Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Paulo Coelho’s Trip Tips

Being an ardent traveler and a big fan of traveling alone or in small groups, I could very well relate to this article. I have not much to add to this, except one advice. Travel in poverty. Stay at hostels, that is where you see all the local action happening. The lack of comfort will also make you leave your room early and go out exploring. Avoid the cab or the bus if you can walk. When I was visiting Hawaii, I lived in a tiny youth hostel, although I was working and I had the money to be able to afford a hotel. Every night, a group of local guys would sit outside the hostel and play the guitar. Tired to the core, I would go to sleep every night listening to a group of men animatedly chatting and playing live music. How would I find it if I stayed at an upscale hotel?
This is a picture of the Fontana di Trevi in Rome, my first Eurotrip two summers ago. I traveled in penuriousness, and had the best time of my life.


Nightie, the All Mighty

I have never been a more curious spectator of the sartorial idiosyncrasies of the women living in our community in Calcutta, the city where my parents now live. I do not live in Calcutta anymore, not since the last six years, and this is perhaps why little things that did not stand out earlier tend to do so. I am an outsider now. I see things that I had never noticed before. Let us take the nightie, for example. I have never seen something that has popularized itself more than the nightie has. The women of the extended family still remember my dida (grandmother) for her unconventional modernism. Dida has been gone for 13 years (maybe more), and is more of a distant memory for me. She would be close to ninety if she was alive today. Every female acquaintance of hers remembers her for, no, not her unconventional outlook or her lack of prejudices as a sign of modernity, but the fact that she owned and wore nighties. Yes, I have distant memories of that too, of the time when I was five years old. Dida would take a shower late at night, after finishing the chores, organizing food in the fridge and cleaning up the kitchen, and emerge in her green and white nightie, smelling of Boroline and Cuticura talcum powder. She would switch on the table lamp by the bedside, take out her collection of books and magazines, and read for the next few hours until I hugged her and fell asleep. Now when I talk about my dida, an epitome of a modern woman in the family, I am talking of no flimsy sheer Victorian secret. Victorian it was, covering her from head to toe, full sleeves and a high neckline. There were no laces, frills, or buttons, but a pair of strong fasteners securing the nightie, which was pure heavy cotton, the stuff you use to make heavy curtains at home. You could not see a square inch of bare skin below the throat, even if you tried to. The nightie was a companion for a few hours at night, emerging from her wardrobe much after everyone fell asleep, and vanishing much before anyone else woke up. Every morning when I woke up before seven for school, she would be back in her sari, preparing for the morning puja. Yet she was a modern woman, as the women of the extended family teased her, perhaps with a mix of jealousy and hypocrisy in their voices. The nightie was her id to modernism.

            The sight of the nightie is so common during my annual visits to Calcutta these days, but sadly, nothing like the sight my dida made, reading by her night lamp, her face glowing in the soft yellow, a nightly sight, almost a figment of my imagination because I have never ever seen her in a nightie in broad daylight. My parents live in a community interspersed with buildings five stories high, and during summery evenings, it is a common sight watching women, mostly elderly, prancing around in the terrace of other apartments wearing a nightie. They are seen doing every possible activity- taking evening walks, drying the chilies and mangoes for pickles, haggling with food vendors and salesmen, socializing with other women from adjacent apartments, untangling knots of the nylon rope with frayed edges tied to a dirty little piece of bag, also known as the “bajaarer tholi” that holds the keys to the entrance door, or conversing with anyone who has some information about the missing maid. I am yet to see an elderly Bengali woman from Calcutta who does not own a few pairs of sleeveless nighties. She takes a shower during summery evenings, dabs a generous amount of talcum powder on her visible upper extremities, including the armpits, and takes a stroll on the terrace. Hanging lards from the biceps or an endowed physique have never been deterrents. The term nightie is a misnomer, for you can easily find women performing a good portion of their morning chores in nighties. The milkman brings milk, the maid arrives and leaves, the newspaper guy delivers newspapers, the salesmen continue with their unwanted solicitation, the mailman delivers mails, and random strangers ask for “dada” (usually the husband), to which they have to crane their necks out of the windows and iron railings of the balcony or the stairs from the fifth floor and scream, “dada barite nei” (Dada is not home). The nightie remains a faithful accompaniment, never leaving your side.

When the hemline is too low or the design perhaps a tad too modern, a dupatta, usually sheer and gauzy, is used as an accompaniment. I have seen so many women who feel no hesitation stepping out of the house, even as far as the “moodikhana’r dokan” or the “kirana” (a small shop in the locality selling groceries) for some potatoes and lentils, or venturing out to the nearby “mishtanno bhandar” (sweet shop) for some evening snacks of “shingara- kochuri”.  A dupatta makes the nightie more official, almost as if it was never a nightie in the first place, but something more formal like a business suit. Or a swim suit. For I have seen nighties with dupatta in pictures all the way from the beaches of Puri, Digha, Pondicherry, and the southern shores of the country. Honeymoons, wedding anniversaries, birthdays and threading ceremonies, you name it. The nightie wearers are no lesser mortals; they are entrepreneurs and social networkers. The owner of Jasmine Beauty Parlor (“we have no branches”) in our community is often seen threading, waxing, snipping, and giving orders to her subordinates wearing her deadly nightie-dupatta combination.
I do not know if they are women of the modern strata in Calcutta. I do not know if they frequent pubs or shake a leg in clubs. These mashimas and boudis do not go around giving driving directions to their chauffeurs, cocktail in hand. Yet this seems like a strange form of liberation for the middle class Bengali women, liberation from the bondage of wearing something strictly Indian, a compromise between the extreme westernization of the miniskirts and jeans and the eastern sari. When the mailman rang the bell one afternoon, I was about to get the door in my tee shirt and sweatpants (that barely reached my knees) when my mother instructed me to don a nightie on top of what I was wearing. Confused, I wondered how ridiculous that would look, when I realized that it was the obvious choice over the somewhat contour hugging fabric I was wearing. I never donned that ridiculous combination of a nightie over sweatpants, much to her consternation.
Living outside Calcutta for the last six years, I got used to seeing and wearing different kinds of nightwear, those that were restricted to the sleeping quarters and were not worn during conversations with the neighbor or the salesman. I was meeting my newly married ex-colleague, Mr. Basu, during a certain business trip to the bay area in California. I was a little lost in their parking lot, and Mrs. Basu, who had recently moved from Calcutta, kindly volunteered to step outside and show me the door. I was parking my car when I saw the silhouette of a newly married lady in her mid-twenties emerging, an unmistakable silhouette of someone wearing a nightie with a dupatta thrown in. I smiled to myself as I realized that I might have left Calcutta years ago, but Calcutta hasn’t left me yet. I imagined a dozen bandhni-printed nighties bought from Dakshinapan in south Calcutta making their way across the Pacific Ocean as a part of Mrs. Basu’s wedding trousseau. That was when I realized the power of the nightie, the almost all mighty. 

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

PhD Milestones

This is more of a post for me, and my children and their children, who decades from now shall read this and smile and revel in the glory of my achievements. Well, I doubt if my children will care, but I certainly will. So what is this hoopla about? Well, last Sunday, I submitted my first research paper to an international journal. A week before that, another research paper (where I am the second author) was submitted. And today, I finished writing my third research paper, which I shall submit to another national journal in the next few days.

August 2010, I joined the program. January 2011, I cleared my prelims. July 2011, I cleared my qualifiers. July 2012, I am done submitting three research papers. I have had thoughts about dropping out of the program a few times, but the number of times I have been grateful to be in the program has significantly outweighed the number of times I have wanted to quit. I need to finish my comprehensives by next month, propose (my dissertation) by the end of this year, defend by March next year, and then I will be ready to graduate by August next year. In the meantime, I need to find myself a job, hopefully in the west coast this time.

Finishing a PhD in three years is tough, but doable. You just need to have an adviser who pushes you, lots of motivation to finish fast, and 50 times more energy to push yourself. And it is not all work and no play. I have made countless trips within US, and a handful of international trips to keep myself entertained. I do everything that any grad student does- sleep, waste time, daydream, Facebook, attend potlucks, go on road trips, watch movies, to name a few. I hope that I am able to finish in three years so that I can give some gyaan about how to finish a PhD in three years.

Fed Up

All you Roger Federer fans must be rejoicing out there. Well, the merrymaking is not so evident in our household. Both my roommates are ardent tennis fans, and both wanted Andy Murray to win. Well, one of them is a diehard Nadal fan, and she feels that although Federer is great, good luck has got a lot to do with his winnings in the past. She could not care about who wins if it was not Nadal. I am not sure about the other, the soft corner might be because of her history with London. In any case, one of them was livid, and the other lachrymose when I saw them after the match. As for me, I am not a tennis follower. The little bit of tennis I know about is because we live in the same house, and sometimes I watch what they watch. However, I have a history of making stupid comments. For example, I watched the finals for about half an hour (before I dozed off), and asked them if Murray is from Australia. The other day, I asked who Rafa was. I thought that Rafa and Nadal were two different people. Trust me, you cannot beat that.