Sunday, March 31, 2013

Top up

This is a post especially for my friend G, my host in Seattle when I moved, the person who helped me transition to a new country.

Back in those days when I had recently moved to the US, I was clueless about many things. I didn’t know how to say my quesadillas and fajitas right. I used to be so confused while ordering food. I used to frequent “Cold Storage Creamery” with G (It is Cold Stone Creamery). And then of course there were these fashion faux pas I used to make. G is a shopaholic while I used to accompany her to these shopping malls with wide-eyed wonder.

It was during one such excursion that I had picked up a fancy skirt that looked smart and chic, a nice and solid color, something that I might consider buying. So I had asked G to accompany me to the fitting room and opine. When I had come out of the fitting room wearing the skirt, she could not stop laughing.

It seemed like it was not a skirt in the first place, it was a tube top.

My embarrassment had known no bounds then.

For the next few years, G used to refer to that episode, indicating my dehatiness as a fresh off the boat, adding her own salt and pepper and spices in the process. Talking of salt and pepper, her other favorite joke was how I had messed up my soup at someone’s place because I had no idea how to use a pepper mill. That will be a post for another day.

Everything we do in life comes full circle.

A few days ago, I was at the shopping mall again, buying clothes for my upcoming trip to the beach. I looked at a rather fancy looking tube top, turquoise in color, really pretty, something you know you want the moment you set your eyes on it. However, I had my doubts, since it was there in the skirt section. I asked the attendant and she did confirm that it was a skirt. Nevertheless, I decided to try it out.

In the fitting room, I tried it as a skirt, and decided that it does not look that fancy after all. It looked way better as a tube dress, knee-length, showing off my collar bones. It was too long and unattractive as a skirt. So I thought, screw it. So what if it is a conservative long skirt, I will wear it as a tube dress and flaunt some skin.

And then, I remembered the episode all those years ago when G had laughed at my naivete. G, I have come a long way from that day all those years ago. Not only can I shop for myself without help now, I also decide what I wear as what J


Friday, March 22, 2013

Food for thought

I miss my childhood. Everyone has their reasons for missing what they have left behind. I have my reasons too. I miss the simplicity of my life back then.

We never had maids who cooked for us. It was always my ma and my grandma who cooked. Even now.

Back then, I never counted calories when I ate. Nothing was allowed to be wasted. Whatever was on the plate had to go in the stomach. That was the rule. Not that hungry? Take a smaller serving.

Meals used to start with bitter melon (it was supposed to cleanse your system) back then. Then came daal, rice, vegetables, and fish or meat. There was always salad on the side. And curd (with sugar) to end the meal. Sounds like a feast everyday of the year, twice a day, doesn’t it?

But I was still thin and fit and active. And never worried about putting on weight.

They tell me now that I should skip all that and eat yoghurt or salads for lunch. Skimmed milk. No sugar. I am serious.

I never worried about working out during childhood. There were no gyms to start with. But then, I would walk back from school sometimes, without taking the rickshaw. It was not to burn calories (the first time I learned the word “calorie” was from my middle school Physics textbook). It was to save two rupees. I used to get kicks out of saving money.

In college, sometimes I would skip the bus and walk home, so that I could spend more time with my best friend (There was no rush to go home to Facebook and emails). The smoke, honking, crowd, piles of cow dung on the roads, and waterlog below the bridge by the metro station did not matter then. All we cared about was to spend extra time with each other. She lived ten houses from mine. So we would walk until I reached my home, and then we would talk some more while I walked her home, and then she would walk me home again. This would continue for the evening, until one of our moms screamed at us. There was still no gym to go to, and it did not matter.

Now, there is a gym. And it is free with a student id. And I always go after 5 pm (parking on campus is free after 5 pm). This is so that I can drive the 5 minute route instead of walking, and then spend the next 2 hours working out. I did not have a car in Calcutta, but I was better at my math. I don’t know why I have never walked to the gym. Bad habit, perhaps.

As a kid, I drank two glasses of milk everyday. Morning and evening. They said it was good for brain and bone development. I never worried about BST or hormones in milk. Milk never came packaged. The doodhwaali always delivered milk in person. True, she smelled of buffaloes (that made me gag every time she would pull my cheeks) and mixed an inordinate amount of water with milk. But that was the end of the complexity. Milk and water. Sometimes more milk, sometimes more water. She is gone now, it is all packaged milk that comes from somewhere I don’t know. I stand in front of the aisles, clueless. There are dozens of varieties to choose from. Whole milk. 1%. 2%. They tell me that 2% is actually not 2%, and whole milk is not 100%. More mathematical complexities. Then there is almond milk. Soy milk. Fat free milk. Vitamin D enriched milk (doesn’t all milk have Vitamin D?). Milk cartons in yellow and red and blue, each signifying something it has or does not have. You don’t even have to boil the milk, or worry about milk spilling on the stovetop, like my mom did and sometimes spent hours cleaning up. Those complications are gone now. Those have been substituted by newer complications.

As children, we never stored ice creams and cold drinks at home. There was a videogame parlor in the small town where I grew up, called Relax Parlor. Back in the eighties, it was the only shop of its kind in town. The shop is probably long gone now. There, if we had been good children, we would sometimes go with parents and have ice creams. Either vanilla or strawberry. Not a whole lot to choose from. Either a small cup or a large cup (no mediums). Not a whole lot of cup sizes to choose from either. It was probably rupees 3 and rupees 5. But then, we did not go there every day. Not even every Friday night (there was no concept of Friday nights back then, the only interesting thing we did Friday evening was watch Chitramala on Doordarshan). We went to Relax Parlor once every 2-3 months. Our freezer wasn’t stuffed with mocha and caramel and rum and raisin ice creams. Life was less complicated that way. One did not have to worry about losing weight, because there was none to gain.

They ask me to do strange things these days. They say I should remove the egg yolk, it has high cholesterol. They say I should eat everything brown- brown rice and brown sugar. They live and die by quinoa. They say I should eat salads for lunch. Just salad. They say I should buy fruits and vegetables that are organic. I did not worry about all this back then. I ate whatever vegetables ma cooked. I would ask her to save the peels so that I could feed the cow; that used to be an exciting part of my day back then, not hopping pubs or doing a shopping marathon, but feeding the cow. I fed the cow, the cow gave us milk. Such simple things in life brought such joy.

These days, they ask me to skip a component of what I eat. When I order a dosa, they ask me to skip the coconut chutney (which is the favorite part of the dosa for me). They ask me to drink the green coconut water and throw the malai (which is another favorite). They say mangoes have high calories, and so do bananas. It’s bad for the health. I never remember ma ever saying so. In summers, we ate mangoes and litchis by the kilo. We ate bananas by the dozen. Apples were meant to be eaten only during fever, those were expensive. Surprisingly, no one ever told me that I was a fat kid. If anything, I was tall, healthy, seldom fell sick, never missed my period, and had thick hair, clear skin and pink nails. These days, I can eat Japanese sushi for lunch and Mexican burritos for dinner. For variety, I can eat Italian, Ethiopian, and Chinese. We did not have this luxury back then. But we never worried about weight gain or weight loss.

When I was in my early twenties, I suddenly got this whim one day that my weight should be less than my height (If I am x’y” tall, I should weigh less than xy kg). It was a whim without logic. I reduced what I ate, and shed 5 kilos in a few months. I had no gym to go to, and skipping meals at home was not allowed. However, my body was so obedient that I could easily lose weight with a little bit of cutting down on food.

I have tried losing weight for the last six months, and have exactly lost two pounds.

Let me tell you about the gaining saga before I tell you about the losing struggle. I don’t know how or why, but in the last 6 years of my US stay, I have put on 44 pounds. The problems of the first world countries are also first world. I never knew depression was an ailment back in India. I mean, where was the time to get depressed? I never knew that excess rain and lack of sunshine can cause depression (people from Seattle swear by SAD, or Seasonal Affective Depression). As a kid, I never knew weight gain is an issue. I sometimes think that my childhood problems paled compared to my present day problems. For me, resources are plenty now, but I just don’t know what to choose from. My fridge is stocked with stuff I never grew up eating- cheese spread, marmalade, apple sauce, and chicken broth. Everything comes in packets, and everything can be frozen. This includes frozen chapatti, frozen dosa, and frozen fruits. And they tell me to eat stuff that defies everything I have learned so far. They ask me to stick to juices for one meal a day (wonder why God gave me teeth). They ask me to skip milk because recent research says that milk does not help in Vitamin D absorption. They ask me to eat Greek yoghurt. But then when I visit their houses, they serve me pizzas, cheesecakes, ice creams and brownies. They try to refill my glass with soda despite me telling them that water is just fine. They tell me that the fizz in the soda is good for digestion.

But you know what? After 6 years of struggling to get back in shape, I have decided to ignore them all. I have no faith in what they say anymore. Yes, I now eat my coconut chutney and green coconuts. I eat bananas and eggs (yellow and all) for breakfast and rice for lunch. But I don’t hog like a pig. I am not going to survive on green liquids and juices. I have given up soda, pizzas, and alcohol long ago. I don’t eat out for more than once a week. And when someone asks me to go out for dinner with them, I am in a dilemma. I can either spend my evening eating outside food, damaging my health and wasting money, or I can spend the same time working out.

I go to gym 4-5 times a week. There, I don’t just do cardio, I do my weights too. Sometimes, I dance Zumba to the beats of music. Those are happy evenings for me. Strangely, even after months of hard work, I have lost exactly 2 pounds. But it is okay. I feel more fit now, I sleep better, I digest my food well, I can see the outline of my biceps forming, I am more aware of what I eat, and I no longer like to hang out with people who do not work out. I can save the juice and porridge for when I am old and have lost my teeth and wisdom. Losing weight is not my aim, I can do that by starving myself to death. I just wish to stay fit, active, and healthy. I don’t want to die of cancer. I don’t want to die of cardiac problems. They say exercising reduces the chances of getting both.

I still don’t do a lot of things that I should. I still don’t go to bed early, spend hours in front of the laptop, and just cannot give up my craving for sugar. I don’t have “a” sweet tooth, all my teeth crave sweets. Sometimes I am so hungry and craving for sugar at night that I gorge on watermelons (I argue that it is better than eating cakes and brownies at night). Commitment to eating healthy and staying fit is a constant work in progress.

You know what makes me sad? It makes me sad that I have wasted precious years of my twenties. I was living in the US and earning well. I had the freedom to wear whatever I wished to from shorts to tank tops (all that is not allowed back at home), had the money to buy designer clothes and shoes, look sexy, look pretty, and not hide behind loose-fitting clothes.  I had no worries about graying hair and ageing skin. But I never counted these blessings. Ever heard that hindsight is 20-20?

Following others without logic has done me more harm than good. Going back to my childhood would have been ideal, but not everyone can afford the luxury of ma’s cooking and totally avoiding packaged food living in a country like the US. However, it is never too late to start afresh, to take a baby step towards progress, is it?


Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Taking the plunge

         When I called home to talk to my mom this morning, she said that she had some “secret good news” to share (technically, I am sharing a “secret” here, and I am sure she will forgive me for it if she ever came to know). My Bolly-brain is programmed to associate “good news” with pregnancy, but she confirmed that no one in the family is pregnant at the moment. However, my mom told me that she has decided to take swimming lessons.

            As I was walking to the library later today, I kept thinking about what might have prompted my mom to make this decision one fine morning. She is clearly no aspiring deep sea diver or Mrs. India contestant. She is certainly not planning to join Bollywood. It’s not that she had some deep fascination for water sports. I tried getting inside her head and think like she would, but I failed. So I decided to call her back.

            It turns out that her reason was pretty simple. She wanted to learn something she has never learned before, so that her brain doesn’t rust or doesn’t forget what it is like learning a new skill.

Wow. That was deep and profound.

            I mean, she could have tried learning baking, that would be close to what she already knows. She could learn driving, but then we are one of the extinct middle class families in this burgeoning, capitalistic-transforming India who doesn’t own a car, out of choice. She could have done any number of things within her comfort zone. But I know this is not her comfort zone. You know why?

            Because she is already looking for costumes that would cover her limbs fully. She got rid of her hesitation and confided in a friend, whose daughter is a swimmer and knows where to buy costumes. This is no costume, tank top, or skirt wearing mom. With all those not toned muscles, unshed fat and birthmarks from two baby deliveries, I know she will have enough issues getting used to a swimming dress.

            Because she told me that she has decided not to go to the nearby club. It is full of gundaas, unemployed men who gather around the area and smoke cigarettes. She has chosen to go to a safer pool with evening shifts for women that will add an hour to her commute.

            Because she has a husband who is more paranoid than appreciative of his family members taking on challenges. I know that firsthand.

“I have figured out a way to deal with him. I told him that if I don’t like it or don’t learn in 2-3 weeks, I will stop going.”

“And will you really stop going?”, I asked.

“Of course not. I’ll make sure I learn it in 2-3 weeks, or at least tell him so.” She was radiating excitement and confidence.

            I still had a hard time taking it all in. I mean, she has always had a protected life, never went outside to earn, raised two kids as best as she could, rarely got into a fight with the neighbors, never boarded a plane (and still believes that it is theoretically possible to get on a wrong plane, for which, she has avoided coming to meet me), doesn’t know Washington state from Washington DC, and has enough to keep her busy all day. She is anything but bored. A woman in her late forties seldom develops a hobby one fine day. She could be perfectly happy watching movies and reading books if she wanted to. Why swimming?

            It struck me all the more because I am a big coward in certain ways. I am not at all fond of water. In fact, I dislike doing anything that is not on land. So I am fine with driving and running and dancing, but not with sky diving, bungee jumping, or swimming. I love the oceans, but only from a distance. I don’t like the feeling I get when I am in water. I could imagine myself learning a number of things, but never swimming. At 31, I feel like I am too old to be learning new things. I sleep on the same side of the bed every day, I use the same brand of fragrant candles, I have used the same phone (a flip phone, not a smart phone) for 6 plus years now, I have had the same haircut, I order the same coffee at Starbucks and the same chicken burrito bowl to go (no beans, only veggies, white rice, mild salsa, guac on the side, with just a hint of corn, sour cream, and cheese, but no lettuce) at Chipotle, and I do the same thing before going to sleep every night (play online scrabble, that is). I can feel that I am getting old, predictable and boring. The last thing I would imagine doing is getting rid of the hesitation about my body image (and I am neither approaching 50, nor have delivered babies), don a costume, and dive into the water.

            You know, I was always picking up a fight with my mom while growing up; dad was more the role model for me. My dad’s achievements were more visible to me then (his promotions, professional achievements, visit to China, etc.), but I always thought of my mom as a quiet person who would seldom take risks. Of course I was a ten year old who had no idea about what it takes to keep a family glued together. As I grew older, I learned to appreciate my mom much more. She is this really quiet person who would seldom contradict anyone and would cry watching Rajesh Khanna die in a movie, but every now and then, she would show streaks of fieriness, do something brave, something so not like her, and surprise me and make me respect her more and more. And as far as not contradicting dad when he is acting irrational, I once asked her why does she usually let dad rant and argue?

“I choose my battles, I choose what is worth my time and what is not.”

            Her reply had changed my world view all those years ago, and showed me how not be a passive victim of a situation, but to actively decide what is worth my time and what is not. So sharp, so to the point, and so empowering. No tears, no drama, absolutely no sign of helplessness or weakness.

            Mom, I hope you do take the plunge this time, and learn a new skill. You are already my hero.


Friday, March 15, 2013

Nourishing the brain

This is more of a personal entry, so that years down the line I can read about it and feel happy.

I talked to a close friend after a long time today. I am not a fan of long phone conversations, but this one was long because this wasn’t a typical “Hey what’s up? How are you? Okay gotta go, bye” call. For a change, despite our 3 hour time difference and schedule difference (he works now, needs to be in office at a certain time I guess, and I am a student, enjoying my spring break), we ended up having one of those long discussions about anything and everything. By the time we were done (the phone got disconnected once), it was a little close to three hours. Like I said, it is a long time to be talking to someone on the phone who is not your boyfriend. My jaws are still hurting as I type this.

So what did we talk about?

Everything and nothing.

He told me about the work he is doing in his team now. The codes he writes, the programs he makes, the testing he does.

He told me the difference between research and development.

I asked him if given a chance, he would do another PhD, in a totally different field. He said yes.

We talked about self-identity. I asked him if he sees himself solely as what he does professionally. I asked him if he was told to leave what he is doing and start something completely new (for example, being a chef), would he give it a thought? He said yes.

We talked about game theory and the decision making of people.

We talked about stable marriage problem (Google Gale and Shapley), and its mathematical derivations.

We talked about secretary problems (an optimal stopping theory).

We talked about the game theory scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind.

I told him about my book. Even sent him a chapter to read and give me feedback on.

We talked about why criminals act the way they do, and what could be going on in their brains to justify their actions.

We talked about the pros and cons of giving up a secure life and traveling round the world for a year. How would one get a visa? How would one withdraw money? Does one go looking for an ATM every week? How does one live out of a backpack for a year? The two dilemmas I would face are, one, I cannot pack fancy clothes, not too many, and two, I cannot bring back a souvenir, because all I have is a backpack. I wondered where does one do basic stuff like laundry and ironing clothes? He wondered how does one get over the language barrier?

We talked about the potential association between time difference and the failure of long distance relationships. People feel and talk differently at different times of the day. It makes sense, because when I call my mom at night (daytime for her), she is all energetic and busy, while when I call her in the morning (night for her), I am the energetic one while she is ready to crash. Clearly the dynamics are different.

I proposed the importance of feedback. Every employer that rejects you should tell you what was wrong with the application. Every time you have a breakup, there should be an opportunity for amicable conversation where your ex gives you feedback about where you screwed up. He had some good points about why my theory will not work.

He gave me anecdotal examples from his work, for example, how it is not necessary to know the different parts of your car to be able to drive one. It is enough to know where the steering, the brakes and the accelerator are, one does not need to master the engineering of a car for that.

We talked about the importance of introducing humor while answering socially awkward questions (for example, the classic question of when will you come back to India? Will you settle down in America? He replies that God and economics will decide).

We talked about how the concept of “cold feet right before marriage” did not apply to our parents generation. It is a luxury our generation affords.

He told me the importance of listening to your parents, because they are on top of a mountain with a better vantage point in life, given their experiences. I argued that with my parents, they are standing on top of an Indian mountain and I am climbing an American mountain. They don’t get my perspective since they have never been here. For example, they always ask me to “drive slow” when I am about to go on a trip, the basic assumption on their part being that slow equals to safe. If I was to drive at 30 mph on a freeway, I would be anything but safe.

We talked about the importance of doing things in life despite the uncertainty (for example, getting married while you are still in grad school in case you have a girlfriend, although you know now when will you graduate or where you will go next). Things happen around you to define your life, and then your life defines the world around you. It is a two way process.

He told me why he thinks the N (neutral) gear in a car is placed strategically between R and D. I told him why I think his rationale doesn’t make sense.

We talked about today (pie day, March 14th or 3.14), and why the Indian pie day should be on July 22nd (22/7). March 14th also happens to be Einstein’s birthday.

He told me about the short stories of Balai Chandra Mukhopadhyay and the novels of Amitav Ghosh. He loves both.

We talked about higher order thinking and lower order thinking, and how our strategies change in a board game when we practice more. I am a scrabble addict, I can and do play it for hours every day, and I kept rambling about why and how it challenges me to think in a more sophisticated way.

He told me that very few people know “baishey srabon” is the death anniversary of Tagore. I went off a tangent and said “baishey srabon” could be pie day too (22nd of monsoon), which means two great men from the same generation were born and died on the same day. Totally illogical, I know.

I told him about the two good movies I recently watched, Amores Perros and Maria Full of Grace.

He told me about the resources to learn Spanish.

I told him about the consequences of the fact that we don’t choose our parents, but we also live with the security that our parents will never breakup with us, as opposed to the dynamics with a potential relationship with a spouse.

We talked about the conversation between two people 10 years of age apart, both being the same person (for example, one is 30 years old and the other is the same person who is 40 years old).

We talked about everything and nothing. And the conversation went on and on.

I have missed having these totally impromptu, random conversations that do not have a script. The beauty of it was the impulsiveness, the unpredictability of it. We could have hung up in 30 minutes. We could have hung up within 3 minutes. Instead, we fuelled the discussion for 3 hours. I miss having a friend like this, someone who talks about the things I can identify with. Intellectual malnourishment is a serious disease that afflicts most of us. There are so few people around to intellectually stimulate us.

For me, the greatest suffocation comes from being in a room full of people who talk, but seldom talk about anything of use to me. Hardly anything stimulates my intellect. What ought to be a signal ends up being noise.

And on that note, we said good night. It was past 3 am for me. It made me so hungry, I had to go hunting for food in the kitchen. Hunger is always a good sign.

It was a great conversation. A really long time since I had one.


Monday, March 11, 2013


            Writing is an amazing way of connecting with people. However, people do not connect with you in vacuum, they need connecting nodes, for example, a name, a face, a city, an institution, a hobby, anything. We always look for reference points, for like factors. For example, read this:

"Today, I went to the movie theater and watched my favorite hero. Later, I also had dinner with my friend from school."

This will give you a vague picture. However, read this now:

"Today, I went to Totem Lake cinema and watched my favorite actor Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook. I was with my friend John from the UW. Later, we drove to Mayuri in Bellevue and had chaat and ginger chai."

All made up, but you will be able to visualize it much better, especially if you live in Seattle and happen to frequent Mayuri.  
            The problem with this is for people like me who prefer to stay anonymous in cyber space.

            When I started blogging in 2005, it must have been as a result of a late quarter-life crisis. I had finished school, had no job, was applying everywhere, the talks for an impending wedding was brewing at home, and blogging was the latest “in thing” to do. A lot of my friends moved to wordpress eventually, but inertia made me stay where I was. However, I strictly wanted no one to know about it. This way I did not fear being judged, and I could write just about anything and anyone. However, it was not a foolproof system. Anonymity is never foolproof, unless you work for the intelligence. Over and over, certain bits and bytes of information leaks out. I am not saying that it is bad, but it defeats the purpose of blogging anonymously.

            Over the years, two things happened. A handful of close friends of mine started reading my blog. And then, a handful of dedicated readers became my close friends. In fact something funny happened a few years ago. A friend of mine accidentally bumped into my blog without knowing that it was me, his friend, and he wrote a nice email to “sunshine” the writer praising me. He had no idea who I was.  

            A particular friend of mine is a huge supporter of transparency. She thinks that there should be no curtains, and everything you write should be out there for everyone to read, because hiding takes away the authenticity. I don’t really agree with her. Just because you have nothing to hide does not mean everything is for show (the same logic why I vehemently protest against couples sharing email passwords). And then, you always have people to worry about- current employers, potential employers, potential boyfriends, could-be-s and would-be-s, curious relatives, sneaking in-laws, ex flames, current flames of those ex-flames, psychos, serial killers, identity thieves, crazy admirers, nosy neighbors; the list is long and endless. Sometimes, a little post like “I hate my roommate, she never does her dishes on time” or “I hate her boyfriend even more, he is so full of himself” can be cathartic under anonymity, but with disastrous results otherwise.

            Over the years, I have always maintained an ambivalent “may be or may be not” stance towards anonymity. I did not want to write something like “My life sucks, I want to die” one stressful evening when PMS afflicts me, and then mommy calling me up frantically from Calcutta India and asking me if I should reconsider moving back and taking advantage of free food and free stay while I still could. Or write about my burning desire to drive cross country and then have my daddy force me to promise him that I would not venture into any such adventurous mission. Sometimes, I just want to elope, from myself, from the people around me, into this secret world of anonymity.

            Now that I am delving into fiction writing after too many years of planning and procrastinating, I am having serious thoughts about this “to be or not to be” (anonymous) thing. If I turn out into a successful writer, would I still want to write anonymously? I don’t know, I really don’t know.


Saturday, March 09, 2013

I think I fucked up

            Those were the exact words I thought of as I hopped on to the elliptical at the gym today. I finally finished reading the book that I had bought quite some time ago, January 8th, 2011 to be specific, but did not start reading until now. It is the personal account of someone, an ordinary human, ordinary like you and me, no superpowers or magic absolutely, who tours South America on his bike. You know, some books and movies and places and people connect with you, and some don’t. As I read chapter after chapter, at home, in my lab, sometimes at the gym, and even at Chipotle, I realized that it is not about him, his journey, his book, or his experiences anymore. At some point in time, without my realizing it, it had become everything about me, my life, and my aspirations. And I realized that I have fucked up. Really big time.

            When I was in my early twenties, I realized that I was getting inherently unhappy about the way my life was turning out. My family wanted to see me married to some “well settled” guy after college. Discussions about potential grooms at home made me feel the insecurity to my core. I was still in college, barely earning anything and dependent on my parents, and that made me panic. As much as we all love each other, I was unable to convey to them that this is not the life I wanted for myself.

            I wanted to see the world. Not on a dependent visa or using my husband’s money, but by myself.

            I realized that the only way I could achieve this was through education. I loved to study, I loved my books, I loved the subjects, but I was never really an academic. Never wrote the engineering or medical entrance exams, never prepared for CAT, no IITJEE, nothing. PhD was so not my thing. It was meant for the bright and brilliant, not me. However, I realized that if I wanted to get away, getting admission into a US university (with full funding) would be my passport and my visa to freedom. The problem was that I had absolutely no idea how to walk that path. No seniors, no role models, no one in the family, not even in college. Talking about mediocre background, it is as mediocre as it could get.

            Soon, I started networking with students who had made it. I started saving money from the tuitions I gave. I started secretly preparing for the GRE. I got myself a membership at the American Center. I did not tell anyone about it at home.

            Two years later when I made it, I told my dad the news, and he laughed out aloud. It had taken him a few days to get convinced that I was serious, and I was leaving. He said that he will not be able to fund my education. I told him that I had taken care of all of it. When he realized that I was serious and I was determined, he was upset. He tried convincing me into not going. He told me that if I wanted to see the US so badly, I could get married and travel with a partner. He did not realize that that was exactly the life I was running away from. It was not the lure of the US. It was the lure of freedom.

            When I left for the US, I promised myself certain things. And this book made me realize how I had not kept my promises.

            I had promised myself that I will never grow roots. Instead, I will grow wings. I will live and study and work in all the continents one by one, for five years max. That made it 30 years, 35 if you count Antarctica (I did not). In the US, I grew more disillusioned with the people around me, Indians who struggled to get work authorization and green cards. People who talked about the million dollar homes and the cars they drove. They complained about their children not speaking Bangla at home, or their parents not understanding why they could not move back. Their greatest dilemma in life was perhaps whether to buy a BMW or an Audi as a second car. I absolutely (with a capital A) did not want to end up like one of them. My education was my gateway to freedom.

            However I did not realize that with time, I became one of them.  The more I tried not to become like them, I became like them. I stopped growing wings. I started growing roots instead.

            The ease and predictability of life in the US grew on me. When I finished my masters in Seattle, I found a job there and promised myself that I will never move out of Seattle. When I lost my job, I reapplied for the PhD program in Seattle. They rejected me and I had to move, amid all the heartbreak. Thank God I learned to drive. It’s not that I did not have my moments. Unemployed and penniless, I lived in other people’s homes. But not once did I tell myself, “Screw you US, I am leaving.”

            I got into the PhD program a second time at the opposite coast now. It was my second chance in life. This time, I wanted to push myself, drive cross country (alone), spend time alone, and see this country. But a few weeks before that, a freak accident happened on the streets of Sicily and I tore a ligament on my left foot while backpacking Europe. I got scared. I shipped my car and took a flight. What I did not tell myself is, one does not even need the left leg to be able to drive an automatic car.

            Soon, I saved up enough money to be able to go backpacking again. I walked the streets of Lisbon, stayed at hostels in Paris, and dreamed of seeing more. I was happy being poor and living on free bread and seeing things that my family had never seen. However, I never told myself that I can give up what I have and move into a new country and start from scratch. I was just too afraid to let go.

            The US employment market has tested me once, and it is testing me again. Now that I am about to graduate in a few months and am looking for a job, I realize what a painful situation it is. I am ready to go work in small towns of Nebraska and Idaho and Tennessee (which I would hate I know), but never told myself that I have an option to bail out. Nothing has worked out for me yet, and it scares me. I am scared that I will not find a job in the US, and then I will have to start afresh. Whatever happened to that young girl who wanted to live and work in every continent. If I cannot get a job after my PhD here, screw you US, it’s your loss, not mine. I wonder why I haven’t said this aloud yet.

            As I look around me, I realize that over the years, I have amassed a lot of things I do not need. When I moved to Virginia, the first thing I did was buy myself a $600 bed (which is sinfully splurging by student standards). During my unemployment, I had slept on sleeping bags and other people’s homes, and now I wanted to assure myself that it is all fine. As a result every time I think of moving again, I wonder how can I move my bed with me, since I spent so much money buying it (see how material possessions tie you down?). I bought furniture and other assorted stuff and now I don’t want to give it all up. I was even dreaming of buying a black BMW once I have worked for a few years and can afford it, for the only reason being that my adviser drives one. My silver sedan drives perfectly fine and we have gone places all over the country for four years. However, the bed and the furniture and the car are ways in which I was subconsciously developing roots here. I could have saved all this money and done another backpacking trip someplace new. But I did not. I started everything I wanted, and then left half-way. I wanted to learn to dance, and I started Salsa, but gave up after level 2. I wanted to learn Tango, but never did. I wanted to learn different languages so that I could travel, but only ended up learning rudimentary Tamil. When a friend of mine (an Indian who lives in the US) went on a work trip to China, he fell in love with the place, made friends, learned the language, and then after a few years, convinced his company into posting him there permanently. I have seen Indians fall in love with the US, but never seen Indians in the US fall in love with China.

Reading this book brought back the painful realization that I did not become who I had wanted to become.

            Somehow in between all this, I turned 31, and stopped taking chances, taking risks. The pressure for marriage grew exponentially, this time not from my family (my mother insists that married or single, I should be what keeps me happy), but from my friends and society. Of the most recent among hundreds of such stories, some friends are trying to hook me up with a Bengali guy who works at a nearby bank. A good friend of mine was telling me the other day how she knows someone who knows someone’s someone who was single until 40, and then she met someone and married him in 3 months, pronouncing that I still had hope. My close friends started to look at my single status as a disability, not a way of life I have consciously chosen because I have not found anyone who is like me, and I am not willing to compromise. I don’t think these friends mean bad. I just think that I am in wrong company.

            Anyway, I realize that I need some soul searching. I need to break free of this cycle. I need to uproot myself again and take on new challenges. Maybe I will go back to school again and study something I have always wanted to. Maybe I will start taking Tango lessons. Maybe I will start to see the world again, although I have no idea how, with the meager amount of savings I have. I feel sorry that at some point, I gave up on myself. I failed myself. Being accepted by others and the sense of security became more important to me. When I was younger and inexperienced, I had more hopes, more dreams, and more courage. I have no idea how I lost that person in me, or how to find her again.


Thursday, March 07, 2013


          After about two months of concerted effort, I finally finished writing my dissertation proposal yesterday. I finished it sometimes past two in the morning, emailed it to my adviser, and went to sleep. When I woke up the next day, ready to meet the adviser and go over it together, the world outside was shrouded in white. The biggest snowstorm of the season had hit me, and after those 10-12 inches of snow, there was no going outside, no meeting the adviser. What followed the snowstorm was a power outage, which meant no electricity, no internet, no heat in the house, a dying phone, a dying laptop and ipad, almost no food (unless you were ready to drink cold milk and refrigerated food). I was amazed how much of my connectivity depended on technology.

            I called a friend who fortunately had electricity. If I could make my way to her place in time, I could perhaps recharge my phone, still have a phone meeting with my adviser, and continue to work on my dissertation. I tried shoveling my way to get my car outside the driveway, but even after shoveling for an hour, there was no way I could take my car out. Ironically all the snow that had accumulated on my car was now on the ground, blocking its way. Perhaps it was a sign to stay out of danger. My friend offered to pick me up, but she called me twenty minutes later to tell me she could not get her car out either. My only option now was to walk to her place.

            Which I did. I walked for another hour in the snow, oddly feeling at peace. I realized I had never walked this path before although I had driven it a hundred times now. I started noticing things I had never noticed before, the railway crossing, the houses, the trees, the lack of  a phone signal, and how oddly at peace the disconnectedness made me. By the time I had reached her place, I had managed to step into several puddles of snow and slush, and now my shoes, socks, and half of my jeans were soaking wet. What are the odds, that by the time I had reached her place, she lost electricity too. The world was conspiring against me and forcing me to take a break from work.

            I cleaned up at her place, took a shower, put my clothes in the dryer, and finally managed to eat something after exactly eating one banana and nothing more in the morning. The hour long shoveling and the hour long walk had tired me. Later that afternoon, I called the adviser, who rescheduled our meeting to the next day.

            The next day (which was today afternoon), I met with him for more than two hours, and spent the time going over what I had, the text, the tables and graphs, and all those tiny little components that went into formatting a dissertation manuscript (except the list of references, which I am yet to start making). He had some great feedback for me (which translated into more work), for the manuscript as well as for the proposal defense which is due in less than 3 weeks. I am trying not to think about the proposal defense.

            By the time I came back from the meeting, I was too tired to work. So I watched Silver Linings Playbook (did not like it at all). I still could not bring myself to work. There was something wrong I felt, something that was depressing me, although I could not specify what. And then without preamble, I started crying. The tears just fell without rhyme or reason. It wasn’t shallow or superficial, the kind of tears that fall when a favorite hero in a movie dies. Those were tears of intense pain, wrenched out of something deep inside. A part of me was weeping, and a part of me was observing me weep, without judgment, just letting it happen. Soon I was in a fetal position in bed, sobbing, gasping for breath, letting the tears flow freely. A dozen soiled tissue papers in the trashcan later, I was able to get up and write this post.

            Ever noticed how clear the weather gets after a heavy downpour? That is how I feel right now. Finishing that proposal on time was a big fat deal, and barring those revisions the adviser recommended, it felt great to get this thing off my plate. The last two months have been intense. It was not just about sitting and writing for hours every day. The process of writing a dissertation has had more meaning for me.

            For me, it opened windows to other spaces in me I have never explored fully. I have not done the typical things one does every day the last few months- I was a recluse writing away, did not socialize much, hardly met anyone, hardly drove anywhere for fun, and barely went out for dinner. However, I started working out with a vengeance. I started to feel this energy inside me building, that I had to release at the gym regularly. I became more aware of the acute muscle pains as I lifted more and more weights every day. The only days I skipped the gym was when either it was too cold or I had too much to write.

            And then other than gym, I got into more writing. This isn’t the dissertation kind of writing I am talking about. I stated writing stories (which is ironic, given one would not think of writing anything other than the dissertation at this point). My brain felt so fertile, I kept getting parallel ideas as I analyzed more data, and I itched to put them all down on paper. I started sleeping with pen and paper because some nights, I would get ideas and would have to write them down on paper. If you are judging me right now, you would think I was going insane. Actually I stopped judging my actions and learned to become a passive observer. I just kept getting wonderful, unconventional ideas and I had to write it on paper. I wrote about a poor mother who did not have enough to feed her baby. I wrote about a promising young scientist on his first date. I am so full of fictional ideas right now. 

            I feel much better after crying today. It makes me realize that crying does not have to do anything with sorrow, pain, anger, or frustration. Crying is just a way of releasing the pent up energy, the stress, the emotions, and clearing the weather. I feel more prepared to nosedive into my data analysis now, and focus on the immediate deadlines. Since I have already produced 100 plus pages of text (and I am nowhere close to being done), I guess it was time to take a long deep breath and let go.

            I will be very busy for the next three months, and don’t know if I would have the desire to write here until then (these last few months, I have strangely felt far removed from blogging, photography, and socializing). The next three months, I will be defending the proposal, flying to present at two conferences, whining about the conference I am missing in Canada because I will be too close to finishing then, finishing up the dissertation, as well as defending. It’ll be an intense time, like it has been the last few months. I don’t know what happened today, but something in me just felt so far removed from all the pain and frustration. Given how philosophical, incoherent, and out of sorts I have felt of late, the aptness of what this degree is called (a PhD) is not lost on me.