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.


Saturday, June 13, 2015

Little Sentences. Baby Steps.

The last time I went to the post office in Germany (they call it a postbank), the gentleman had almost barked at me, since I spoke no Deutsche. Of course why I was at the post office is a topic worth a brief rant. Germany does not believe in making your life easy by sending stuff through email, and this has been said to me by no other than the Germans themselves. I had to submit some medical bills for a doctor’s visit to my health insurance. What it meant was typing a cover letter, signing it by hand, and posting it, along with all the original receipts.

Anyway, this time at the post office, I was prepared, armed with my knowledge from Pimsleur, unit 1, chapter 1.

"Excuse me? I understand no German. Do you understand English?"

You have no idea how many times I chanted these lines in my head. My last time at Potsdam was bad. I had learned how to say simple sentences while ordering food, but when I went to the restaurant, I blanked out, and all that came out of my mouth were just keywords, "Hähnchen fleisch, essen, bitte, löffel" (Chicken, flesh, eat, please, spoon). My linguistic skills had made me want to die of shame.

But this time, I did not want to embarrass myself. During the 20 minute bus ride, I chanted these sentences like a mantra. At the post office, I went to the lady at the counter and said, albeit rotely,

"Entschuldigen Sie. Ich verstehe kien Deutsch. Verstehen Sie Englisch?"

I even said "Ainglisch", and not "English", because that is the German way of saying it. The lady smiled sweetly, and spoke to me for the rest of the time in perfect English. She did not bark or fumble or confuse me with her German-English (where the verbs are all messed up, and people ask me to "remember" them instead of "remind" them).

I need not have spoken in German at all. But the effort that went into making myself understood in the local language, and successfully so, made my day. Because on one hand, I design large-scale studies and analyze complex data for a living. But on the other hand, my language skills are no better than that of a two year old. On one hand, I write journal papers with little effort. On the other hand, I struggle to speak two lines in German.

I might be slow, but I am working hard. I am trying to fit in.


Friday, June 12, 2015

Amtraking my way

This happened to be my longest train ride. Since I love being on the road, I took the 46-hour long train ride from Chicago to Seattle, via Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. The highlight of the trip was passing through the picturesque Glacier National Park in Montana, and seeing the last rays of the sun fall on the snowy mountains.

The Empire Builder is Amtrak's busiest long-distance route, carrying more than 500,000 passengers every year (Wiki). There is no wi-fi in the train, so I had plenty of reading materials, writing materials, and music with me. There were power outlets though.

It was an amazing experience. It cost me roughly the same as a plane would ($140). But this was much better than taking the plane. Imagine getting seats as wide as you do in business class. And that too with broad footrests that you see in the LaZBoy recliners. And then, imagine not having anyone sit by you, so that you have two seats all to yourself. And an amazing view to look at, unlike just the clouds. And a lot of time to gaze out. 46 hours precisely, that would have taken you 3 hours on a plane. And everything, at the same price for a plane ride.

The restrooms were clean and decent. With my height, I could nicely get in a fetal position and lie diagonally using the two seats. I sleep really well with the undulating motions of a train, and I dozed off by 9 pm on both the nights. The food is quite pricey though, and I got my own food and water. It was a long journey, but it helped that I was not in a hurry.

It gave me a great chance to sample a portion of the country's landscape. Back in India, most of us thought that the US looks like Vegas, NYC, or SF, thanks to the movies. As I started traveling, I realized that this is not true. There are places like Nebraska and Wyoming that are very much the face of the US. My journey was quite flat in the first 30 hours. But then, as we entered the Glacier National Park, the pretty snow capped mountains started to appear. I even saw a really gorgeous sunset by the mountains. By the time I crossed Wenatchee and Leavenworth the next morning, it got even more pretty. There is a lounge car, where you can get amazing views (Just Google "Amtrak Lounge Car"). I managed to get some pictures too, but they were shaky.

Overall, I would highly recommend the Amtrak experience. All I did was sit back and think during most of my trip. I did not even read or write as much.

By the time the Amtrak entered the Puget Sound, I realized that I was staring out and grinning. Back in childhood, when we would return home from out month-long summer vacation, that is exactly how I would feel. Even before the train chugged in to the station, I would start identifying all the landmarks. This time too, I identified the Edmonds-Kingston ferry, the Golden Garden beach, and the Pier 70. I knew I was coming home. Seattle is home.

My fellow passenger was on an even longer ride, traveling on a train all the way from West Virginia. That's at least 16 hours extra, compared to my 46-hour long ride.

"It's beautiful, isn't it? It's my home", she said.

"Mine too", I replied.


Thursday, June 11, 2015

A Conference in Chicago- 6

This time in Chicago, I decided to skip the touristy things (because I already did them last August), and have a more local experience instead. I was staying in a beautiful neighborhood of Lincoln Park, resplendent with parks, walking trails, lakes, greenery, pubs, and restaurants. I started exploring one new restaurant every day, and walking a lot. The bus connectivity is great too, and entry to the Lincoln Park Zoo is free. Every day, I took a new street and continued to walk in a new direction. I did this for a week, and it felt like I had already lived there forever.

The other day, I stepped out to buy fruits and vegetables in a bid to eat healthy, and ended up discovering an Indian restaurant. People who know me well know my obsession with eating biryani. So instead of apples and bananas, I ended up having biryani that day.

The other highlight of my trip was meeting my PhD adviser. One of the brightest people I know, I am fortunate to have been mentored by him. It is interesting how our mentor-mentee relationship evolved over the last five years. Back then, I used to seek his permission, his approval for everything, and my biggest reason of worry was how to do well in a class exam. Five years later, I have realized that exams and grades do not matter, and I do not need his approval. I already have it.

He used to often tell me many useful things, one of which was that he is training me to be his colleague, his equal. I chatted with him for hours at the conference that day, and it was an invigorating, one-on-one discussion. I shared my new research ideas with him, and he did the same. Looks like a German-US collaboration might be on the cards. He promised to visit me in Deutschland soon.

On a different note, a hilarious thing happened at the conference. I was sitting in a room, waiting for the presentations to start. As I looked around, I saw someone I had been introduced to yesterday sitting behind me. I waved and smiled, and she smiled back, a little reluctantly. Ignoring the cue, I started making small talk. At some point, my eyes fell on her name tag, and to my horror, I realized that I was speaking with a stranger. But she did look like the person I met yesterday. And before you tag me borderline racist, let me assure you that it's not just the Asians I get confused about. Often, I get confused between Whites or Blacks who look alike.

Looks like this is not the only embarrassing faux pas moment I had at this conference.

I totally missed seeing an old acquaintance professor as we were crossing the road. It was not until he started calling out my name that I realized this. We crossed the road coming from opposite directions, and I looked at him and looked past him, lost in my thoughts. He was nice enough to stall me and spend a few minutes asking how I am and what I am doing now. It was all the more embarrassing because he is a really famous guy, and the dean of a school.

I met someone, and spent a good few minutes telling them how hard the German language is and how things do not make sense, until they told me that they are from Germany.

But this one takes the cake.

In Germany, when you are at a restaurant and need to use the restroom, you usually open a door that leads to a passage with another door, and then you see the Ladies room and the Gents room. Either that schema was stuck in my head, or I was plain unmindful. I went out for lunch with a colleague. When he rose to use the restroom, I followed him too. He took a left, and so did I. He opened the door. I was probably far enough that he did not notice me following him. I held the door and entered inside before it shut on my face. I never read the sign on the door. I should have. And I should have taken the right door, not the left. I was in the men’s restroom! Those few seconds turned out to be the longest seconds of my life.

Conference talks. Meeting my adviser. Procuring biryani. Taking long walks in unknown roads. Taking in the sights and smells of a vibrant city. Gazing at the turquoise waters of Lake Michigan. Meeting the only friend I have in Chicago, and spending the next 24 hours eating nothing but dozens of idlis and bowls of sambar she made for me. Running to catch a Metra train, with two minutes to go, Kajol in DDLJ style. Listening to live music at the hostel every night as I fell asleep. And conceptualizing two new research studies while listening to others presenting.

That is pretty much a summary of my 10-day long Chicago trip.

I headed to Seattle next, to spend a month working at the university there. And traveling some more.


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Conference in Chicago- 5

"For the love of Biryani."- This chapter is surely going in my biography.

After my friend told me about a famous hole-in-the-wall biryani place, I could do little but think of how to get there. So this is roughly the sequence of events that happened that day.

11 am- The conference talk is really boring. I want to get out. I ask my adviser if he wants Indian food (he loves it). He has a lunch meeting. I check for bus directions to get to Devon Street.

11:20 am- I am on bus one. It takes me by the Lake Shore Drive. I get beautiful views of the turquoise aquamarine Lake Michigan.

11:50 am- Take bus 2.

12:15 pm- Still on bus 2. It takes a turn and gets on to the much acclaimed Devon Street (famous for Indian food in Chicago). Dozens of Punjabi aunties, patiala-style loosely fitting salwar kameez clad, get on the bus. Everyone is talking in Punjabi. It seems like a different world. More Punjabi aunties get on the bus at subsequent stops.

12:20 pm- Get off the bus. Walk 3 stops. See the restaurant. My stomach rumbles. My pilgrimage is over. I know that I am only a couple of minutes from attaining biryani-nirvana.

12:22 pm- Man at the restaurant tells me that the shop is being renovated, and I can only order take out. I see a sign nearby, "Parking at the rear. We deliver." I wonder if I am the only dirty mind who finds it funny.

12:24 pm- I ask for a menu. They give me one. I am thrilled to see that everything I want is $4.99. That's a steal. I order. I wait. I discover that they are open 24/7. I resolve to visit again before I leave Chicago.

12:25 pm- I watch scary-looking hefty men empty heavy sacks of wood, stones, marble chips, and construction materials into a large truck. There is an incredible amount of dust. I wonder how my biryani will magically emerge from the dust. I have no way of peeping inside. I wonder if I should also get a side order of digestive pills.

12:27 pm- I suddenly get startled to hear, "Rishi! Rishi! Jaashna. Jaashna." (Don't go Rishi). I look to find a typical Bengali looking man wearing Anil Kapoor's cap from 1942 A Love Story, trying to discipline two monkeys as he waits for his order of tandoori chicken. The boys run around and try peeping inside the construction site. I hear more of jaashna, korishna, douroshna, dhorishna. I am reverse-surprised. I have always heard Bengali parents in the US trying to train their children in Banglish (English spoken with a Bengali accent).

12: 40 pm- My order is here. I offer my credit card. They only take cash. I hunt in my purse, to find a few hundred Euros, and a US credit card and debit card. They point me to a certain Baba Bazaar where there is an ATM. The name has me in splits.

12:42 pm- I hunt down the Baba Bazaar ATM. While I try to get some cash, the annoying man at the counter tries to make conversation, asking me the same set of question every non-White US cab driver or Indian-origin man running grocery stores ask. Where are you from in India? Where do you live now? What visa are you in? Did you get full scholarship for school? I have tried tweaking these answers for my entertainment. Like once, I said that I am a domestic help from Kerala.

My card is denied twice in the meantime. Flummoxed, I realize that I am using my credit card. I insert my debit card. Baba Bazaar uncle still wants to know why I am in Chicago. I see that they will charge me a fee of $2.50. That's half the price of my Biryani. I decide to order two plates now.

12:45 pm- I am back. The guy offers me my food. I order some more. I wait. I ask the guy if he gave me spoons. He says yes.

1 pm- I walk 3 bus stops. I was hoping to eat at the restaurant, but now, it looks like I will have to sit on the last seat of the bus and sneakily eat a little while the driver isn't looking. As if on cue, my stomach growls again.

1:25 pm- I board the bus. I take the back seat. To my horror, I discover that the guy gave me no forks or spoons.

2pm- I am still on the bus. The smell of food is killing me. My food packet is hot, and it is scalding my thighs, slowly killing me. The plastic bag they gave me is really thin, and tearing apart. I hold on to my food for my dear life. I am also carrying a DSLR camera, 3 lenses, a passport, and a purse full of Euros and credit cards. But it is my food I hold on to the tightest.

2:15 pm- After 50 minutes of a bus ride in which the bus stopped at every stop, every corner, every post and pillar, I get off the bus.

2:25 pm- I walk to my hostel. I go to the kitchen and get some forks.

2:30 pm- I get in my room. I sit on the floor. I open my food. The gastronomic foreplay has lasted almost 3 hours now. I think of taking a picture. Then I say, "Screw it!" I take the first mouthful.

2:31 pm- My friend was right. It is one of the tastiest biryanis in the US. I attain gastronomic moksha.

3 pm- I am ready to take a nap. I think that I have earned it. Conferences can wait until tomorrow.


Tuesday, June 09, 2015

A Conference in Chicago- 4

I met the most uxorious man at the conference. A wife's pride. Or a wife's nightmare, depending on which side of the crazy continuum you are in.

I thought that the man was presenting, until I realized that he was just setting up the computer for his wife. I didn't notice any visible signs of impairment in the wife though. And then, during the entire length of her talk, he held a point and shoot camera, recording her. In case you are wondering, I have never seen this at the conferences I attend. Sure, some people take a picture or two after the presentation (mostly Asians from abroad do that, understandably), and that's about it.

And this is not all. When the wife finished and someone in the audience asked a question, he pointed the camera at the audience. I did not ask her a single question, because I did not want a camera in my face, recording me. He continued doing that, until the baby woke up and started crying. Yeah, they brought in a few month old baby too. At that point, he had no option but to take the crying baby outside the conference room.

I am wondering if it's a new wife, a new camera, or a new experience of presenting at an international conference.


Monday, June 08, 2015

A Conference in Chicago- 3

Conferences are like huge weddings. People have convened for a common purpose of course (of presenting their work), all very well-dressed and all, but everyone has their own side agenda going on.

For some, it is a reunion- Old buddies meet up, hug, hang out, have drinks and meals, discuss their research, catch up, and make such a lively crowd. They are usually the ones much older and well-settled in their careers, the associate professors and the full professors, or the ones with permanent positions. They are done with the arduous task of looking for a job or getting tenure. They are dressed less formally and hang out in larger groups.

For some, it is getting away from work, only to get some more work done. They usually sit at the corners with their laptops, poring over their data and typing furiously. They are like little isolated islands. They are the ones with approaching tenures or appraisals.

For some, it is about networking and job hunting- Finding employers and employees. They sit in smaller groups and talk more seriously. Usually, one person is older and more mature and talks the most, while the other one is much younger and looks in wide-eyed appreciation. They are usually found in smaller groups of twos and threes, the younger one dressed very formally. They are the postdocs and the ones still looking for next year's job.

For some, it is about finding collaborators. They talk more seriously, in groups of twos, moving their hands frantically. They say goodbyes with promises of sharing research proposals, attending one another's talks, and finding each other on LinkedIn. They are the ones about to start something totally new.

For some, it is all about their talk. They look visibly nervous, fixing their slides until the last moment. They don't understand that it is really informal, and people have come here to enjoy themselves, academically speaking. They are usually the younger graduate students.

I suspect that there is also a small group of people who have been set up, trying to find dates and mates (although that was not the primary intent). They are usually the ones making awkward conversation.

And for me, I am just happy to sit back and watch human behavior- how people talk and walk and dress, meet some old friends and colleagues, disappear for a couple of hours to get some work done, support close friends by going to their presentations, get a little nervous at my own presentation, and above all, just take in the sights and smells of a new city.

P.S.: Ever seen how everyone walks very fast at conferences? I have seldom seen anyone walking slowly or looking lost.