Thursday, July 28, 2011

28 and Unemployed - Part 1/3

Part 1/3 .....

Part 2/3 ....

Part 3/3 ......

I was a month past 28. Barely a year out of graduate school. Recent owner of a car after 3 years of dreading and 1 month of learning to drive. Happy with a job that wasn’t necessarily THE job, but was something. It paid the bills, maintained my visa status, gave me something to talk about in typical Indian gatherings when people asked what I did, and bought me enough time to decide where I wanted to see myself headed. I was married to my job- a classic case of an arranged marriage. We met on campus, the recruiters hooked us up, and although I didn’t love it at first sight, I learnt to appreciate the perks that came with it- a name, a recognition, a box of business cards with my work designation boldly imprinted under my name, an unbeatable security, a boost to my self-confidence, a steady paycheck that took care of my passion for travel, and enough time and energy to pursue it. A double masters graduate (a PhD dropout actually), I told myself that I would never go back to school to finish my PhD. There was no pride living the life of an overworked and underpaid PhD student, and the smart way was to get a job and have a life. As I drove to work every morning, listening to the bleak updates of the recession on the National Public Radio, of people losing jobs and organizations downsizing, my heart reached out to these people I did not know. I told myself I was the luckiest person to hold on to my job, more so because I was single and did not have a “fallback option” for a husband. The security that came with my job was something worth every hour I spend doing mundane stuff in office, not knowing who would care about my work if I died working on it. Little did I know about the ill-fated layoff that was awaiting me.

When the clock struck twelve, I stood in the cold and rain, watching the fireworks explode over the Space Needle. Squished in a merrymaking crowd in a pub, I had welcomed the New Year with unemployment. No more playing office every morning. No more pay checks for an indefinite period of time. Unemployed, penniless, homeless, visa-less, and barely a year out of graduate school, I had cried broken-heartedly for all the catharsis in my life.

To be continued .....

28 and Unemployed: Part 2/3

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Part 2/3.....

Part 3/3 ......

Do you know the one big thing that losing a job does to you? No, it does not drive you bankrupt instantly, it does not make you friendless, nor does it strip you off your visa status immediately. However, it strips you off your confidence big time, eating into your self-esteem, and leaving a dull void of self-doubt at the core. You know you are supposed to go out and meet people, network to ensure you find a job soon, but it seems you have ended up with legs made of lead. You do not want to meet or talk to people. The world symbolically gets on the train leaving the station and you stand there feeling deadweight, seeing the world leave you in slow motion. You hate meeting people, or even picking up the phone because they will either ask you how you lost your job, or will tell you not to worry at the time when you have lost your happiness, your sleep, and your old self beaming with confidence. You hide and sulk, stop taking calls, eat wrong, put on weight, end up looking even more pathetic, question your abilities, look at your degrees with doubt, and sift through your graduation album and cry. Suddenly your friends are nice to you, they take you out for dinner and do not let you pay, and there you are sitting and watching them suspiciously. As an outsider, it is a simple situation where you have lost a job, and you are supposed to move on and find a new job without making a big deal. However when you are in the situation, it is the biggest deal of your life. The voices in your head forever keep nagging, “Maybe I was not good enough”. Our upbringing trains us to deal with success, but does not train us to deal with failure. You tell yourself that you were the college topper, the best performing employee in your previous job, and it does not make sense that you don’t have a job anymore. Few realize that although it is sad to lose your job, you can sail through this phase of unemployment with style, so that the world around you would die to be in your shoes.

Did I sail through my unemployment with style? I do not know about that. I am a liar if I said I accepted reality and moved on. Oh, it affects me till date. It was one single, isolated event on a fine morning when I was told I was leaving. However, I have replayed that incident in my head a million times now, making me feel the pain a million times. I still have nightmares of being asked to leave my workplace. The face of my employers change, but there is someone I always see in my nightmares sitting behind a mahogany desk with an intimidating and overpowering expression, asking me to leave. I was scared, vulnerable, and somewhere in the subconscious, I learnt to believe that I will never be good enough to hold on to a job, friends, or relationships.

I tried for months to get another job, but nothing worked out. Tired of feeling sorry, I gazed out at the waterfront, and asked myself one sunny morning what I would do if I didn’t have to worry about money, success, or what people thought of me. Pen and paper in hand, I started to make a list of the things I would do if I got a break. I was single, unattached, healthy, enthusiastic, could live in whatever part of the world I chose to, didn’t have a child to look after or a mortgage to pay, no ties absolutely. I wondered how I had overlooked these blessings. As I kept writing, my “wish list” kept growing longer. There were so many things I had always wanted to do, waiting for the opportune moment that never came. My unemployment turned out to be that opportune moment in my life. I now had a plan for my life, and a fun plan indeed. My crazy list looked something like, “Going back to school. Traveling Europe. Visiting family. Learning a skill. Losing weight. Watching all the top movies on the IMDB list. Writing a book.” I knew I could not finish even half of them, but I was already excitedly planning my unemployment period. What a welcome break it was from the boredom and monotonousness of doing routine things that everyone around me did.

To be continued ........

28 and Unemployed: Part 3/3

Part 1/3 ........

Part 2/3 ......

Part 3/3 .........

By January, I found myself sitting in music class, cleaning the cobwebs off my voice and relearning my Sa-Re-Ga-Ma. I used to sing with my grandfather as a kid. He took with him the culture of evening riyaaz when he died. 24 years later, I started my classical music lessons. Now that I was singing, I wanted to dance too. I felt self-conscious, I had gained a lot of weight in the last few years, but I had always wanted to dance with the local dance wing, and realized this could be my only chance. I auditioned with them for a show, and the weekdays saw me singing and dancing to the tunes of music for the upcoming show. My muscles screamed in pain, I no longer felt that nimble and flexible I used to feel years ago, and came so close to giving up at times but dragged on for that day I would be on stage feeling proud of myself. February saw me live that moment of pride, performing on stage.

I had a lot of time now but no money, so I started living with a close friend. I helped her take care of her baby, another unique experience for me. Baby and I became best friends, and I learnt skills like feeding a 1 year old, keeping her entertained, talking to her, making her learn new words, and singing to her. By the end of my one-month long stay with her, she was singing Sa-Re-Ga-Ma with full confidence. I had circulated the gift of music I had got from my music teacher, to baby. Taking care of the little one taught me love, patience, and the art of understanding little humans who do not talk to communicate or make themselves understood, not to mention bits and pieces of Tamil. Next, I moved to another friend’s place where I had another baby to take care of, not a little human, but a very understanding and communicative cat. Anyone who knows me would know how scared I am of animals, and I would not even go close to a harmless, innocent animal, let alone live with one. However, I saw this as another opportunity to get over my fears and take temporary responsibility of a living being. Kitty and I had the house to ourselves and we would often sit together in the evenings watching television, playing, or talking to each other. I told her stories and she responded by purring and mewing. We even watched a Bengali movie together once.

By the end of March, I had heard back that I was not granted an extension of my US visa. I was expected to leave the US, my home for the last 4 years. It was yet another calamity that came as an opportunity. I looked at Google maps and asked myself if the world was a playground lying invitingly in front of me, where would I like to play next. I had my answer. I sold most my stuff, packed the rest of my life in boxes at a friend’s garage, left my car in another friend’s driveway, and took off. I took a flight to New York, and another flight that didn’t stop till it reached India. I was in India after 4 years, meeting my family and friends. I rejuvenated myself, felt nurtured with unadulterated love and support that a family provides, and went back to work voluntarily at my old school where I used to teach 4 years ago. I saw this as a unique opportunity to re-establish my contacts, and to do something I was passionate about- teach. All it took me to be happy and feel useful was to discover something I loved to do, and start doing it again.

Before I knew, I had spent months with family, possibly more time than anyone living outside home could ever imagine. It was time to move on. The next 2 weeks saw me backpacking, living, and breathing in the places I had only read about and dreamt of, but had never thought I would visit in this life. I had always wanted to walk the streets of Vienna where my favorite movie “Before Sunrise” was shot, and I did it. I had always wanted to visit an active volcano, and here I was climbing Mount Etna in Sicily. I walked the streets of Dresden, had Gelato in Rome, got a first hand experience of marveling at awe inspiring work of Michelangelo in Rome, stood mesmerized by the beauty of Salzburg, visited the castles of Prague, walked inside the world’s largest ice caves in Werfen, hiked the Alps, even took a train that boarded a ferry while leaving mainland Italy towards Sicily. Map in hand and an indomitable wanderlust, my dream of backpacking Europe, traveling in trains, and living on a shoestring budget had come true.

The best things in life were spread out for me as a buffet, and in 8 months I got a taste of almost everything I had ever desired. Music, dance performance, babies and pets, meeting family, teaching, and walking the streets of Europe. But I still had to figure out my life and decide what I would do after this transitory honeymoon phase. This was my chance to start something new, and learn from scratch, since I had already made up my mind not to go back to doing bench science again. After 8 months of a journey that seemed more like a never ending fun vacation, I wanted to be a student again, but not in the same field studying cells and molecules and writing scientific documents. I wanted to learn more about how people learnt. I applied to a dozen schools, got around half a dozen admits, and went back to school. It was time to start working on that unfinished dream of a PhD. Life had given me another chance to do something I loved, and I grabbed that opportunity and converted my passion for teaching to the pursuit of research. These days, I work on how to make the process of learning more effective. By changing fields, I relearned my sciences from scratch.

My greatest lesson from this journey of unemployment was to see things I built over years, things valuable to me, crumble in front of me, and for me to learn to build from rubble and from the ashes of unfulfilled dreams again. It taught me how to be significantly detached from my dreams to be able to work on rebuilding newer dreams again. I have learnt that it’s okay to have nightmares about losing your job or not succeeding in life or see people leaving you, because your insecurities mirrored through these nightmares will only make you wake up and work harder towards your commitments to ensure that things don’t screw up in real life. I feel like a new person, free of baggage, unfettered from the thoughts of how the world perceives me, and secure in the knowledge that I have taken good care of myself through these months and haven’t failed myself.

My journey through these 8 months of unemployment changed the way I learned to count my blessings. The door that had marked the end of things was also the same door that marked the beginning of brand new, and a better life for me.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

27 and Unmarried?

This is a work of f(r)iction, and should not be confused with the author’s intentions of documenting her subdued desires of getting hitched, or claiming that she is 27, when she is long past that age.

"27 and unmarried? Hai Raaam !!! Are you romantically challenged? Kuch gadbad hai kya? Aren’t most girls your age already married?"

You know what shaped my romantic conditioning while growing up. The fantasy world I created from reading hundreds of Mills & Boon (MB) romantic novels, and Harlequin romances. Crumpled yellow pages, a cover best hidden in a newspaper jacket. No matter how much I tried to look indifferent, the size of the book and the fervent way I skimmed through the yellow pages always gave away what I read. Yeah yeah we all know about “the lack of variety in plotlines and their inevitable happy endings”. So what?

The problem is- my imaginary world of romantic hunks sauntering half naked in towels became more real than my real world and the men I met there. In school and college when my friends were mate hunting, I drowned myself in books with these fantastic men, vicariously deriving my romantic stimulus from them. A decade later when my friends have found their mates, I have woken up to the realization that I am perhaps running a good 10 years behind schedule. I haven’t been able to find someone on my own, and the random men I talk to every weekend as a routine of this arranged marriage drill, barely live up to my expectations.

My Indian forefathers had turned in their graves when at 14 I was convinced I was marrying an Italian. To my understanding, all my fantasy men resided in Italy, Greece, and France. Brought up with middle class values and dozens of Mills & Boons hidden between my text books, I have always wondered why the fantasy men I read about were so different from the real men around me - lovers, non-lovers, ex-lovers, buddies, colleagues and the ones I talk to these days, hoping that I would end up marrying one of them. Why was it that the Kamal Kishores, the Venkat Rajans and the Obhrokanti Kumars never stood a chance to these Jakes, Lukes, and Nicks?

No prizes for guessing that the fiction writers had transported me to this imaginary world of men who didn’t exist in reality. But it didn’t make the fantasy men any less appealing. You know why? Because they are self made. Born with a silver spoon, yet a go-getter. Exceptionally tall, always towering and above 6 feet (something which Bengali men rarely are). My mother never really understood my need to tiptoe to the man I marry, and still makes me talk to these short men with the notion that “a good character and a secure job is more important than height”.

My MB men are always dark. Brooding. Broad chested. Very angry with life. It seems every woman wants to chain him down, though frankly, I don’t know why none of his flings ever made it to the altar. His charm and virility increases as an exponential function with age. Very devoted to his huge family of 4 generations residing somewhere in Italy. Usually Greek or Italian (but never Indian). He travels all around the world and he owns a chain of art galleries or Victoria’s secret stores. Drives Porsches and Ferraris. Sleeps in boxer shorts. Doesn’t snore or fart or scratch himself like a hairy porcupine. Well toned. No hanging pot bellies or a receding hairline. Never found shopping in Walmart, IKEA or Target. Unparalleled sartorial elegance. He doesn’t do menial jobs like – coding, writing software, or cloning animals in the lab.

Reality bites. I remember talking to a doctor as a part of my mate hunting routine. I placed him in the genre of medical romances where the doctor always fell for the nurse. Then I discovered that the man got his kicks describing gory details of what went in the operating rooms. He was too engaged in conversation to notice me cringe as he described the entire process of childbirth over a cup of coffee. Who did he think he was, Dr. Gregory House? I mean, for all my dreams of him undressing me mentally, who knows if he was dissecting me mentally. No, things never really went anywhere with him.

My MB man owns private islands in the Bahamas, while the common man, even after topping the JEE, the IIT, and ending up as a software luminary, spends his entire life paying off mortgages for a house in the outskirts of Seattle. My MB man always gets attracted to the plain Jane no-non-sense girl with oodles of self esteem. In fact, I never wore makeup for years, just to live up to the plain Jane image. My MB man always initiates the first kiss and is never slapped for such unwarranted animal lust. Sometimes, my MB man is the father of the baby he never knew existed because he did not want to be tied down to marriage despite his miraculous procreative abilities. Sometimes, he is the only employer in the vicinity and offers marriage when you are least expecting it. Sometimes he is that man you find in the desolate island where you went for your last field trip. Soon, you are thrown into a situation where neither of you can do without each other. A hurricane strikes the island, he discovers a secret of his life you are the key to, or he simply realizes that you belong to an exotic species naïve enough to not use contraceptives during these accidental, unplanned acts of passionate love making.

I grew up firmly believing that the man I marry would be like one of these characters. The ones who would pin me down against the wall to initiate the first kiss. Not the ones who describe how pancreatic cancers are cured. My world of romantic fantasy came crashing down with every relationship gone haywire. Tainted are those, marred by the gory wrath of society, who are unable to sail through the trials and tribulations of a socially acceptable relationship. I saw this train filled with potential grooms leaving the station while someone pushed me frantically to run after the train. I thought of my MB men and my make-believe world in Italy and how happy I was there. I wondered why I didn’t find the Indian version of my MB man. While the world eagerly awaits Mr. Right’s arrival to put an end to my miseries of singlehood for life, Mr. Right is a split personality, who in his other personality, is a mama’s boy brought up with good values who only listens to mama.

My conflicting worlds confuse me – the one with the Jakes and Lukes, the one with people pushing me to get married to whoever was smart enough to make it to the US, and the world of these prospective grooms sitting in a train, one of which might be kind enough to marry me someday. While these worlds of mine collide, I bear a heavy burden on my chest, traumatized at the thought of dying an old spinster. My feelings remain unresolved so far- call it tragedy or consider it comical. Like my friend says, “27 and unmarried? Hai Raaam !!! Aren’t most girls your age already married?