleeping dog. The dog wailed and cried and ran away from the spot, limping. It would probably not die, but would live with a nice foot injury for the rest of its life. I tried taking a better look at the cab driver, and all I saw was a very emotionless expression on his face as he sped past.

As a bystander of both the incidents, I was slightly shaken, and left wondering about many a things. First, I did not get off the car in either situation and tried helping the victims. I just quietly left the spot. And then, I was appalled at the way someone had injured the man and an animal and had left the spot without any remorse. The injured man must have been on his way to somewhere or from somewhere. The dog must have been dreaming, in the middle of slumber.

I do not want to deviate the topic to how if this was the US, someone would have dialed 911 and help would be on its way. Moreover no dogs or cats or animals would be lying unattended on the streets. I am thinking things strictly from the humanitarian perspective. Why was someone careless enough to injure a man? Why was the man on the streets in the very first place? Why did I not ask my cousin to stop and offer help? How is the man doing today? Why did the cab driver choose not to see the dog? Is the dog still in pain? And most importantly, how do I know that tomorrow, either I or someone close to me will not face the fate either of them faced, being injured and unattended on the streets by someone careless?

I shudder, even thinking of the consequences. May the man and the dog, both be out of pain and get well soon. Provided they are not already dead.


Thursday, April 15, 2010

United States?

Boredom from resting at home and jetlag caused me to sift through the collection of books and pick up the first one that caught my eyes. “2 States by Chetan Bhagat”- I was pretty surprised to find that one, wondering who read CB in my family (except me of course). Perhaps someone in the family had borrowed it from someone. The last one I read (One night at the call center) was a disaster. Anyway, here are my thoughts after reading the book. I am not starting the usual review with an introduction to the plot because am sure most of you have read it, and those who haven’t aren’t missing much.

1. How much of literary writing CB does is debatable, but the guy sure knows his Unique Selling Points. Concoct any love story, throw in lots of IIT and IIM words in it, add some more of racial divide, specifically the North India – South India divide, put in a struggling love story and people are bound by curiosity to pick up a copy. Spend the first few chapters mocking Tamilians till they are fuming, and then write the next part of the book mocking the Punjabis. Each effect nullifies the other. Eventually it will end in peace and harmony. Everyone will realize their racial narrow-mindedness and bigotry. And they will live and reproduce happily ever after.

2. I think the non-IIT/IIM people read CB to get a perspective of the life at an IIT/IIM, and the IIT/IIM people read CB to see if what he writes about these institutes make sense. Nevertheless, there was too much of unnecessary IIM references in the book. Okay, they went to the best B-school, we get the point. So?

3. Krish Malhotra’s father’s character wasn’t a very believable one.

4. His books are totally Ekta Kapoor and Bollywood material. Throw in some soft porn and it’s perfect material for a Mills n Boon novel. I wonder which Bollywood director is going to make a movie out of this next.

5. Very clichéd story and clichéd writing. I might as well have read the first line in every page and known what was coming.

6. Makes a superb light and fast read, have to give you that. Very simple writing, and although I didn’t feel as ecstatic as I’d feel after reading Jhumpa Lahiri, I did find many lines hilarious. “You definitely have to get noticed, you don't have to do the work. That's how corporate works, everyone knows it”. "Pretty girls behave best when you ignore them. Of course, they have to know you are ignoring them, for otherwise they may not even know you exist."

7. Extremely predictable characters straight out of a Karan Johar movie. Even the names (Krish Malhotra) are very KJo-ish.

8. I wonder what his next book would be about, after dealing with issues of college, job, and marriage. Maybe something on the lines of how to raise kids on B-school principles? A story about start-ups? Maybe a love story taking life from a grad school in the US? A book on joint families and arranged marriages? Any idea?

Overall I will not highly recommend the book, though I will not claim it is a wasted effort either. I can see a certain group of readers who would be attracted to it – the one’s going through the travails of inter-caste marriage, especially if it is a North-South divide, and of course aspiring IITians and IIMites.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Mapping needs

Of all the wonderful products Google has given us, I have suggestions that I am sure travel enthusiasts and ardent lovers of driving must have thought of before. Google maps should have a “cross country road trip planner” application in the US (or in any country for that matter). In simple words, it means once you input your start destination and your final destination, Gmaps plans your trip for you in its entirety.

Of course, you need to input a little more information and specify a few parameters. You can start with is letting Gmaps know how long (the number of hours) you are comfortable driving every day. Let’s say you want to drive cross country from west to east, starting from Seattle and ending in New York city (NYC). Gmaps shows the shortest route to be around 2,900 miles that takes a total travel time of 1 day 22 hours.

Driving the shortest possible distance, it would still take someone 6 days to reach NYC, assuming 8 hours of driving every day. But in reality, it is going to take longer (if you are a single driver). When you drive along the states of Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, you might as well know what the places of tourist interest and the scenic routes are. So if you allow a detour of let’s say 50 miles radius, it can make minor deviations and suggest a new route that will take you through more scenic roads, hills and mountains, or places of tourist interest as per your specification.

If you are driving 8-10 hours a day, you might as well get some good sleep. When you input your daily budget for food and living and the kind of food you prefer, the application will point you to places of eating and stay as per your budget. The route also needs to be accessible to rest areas and grocery stores (for a quick snack) instead of hundreds of miles of driving through corn fields and uninhabited areas.

Finally, it should give you an option where you can input the locations of your friends you would like to visit during the drive. Gmaps would be able to reroute in a way that will maximize your visiting friends living in different states.

Gmaps should be able to do all this during the planning phase of the trip so that once you are out there on the road, it has figured it all – where will you eat and drink, who will you visit, where will you crash, how long will you drive, what will you be visiting, etc.

Input parameters à Start destination

Final destination

Daily budget for food and living

Number of hours of driving per day

Drive through scenic routes/places of tourist interest (up to XX mile deviation)

Maximum grocery stores, rest areas, and gas stations

Location of friends

Output parameters à Start and end destination for every day

Where to eat

Where to stay

Who to visit

How long to drive


NB: This post is not exclusively targeted towards Google, and is not an endorsement of Google. It could be any XYZ company or even a GPS doing this. It made more sense for me to take Google as an example because that is what I use to plan my trips.

Monday, April 12, 2010

You are not one of us anymore

My attempt at fictionalizing facts:­

She waited for what seemed like a lifetime of boredom, tossing and turning, flipping websites, waiting forever for someone to show up online and say a hi. She squinted at the clock ticking dutifully at the green painted­ walls. It was already 3 hours past midnight, and given the quiet and peace, she knew everyone else in the house was peacefully ensconced in sleep. Yet sleep had eluded her, mainly because her jetlagged system was ticking in a different time zone altogether, and because deep down, she missed the life she had for the last 4 years.

When she was about to leave for Seattle 4 years ago, she was told by the so called well wishers who despite never having traveled or lived abroad had an opinion about everything “foreign”, that she will not be treated equally and will always be differentiated. Racism. Color segregation. Gender differentiation. Brown skin and all that shit. Things had been surprisingly different, with not many “racial glitches” but for one incident of misunderstanding while buying a car, when the owner had remarked, “It might happen in your India, but it doesn’t work this way here”. She had smoothly blended in with the people there, celebrating Thanksgiving and Halloween with as much enthusiasm as celebrating Diwali and Holi.

She was back after 4 years, to spend a few months with family. When you go home every year, you are excited. When you go home after four years, you are anxious and overwhelmed at the prospect of anticipating changes, still living in an old time capsule and not really knowing how much change to expect. Her first minor verbal friction happened an hour into landing in Kolkata and entering home when she looked around, taking in all the changes that seemed immediately evident.

Tomader ekhane microwave aache?, she smiled, noticing there was now a microwave in the house that wasn’t there before.

Tomader ekhane na, amader ekhane, she was curtly corrected, it’s not “your house” but “our house”. The differentiation seemed unnoticeable and subtle at first, and having lived on her own for so many years, it seemed natural to think she was visiting her parents’ home and not her home.

That incident was a preview of many more that were to come in the next few weeks, through parents, relatives, and even close friends. She was meeting him for the first time and was jumping in excitement. He had promised to take her some place new, and when they entered the huge upscale mall in the hinterlands of South Kolkata, she could only crane her neck, staring wide-eyed at the jaw dropping wonder that Kolkata had become. The Kolkata she remembered was very different from what she was seeing now, branded shops, the glitterati, money flowing like a free commodity, like it had never before. She looked back at him, only to see his disapproving glance at her expression.

“What were you expecting Kolkata to be? Some village? We are doing equally well as you are, even better”.

It took her a while to register who these “we” and “you” were. She tried to reason, saying she was not thinking on those terms and was just excited to see something so grandiose. But it became an uphill task convincing people she meant no insult to the ipods and imax, Gucci and GAPs that India had become. There were soon flurries of jibes and sarcasm oozing from every conceivable direction.

What is there to fasten the seatbelt every time you get into the car? No cop will give you a ticket.

Nyakamo korar jaiga paoni? Don’t you know people don’t get a ticket here for parking illegally in the middle of the road? It seemed the American has forgotten the ways of India.

We enunciate it as root and not route. You are so American these days.

Why did you say “check” and not “bill”? The waiter looked shocked.

Girl, switch to Hindi. I don’t follow your accented English anymore [Be assured dear readers that her English by Indian standards is still very understandable and un-accented]

Why do you want to do a PhD in Curriculum Design? Do a PhD in something real. You Americans just pick up any random thing to do a PhD in.

Oh, you cannot handle the spice in food anymore? And where are the mineral water bottles? Tucked safely in your bag? [This was when she was flooding tears after biting into several potent chillies hidden in the food]

You must be finding everything so ethnic here.

Why do you take a cab for everything? The buses here are great.

You will be such a misfit if you ever came back for good.

Since when do you wait for traffic signals to cross the road? This is Park Street, not Times Square.

Jibes and seemingly well meaning/good natured sarcasm came in oodles from everyone. It seemed every expression she had, every thought she harbored went through a stern scanning system. Everywhere she didn’t fit in, the gist of the conversation was, “3 years of staying there undid everything you learnt for 25 years?”

Feeling extremely guilty and utterly self-conscious for not being able to do even small things like crossing the road without running the risk of being squished by a bus, she asked her architect friend why things were happening the way they were? She seemed compassionate and a patient listener. Her white American friend was visiting India for the first time and was having a ball, with all the street side food, the shopping and haggling, and other things that made life so vibrant here.

“The first time of visiting India is always the hardest. Your brain cannot match the image of things you have been familiar with since childhood, and then you start feeling guilty for not being able to blend in, even do simple things like handle currency, cross the road, or negotiate. The good news is it gets better with time, and your brain learns to flip between the two worlds like a switch so that when you are in India, you act accordingly and when outside, you act accordingly”

The whole involvement of the brain and the learning process did make things sound better. She was relieved to be told that it was but natural to feel disoriented and she was not suffering from a mental condition.

She still woke up in time for her Seattle friends to get home from work so that she could steal snippets of conversations with them. She still looked up the Seattle weather forecast, and read the online news for Seattle more out of habbit than anything else. Her friend was performing in a play she performed in the last 2 years, and was eagerly waiting for facebook updates on how things went. Her laptop still showed 3pm local time though it was 3:30am the next day actually. She felt conscious every time she felt unbearably hot because people remarked how much her physiology had adapted to the cold weather, which was bullshit because the same people would sweat, stink, and swore at the unbearable heat.

She tried to hold on to Seattle in small ways. The facebook updates from her Seattle friends made her feel connected to her world. Unable to sleep, she dabbed a generous amount of the Bath & Body works lotion she got from there and sniffed deep. The smell reminded her of Seattle, and of the numerous things she did there. She missed the little things she had left behind- the feel of the wheel of her car when she drove, the voices of people she heard every time she switched on the National Public Radio when she drove, the sights of the all too familiar roads and exit signs. She thought of the numerous occasions when she had tried to blend in back at home, when she refused to wear anything but Indian clothes so that the relatives didn’t think she was too western [to which a friend said, you are so western, you would only wear Indian clothes to show off], when she littered the street instead of putting the remains of her food in a trash bag and disposed it off later just because people had glared at her the two times she had done it previously, and had stopped asking stupid questions like why don’t people get a ticket when they park their vehicles here and there on the streets. She had even started to sit huddled to her co-passengers in crowded metros, not quite reveling in the smell of sweat and the feel of bare arms touching instead of deciding to stand at a distance and travel. Acceptance is what she trained herself in, though she wished people would not subject her to harsh scrutiny every time she spoke or did things in a certain way. And with this, she had a strange realization.

She imagined she was standing in a crowded street in Kolkata, trying to blend in with the people around her. These were the same people who had warned her against foreigners discriminating and differentiating in the US. The same people turned to her and told her- you are not one of us anymore. In more ironic ways than one, her own people were rejecting her. Most of you might think she was imagining things and making up stuff in her mind. But if you have been through chasms and temporal cultural divides, you will know what she meant.


Friday, April 02, 2010

Half way across the world

Some things take their own time to come to you and when they happen, they do in a jiffy. My trip to India got postponed due to various reasons for three and a half years and when things finally worked out, it happened in a week. In seven days, I had mentally prepped myself that I was finally visiting India, got myself tickets, made enough rounds of Target, Ikea, and Walmart to buy goodies worth the airline baggage weight limit, packed them in the two huge suitcases dad had dowried while marrying me off to America, sorted through my wardrobe to discard all the cleavage, ass, or leg accentuating clothes that would not pass the family censor board, and packed myself some decent and boring clothes to bring back.

Thankfully my ex-company paid for my return ticket, so I didn’t care about the airline or the route. I left my car and valuables behind because with half a dozen PhD admits from various schools, I hope to come back to the US soon enough. I had personally asked the travel agents to get me window seats so that I could spend my time admiring the topography of half the world while there was enough sunlight. My first leg of the journey started with the five and a half hour long Seattle-New York flight at 6 in the morning. Reaching the airport just a little after 3am, I was dutifully whisked away from airline to airline only to be informed that the flight was operated by a different airline and was overbooked, hence I wasn’t assigned a seat and would have to wait to see if there was a seat available before I could board the flight. I gritted my teeth, mentally preparing myself for the obvious discomforts and hassles that were to come my way in the next 30 hours until I reached Kolkata.

Fortunately enough, I was able to board the flight, only to get a middle seat flanked in between two old women, one Russian whose animated talks I understood nothing of. I was so tired after days of adrenaline and lack of sleep that I fell asleep even before the flight took off. In 6 hours, I landed at the JFK airport in New York, only to observe the stark difference between the east coast and the west coast of US in terms of topography, people, structure of buildings, and the overall look. New York sometimes looks and feels like a mini-India to me.

After 30 minutes of walking and terminal hopping, I found my Air India terminal where I was to secure my boarding pass. While I waited for the formalities, I craned my neck to look at the people about to be my fellow passengers for the next 16 hours of my flight from New York to New Delhi. Mostly Punjabi uncles, patiala style salwar kameez clad aunties, and their children wearing GAP and Aeropostale 1987 sweatshirts whose faces showed the same “I-don’t-want-to-go” expression that must have been reflected on my face. In addition they carried very desi style samaan (luggage), consisting of not just suitcases but big cartons, bigger stuff that looked like dead bodies wrapped in sack, and hard covered suitcases they must have bought 50 years ago when they immigrated to the US. I was dead sure I was not getting a window seat as usual, and would be spending 16 hours of flight from JFK to New Delhi sandwiched between people.

I got an aisle seat. Good news for my bladder that wouldn’t cry out in pain as I made my way to the loo through snoring co-passengers. I boarded the flight to be greeted by saree clad air hostesses and the background music of “pal pal dil ke pass tum rehte ho”. The interior of the flight already seemed like miniature India. I had a seat at the rear end of the aircraft, and by the time I reached my seat, I had heard at least 5 different languages I recognized being spoken on the phone, all meaning similar things like I have boarded the flight- Bengali, Punjabi, Oriya, Tamil, Hindi. Bad news, I was placed next to a woman and her baby boy who was already shrieking. What is it about desi babies, their unbearable crying skills and the indifferent parents who barely flap an eyelid or take measures to ameliorate the chaos desi babies cause? Was this what my music entertainment system would be like for the next 16 hours, I thought as I scanned for a pair of ear phones. 20 minutes down the line, the lady and the baby thankfully moved across the aisle to sit with the husband, and the seats were replaced by 2 innocent looking sardarjis- safe, less noisy, low maintenance. In the next half an hour, my flight had taken off the American soil, and I bid a silent bye bye to America and dozed off.

The next few hours seemed excruciatingly long and the few things I remember are my neighbor sardarji offering me his share of gajar ka halwa since he didn’t like it, the baby by that aisle howling and pulling all possible stunts while his mom showed slow but clear signs of disengagement, looking indifferent to the noise pollution the baby caused in the aircraft as she ate, slept, talked to hubby, or read. I was dying to crane my neck out of the window and look at the landscape below, but takeoff was followed by lunch, followed by everyone pulling down the window blinds and napping and snoring. Trapped between snoring passengers and shrieking babies, I stared at the screen that mapped the route of travel, looking at figures like miles travelled and local time at various places like London and Beijing absentmindedly. I fiddled with the entertainment system and for the next few hours, ended up watching Aa Dekhen Zara, 500 days of summer, big bang theory, and a couple of Punjabi music videos I understood nothing of. I was kinda hungry, thanks to the difference in time zone. I had skipped breakfast while taking that 6am flight and by the time I reached New York, it was 2pm New York time. I barely had time to change terminals and take that flight, hence now both breakfast and lunch were skipped. The flight left at 5pm local time and they immediately served dinner, my first meal of the day barring the cans of fruit juices and pretzels I had gulped down in the previous flight.

16 hours of tossing, turning, hearing others snore, falling half asleep, swollen legs, and intense physical discomfort later, I landed in Delhi. The first thing that hit me was the wave of heat on my face. Even having grown up in India, nothing prepared me for the first bout of heat. It felt strangely familiar- the sights and sounds around me, a goods train passing nearby, a tractor, shorter buildings, and a different looking viewscape. 4 hours of wait later, I took my last leg of the flight from Delhi to Kolkata. This time it was the window seat, but it didn’t matter anymore. It was dark outside, and I fell asleep the moment I buckled my seat belt. A few more hours and I had landed home, after three and a half years of staying outside. I am dying to update so much more. It seems I will have a lot of blogs to write the next few weeks.