Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Are men really from Mars?

Mars, because you don’t need to shop there. Or lug stuff half way across the world from point A to point B. And lug stuff back from point B to point A.

While visiting Kolkata, I made sure I chose an airline that let me carry the maximum weight as baggage allowance (Apparently Air India still allow 2 bags, but American Airlines doesn’t). Then I made sure every bag was filled to its maximum capacity, and a little more. I got away smiling innocently at the person at the counter who had started to protest because I was carrying some 1.5 kg extra. Perfumes, body lotions, chocolates and candies still unfinished after 3 months, IKEA stuff, and this and that. If my airline had given me four extra bags to fill, I’m confident I’d have filled them too.

Once my bags were empty in Kolkata, I had to fill them up again before I moved back. This time it was Indian clothes, books, jewelry, and more “this and that” things. I asked myself how much an innocuously looking saree could weigh. Oh that kurta looks amazing, isn’t it? And I want that dress in blue too. Before I knew, I was long past my weight allowance. Oh hell, I had to prioritize and take only certain stuff with me now [I kept the rest and convinced sister I got it for her for her birthday which is still 7 months away].

And then I called up my guy friend visiting Kolkata for a rant session about how it sucks to have baggage restrictions. I was sure he would have understood my plight, going through the same situation himself.

Me: “Isn’t it a pain to have baggage restrictions? How are you managing?”

He: “Err…. I got just one suitcase.”

Me: “What !!! Poor you !! What airline are you flying? It allows just one bag?”

He: “It allows two. It’s just that I carried one.”

Me: “Wh…Wh…What?? Why on earth?”

He: “I didn’t have much to bring back home.”

Me: “So you could have got empty bags. What about stuff you need to carry back?”

He: “I don’t have much to carry back to the US either. I have enough ethnic clothes and so I didn’t get anything. In fact I still have some 5 kg empty in the bag I brought.”

Readers, I cannot tell you how shocked I was. I wondered if I should have been impressed with him or ashamed at myself. For someone who could have carried 46 kg each way, he is just carrying 18 kg and is happy about it while I’m having sleepless nights. I’m sure I would have filled those 46 kg and would have bargained for more. My friend neither eyes the amazing clothes he could have bought from Kolkata, nor regrets that he left a bag behind. And me, with my Europe trip and all those hostels I’ll be staying at, am carrying two hugely pregnant suitcases, crammed with this and that, half of which I might have done without. I don’t know if this is a girl thing, or it’s just me.

And ironically, I claimed I am not one of those who tried to recreate my Indian life in the US, carrying packets of rice, masalas, Ponds talcum powder, and Boroline cream overseas.

I just fill it all with clothes.


Monday, June 28, 2010

To car, with love ...

You gave me wings. To go places. To be free. Free of asking around for help or depending on others.

A few days ago, sister woke up a sobbing me in the wee hours of dawn. I don’t really have bad dreams often, but for the really bad ones, I wake up in tears. I saw I had parked my car in Chennai (of all places, no idea why Chennai) and since it was a new city for me, I got lost. I kept looking for my car everywhere. Even the friends I was visiting in Chennai looked everywhere. But for some weird reason, I did not remember where I parked my car. I kept looking for hours, running around every corner and every street, but I did not find my car. A few minutes more and I would have perhaps found out my car. But I started to sob in my sleep and sister woke me up.

Later it all sounded a silly dream. I called up my friend to ensure my car was fine. And suddenly, I longed to drive my car. I’ve always thought being crazy about one’s car was a guy thing. Now I know I was wrong.

For as long as I’ve been in Kolkata, I have had a strange fear. I’ve feared by the time I get back to Seattle, I would have forgotten driving my car. I’ve asked multiple people if this really happens. The other night I had another dream (this time a non-lachrymose one) where I was driving and on seeing the lights go red at night, I just didn’t know how much to brake so that my car would stop just in time and just at the right place. Friends tell me I’ll be fine and driving in no time, but I have to take the steering in my hands to believe I haven’t forgotten driving altogether.

I bought my car when I didn’t even know how to drive it. My friends drove it for weeks, even months, before I slowly started driving it on my own. But once I started, there was no turning back. I fondly remember so many places I’ve been to and so many fun trips I’ve had. I no longer needed to ask someone to help me with grocery or think twice before stocking up things bought in bulk from Costco. I no longer needed to catch the last bus on time every time I went for a party. I no longer asked others to pick up my guests from the airport. It’s a different story that every time I have been to the airport, I have spent some extra 20 minutes taking the wrong exit and going round and round in circles. Once or twice is understandable, but this has happened every time.

Right now I am transitioning from job life back to student life. This means earning less, leading to less affordability of things. I am asked if I would sell off my car and start taking the bus to reduce expenses. Bus, I’d gladly take any day, but just the thought of saying good bye to my car makes me sad. I would need to compromise on my other luxuries, but would try to hold on to my car if I can. I fondly remember the numerous fun trip we have made together, to every nook and corner in Seattle, to the Coldplay concert at the Gorge, to Olympic National Park and Neah Bay (the north-westernmost tip of continental US of A), North Cascades National Park, Mt. Rainier, Leavenworth (a Bavarian village) on Christmas, Mount St. Helens (an active volcano in Washington), Mount Baker, Mount Shuksan, Deception Pass, and so many more places. I’ve never driven my car out of Washington, and on that same thought, I’m considering a cross-country drive across the US of A sometime. It’s going to be a good 3000 or more miles of driving depending on the route. I haven’t planned the logistics or the dates yet, things are very much in a ruminative state, but I’d definitely love to consider a cross-country road trip, visiting all the places I’ve always wanted to. Let’s see.

So ending on an affectionate note, I wish my sunshine car a very happy first birthday. I am sad I am not with my car on her birthday. I go back to my Science textbooks from Class 1 where I was taught how to distinguish between living and non-living things. I know my car, however nice she has been, is still a non-living thing. However, I am as attached to her as I’d be to a dear friend, a pet, or family. With that thought, I hope I can spend many more years driving my sunshine car, and that together, we go a lot many places.


Friday, June 25, 2010

Some deep perspectives on cars and men

Reposted from last year because a friend who couldn't find this post asked me to.


P.S.: Sensitive men with a weak heart or a huge ego should not read this post.

Buying a car is like finding a husband. Now potential husbands should take this with a pinch of salt, especially if they are potential car sellers too. You see, the process begins with visual estimation. You go to car selling websites and put a certain number of search criteria you are looking for- make, model, mileage, and price. The same happens in a matrimonial website, or in any potential mate hunting arena- bars, friend’s birthday party, dandiya celebrations, anywhere you can find a reasonable number of men showcased to take a look. You are still looking at the same parameters- make, model, mileage and price, be it a car or a man.

Which year’s model? If you are buying a used car, you probably don’t want to go below a 2005 model. Or maybe anything beyond a 1977 model is going to be too old and age-wise incompatible for you. Just an example based on personal preference.

Make? Want to go for a big, fat, spacious SUV man? Or a flashy convertible man? You can stick to the common “sedan” man of course – boring but dependable - moderate looks, moderate qualifications, neither rich and spacious like the SUV nor flashy like the convertible.

Of course the carfax record has to be clean when you put the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). You prefer not to have any previous accidents, fender benders, or wrecked titles. Just like you don’t want any history of troublemaking, divorcees, unwed fathers, or “only married for a few days” models if you are aiming for a new one. The carfax provides a total history of vehicles, and so does Google, sneaking into his profile in facebook or orkut without his knowledge, or finding his colleagues, common friends or ex-girlfriends and getting them talking. It is amazing how much information a search engine, social networking website, or a drunk friend can provide.

Carfax clean? Of course you know by now what the car looks like from the website. You don’t want to waste your time with profiles without pictures, who claim that they will send you pictures once they “get to know you well”. This is pretty intimidating frankly, my parents have known each other for more than 30 years now, and they could vouch for the fact that they still “don’t know each other well”. For all you know, the person at the other end whose voice turns you on might be a bald, huge man in need of a facial plastic surgery and contact lenses.

The Kelly Blue Book (KBB) price is a different ballgame altogether. Certain features like power windows, the presence of sunroofs, and the music player system add value to the car. Similar attributes add up to the guy’s profile in the KBB – IITian? Doctor or computer professional? Works in the US? Owns a condo or drives a Ferrari? Single child without the hassle of dealing with dominating moms or interfering sisters in the family? This goes a long way in escalating his KBB value in the market.

And then you meet for the first time, and visual appraisal (or checking out) happens. The first date is like the test drive. Look for the slightest, weirdest sounds in the engine, no matter how much the owner claims otherwise. Look for tiny glitches, look for the weird things he does. Maybe he picks his nose while working on an analytical problem. Maybe he doesn’t have sexy, dependable hands with well trimmed nails. Maybe he is trying to be a cool smartass which he is far from. Maybe you spotted that little patch of baldness he has been trying to hide all this while with his hair neatly combed. Maybe he doesn’t share your sentiments with equal fervor when you say you are passionate about animal rights or babies or appears bored while you explain to him why pink is your favorite color. Maybe he talks a lot about his mom. You have every right to “check him out” for these glitches. Remember, once you decide to go for it, it is safe to assume you would be stuck with him for a good chunk of the rest of your life. The moment you commit, your own KBB value has gone down.

The mechanic check is like going on subsequent dates when you get to know the person more thoroughly. Test drive as much as you want. Act indifferently. See if the seller is too eager to sell it. Look bored when he says he went to school in MIT. Yawn when he talks animatedly about his research focus. Drive him and push him to the limits. Text your friends pretending not to listen while he tries to make conversation. Let him pay if he offers to. Don’t call him for the next 2 weeks. Chances are he will end the conversation with an “It was nice meeting you, call me sometime” catch phrase. Chances are your acting difficult will turn him on. Who knows what these men like?

Make a list of compulsory criteria that he must absolutely have (looks, height, chivalry, a US degree, a sexy smile) and a list of secondary criteria that are not necessarily deal breakers (can’t think of any right on the top of my head). Depending on your budget, see if you want to compromise for certain attributes. These are secondary of course. You prefer the car is red with a sunroof. You prefer the guy can dances salsa or play the guitar. You prefer a V6 engine guy instead of V4. You decide on the trade offs of having a high maintenance versus a low maintenance man. Scan the market and go for a model upgrade if possible.

Look for mileage. Ask cryptic questions to see how many relationships he has had in the past and why they did not work out. Look for previous owners- how many women have driven him before. Get in touch with them and compare notes. Okay, not that far maybe, but still.

Look for how well it is maintained. Regular oil changes, 90k plus servicing. Is the man well maintained? Does he gym regularly and do yoga and meditation classes? Does he hog like a glutton or eats sensibly, especially after he is 30? Look for the kind of food he orders on a date.

Of course if you are divorced, previously taken, or above 35, chances are more you will end up with a lemon (a car/relationship that can die in the middle of the road any day). And remember, we usually end up buying “used” cars. Finding “new” cars is hard and expensive. If it is a 1972 model but still a “new car”, he is either not straight, or has been a social embarrassment in the past.

Some deals are very suspicious and too good to be true and need to be flagged right away. These are the ones where the in laws claims they will give you all their jewelry and property back in India once you agree to marry the lad. A background check confirms that he is not straight, or has had a child from a previously annulled marriage. These are highly fraud deals.

Usually Japanese models are very reliable and run forever. German models are on the same lines. American ones are shitty in terms of efficiency. Bengali models are usually reliable as long as you can live with the fact that his mommy is the best and mommy will always come first, even before you. South Indian models are reliable as long as you accept that these will all be computer engineers who think they are the most culturally inclined species and will not communicate with you in any other language. Marwari models tend to go high on dowry. Stereotypical and racist, I know, but true nevertheless.

But beyond all these comes the most important factor- The kind of insurance you can buy for the car. See what kind of insurance the man is willing to offer. See if he is committing to marry, or giving you funde on the bliss of a live-in relationship. If you still find his matrimonial profile up there in public even after the 6th date, if he says he needs more time to figure out things (and does not specify how much time) or is hesitant to make you meet his parents, consider yourself uninsured. For a non-committal relationship where the guy doesn’t know what he wants or shows clear signs of commitment-phobia, prepare to live with the knowledge that your relationship is going to be totaled any day something hits it. Start looking for another car before that happens to you. Dump the car before the car dumps you. Euphemistically said.

Push. Bargain. Negotiate. Don’t be afraid to go for the attributes you are looking for. And no matter how much friends, family, or well wishers advice for or against a particular model, go with your gut feeling. It is you who will live with it. Drive him (insane). Feel his attitude. Don’t be afraid to explore the expansiveness of the relationship. Sometimes, everything right does not sum up to feeling right overall. Sometimes, one look and you know that this is the one. Judge. Use brains instead of emotions. Play hard to get. Car hunting and mate hunting is as much of a process as it is an outcome.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Over a cup of Coffee

For 3 months now, I haven’t had coffee. The last one was at the New York airport on my way to Delhi. So what changed after that?

Nothing really, but for the fact that I have been meaning to give up on coffee for a while now. It wasn’t so much about the caffeine part as it was about the sugar, the cream, and of course the smell of coffee. I don’t know if I make sense, but I think the Seattle air smells of coffee. With that, every few steps, you find a coffee shop. You see people walking around with coffee. I think when you see and smell something all around you, it is the easy thing to “do it”. It becomes a behavioral pattern.

So is it like, when you don’t see something, you don’t crave for it? The Kolkata air smells of anything but coffee. Yes I do remember I once had a cold coffee a few days ago at Barista. But it was more for the sake of making conversation at a coffee shop. I don’t think I craved for it or enjoyed it that much. Staying at home, I haven’t even craved for coffee. Mother is surprised I keep saying no to coffee/cold coffee every time she asks me. True, my lifestyle has been different, less stressful, with no need to stay up late or work hard (things we associate with coffee addiction). I’ve had other food cravings too that distracted me from coffee, mainly the sweets and mangoes that satisfied my sugar cravings. Of course good home cooked food kept me happy and distracted me from coffee.

So how is it going to be once I am back in Seattle? Am I going to crave for coffee, just because there is real work to do now, no home cooked food or a restful lifestyle for me, and because I am going to be in a city that smells of coffee? Frankly I don’t know, and I’d try my best to continue staying away from coffee. But as of now, after abstinence for 3 months, I neither crave for it, nor enjoy the smell of it.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Are you Uttam Kumar?

(Just so that you know, people who haven’t been to Kolkata or haven’t taken the Kolkata metro or don’t know about the great men of Bengal might not get the subtle references)

I’ve always been a curious spectator of things that happen in and around the Kolkata Metro. Ever since I moved to Kolkata 13 years ago, metro had been a significant part of my daily commute to school, then university, and finally to my work. It protected me from the everyday friction and maara-maari of people who traveled in buses and ended up smelling like vinegar in the process. Once upon a time, metro boasted of being associated with somewhat sophisticated commuters, people who could afford a little extra money and didn’t mind spending it for comfort, time, and safety. So while an average journey from the two extremes of Dum Dum to Tollygunge would easily take you 2 hours by bus, metro would do it in 33 minutes.

However, taking the metro after 4 years is a different and disappointing experience. First, the so called distinction between bus commuters and metro commuters is gone. Anyone who can walk and climb the stairs rides a metro. Money is no longer the deciding factor. So metro doesn’t resemble a metro anymore, it resembles more of an underground and hence stuffy version of a Ge(n)de local (a local train that takes you to Ge(n)de which is rumored to be so crowded and filled with the so called unsophisticated class of people that one would choose to refuse an invitation to one’s sibling’s wedding in Ge(n)de rather than board the train). I don’t really mean to sound like a socio-economic snob, the ones who believe only privileged people (monetarily or otherwise) should be able to afford the worldly comforts, ride the metro, study in the best colleges, and lead an elite life distinctly and superior to their so called unblessed inferiors. However when you have a choice between standing under the sweaty armpits of people smelling like stale onions in vinegar and rubbing against you or sitting beside that corpulent woman wearing a sleeveless blouse, rubbing her arms with you in the process every now and then and smelling of uncooked Hilsa fish, you don’t really have a choice to make between the fire and the frying pan.

The rush in metro is so overwhelming that for days, I’ve stood in platforms, watching metro after metro leave me as I debated over taking the plunge and squish into the crowd, but have given up unable to do it. Earlier there were concepts like peak hours. If you were flexible enough not to travel when most people like office commuters and school commuters travel, you could easily be ensured a seat. I don’t think that happens anymore, for I’ve found myself standing in really long queues to get a ticket even during the most un-peak hours like at 3 pm or even at 9 pm. Regarding security, the lesser said, the better. For you will find those uniformed security guards who will stop every unsuspecting passenger carrying bags, but not to make an inspection, no. They look the most disinterested of the lot, casually sitting and most of the times letting you go, unless of course you were in a hurry and on the verge of missing your train. They will stop you then, ask you to open your bags and show them, and while you would think they were interested in inspecting the contents of your bags for bombs, they are least bothered about what is inside. They will casually glance through the contents, almost coming close to your ears and whispering, “I am doing it to show my superiors that I am working. I don’t really care what you carry in your bag”. People at the ticket counters will often refuse to give you back the exact change and make you wait and miss a few trains before they hand you the change of 8 rupees for the twenty rupees you paid. However, the crowd, the rush, the disinterested security personal, the sweaty commuters, or the uncooperative, un-“changed” people selling tickets are the least of my affliction. What surprises me most, as I will focus now, is the nomenclature of the confusing names of stations one commutes to.

I boarded the train the other day, lucky enough to find a seat, and looked for the station I was supposed to get down at. To my shock, I found no name called Tollygunge. I looked and looked hard, trying to see if I was missing something, or if the metro had started taking a different route. As a result of years of metro travel, I knew the names of the stations one after the other, so I skimmed through the stations to the south – Kalighat, Rabindra Sarobar, and then what? Mahanayak Uttam Kumar? Is that what Tollygunge is called these days? The great actor (mahanayak) Uttam Kumar? I scanned the other destinations and discovered a lot of interesting changes. Years ago when Bhowanipur was changed to Netaji Bhawan, I had quite some adjustment issues getting used to the new name. I wouldn’t say it was anything as serious as say getting used to answering the questions of the nosy neighbor, yet I wondered why places had their names changed to show tribute to a certain person. Anyway, so the next few names after Mahanayak Uttam Kumar were a blur, and I had no clue which way the metro was headed. Later a little bit of googling and wikiiing told me that the word “sutanuti” added after Sovabazar doesn’t mean some kind of green leafy vegetable in Hindi, it meant a group of villages. Now why would a place like Sovabazar situated in a prominent area of North Kolkata be referred to as a group of villages beats me.

After Mahanayak Uttam Kumar (Tollygunge), I was expecting a Khalnayak Kishore Kumar or something, but compounded my confusion on seeing a name Netaji. Just Netaji. No bhawan, nagar, or marg to go with it. It seems while Netaji Bhawan is Bhowanipur, Netaji is Kudghaat. I wondered if Bengal had fallen short of names of great people that the same person had 2 stations dedicated to him, one with a Bhawan and the other Bhawan-less. Then Masterda Surya Sen, the prominent Bengali freedom fighter introduced himself, his name substituting the area Bansdroni. Gitanjali is how they named Naktala, Garia was named Kavi Nazrul, and finally there is another station under construction that will be called Shaheed Khudiraam.

Now I have some basic issues with the nomenclature of places after eminent personalities from Bengal. We have grown up used to names of places like Garia and Kudghaat, so if my father told me he is getting off at Kavi Nazrul, I would be wondering if he is making sense. I overheard a standing commuter asking a sitting commuter, “Apni Uttam Kumar?” I was confused. While the translation is “Are you Uttam Kumar?”, I wondered why someone standing would ask someone sitting if he is Uttam Kumar. Realization struck that perhaps he meant, “Are you getting off at Uttam Kumar?” If someone asked me “Apni Uttam Kumar”, I’d be tempted to tell him why despite his conviction about my gender, I am neither a man, nor am I called Uttam Kumar. The best I could tell him was, “Na, ami Suchitra Sen” (No, I’m not Uttam Kumar, I am the actress Suchitra Sen). Which brings me to my next point.

Where are the women in these names? All of them are named after great men who are no longer alive. Don’t tell me Bengal hasn’t produced great women, or they haven’t died. It’s a patriarchal society and a chauvinistic world, I agree. But where are the women?

Don’t you think naming a station after someone as a mark of respect is somewhat juvenile and a sign of disrespect in itself? The whole idea of showing respect is defeated when you take the great person’s name multiple times in different, and most of the time hilarious contexts. Are you “Uttam Kumar”? I’m going to “Masterda Surya Sen” to eat some fish curry the mother in law has cooked for Jamai Shoshti. My boss lives in the heart of “Netaji” (middle of Kudghat). You see what I am saying? Perhaps there has been a little bit of saving grace that Maidan was not rechristened like they were planning to. What do you think of when you hear Maidan? I think of lush green fields that act like the lungs of Kolkata. I think of Eden Gardens, and Victoria Memorial. I think of joggers and bikers and lovers holding hands. I think of the movie Parineeta. Would you associate it with the same things if I told you they wanted to rechristen it “Gostho Pal” (the footballer)? Thank God they didn’t think of Taposh Pal.

Let’s say some metro official or rather some eminent personality with administrative power reads this and agrees with my point, especially on gender biasness. My greatest embarrassment say 30 years down the line would be when a commuter asks me, “Apni Uttam Kumar?”

To which I will squirm in my seat, avoiding his eyes, and mumble, “Na, Ami Mamta Banerjee”.


Friday, June 18, 2010

Pants down Hands down

The other day while crossing the subway in one of the metro stations, I saw a man peeing 2 feet away from where people walked. Not a single person stopped to complain.

While traveling in a metro, I have found puke on the floor on 3 occasions now. Someone must have overeaten and felt unwell in the stuffed underground metro and have thrown up. While I sympathize with the person, I don’t understand how the person just got off the train and walked away without informing the authorities to ensure it was cleaned up. People made a face, but no one really did anything about it.

But what happened today surpasses everything. I was on the train when I saw a bunch of women and children get in the train. One of the women sat next to me, a toddler in her arms. A few minutes before the train started, much to the horror of everyone, the woman pulled down the child’s pants, instructing the child to pee right inside the metro compartment. The child obliged. Within minutes, there was a pool of water on the floor. The woman looked unperturbed.

People, myself included, watched in horror as the episode unfolded. I felt like retching. Unable to control myself, I confronted the woman. To which she argued about “What was I supposed to do? Get off the train? The child would have peed anyway”. People got some entertainment for the next few minutes, some even smirked and made a face. Worse, a man joined the argument, supporting the woman and alleging how I could behave so insensitively with a child. Still, not another person had spoken up. Finding support in numbers, the woman and the man (a stranger to the woman I think) kept shouting, arguing, and asking for sympathy from other passengers, asking them “How could this woman behave this way with a little child. The child had already done what she had to do, what was my fault in this”.

I haven’t gotten myself into a confrontation with strangers for a while now, and I don’t know what I could have done differently. First, it was a deliberate attempt by the mother, not an “accident” like she kept claiming to get sympathy. And to see something happening and people watching silently, having some drama and fun it in their otherwise boring life, I couldn’t imagine things have come down to this. Was I wrong in raising my voice? Could I be a silent spectator and watch as the woman instructed the child to pee right in the metro compartment? And a man, a rather creepy one indeed, telling others what an insensitive woman I was to misbehave with another woman and her child?

I wish I had taken a cab today. The reason I didn’t is because metro is fast, economic, and environmentally friendly. But is it conducive for everyone to let in people who have no civic sense? And for a society that reacts at the slightest provocation with slogans of “cholbe na cholbe na” (won’t do, won’t do), a city that has seen three bandhs in the last 3 months, for a society that is vocal and opinionated about everything from politics to football, I wonder if the people had lost their voices when I was the only one confronting the woman.

I won’t really conclude by saying something like “India has gone down to the dogs”, or “No improvement can happen in Kolkata”, and I insist you don’t do it either. Perhaps the metros should have public restrooms. Maybe such actions should be reported and heavily fined? Or maybe you could argue, “But what could the poor woman do? She cannot afford diapers, and she could not afford to get off the train”.

I don’t really know. All I can say is, I am deeply disappointed and disturbed.


Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Does Alma Mat(t)er?

I was asked the other day if I felt nostalgic about my alma mater, the institutions in Kolkata I did my bachelors and masters from. Was I planning to visit them during this trip to Kolkata. My answer to both questions were, Hell, NO !!!

My passionate NO must have confused my friend somewhat, and frankly it surprised me too. So I thought it would be a good idea to write about it.

Till date, I have studied in 3 schools, 2 colleges under the university for bachelors and masters, and one institution in the US.

Schools, I definitely feel nostalgic about. I miss the churches, the sisters, the discipline, the friends, the school assembly, and all those thing we did as children and starry eyed teenagers. My US alma mater- it’s too soon to miss it. However my colleges are a different story. As a teenager fresh out of high school, I got the rudest shock when I entered college. The process of getting into a decent college was as grueling as getting into an IIT, but only without it’s benefits of a secure career later. For back then (and now perhaps), colleges under the University of Calcutta have no respect or consideration for students from ISC/CBSE boards. Back then, for every 40 or more students from the state board getting in, only 2-4 students from “other boards” would get in. We were definitely the “scheduled castes” amongst the lot of new comers, only with lesser respect and even lesser rights. No wonder more than half my high school mates had fled to Bangalore, even taking the “donation route” to get into the lesser known institutions in and around South India rather than staying in Kolkata.

The next shock awaited me as I started college. It was a complete culture shock, getting along with the fellow students, professors, the kind of syllabus and examination patterns. Nothing matched up to my fantasy of a college life derived mainly from Bollywood, with hunks riding bikes and classes being fun. The boys and their social skills were hopeless, and barely deserved even a smile. The class would predominantly consist of “Bangla-medium” students who had no clue of spellings or grammar, and it was a nightmare to get the class notes right if I ever missed classes. The professors themselves (mostly) was no less, trying to gravitate to Bengali during lectures whenever they could. My first class in Botany was a nightmare because the professor taught in Bengali for the entire class and I had no clue what “Shalakshanslesh” was till mother told me it meant photosynthesis. St. Xavier’s would have probably been my kind of college but they didn’t teach Biology then and I wasn’t willing to move to something like Physics or Math just because it was taught at St. Xavier’s.

The mode of teaching was another disaster. Most professors spent hours dictating notes photocopied from some nicely covered anonymous textbook they wouldn’t name lest we locate the mines those wonderful gems of knowledge came from. We were told from day 1 that the students at Presidency College better colleges would have an upper hand since they were good enough to make it to Presidency College better colleges, and no matter how well we did, we would always get lower marks than them. There were rumors of university questions being drafted by Presidency College professors from well known colleges, and unless you found the “right people” to increase your exam marks from to take tuitions from, you had to be content with a mediocre performance. Only a handful could score a first class (60%) and those that scored less had no chance of making it to the university for a masters.

The examinations were a disaster in itself, always held in the middle of the summer that dragged for months with huge breaks in between. It was like playing an even longer and boring version of test series cricket. Exams never happened in your own college, you were sent to some Godforsaken college in the middle of nowhere to go write your papers. It wasn’t just a test of knowledge, it was a test of nerves. 8 honors papers, 6 pass papers, and other papers on English and environmental sciences that students mostly passed studying from “guide books”. Professors on exam duty often snoozed or chit chatted in halls, and moved at a snail’s pace and often frowned and scowled if you asked for extra sheets of paper. We were sufficiently forewarned that a situation might arise where we didn’t understand the question at all, because it often happened that the person framing questions had no idea what the syllabus was. While the best written answers would score a 6.5 on 10, the average answers would range from 3-5 on 10 (which meant the effort to score 65% is double the effort to score 50%, and one shouldn’t ever hope for getting something like an 80%).

The practical classes were a nightmare in itself, with the lab reeking of decomposing stuff all the time. I wonder what good it did to me that I learnt to dissect and display the pituitary gland of a fish or the male reproductive system of the cockroach, or the fact that I was taught to distinguish chicken bones from snake bones. I seriously wonder how it has helped me knowing these skills in the last 10 years.

I never dated a guy from college. I would look at those boys and girls bunking classes and chatting all day in front of the college gate and marvel at these specimens and their scintillating future. It’s not that I’ve never bunked classes to watch a movie, but some faces were perennially found in front of the college gates or in the students’ union rooms (Union-baazi being another thing I kept away from). I’d ponder over my insecurities as a graduate out of my university, possibly jobless or trying to adjust in a job environment where people spoke only in Bengali and scowled at people who spoke in English. I wonder how it’d feel to be posted to some remote village with a teaching position. They often said that unless you had lots of money, a college principal for a father, the right political connections to back you up, or all the three, you were finished. I couldn’t date a guy who was in as much shit as I was in, his future not secure for lack of the right connections or because he happened to study in this university.

I thought I’d take 3 years of this and get going. I could get into a good masters program in Delhi. I made it to BHU but then again my university didn’t publish my results on time and BHU refused to admit students whose results were not out by a certain date. So I was back to Kolkata for a masters, ready for another 2 years of being grilled. This time I couldn’t break free, but the next time, I had to.

Students in my masters class prepared for the NET/GATE/IAS/CAT exams, but I knew that was not for me. I didn’t really know what I wanted for myself, but I knew what I definitely didn’t want for me. So I started dreaming of a US school, a place where I hear there were no distinctions based on your background, the power game was more fair, and the probability of making up answers for a question I didn’t even understand was less. The college felt like a prison and I knew US was my only escape route, even if I was going to some remote corner of North Dakota or Alabama (which thankfully I didn’t). I bunked classes and used that time to prepare for GRE. The process from applying to getting there was so costly that I couldn’t afford to screw up a single step. Even then, I had quite some adventure running around to get recommendations from the same professors from college who no one in the right mind would want to go to. I barely interacted with the students in my class, most of who were girls who did a masters because it would get them a husband with a better profile than that they would get with a bachelors degree.

The day I made it to the US, I knew I would never ever want to come back and visit these institutions again. I meet people with fond memories of their undergraduate institutions, claiming that they attribute their basic learning to their undergraduate institutions back in India. I am afraid that is not my story. Even as I travel by the roads and places where my college was located, I feel washed with dread and unpleasant memories of insecurity I felt in my early 20s, not knowing if the future had anything worth looking forward to. When I meet old friends from school on Facebook, I jump with joy. However when I see friends from college, I don’t really feel much joy or curiosity. My college boasted of something like “We teach students so well, they make it to the US” during a counseling session for the newcomers to lure them into joining the college. This was after I got into a US school. I can claim any day that my college had nothing to do with helping me get into a US school. If anything, the insecurity and the frustration it caused me gave me the necessary push to “break-free” and get into a good US school.

So back to the question, no, I don’t think I am interested in visiting my old colleges (though I have visited my ex-school where I worked multiple times). I have nothing to show off or prove to them. I and my college don’t really have any differences, but over the years, we have developed a certain indifference.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Visa Woes

The process from applying for a US visa to getting one took a toll on my peace of mind. It didn’t help much that I had done it before and had a fair idea of what to expect. The forms seemed different now, the fees had gone up, and the one thing that still remained is the very long list of things to do and documents to bring to prove you don’t intend to stay there for the rest of your life. I haven’t ever applied for a visa for another country, so I don’t know how simple or complex things are.

So when I got a US visa and decided to make a hop trip to Europe for a few days, the thought of applying for another visa overwhelmed me. The process was a little different, the picture specifications different, and I had to wait for my friend to mail me a letter of invitation in original. I tried to be as meticulous as possible, going through every little detail mentioned in the website so that I didn’t screw things up like I was on the verge of doing the last time. It didn’t help that a lot many instructions were given in German and it took me a while to cruise through the website and find out the English options.

Anyway, so the invitation letter arrived, and I armed myself with all the documents on a fine Thursday morning to apply for the visa. It seemed that unlike a US visa, one did not need to make a prior appointment but could just walk in and submit the documents. You would anyway be called later for a personal interview, so it was a 2 day thing. The address for the consulate seemed a little unfamiliar, and some Google mapping, asking a few people here and there, and an argument with the cab driver later, I reached my destination.

I reached the consulate first thing in the morning, confident that I had everything I needed. I get into the building saying a silent prayer and face a burly man on the other side of the glass door.

Visa man: What visa?

I: Tourist visa.

Visa man: What country?

I: (What an IQ for a man working at the German consulate. Obviously Germany !!) Germany.

Visa man: When are you traveling?

I: 3rd week of July.

Visa man: Too early to give you a visa. Come back after 15 days.

That’s it. Nothing in the website told me that I was too early. What a start to the process of Schengen visa. Now I just hope I get one on time, because if they send me home for another reason, like say some important documents missing, I don’t think I will have enough time to come back.

I think I need to pray harder to the Schengen Gods now.


Wednesday, June 09, 2010

“First Hand” writings

I finally received the official invitation letter from my friend in Germany for the Schengen visa. Not that I needed an invitation to visit Germany, but the consulate surely did, and that too a letter in original. No scanned or emailed letters would do. Ordinarily, I would frown upon anyone reading letters personally addressed to me. But in this case, I let it go. Friends told me I should focus on more important things like dreaming about the Eiffel Tower and fantasizing about Italian men. So that’s precisely what I am doing as a part of the pre-trip warm up.

Anyway the envelope seemed a few grams heavier, and as I emptied the contents of the envelope, I found a nice picture postcard of Germany with a few lines scribbled for me.

I smiled to myself, because I wasn’t really used to people, especially men, doing such nice things. A simple, yet a wonderful gesture. I held the postcard for a while, feeling great that it had travelled all the way from Germany to reach me. I was tempted to do a DDLJ style Amrish Puri stunt, smelling the letter and all, “Dekh, Germany se chitthi aayi hai” !!! But Bollywood has overdone this stunt, with Amrish Puri in DDLJ smelling the cow dung-infested mitti (soil) of vatan (motherland), Pankaj Udhas bellowing the harmonium to “chithhi aayi hai aayi hai” and Bhagyasree in Maine Pyar Kiya smelling the white pigeon-poop letter from the “Kabootar ja ja ja”.

I was reminded of those nice moments when I opened an envelope to see something nicely scribbled. My friend sent me a copy of my TOEFL scores last month with a nicely written “All the best for the visa” note. Sometime back, a friend from New Mexico had invited me to the balloon festival with a small note scribbled at the back of a New Mexico picture postcard. Things have mellowed down a lot ever since emails happened, else back in school and college, we wrote dozens of pages to our best friends, pouring our hearts and writing about everything- crazy physics teachers, flames and crushes, gossip, breakup woes, just about anything. There was a time I could easily recognize the handwriting of each of my friend. The same happened when I taught and graded papers and copies in school. But now that I write this, I realize with a sadness that I will not be able to recognize the handwritings of most of my close friends, thanks to the age of emails.

The most nightmarish of times were when I was expected to scribble something in Bengali, usually while writing to my grand mother. Mother would write letters and leave me a small space for me to say a hi. It would eventually be the “tumi kemon aacho, ami bhalo aachi, amar pronam niyo” drill (how are you, I am fine, regards). You should see my Bengali writing. The alphabets are as huge as rocks. I would start in Bengali and eventually shift to English after a few lines. This happens till date. My occasional letters in Bengali go like, “Kemon aacho? Ami bhalo. Achcha now I will shift to English….”

Anyway, every once in a while, it’s nice to come across a nice handwriting, a nicely scribbled thought or even a few words. Emails don’t really have the flavor that hand written notes do. And as I write this, I realize it’s been years since I’ve held a pen to write on something that was not a visa/immigration form or a check book, thought of a few lines instantly and put it down on paper. We are not writers anymore, we have become typists. I try writing a few lines using the pen and my fingernails hurt. I need to use that key board and that printer less. The next time opportunity comes, I think I’d like to go back to doing things the old way- scribble a note, write the address, make a smiley, or if time and the strength of friendship permits, go back to writing those long letters ranting, bitching nagging, and pouring my heart out. And if nothing works out, I’ll just pick up a pen and write a few lines in the diary, or reciprocate with a reply picture postcard.


Tuesday, June 08, 2010

I need a change

A few weeks ago, I went to the optician to get a pair of new glasses. Not that I needed one but you know you must do certain things when you are visiting home. Don’t even ask about the exorbitant costs of medical care in the US, I was strictly instructed to get a thorough dental and eye check up done while I was visiting home. So that fell in my priority list other than eating mangoes and paani puri, going shopping with mom, and watching Indian Idol religiously every week.

Today I went to get my ordered glasses. I removed my old ones, tried on the new one, and went, “What !!! Did I order these??? How could I !!! They look hideous”

Now I am usually not fussy about things, not out of goodness of heart, but because I am confused and would rather let someone do my homework for me rather than get into the depth of things. I am usually okay with your suggestions about clothes I should wear because it will save me a good 6 hours of going through clothes aisles wondering if the yellow frilly dress looks better on me or the green one with those geometric patterns. Most of the time if I am confused, I will buy both. You will not find me fussing over the menu in a restaurant because letting someone order for you makes life easier. Who cares whether you order a hariyali kabab or a boti kabab, both would taste awesome I am sure. I did the same while choosing schools a few months ago. I discarded the lower ranked schools and then sent the remaining list to a set of trusted friends. I am going to the school that was voted the most. That doesn’t mean I do what others choose for me. That means if others choose for me and I like the choice too, I will do it.

But I digress here. The moment I put on my glasses, I was thoroughly disappointed, and even a little repulsed by the looks of the glasses. I don’t know how I even opted for them in the first place. I must have been high on something. In fact if I remember, I was looking forward to my new glasses and my new looks. But now that I saw it, it just didn’t suit me right. I somewhat resembled a toad wearing those. I even suspected if the guy had changed them or replaced them by mistake (or by design, to make me resemble an amphibian). And I had just spent quite a bit on a pair of something I didn’t even like.

So I negotiated with myself and decided that the extra set of glasses would now become the main glasses, and I would discard these hideous looking expensive froggy glasses, or use them as the spare glasses. I felt guilty, since I usually never fuss over food, clothes, or even places to travel, with strong opinions like I HAVE TO do it or I ABSOLUTELY cannot do it. But that was the way it happened here. Which brought me to yet another useless, disconcerting realization. What if I look at the groom during my wedding and realize I probably don’t want to marry him? What if I am not sure about the guy anymore? Like I said, a very improbable thought, but a thought nevertheless. Glasses are better that way. At least I can temporarily discard them and use the spare ones instead.


Monday, June 07, 2010

Of unexpected meetings and unforgettable friendships

I met this friend for lunch today after a long time. How long has it been, umm …. roughly 7 years, 2 months, and 1 week. It was a little unnerving frankly, meeting someone after so long. Thanks to emails and the social networking sites, we were in touch on and off. But a meeting after 7 long years was something. I subconsciously kept tidying my hair and fiddling with my finger ring while waiting, wondering if the first expression after meeting would be that of shock or something more shocking.

So I waited at the bookstore nervously, the bookstore being a prominent location. I finally met him, and what a great meeting it was. Great food, good conversation flowing, but every now and then, I found myself drifting off to the past, wondering what a great amount of time had passed. Last I had seen him, he (and I) were students. He wore faded jeans, carried a guitar on his back, and had this easy going demeanor of a college going kid. I don’t know how he remembers me though, but I hope it’s not significantly different. Now he looked older and more mature. The guitar was gone, and so were the pair of jeans. Instead, there were formal office going clothes of a person who has been working for more than 5 years.

Over lunch, my friend asked me how life has been ever since we saw each other last. As I started to summarize and highlight the main events, I realized how much time has elapsed. I had finished college, spent 2 more years doing a masters, taught in a school for a year, moved to the US, got another degree, worked for another year, learnt to drive, learnt to live, got laid off, got into graduate school again, and come back to visit Kolkata. The world was round indeed. Everything had come back full circle. He too had finished school, taken flying lessons, flown planes, worked for 5 odd years, and had undergone some major changes.

It was a funny conversation, when he asked me what all I had done and seen in life. He asked me of a few remarkable experiences ever since I left Kolkata, and I could think of two. The first was my first flying experience when I spent an hour or so in the cockpit, the world flowing beneath my feet as we flew over Turkey. It was an unforgettable experience, more so because I did not see it coming. The second was my convocation day. I told him how I always envied the engineering or management graduates in India because they had convocations and I didn’t. So I was happiest during the convocation, not because I was done and was getting a degree, but because I could wear a gown and cap, saunter in a stadium full of people applauding, and pose for dozens of pictures.

Another interesting conversation ensued when he claimed he has used this time trying to figure out things in life, the philosophical questions people seek answers to but seldom get. He said he has looked for answers about life, happiness, and his purpose in life. When he asked me the same question, I wondered what I could say. Philosophical questions make me nervous. So I confidently claimed I have had it all figured out in life. He looked amused, wondering if I was serious. I reiterated that I have all the answers I needed from life, about life, happiness, and purpose. Now for a person who is usually confused choosing between a Lufthansa flight or an Air India flight, anyone who knows me would know it was a white lie. But honestly, I have never looked for answers that are not there in text books, Wikipedia, or Google. I’d rather figure out how much salt to put to make that omelet taste just right than wonder what’s the purpose of my creation and what I am doing stuck in planet Earth.

Trivial conversation about this and that ensued and time flew before I realized. It was time to say goodbye, since the lunch break was already extended. My parting thoughts were a little disconcerting. When you meet someone after every few months, or even a few years, you don’t realize how much time has elapsed in between. But when you meet someone after 7 years, you realize with alarming intensity how much you’ve grown old since the last time. The great thing is I didn’t think I’ll get to meet my friend after the last time, since we went our separate cities and ways in life. So a meeting even after 7 years felt good. The bad thing is I now don’t know when I will meet him again.

This trip to Kolkata has been remarkable in a way because I got to meet so many friends after years. Most of them, I wasn’t sure if I’ll ever meet (again).