Sunday, August 16, 2015

Signs of an NRI (and RI) Socialite

Disclaimer: The author shuns responsibility for any feelings of hurt this “Honesty 12.0 on a scale of 10” post may cause. All characters that have inspired this post are certainly not fictitious, although not all of them are known to the author personally. Any resemblance to anyone living or throwing Hangover-themed parties on their fiftieth birthday is purely so not coincidental. The author has documented her observations based on years of harrowing experience of living in the US and failing miserably to blend in with the nouveau riche NRI crowd. The entertainment their over-documented, cookie-cutter celebrity lives have provided the author so much inspiration that the author has renounced any contact whatsoever with the NRI community in Europe. Love them, hate them, unfollow them, but you cannot delete them. Although primarily meant for the NRI, the average Resident Indian (RI) has also started to show such symptoms, thanks to globalization. Here are some sure shot signs of an NRI/RI-socialite, documented without any prejudice or judgment (written in first person for special effects).

1. The more pregnant we are, the filmier our lives get. By the time it gets to the pregnancy photo shoot, replete with Surf-Excel-washed flowing white clothes, pink/blue props (how innovative!), sugary-gooey loving expressions, and close up shots of sixteen different positions of the man kissing the baby bump (that is more of a hillock by now) and making heart signs with jointed fingers, you will be wallowing in self-pity, looking at your own not-so-colorful life and frantically Googling, “How to look amazing despite greying hair, hormonal earthquakes, and PMS”.

2. For someone who attends five weekend parties on an average, you will never see us wearing the same designer clothes or accessories twice. The 90-day return policies of the stores certainly help.

3. We call our close friends "girlfriend", "babe", and "bestie" on Facebook. And a bitch behind their Faceback.

Corollary: Behind every happy groupfie taken with or without a stick is a bunch of dysfunctional friendship stories gone awry due to petty jealousy.

4. The man we are standing next to, and most of the time intimately, or even being lifted up in their arms, is not our husband. In fact most of the time, the husband is the photographer, or a distant spectator.

5. We might originally hail from Kochi, Ernakulum, or Muzaffarnagar. But our children have the names of Roman Gods and Greek Goddesses. A far cry from the Hemlata, Indumati, Agniveena, or even the Nisha, Pooja, and Neha.

Nama Sutra: The art of giving our children never-heard-before names. Take a mixer. Pour plenty of Hindi alphabets you learnt in the first grade. Blend well, until they mix thoroughly. Pick up two or three alphabets at random, and combine them in any random order, creating names like Napa, Resa, Saga, Roti, Kapda. Remember, if the name makes people go scratching their heads because they have never heard it before, it is Roman and Greek enough.

6. You have never seen us without makeup. Even our family has never seen us without makeup. Go check out the makeup groups where we dedicatedly post too-close-for-comfort close-ups of our faces, giving detailed step-by-step accounts of the makeup products we used in different quadrants of our face. Talking of effort, your entire effort of writing that goddamn dissertation that you mistakenly thought would pull you out of your pitiful existence would be put to shame.

7. Our predictable display of affection for other friends is very entertaining. Most of the time, we Like and comment on the same set of people’s updates. We root for brand names, not (writing) products. The comments typically look like this:

We: “Love your dress. Your nail polish. Your shoes. Your sense of style. Your blah blah blah.”
Them: “Thank you. You inspire me. XOXOXOXO.”
We: “You inspire me too. Muaaah.” 

Did you know that the number of Likes and comments are a direct function of a person’s popularity, and hence, should not be underestimated? We sometimes ask people offline how our Facebook picture is, and nudge them to Like or leave a comment, or paste their personal email/chat messages on our cake-cutting birthday pictures. We often ask people to "show some love”, because it is not love if it does not show.

8. Akhaade-Mein-Pehelwaan, or AMP alert: We will diligently tell you about every effort we made to get a finely chiseled and sculpted body, making you look at your six pack of (fl)abs and want to die out of shame.

"My breakfast was 50 push ups, 50 pull ups, 50 deadlifts, and 50 Surya Namaskars. For main course, did yoga and Zumba. For dessert, held a buffalo for five minutes to build bicep strength. Loved getting hot and sweaty. Now, time for chocolate pastries." (Hashtag: Loveyourbody, hardcorehotness). To which, rain comments like, "Love your dedication. What an inspiration!"

N.B.: We never ate that chocolate pastry. That was just to distract you, and make you crave for desserts.

9. Our moms and dads are also on Facebook, and usually comment on our funnily scandalous pictures with Alok-Nathish-sanskaari comments like, "God bless you beta.", or, “You are our baby doll.” (Parents, do you know what a baby doll really means?). In case of pictures from trips to exotic islands, our parents mostly write Tagore quotes in pure Bangla in the comments section that no one else understands.

10. We usually comment on other friends' pictures, writing things like, "hawwt momma", and "yummy momma" (although they are neither our mom, nor hot; far from it). Imagine your average Mashima from Midnapore, calling your Mom “Garam Ma” or “Swadisht Ma”. Yeah, I know. When said in English, even the most inappropriate of terms sound sassy and cool.

11. For your birthdays, you visit the local deity and the restaurant to celebrate with friends and family. If the birthday is the 50th one, you hide in your basement. When we turn 50, we fly to Vegas with a bunch of friends, ride limousines, drink champagne, gamble, throw themed costume parties, and wear identical tee-shirts with identical slogans to show solidarity.

12. Chin up. Hands on hips. Turn body to a 45 degree slant. These are not confidence-boosting mantras, but posing tricks that can effectively take care of the double chin, the hanging biceps, and the sagging tummy, respectively. And talking about pictures, if there aren’t any close up pictures of every food item, including the chips and the soda, the party was as good as having never happened at all.

13. Date nights occur more frequently than trips to the grocery store, post office, or bank in our household.  

14. One of the epic lines in my favorite movie When Harry Met Sally is when Harry tells Sally, “It is so nice when you can sit with someone and not have to talk.” That’s why every vital conversation with the partner, from when we will be home to how much we love one another, and even wishing each other Happy Birthday and Happy Anniversary is made on Facebook.

15. Significant, coolness-enhancing, once-in-a-lifetime events like road trips need special, live updates. Crossed a field. Saw a tree. Stopped by the gas station and took a selfie. Ate roti and achaar while watching the sunset. You get the picture.

16. If a new child arrives without preamble, a maternity photo shoot, an elaborate baby shower, periodic documentation of every emotional crest and trough mapped on the pregnancy curve, or live updates from the hospital, the new child is probably a puppy, kitty, or a new car.

Lastly, you see our pictures from five years ago, and we look like totally normal people.


Saturday, August 08, 2015

Frankfurt Diaries

Truth is stranger than fiction. On a Saturday night at 11 pm, I sat in a bar right in the heart of a red-light district, sipping on orange juice, and working. I had a bus to take back home in two hours, and it made more sense to be indoors than outdoors. This area is right by the Hauptbahnhoff, the central station. I had a few more hours to kill, and it made sense to work, and watch guys pick up girls, amid glasses of beer and other alcoholic beverages.

Europe is amazingly open-minded this way. In India, I wouldn’t even dare walk close to the red-light districts, even during the day. Even in the US, these areas always had a bunch of cop cars flashing their blue lights, letting you know that these areas are not trouble-free. In Europe, no one cares. No one bothers you. There are no cops. People, families, pets, and kids walk around without any hesitation, even as late as after midnight. No one will do anything to you (unless you want something to be done to you). This area I was staying at is infested with sex shops, strip clubs, blue film theaters, and what not. And right next to those were ice cream shops, the Indian grocery store, an all-vegetarian South Indian restaurant, a Starbucks, and what not. It seemed like the pimps, prostitutes, strippers, call girls, drug addicts, devout vegetarians, traffic police, beggars, restaurant owners, and tourists, all co-existed together in the same neighborhood. That is so remarkable, and truly the mark of a progressive society.

Traveling is always enlightening. It shows me things that are unimaginable. And Frankfurt is by no means anything like the tiny city I live in, where I get to see mostly Germans. Ever since I left the US, I have missed seeing demographic diversity. Never before have I been in a country that is a melting pot of so many people, so many cultures across everywhere in the world. Living where I live now, Germany looks very German, very White. But Frankfurt is more cosmopolitan. This is the only city I have seen in Germany that looks closest to the US.

Transportation in Frankfurt is also something to be admired (true in most big European cities). The neighborhoods of Frankfurt are extremely well-connected. There is a thick network of lines for the trains, buses, metros, and trams. One could reach any corner of the city in no time. The metro is marked U with numbers (U1, U2, etc.), and runs every five minutes. A daily pass costs €6.80, giving one access to any train, bus, or tram (basically, anything that moves). People compare Berlin to Washington DC (country’s capital), and Frankfurt to New York City (the financial capital, also known as the “Main”hattan, because the river Main flows by Frankfurt). I can totally see why.

Picture: The Frankfurt Skyline.

I spent some time walking around the city, by the river Main, touring the Goethe University campus, riding the trains, climbing churches, and generally taking in the sights and sounds of a new city. I have been flying via Frankfurt for the last nine years now, but never before did I visit the city. There was a visible skyline of tall concrete buildings in the downtown area. Although much smaller compared to the major US cities like New York City and San Francisco, this is the most American looking set of concrete buildings I have seen in Germany.

I stayed in a hostel (as always) on Kaisserstrasse. The neighborhood is very red-light, like I said, but nothing that makes you feel unsafe. The plus points: It’s a five minute walk from the central station, the neighborhood is full of restaurants and stores, and this place is within walking distance from any major tourist attraction. In short, you cannot go wrong with the location. The neighborhood was alive and throbbing with activity even at midnight.

The hostel was clean, functional, and promised what it offered for the amount it charged. I love to travel on budget and live in hostels, so this was great. If you like to travel in luxury, this is not the place for you. If you do not want to spend extra money, carry everything with you. What you pay for is a bed in the hostel, and access to showers and bathrooms. Beyond that, they charge you for everything: Towels, soap, shampoo, breakfast (€4.50 for all you can eat), and padlocks for your locker. The strange thing is, they charged me €5 extra because it was Friday night, although eight out of the ten beds in the room were empty that night. My bus was 13 hours after the checkout time, and the good thing is that they let me wait in the common room, and then at the bar for that long. The internet is free, although the connection is not superb, and you have to refresh your connection every three hours. I was there for three nights, and there was a constant inflow of traffic in my room. The interesting thing is that I shared a ten-bed female dorm, and every single person other than me was Asian. Well, technically, I am from Asia too, but not Asian.

Do not miss eating at Saravanaa Bhavan on Kaisserstrasse (no free internet, the staff is really friendly and gave me extra helpings of sambar and chutney all the time, desi kids are a pain and made a mess at the table) and the Hyderabadi Biryani in Ruchi (Ludwigstrasse; internet is free, kids continue to make a mess, making the table look like a war-zone). The ice cream shops along the area (€1/scoop) were pretty good too. The other nice thing was huffing and puffing while climbing up the Frankfurt Cathedral (€3-4). My biggest advice is, travel Europe while you are physically fit. Because Europe means a lot of churches. And that involves climbing on top of them to get panoramic views. Many of these churches are old, do not have elevators, and involve climbing up hundreds of flights of steps in roundabout stairways. Sometimes, all you have are railings and ropes to hold on to. And when someone is descending the same way, all you can do is tuck in your tummy, stop breathing, and hope that you do not trip and fall.

I am beginning to realize that most big European cities are structured similarly. There will be rivers and canals, with many bridges to walk by. Some of those bridges will be weighed down by locks the lovers leave after inscribing their names. There will be a few churches you can get on top of to get nice panoramic views. There will be food districts, and red-light districts. Hamburg, Frankfurt, Berlin, Dresden, Copenhagen, Malmoe, Paris, Geneva, Luebeck, Prague, the cities look similar. Perhaps Lisbon and Sintra (both in Portugal) are the only two cities that looked a little different.

My next trip will be a tri-capital trip. Helsinki-Tallinn-Riga. The capital cities for Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, respectively.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Responding versus Reacting

I get roughly 20 emails from the department and the university every day. I delete all of them. Because every time, they are written in German.

I deleted a similar email one morning. However, I knew the content of the email. It was about a summer potluck party at the department. I knew that all my colleagues would go. However, my knee-jerk reaction was- “If they don't care about telling me things in a language I understand, I do not care to go.” I hit delete. I thought that I would forget about it. I did not.

Something just left me feeling sour. I am one of the very few international hires here, maybe one out of 2-3. My biggest frustration in Germany has been the language barrier. Although one of the main goals of my institute is to get noticed globally and go international, they do not make any effort to do so. People email in German. People speak in German. Meetings are in German. It is pointless for me to attend any meeting or social event. Isolation and loneliness have been my biggest concerns here. Quite contrary to my social nature, I see people, and I run in the opposite direction.

However, I wondered if there was anything I could do to change the situation. An hour after I had deleted the email, I retrieved it from the trash, and sent a polite reply, asking if the person could kindly translate the email for me. Within less than five minutes, I got a reply, apologizing to me about not remembering to do it, and promising that they would do it right away. The matter was resolved.

I realize that isolation is cyclic. People write emails in German, hence I delete them, do not go to these socializing events, and hence feel isolated. Since I do not show up, people do not notice me, and continue to communicate in German. This way, the chain of isolation never breaks. People are not bad by nature. They just tend to forget things they are not used to doing. I am a minority, and people forget about me. But instead of doing what I do every time (get mad, delete email, whine, get distressed, repeat behavior in a negative-feedback loop), I stopped reacting, and responded for a change. I became the change I wanted to see. I empowered myself. I realized that people are willing to help you, but you have to take the first step and ask for help. 

The summer party was excellent. I have never seen a more delicious spread. I am so glad that I went.  


Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Is this also sexism?

Recently, I got acquainted with a young gentleman through some common friends. A personable, soft-spoken, and affable gentleman who works abroad, drives, travels, and takes nice pictures. The photography-bit probably got me interested in prolonging the small talk. I realized that he was one of those who lived in the desi hubs of foreign land, hung out with desis, spent his weekends cooking desi food and traveling with more desis. Nothing wrong with that of course, so I chatted some more, asking about more personal information. Like, family.

He tells me that he has a younger brother, although the brother is a sister. I am clearly confused at this point, unable to understand, and ask him to explain. He beams, telling me that his younger sister grew up to be pretty independent, taking care of the family, their ageing parents and all since he left for foreign shores. She took responsibility for the bank, and sundry other such things back in India, and he was so impressed that he now calls her his younger brother.

Something didn’t sound right to me. I mean, he was all nice and warm and well-spoken, but something was really wrong with his values, with what he said. A sister becomes a brother when she turns out to be smart, independent, and responsible? I smelled sexism. Not sexism as in beating up a defenseless woman and looking down upon a woman and other such heinous crimes. This was more subtle, implicit, and innocuous. But it felt like sexism nevertheless.

I don’t know what you would have done if you were in my place. I mean, here, we were conversing effortlessly, with no undercurrents or looming tension. Confronting him, even most gently, would have made things uncomfortable. I shifted. I tried distracting myself, thinking of other things. But something did not feel right. I was convinced that if I did not confront him today, and told him why it sounded all wrong, I would be a hypocrite. A coward. I never participate in scathing Facebook conversations, where people fill up discussions with their strong, confrontational, opinionated views, provoking more confrontational views. I try to remain non-confrontational, not because I do not care, but because experience tells me that people are seldom willing to consider alternate viewpoints. But I had to say something here.

So I told him, that it sounded very wrong to me. I told him how my dad used to say the same thing, that his daughter is equivalent to a son, not realizing that what he thought was praise was actually demeaning me. Just because I had certain desirable attributes didn’t make me a man. I told him in the most genteel way possible. He was educated, he had traveled the world, and I assumed that he would understand. Perhaps he did. I don't know. 

He was clearly uncomfortable. And defensive. Embarrassed too. He repeatedly tried explaining that it was just a metaphor, a figure of speech, and I should not take it that seriously. Not once did he take responsibility. Not once did he say that I made him see something new, think of something in a new way. He did not own up to his views (“I see what you are saying. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I will reflect upon them”) He just kept asking me to not take things so seriously. He kept shifting responsibility to my side.

Which is fine. At least I did my part. Hopefully made a difference. And I hope that in some little way, I made him think.


Saturday, June 27, 2015

An educational dream

Between the mid-eighties and the mid-nineties, my first school was one located in a small town in Orissa. I still have vivid memories of certain things there; the two mango trees, the bougainvillea tree right at the entrance, and the huge playground that smoked of dust. We did not have electric bells. A huge piece of metal used to hang from the branches of the mango tree, and the bell man would hop onto a paved wall, and bang the metal, hammer in hand, to ring the bell. Unsuspecting little children unaware of him around and playing happily would often get startled and start crying at the loud sound of metal that reached the far corners of the school, heralding the end of a class period.

For the longest time, I wanted to know where the nuns lived. One day, I got lost on purpose, and walked through a small garden to see a door slightly ajar. I peeped through, looking at a room with the most antique looking furniture and a huge piano sitting at a corner, with stained glass windows. They used to call it the parlor. This was also the time when I was beginning to read Bronte and Charles Dickens, and the room had looked straight out of one of these novels. I always thought that our nuns from the school had come here to teach from Ireland. Later, I learnt that most of them were from Kerala. Back then as a fourth grader, my secret desire was to convert to Christianity, become one of them, and spend my evenings reading at the parlor.

Last night, I had a very vivid dream. I dreamed that I was sitting on the ground by the trees with a few professors from Virginia, discussing research ideas, and a proposal we wanted to submit to the National Science Foundation. They had no inkling that this was my first school. Everything looked ten times vivid, there were greener and more mangoes on the trees, the oranges were really orange (although I do not remember an orange tree in school), and there were many more children playing around us. And sitting there by the shade of the trees, we discussed research ideas. In my dreams, we had transcended all barriers- country, visa, race, and language. I had gone back to where all the education had started. Of course when I woke up, the rational mind could not connect the dots and kept asking, "How is this possible?" But in my dreams, memories from my childhood and other recent memories had nicely merged into one single landscape.


Friday, June 26, 2015

Memories from a childhood home

I often fondly remember visiting the home where my mother grew up. I used to spend a significant amount of my summer vacations here, doing "hurohuri" and "dushtumi" (childlike mischief) with the first cousins. We played with flowers plucked secretly from the neighbors' plants, broken pieces of earthen pots used to drink tea, pebbles, and other assortments that I used to have a lot of fun throwing into the well when no one was looking, watching the ripples in water expand. There was a hand pump behind the well, and my favorite activity used to be pumping water from it, my three feet form almost hanging like a monkey, it took so much effort to pump water. The domestic help led a fascinating life back then according to me because she could sweep floors, go to the nearby pond to wash clothes, and play with water all day.

This house used to be full of people. My three grandpas, three grandmas, and a bunch of uncles and aunts, the sons with the daughter-in-laws, and the daughters visiting with the son-in-laws. During a certain wedding in this house, I had gone missing one hot afternoon, only to be found next to one snoozing uncle, dancing to the music from the blaring loudspeakers by myself. Renting wedding homes were not in vogue back then.

There used to be a big wooden table in the balcony that led up to the well. That used to be my favorite hangout spot, where I would climb the table, lie on my belly, and watch the ongoing of the household, the grandmas lighting up the coal-fueled stoves to cook, the domestic help (Mongola'r ma, or Mongola's mother) scurrying around, and the men of the household busy eating rice and fish curry before they left for office. I always thought that the domestic help’s name was “Mongola's mother”, not understanding that her daughter's name is Mongola and we never knew her real name. Since I was too short to climb the table, I used props like chairs or hang on to other adults standing nearby to climb the table like a monkey. Once there, I used to get a good vantage point to see the entire household. Buri pishi, an old widowed grandma, used to sit near me, watching other people as well. She used to tickle my feet when unaware, something that really annoyed me.

After seeing better days, this house was locked for years, before meeting its expected fate, being sold to a Marwari contractor who eventually demolished it and raised matchbox apartments in its place. Most of the elders passed, and the other people moved on to newer and more modern homes closer to the city. And while this house met its expected fate, the many sights, smells, and sounds of my childhood remained locked within its doors. Waking up to the sound of the dhobi beating up the clothes in the nearby field also known as the washerman's field. Being warned not to go upstairs without an escort because the "chhele dhora" or the child kidnapper would vanish with little children hiding in his bag (a clever ploy to prevent children from venturing to the attic with low brick walls). And visiting the nearby Kali temple every evening, with a three-storied tall Kali goddess sporting one thousand hands, a sight to truly behold.


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Bollywood Jolly Good

Friend: You must be feeling like that girl in that movie today.

Me: Which movie? Which girl?

Friend: 1989 A Love Story. With Anil Kapoor.

Me: You mean 1942 A Love Story?

Friend: Yeah, yeah. That movie released in 1989.

Me: Actually that movie released in 1994.

Friend: Okay, okay. I will not contest your Bollywood knowledge.

Me: And what song were you talking about?

Friend hums a song with full gusto.

Me: Err .... I think you are talking about Manisha Koirala. And that is Salman Khan and not Anil Kapoor. It is Khamoshi. Even the movie is wrong. And so is the year. And it is "Aaj main upar, aasma neechey".

Bollywood discussions make me feel jolly good. 


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Shoe-cially Incorrect Behavior

Woman from Craigslist shows up. I specifically remove my flip flops outside the door to send her a message.

Woman does not get message and walks in. I specifically stare at her shoes. She still does not get the message.

Suddenly, I feel that I am too tired to tell her something so obvious. So I try to finish our transaction as soon as possible.

What I should have done: Asked her politely to remove her shoes.

What I am doing: Fuming and regretting not telling her, long after she is gone and I vacuumed everywhere she walked. And then, whining some more and writing about it.

Regrets don't always come from telling people what you should not have. Often, they also come from not telling people what you should have.


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Losing friends

I lost two of my closest friends to a car accident earlier this year. I have seldom felt grief of this magnitude. The significant people in my family are all alive, and never before has the passing of loved ones left me so lonely, confused, and bewildered.

Based on what little I know about what happened that day, I have constructed my own reality, and replayed the events so many times in my head. Every time, I think of a different sequence of events, but all leading to the same outcome- that they escape unscathed. What if they had decided not to drive, but watch a movie at home? What if they got a flat tire and pulled over? There are thousands of such "what if" outcomes I have played in my head again and again. My pain is possibly not bigger than the pain of their family members. I cannot imagine what they are going through. But it feels like this has left a gaping hole in my heart, a hole that may never mend. I often find myself wondering if this is a bad dream, where I will wake up in the morning and realize that none of this happened. Sometimes, I stare at the water blankly, or walk on the streets without direction, and cry. Sometimes, I go through the hundreds of pictures I had taken of them, imagining them to be somewhere in another world throwing parties, feeding an army, and spreading joy.

This incident has shaken me at two levels. First, the loss of such close friends, people with such magnanimous hearts, people I have nothing but happy memories with, is unbearable. Second, knowing that someone would intentionally drive on the wrong side of the freeway towards oncoming traffic in a state of drunkenness is unimaginable. I wish to get inside the darkest recesses of the perpetrator's mind and understand what was he thinking when he took that U-turn on the freeway. When you are drunk, you stay home. The last thing you do is drive, let alone drive on the wrong side of the freeway. I have been so traumatized that I often find myself looking for traffic in the wrong direction when crossing the road. Sometimes, I feel a moment of a disoriented state, not knowing which way the traffic would be coming from.

I don't know how to snap out of this state of stupor. Sometimes, I think that I should write down everything I remember about them, penning down four years worth of memories to immortalize them in my own way. Writing is therapeutic. They have given me nothing but unalloyed joy, and everything I write will be a happy chapter. Each of us who knew them is going though their own personal journey of processing pain and grief. Each of us has our own trove of happy stories.

One day, Mr. Friend was recounting how Mrs. Friend loved to make conversation for hours, and never hung up the phone soon enough. So one morning when she hung up in 45 minutes, Mr. Friend asked who it was and how come the conversation was so short. Mrs. Friend said, "It was a wrong number."

I could not stop laughing, and asked her if it was true. With all earnestness, she told me that the lady on the other side of the line got comforted by her voice, and poured out her heart. The unknown lady was so miserable, visiting her son and daughter-in-law from another country, feeling stuck at their home because none of them talked to the old woman. Such is the magic of my friends. Even complete strangers felt no hesitation opening up their hearts to them.


Monday, June 22, 2015

A philosophical rant on moving

As the young girl and her grandfather loaded the disassembled dresser into the pickup truck, I looked outside from the door, realizing that people like me who are constantly on the move will never get attached to material things. There are people who hold on to things small and big, handed down over generations. Then there are people like me who could, in a month’s notice, nicely fit everything they care for into little boxes, put them in a car, and take off. I was not like that always. But I am like that now. I have moved so many times, that I do not feel attached to most material things anymore.

Two years ago this time, I had moved to a new home with a lot of excitement. I had designed and decorated, hung curtains, hammered shelves, picked up rugs, stuck travel magnets on the fridge, made multiple rounds to my favorite home decoration stores, and had scrubbed, cleaned, dusted, cooked and entertained with a lot of energy. I fell in love with the morning sunlight streaming through the glass doors in the living room.

But then, I have also had days, weeks, and months, when I was left without a place to call my own. I have lived in people’s homes, slept in their couches, and packed my life into little cardboard boxes, taking some of my life with me and giving away most.

Attachments with anything or anyone are but ephemeral, especially for foreigners like me who are constantly on the move. I changed six homes during my eight year stay in the US. I don’t just work in short-term contracts, but I also live life in short-term contracts. Whether it is good or bad, I do not know. But going through this exercise breaks the ego, breaks attachment, and frees you. It makes you buy things that you need, and not things that you want. It makes you appreciate the value of things more than the price of things. Look around you now and see how many things you will be able to let go. Despite being an avid magnet collector, I went up to the Rocky Mountains but never bought a magnet. What is the point? When I look around me, I don’t see many things I absolutely need. Sure, my passport and my degrees and the laptop. And nice little notes I have collected over the years, handwritten letters from friends, wedding invitations and birthday cards, little clothes of babies who are growing up and sending me more notes in their garbled handwritings telling me that they love me, tiny rocks I collected while hiking up the Alps, a little trinket from my trip to Paris, a handwritten recipe scribbled by my dad for days when I feel homesick. Try doing this exercise every year. Try letting go of things, possessions, and attachments every year. Try packing every year, even though you are not moving. You will feel very differently about life, and about people. Free. Uncluttered. Unfettered.

Empty rooms and bare walls echo louder. The house seems even bigger with all the furniture gone. I could easily be practicing football in the living room, or hosting a dance show. And philosophically speaking, when you finally leave, you take nothing with you. Sure you leave a trail of things behind, children and journal papers and bestseller books. But you take nothing, not your wallet, not car keys, not a family picture, not your hard earned degrees. Not even you. My adviser once told me, “We do not own things. We only borrow them in life for a little while. This idea of buying and owning things is an illusion.” I am sure that he has forgotten what he said, but I remember.


Saturday, June 20, 2015


2014 was a remarkable year for me in many ways. It brought in many a heartbreaks, and boundless joy. This is an exercise for me to remember some of the significant things of the year.


First day of the year, I bid goodbye to Seattle after a wonderful holiday break. I land at the airport in the middle of a cold and wintry night. It had snowed the day before. In the process of driving back home on the freeway, I skid on black ice, not once, but twice. I am about to hit the side rails, driving at 50 mph on an 80 mph freeway, holding on to the steering for life, and waiting to be hit by any car, either from behind or head on. My life flashes by me in a few seconds. A miracle happens, and the car stops, barely a few inches from the guard rails. I am alive and unscathed, and have the presence of mind to not linger there, but quickly drive. My hands are shaking, I keep driving for the next 60 miles with my emergency lights on, and that was the longest night in my life. I come home and break down. I had a minor whiplash, and suffered from mental trauma. So much that it took me at least a month until I started feeling normal while driving again. I take the next day off to recover, but have to eventually go to work. For many weeks after that, something strange happened to me, and I stopped piling up food in the fridge. I started buying only as much as I would need for the next two days. For some reason, I could still not accept that I was alive, and stopped buying things, in case something drastic happens again.


February is a blur. The only thing I remember is driving to attend Saraswati Puja. This time, I was extra careful, and drove only during the daylight. Winter is at its peak, and every day is a misery. The Midwest sees a record of low temperature. I pray to God everyday that I don’t have to see another winter in Nebraska. In the midst of everything, I win a dissertation award, chosen among the top three finalists in my field. 


The beginning of March was the Academy Award ceremony. We watched it at a colleague’s place, who had cooked up a storm. Winter is kind of about to end, although it is still very cold. The ides of March, I learn that my contract will not renew next year. The job hunting starts. End of March, friends visit me from Seattle and Boston. It is the first time someone visits me in Nebraska. I had left hope that anyone would be even remotely interested in seeing this place. I was wrong. The last day of March, I have a conference presentation in Pittsburgh.


Beginning of April, I am away for conferences. After the one in Pittsburgh, I take a break at Washington DC for a few days, and meet up old friends. The train ride from Pittsburgh to Washington DC turns out to be quite inexpensive and relaxing. I visit the World Bank, and get very inspired about working there. I next go to Philadelphia for another conference and meet up with more friends. I realize that I have more friends in all the corners of the US than I have had in any other country. I am visiting Philadelphia after 6 years, and miss some of my old friends who used to live there. The weather starts to get better in Nebraska by mid-April. I discover a fantastic sushi place, and start frequenting there for the happy hours. The job hunt is still on.


I start going to these Friday art walks (held in many cities on the first Friday of every month), and start enjoying the experience. The job hunt is still on. I have applied to a bunch of places in the US, more than I can keep track of. But nothing seems to be working out. I am still hopeful, my visa does not expire until the end of August. Memorial Day, another friend from Idaho visits me. I am amazed at how many people are starting to visit me. The weather is much better now, leaning towards the hotter, humid side. I would prefer that any day over the cold and snow. I start driving more, and exploring the nearby lakes and forests. My friend and I are supposed to explore the Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore. An hour into our 10-hour long road trip, my car breaks down for the first time. I have no clue what’s happening. We call the hotels and cancel our reservation, and spend the next 3 days at home, waiting for the car to be fixed. My friend is pretty cool about it, but I keep getting restless. This is the first time in many years that it is a holiday and I am not traveling.
In the meantime, I am still looking for a job, and now start talking to Indian friends who got a PhD from the US and then moved elsewhere. A particular friend who moved to Israel asks me to explore the options there. I am not terribly excited about Israel, I am still hoping that something works out in the US. I cast a wider net and start contacting faculty all over the country. In the meantime, I identify a good program in Israel, and contact the head. He asks me if I am willing to learn Hebrew. I say yes. Something in me is utterly lost and disappointed. He asks me to contact him in a few months, but in the meantime, contact a renowned research institution in Germany. This raises my hopes. I had loved Europe from my visits before. I contact the organization in Germany. End of May, I contact them. I hear back within a day, telling me that there is no available position. The next day, the head writes me back, asking if I would be willing to visit for 4 months. I miss going to my PhD graduation ceremony


I decide to go to Colorado for the first time, to meet my friend from college. I take the Amtrak to Denver (an amazing overnight train ride, cheaper and way comfortable than driving).  I meet my friend after 12 years and relive old memories. We drive down to the Rocky Mountain National Park, and other places like Vail. In the meantime, I hear back from at least 6 places I had previously applied to, asking if I am available to interview. I am on top of the world. I know that something is going to work out now. I had applied to two positions in Colorado alone. After my trip, I now start to hope that the job in Colorado works out. The rest of the month is spent interviewing with these places, and waiting. In the meantime, Germany has decided to offer me a position for a year (as opposed to four months), and now wait for my answer.


The positions I applied to are either not contacting me, or asking me for more time. I set a deadline of July 15, and decide not to prolong Germany. More friends visit me from Seattle for the July 4th weekend. This is the third set of friends visiting me. Germany won the world cup football. And I decided to move.


August mostly involved packing, moving, and numerous trips to Goodwill. There was some confusion with the date of my moving out, as a result of which, I had to pack and move out on one evening’s notice. Although I was preparing for it for a while now, it was sudden. I hardly got time to mourn my move. By the first day of August, I had moved in with a friend. He sponsored a wonderful farewell dinner for me at a very nice local restaurant, where I had duck for the first time. I started for my first solo road trip in the first week of August. For the next 25 days, I was on the road, travelling 8,000 miles across 22 states. My three-week long criss-cross country solo road trip ended in Seattle. It started in the middle of the country (Lincoln, Nebraska), going south (Houston, Texas), north (Chicago, Illinois), east (Washington DC) and west (Seattle, Washington). The distance I drove was the distance between Washington DC and India, via Europe. I met 42 old friends in the process, and made 9 new friends. In this process, I also got a renewed Indian passport and a new German visa. There were no speeding tickets.


September 5th, I sold my car. I lived for a month in Seattle, meeting old and new people, hiking Rainier and other places in Washington, and enjoying my last Durga Puja in Seattle.


I moveto Germany. I make my first friend there, a South Korean friend. I discover the only Starbucks in the city. I start enjoying the habit of watching huge cruise ships on a daily basis.


I make my second friend there. Also South Korean. I get my residence and work permit. I am slowly developing roots in Germany.


I visit my first Christmas Market (Weihnachtsmarkt) in Germany. I have my first Glühwein (glow wine or mulled wine). I submit my first grant. I visit Calcutta.


Friday, June 19, 2015


As a kid, I would anticipate my cousins' summer visits with a lot of excitement. Summers were so much fun, having three siblings to play with, instead of one. For six weeks, everyday would feel like Sunday. There would be endless playing, swinging from trees, getting dirt and mud everywhere, with very little monitoring from mom.

Mom would be very busy attending to more people in the household. Grandma would fry endless rounds of sweets, while fancy fish and meat dishes would be cooked every day. During the evenings, the elders would get busy watching movies, renting VCRs and videocassettes from the stores. This would give us even more time to play, with no school and homework. Once a day, there would be reminders about taking the shower on time, or finishing that Math chapter, but as long as you did not do something pretty drastic like set the room on fire or break a bone while jumping from the sofa, one could pretty much escape being constantly monitored.

Sometimes, we would all visit the nearby market for rounds of chaat and tandoori chicken resplendent with artificial red color. The memory of the smell of burnt meat in iron griddles still makes me nostalgic and hungry. We would hop on to rickshaws, and often wave to the cousins in excitement, my hair flying in the evening sea breeze as mercury dipped.

The older people passed, the cousins grew up, and we moved out. Summer vacations became meaningless after school. People got busier, the big homes turned into high rise buildings with matchbox apartments, and the thrill of computers replaced the joy of swinging from the trees and collecting raw mangoes in our skirts.

But I relived the excitement in my adult life every time someone visited my home. There are many friends who visited me during my eight-year long stay in the US. And instead of the childlike excitement with little responsibility, I saw myself doing some of what my mom used to do back then- cleaning the home, planning the food, and planning where to take my friends. The era of the childhood is gone, and what remained is the excitement recreated with different people, in an almost different life, in a different country. And as I write this, I realize that Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, or even the phone can never replace the thrill of anticipating somebody's arrival in person. Nothing can replace the joy of meeting someone in person.


Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Hype with Skype

My mom did not have a Skype account for the longest time. She resisted learning and creating something new, until she could do it no more. I pestered her for months, threatened to stop calling her, and what not. Last year, she eventually did. And she told me while I was walking to work at am, and she was standing in the balcony at pm, about 8,000 miles, ten and a half hours, and a few continents away.

“I finally learnt to create a Skype account.”


“Yes. Did you get a message?”

“ What message?”

“ I thought that Skype would let you know I created an account.”

“ No, Skype will not let me know. YOU will have to let me know. Do you know my Skype id?”

“ No.”

“ What is yours?”

(She whispers it to me).

“Why are you whispering your id?”

“ I do not want the neighbors to know!”


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Signs of a bestselling author in the making

My mom says the most hilarious things with earnestness. This is what she told me one day-

“Do you know how creative you are? Oh my God!”

And I said, “Really? It took you like 33 years to figure out that I am creative?”

To which she said, “You should totally write a book. You'd be a bestselling author. You write so well, I love reading your posts on FB. In fact half the time, I do not even understand what you are writing!”

Well, I am pretty sure that she wasn't being sarcastic. So I wonder if being a bestselling author really means people not understanding half the stuff you write about.


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Impromptu Poetry

One day, I wrote this while taking the bus to work.

Today was my most gorgeous day
Hot and sultry, inching towards May
The sky with the deepest promises of blue
The water in Lake Washington mirroring its hue
Dissecting it, stood the longest floating bridge
Towering above were the Cascades, and the Olympics' ridge
And there stood the Rainier, mighty and tall
To be admired at, and mesmerized by all
The view from the bus was a visual treat
With hopes and promises did Seattle greet
Yet alone, I sat mesmerized, none in my wonder journey join
Heads bowed to technology, everyone was busy staring at their groin
If only they'd looked up, what all they'd see
The sight of Heaven on Earth, that's how it'd be.


Monday, June 15, 2015

New Memories in Seattle

The morning I reached Seattle, G was there to pick me up. Seeing her made me feel like I had never really left, but just gone for a short vacation to Europe. Her place has always been my home in Seattle. That's where I left from when I moved to Germany. Once back, I did not have to hunt for my room. It was all right there, with all my stuff, just as I had left it. The bathroom had my soap and shampoo, everything that I had left behind, exactly like that. The bed, the couch, it all felt the same. But I totally realized that I am home when she dangled two huge, football-sized onions in front of my nose and told me, "Here, chop them finely, now that you are here."

As much as I hate chopping onions and garlic, arguing that my fine motor skills are bad, that's my duty in this home. It's not a bad deal at all, staying home, being entertained by the kids, and all I have to do is chop onions and peel garlic every day.
We chatted for a long time that day. I am not a tea-drinker, unless I have company. I had two cups of tea. All this tea and catching up on the gossip made me realize how much of a history we have, going strong ever since I moved to Seattle nine years ago, when she had hosted me. Her home was my first home in the US.

After seven years of graduating from there, I found myself walking the campus, looking at the same buildings, the fountain, the Quad, and the Red Square. This campus is full of my favorite nook and corners, the Burke-Gilman trail I used to walk daily, the U Village, the same buses 372 and 68 and 75. It made me realize, my life is nothing but hundreds of terabytes of memories from different chapters. My life will probably not make any sense without those memories. If someone erased my memory today, I would not know what to do next.

I found my department, went up the stairs, found a quiet corner, and started my laptop. I had no hopes of connecting to the internet. However, a very familiar page opened, asking me for my id and password. I had not used that id since 2008, and didn't think it was alive anymore. I put in my information. And there, I was connected!

It looked like although the id is dead, I could use that to connect to the university internet.

And much later at night, 24 hours into reaching Seattle, I had a visitor from Idaho. We never stopped talking after that.

Despite the many great things that Seattle is, commuting in bus is complicated. You pay $2.50 every time you take the Sound Transit. However, they do not give you a transfer. Other buses give you a transfer for 2 hours only. However, there is no concept of a day pass. Getting an Orca card means added investment, which doesn't make sense for me. To pay the $2.50, I need to carry exact change. In summary, it is complicated.

A 3-day bus pass in Chicago had cost me $21. A 10-day bus pass cost me $29. I scanned the entire city, but could not find a 10-day pass. Everyone was out of them. So I had to get three individual 3-day passes. But it was still better than no bus pass. You do not realize these things when you drive around. Taking the public transport is a different story.

A few days later, I visited the nearby temple, and was amused by two particular things the leader of the temple said-

"Your soul does not belong to Microsoft. It belongs to Krishna (God)."

"When you pray, don't ask for promotions, raises, cars, and houses. That's not a prayer. That's making a business deal."

Some of you might remember Baby Kalyani, who is all of six now. You could teach good values to your children as much as you want to. But when Aunt sunshine is in town, all of that will go down the drain. Seriously, it is so much fun to spoil your friends' kids.

So the 6-year old learns classical music, and wanted to teach me a certain devotional song she knows. It goes like, "Parvati nandana bala ganesha ... Vighna vinasha varada Ganesha."

And I said, enough of this baby. Now let's learn some devotional songs from my collection.

So the little one sang, "Dum maro dum, mit jaaye gum, bolo subah shaam, hare krishna hare raam", and "Jai jai shiv Shankar” for the next few days, without realizing that these songs picturized people high on crack and totally stoned.

The next few days, life fell into a beautiful rhythm. We often find the routine of a Monday to Friday work life monotonous, and seek excitement in the unknown. I myself have often fantasized about a life without roots, without set geographical boundaries. But I am discovering all the excitement and beauty there is in a life well-grounded, well-balanced, and with a clear sense of purpose.

Despite my initial anxiety about not having a phone, car, or address, life fell into a beautiful pattern of regularity. I would be on campus three days a week, and work for home for the rest of the days. And I would travel on the weekends. I love the work I did there. G would drop me and pick me up from the Park & Ride or from Target. I took the Sound Transit, and then walked for a good 30 minutes one way, soaking in the beauty of Seattle. I had tea with G in the mornings, and ate dinner with the kids. I enjoyed all the music as the little one practiced her Sa-Re-Ga-Ma every day. We took long walks, admiring the view of the mountains. Living with G is like living on the sets of the movie Chennai Express, with all the andre-pandre I can make no sense of. But it is comforting to hear all the andre-pandre, and coming back to a place that feels like home. Her husband once told me that G can even talk to a wall if there is no one else in the room. And with more flexibility with my work hours now, I got to meet other friends, and explore restaurants, new and old.

Working. Socializing. Reliving old memories and making new ones. Traveling to other cities, and welcoming friends from other cities who visited me. Seattle and I have always had a history, an energy I have felt with no other place. If I could paint a picture of a perfect life, this would be it.