Monday, February 29, 2016

Breaking News!

In a bone-chilling and shocking incident that shook the entire G-household, the little one has been caught red-handed, causing havoc in the household once again. This is G's littler one, Baby D.

Baby D, the accused, is a 3-year old with doe eyes, the most innocent looks, and a shrill, Dolby Digital quality voice that makes her (in)famous in the crime circle as Baby D Bose. She is agile, nimble, and as light as a slightly overweight carry-on baggage. 

On Saturday early morning (7:30 am) that the whole world perceives as weekend and hence sleep in late, mommy and Aunt sunshine were chatting up in the kitchen, enjoying their early cuppa morning tea when the crime happened. Baby D was supposed to be happily sleeping in daddy's arms, but she quietly woke up, sneaked in a pillow under daddy's arms, and made her way to the master bathroom. Daddy happily continued to sleep and snore, mistaking the pillow to be Baby D. 

Heavily suspicious of the quiet and peace in the household, mommy went upstairs looking for Baby D at around 8 am. Daddy said, "Here she is sleeping", his eyes closed as he continue to believe that the pillow is Baby D. The entire bed cover and the floor were stained red. Mommy panicked. The trail of red stains continued to the master bathroom, where the accused was caught red-handed, like seriously, with hands painted red. Swabs of the red stain were quickly sent to the forensic lab and was reported to be a mixture of mommy's expensive collection of lipstick and nail polish. The crime area was quickly sealed, and Aunt sunshine assumed the role of a crime photographer and reporter. 

When interrogated about how daddy mistook the pillow for a baby, he refused to comment. The accused has been caught red-handed doing crime of similar magnitude many times, and has received multiple warnings from mommy, the chief law enforcing officer at home. The last warning was given to her exactly 30 hours ago, when the entire door was painted 50 Shades of Purple (ahem!). Mommy somehow managed to erase the stains, but is still mourning the loss of her expensive makeup. The accused refused to comment or plead guilty. When probed, she quickly went back to using the Dolby voice and gallons of tears as weapons. The jury has recommended installing a strong bathroom lock that is difficult to trample with. Last heard, everyone in the household was reported safe and recovering well from the incident. Aunt sunshine is still a little shaken though, and is seeking counseling. She seems to be repeating the same question in a loop- "Is this what it is like to have kids?" 

The accused has already attempted other crimes ever since, but of much lesser magnitude.


Sunday, February 28, 2016

‘Coz plane food is plain food

Every now and then, I realize how much I do stuff just the way the elders in my family did, without consciously thinking about it. While taking the train and traveling overnight, I always saw Ma or grandma cook and pack dinner- luchi, porota, dry potato curry, dimer jhaal. While the men in the family packed and cleaned the home before leaving, the women cooked and took charge of the kitchen. I am both the man and the woman in my home, on a 27 hour long commute. Since they will serve food in only one of the three legs, and airport food is not up to my liking, I decided to bring my own food. I'm also on a "x number of days" mission of not eating outside. It started as "will eat one meal a week outside home", but it's been 4 weeks now, and I haven't been to a single restaurant. Like the cell phone thingy, it's one of those things of pushing myself to do something differently. 

It goes without saying that I am a foodie, and take great pride in cooking. Sure, I cannot cook fancy stuff like murir ghonto and rui maacher kalia, but I can cook all the basic stuff. So I ended up making egg fried rice. It was originally supposed to be chicken-prawn fried rice, but I ran out of chicken, and didn't want the immigration guys to smell something fishy (pun unintended). 

Now I had a full day at work, and if that is not enough, I even had to shift offices in the morning. Where was the time to cook and clean? So the night before, I painstakingly chopped all the veggies, the onions, bell peppers, spring onions, carrots, garlic until 1 am and refrigerated it. Came back from work, fried the eggs, added everything, added the chili-garlic sauce dad got me from Kolkata, and what turned out was an amazing fried rice. I started eating stuff right from the wok, and had to control myself from not finishing up something that was meant to be my food for a 27-hour long commute. 

Both my Ma and grandma, who have never eaten anything I have cooked, would have wept out of happiness. 


Friday, February 26, 2016

My Saturday Night Date

I come home from work starving to the point that I feel faint. I go to the kitchen to do the dishes, wondering what I could grab as a snack. We have a communal kitchen shared by the five of us. A man I have never seen before walks in. He has the most unusual accent I have heard.

"Hey, I am your new neighbor."

"Oh hi! Welcome. When did you arrive?"

"Two hours ago. I am from Tunisia. Where are you from?"


"Great. See you later. Here, take these dates I got from home."

And just like that, he left me a dozen dates and disappeared into his room. 

The dates were quite good actually. So I wasn't going to faint from starving after all. I came back to my room to look up where exactly Tunisia is on the world map. 

Somehow, people around me, mostly strangers offer me food all the time. I've long ago stopped listening to mom about not eating food from strangers. Today, last week's aloo parathe during the morning walk. My neighbor feeds me dinner every second day. Even this time on my Emirates flight, the lady beside me offered me her dessert, just like that. I promise, I was not eyeing hers, I had my own. 


Thursday, February 25, 2016

Morning Walks

Morning walks are excellent for health. I can give you even better data than scientists do.

Sunday morning, 8 am. I wake up to get a message from my neighbor, asking to go for a morning walk. I don't enjoy morning walks as much, simply because they need to be done in the mornings. It takes me a while to get my batteries started, and a walk meant prepping myself by wearing multiple layers of warm clothing. I love spending the weekends just lying lazily without the compulsion of having to be anywhere or do anything. 

Anyway, I could give you all these excuses, but I was ridden with guilt when my neighbor was giving me a healthier option in life, and all I was thinking about was sinking into my bed and finishing off the Korean movie from last night. Reluctantly, I got up, downed a glass of milk, grabbed a fruit, put on warm clothes (thermals, woolen socks, gloves, cap, scarf, down jacket, etc.), and started our walk, looking more like an Eskimo/polar bear on a mission, while other runners breezed past us, showing off their lithe, beautifully sculpted bodies. 

20 minutes into our walk, it started pouring heavily, and none of us had an umbrella. We were right in front of the international guest house. I've never been inside, although I have walked by it several times and always wondered what it looked like from inside. As if reading my thoughts, someone opened the door for us, a stranger I have never met before. Not wanting to freeze outside, we stepped in. There was an undeniable smell of Indian cooking wafting in the air. So we simply followed our noses, to end up in a common kitchen, where two women were making aloo paranthas, fresh from the oven. One of them was the one who had opened the door for us a few minutes ago.

The next few minutes of what happened is not so clear to me. Everyone thought that we were the other person's friend, whereas we knew no one there. Soon, a table for six was laid, and we were invited to stay for breakfast, probably because each one thought that the other one knew us. What started off as a morning walk ended as a noon walk, where we walked back home after noon, happy and sated, after gulping many aloo paranthas, cilantro and mint chutney, pickles, and ginger chai, befriending everyone who had invited us, and exchanging promises of organizing a similar "morning walk" session soon.

Morning walks are highly recommended henceforth. Imagine going for one, bumping into a bunch of strangers, barging into their kitchen, eating their food, chatting up for hours, and coming home after the food fiesta, to jump back directly into bed and take a siesta.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

‘Coz Europe is not just about its summer

Europe gets a lot of tourists in summer. But December is a fantastic time to visit as well. The Christmas lights are up, the Christmas Market is up and running, tiny lights and decorative snowflakes are on every street, every shop, every home, and every corner. Even the cold air feels rather magical. Everyone is so well-dressed and happy, even while doing their groceries and mundane chores. 

Most things for me have a three-point reference- India, US, and Germany. Christmas decorations in Kolkata are nice, but nostalgia and old memories have a lot to do with it. Christmas in the US is nice too, but there is an obvious element of commercialism to it- the same big giants selling you stuff, promising huge deals as you walk in the giant shopping malls that are lit from head to toe. Huge Christmas trees, a few floors high. Downtowns and residential neighborhoods lit up. Everything in the US is huge scale-wise. 

But Germany is different. Smaller. More local. More crowded. Way prettier. More culturally diverse. Cobbled streets and pretty churches. Quaint cafes. Gluhwein and Bratwurst by the streets. Almost no disposable cups and plates. People walking and taking the public transport way more. I could travel in trains and buses and just look at people all day. I used to think that where I live is predominantly White, and there is no diversity, but even if it were true, I see Germans with all shades of natural hair color, from complete blonde to a few shades lighter than mine. 

It feels good just to walk around the lit up streets and listen to people talk. No one is in a hurry. Everyone takes their time to eat, drink, and make merry. I don't know much German, but these days, I know enough German to know if someone is not speaking in German, if that makes sense. And I hear that quite a bit, other languages that I do not understand. Perhaps Polish. Danish. Swedish. A lot of Scandinavian sellers show up at the Christmas Markets to sell all kinds of locally made stuff- artwork, chocolates, alcohol, and what not. Restaurants are packed, streets are swarming with people, and there is an undeniable magic on the streets this time of the year. If you do not mind the cold, Europe is THE place to visit late November/December. 


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Making Waves

A physicist and I are having an animated intellectual discussion about the recently discovered G waves. Mostly the physicist is talking, and I am listening.

Physicist: What do you think would be the social impact of G waves?

sunshine: I can explain the social impact of G-strings using String Theory. G-strings are creating waves in the society. Those are called G waves.

Physicist: It is below my physics-dignity to talk to you anymore.

That is how much I understand about the discovery of G waves. Also, nobody appreciates humor these days.


Monday, February 22, 2016

An honorary Tamil

I will be soon extracting myself out of the German womb of cultural immersion to reach Seattle, and re-immerse myself in the Tamil cultural womb. G, one of my first friends in Seattle (back from 2006) is originally from Chennai, although she is hardly the stereotypical Kanjeevaram-clad, vibhuti smearing, Swami (God) fearing lady that I had expected to meet all those years back. 

They speak in Tamil and English at home, and make no exception for me. A rather rambunctious family, they even argue, fight, and watch movies and TV shows in Tamil. When we go on drives, I'm always forced to listen to Tamil songs. 

As a result, my rudimentary knowledge of Tamil is quite impressive. I can ask you to please come inside, go outside, come downstairs, and go upstairs. I can ask you to go take a shower, and ask if your bowel movements were fine this morning. I can ask you if you need a diaper change, and question why are you shouting or putting your hands in your mouth. Everything in Tamil. I know quite a few bad words in Tamil, and the good words that sound like bad words too (like poo, that means a flower). I know what an ass is, and what a buffalo's ass is. I even know random words like karandi (daal'er haata in Bangla) and couppai thotti (trash can). 

However, my abilities go far beyond linguistics. I am familiar with many of the popular Tamil soaps, and can sing (or at least hum) quite a few songs too, including Vaaji Vaaji Sivaji. I am kind of familiar with a subset of the thousands of Gods and Goddesses, particularly amused by a Quick Gun Murugan God, and a Hyper God (It's actually Hayagriva God) who accepts clove offerings. I can name many varieties of food, from the koota to the kolombo (not to be confused with Colombo), sundal, aviyal, poriyal, mostly made with nariyal. I still don't understand much that they speak, but I can recognize word patterns. For example, whenever I hear a series of words like, "andre pandre andre pandre dosa" or "andre pandre andre pandre appam", I know it is time to drop whatever I am doing, follow my nose, and land up in the kitchen for some lip smacking food. 

This time, I intend to add much more to my vocabulary, and teach G some interesting Bangla words too. She already knows Kosha Mangsho (trust me to teach that first to a pure vegetarian), Paanchu Gopal, and Paaka Meye. The knowledge exchange will be fun this time, and so will be my nocturnal fridge raiding sessions. Theirs is the only fridge (other than the one in Kolkata) that I shamelessly raid after midnight without any inhibition. 

Until then, my German lessons continue. Ten lessons done (eighty more to go), and they are still hung up on teaching me how to order beer and wine and food at Restaurant Sumloven in Opera Platz, and meet some male friend at 8 o'clock and go have a drink at his place later. Talk about focusing on the right things.


Friday, February 19, 2016

Mind your language

It is a rewarding feeling to see one evolve with time, for the better. Perhaps, I just gave away the last line of my post.

I have many friends who work in the technological hub of India (cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Chennai). One thing they always complained about is how rude the auto wallahs and the bus drivers are, refusing to speak to them in Hindi despite knowing the language (a speculation on their part). While my friends demonized these local people, I nodded with them in agreement. "Absolutely. How could they?" I had never experienced living in a place where I did not know the language. India, USA. I fluently spoke the language everywhere I lived. How unfair was it that one moved to Chennai, and the local people are so close-minded and wrapped up in their own heritage that they would not even help a stranger? I have actually believed in these ideas for a long time.

Then, I moved to Germany. The initial months were a nightmare, not because German is a hard language (It is quite manageable, now that I am getting a hang of it). They were a nightmare because I completely resisted learning German. I suffered from a sense of entitlement, just like my friends did, where I believed that people should know English, and talk to me in English. As a result, I suffered every day. Bus announcements were made, and I had no clue. I would look for certain things at the grocery store, and would be clueless about how to explain myself. Bank documents and credit card statements were sent in German. The visa officer sent me my appointment letter in German, refusing to write in English when I asked her to. Even my online banking website is in German. I would not read departmental emails or go to monthly meetings in silent protest. Sometimes, I used my hands in exasperation. Sometimes, I shook my head violently to indicate what I wanted. I even minimized going out, so that I would not have to deal with the helplessness. "How can you run a research institute and not talk to me in English?", is what I kept silently asking.

I think at some point, I exhausted myself from my passive-aggressive resistance after which I thought, why the eff am I acting this way? So I started learning German. Not too much, just for 30 minutes every day, a few days a week. And the gains were exponential. Soon, I learnt a critical mass of words and phrases that suddenly made my life so much easier. I realized that one does not need to master the language well enough to be able to author books. Simple words like thank you, sorry, please help me, excuse me, I speak only a little German, do you speak English, and counting from one to ten, etc. were enough to help me navigate my way around. I am not going to stop here. I am going to continue to learn until I am fluent. However, it doesn't take much to learn the basics.

I now wonder why my friends did not learn some basic Telugu, Tamil, or Kannada to be able to make basic conversation. Was it the same assumption and sense of entitlement, that I am the superior one here because I can write computer codes, and you bus drivers will learn my language? You are not really a part of the society if you are purposefully insulating yourself from the local experiences and living in your own comfort island, just hanging out with people like you, who speak the same language, eat the same food, and complain about the local people. If Jhumpa Lahiri could move to Italy (that too, temporarily) and learn Italian well enough to write a book, why was I complaining?

As I changed my attitude, the people around me changed too. These days, I even add a line in German while writing emails in English to my colleagues. I feel more accepted, and they too go an extra step to make me feel accepted. They drop by my office and bring me their kids' story books to read, suggest me movies and songs, and invite me home to share a meal with them. I even make fun about phonetically similar words like glücklich, täglich, and möglich, and they never take offense. During a recent presentation, the organizer explicitly wrote in the email that every one of the twelve teams have to present in English, because there is one (yes, only one) person who does not understand German. You have no idea how much generosity this is. A colleague even ended his presentation with the word "Shukriya" (thank you in Hindi) on the last slide, as a gesture of showing that he appreciates my effort of integrating into the German society. For me, it has been alienating and isolating. But on a good day, it has been hugely rewarding and humbling.

So the next time, instead of whining and complaining, just learn the local language.


Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Visa Officer

Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.

My day did not start well. I got a letter (in German) from the visa officer, asking me to collect my new residence permit on a particular date of the month. Only, I would not be in the country that day, and would not be able to re-enter Germany without the new residence permit. The permit exactly looks like an EAD card or a driver's license. 

Let me back up a little bit. My old permit had expired two days ago, and I needed a new one to travel outside the EU zone. When I had told my visa officer last month, she had taken note of my travel dates and assured me that she will give me a permit before I leave. For safety, she had written down something in German on an official piece of paper and stamped it. I could show that paper at the airport, and they would let me in. Just that I would feel more comfortable showing them a proper plastic laminated permit, and not something scribbled on a paper in a language I do not understand that could be accidentally chewed on by a cow. Unlike in the US, my visa is not stamped in my passport, and my permit is the only evidence that I live legally and should be allowed to re-enter Germany. Also, unlike in the US, you are assigned to a specific visa officer who handles your documents and keeps track of your whereabouts. 

I had to take help of my department head's secretary to understand the letter. After that, she had to call their office, asking for a new appointment date before I left Germany end of next week. It was a long conversation in German, that included spelling my full name at least twice. Another instance when I silently ask dad what was he thinking when he named me, and wish my name was something super short, like Tan Sen instead. Although the secretary could not get hold of the visa officer, someone else told her that they would see what they could do. It was utter chaos. My discomfort continued.

True to the German reputation for speed and efficiency, I got an email an hour later. Just one line, written in German. "Visa interview Monday, at 11 am." The ways of the Germans amuse me. Fast, efficient, but utterly German. They know I do not speak the language, yet they email me just one line, in German. Sometimes, I email them in English and they reply back in German. Anyway, I was hugely relieved that I would have my interview in 3 days. As usual, the secretary wrote down on my appointment letter using a pencil what all documents I need to bring for Monday. 

I leave work early, and go to the grocery store. Tomorrow is a public holiday, and everything would be closed. Armed with bags full of chicken, vegetables, and fruits, I wait for the bus back home. I look at someone standing in front of me at the bus stop and she looks back. We frown, and then, both of us burst out laughing. It is my visa officer waiting for the same bus.

My officer, although German, is not White. She is not Turkish either, and I have wondered for a year what she is (I still don't know). To me, she looks hardcore Malayali, although given her name and last name, it is not possible. We are so amused to see one another, especially since morning, I have been making frantic phone calls and she has been emailing me. We board the bus together and find a seat. We still cannot stop laughing. She asks me about my upcoming international trips, and when I would be back in the country. It is just like making small talk with the random Sharma uncle or Sen mashima in the bus. I take out my appointment letter from my bag and ask her once more what documents I need to bring. She simplifies things and asks me to bring just my passport and old residence permit. We wish each other a happy weekend. She tells me, "See you Monday". I get off the bus and walk home, armed with my grocery, a wide grin on my face. What are the odds, I wonder, that in a city with a population of a quarter million people, I bump into my visa officer out of the blue?


Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Rules from a different era

As I rode the cab back home a little after 11 pm, I was reminded of so many late nights from a different era.

In my family, dad has always been the stricter one, laying out rules that we were supposed to obey and not break. I am sure every middle-class, conservative Indian family has those. Mom was more chilled out and malleable, and gave us more freedom, as long as dad did not come to know of it. For example, sleepover parties were a strict no-no, even if it was my best friend who lived a few blocks down the lane and our families knew one another well. I could spend as much time as I wanted to with my best friend, but I was supposed to come home to sleep. Being the rebellious one, I had tried to coax and cajole, and ultimately rebel, but no good had come out of it.

Dad had a strict rule, that the children should be back home early, preferably by evening. Now the good thing is, dad himself used to work somewhere faraway, and usually took the last metro home. So mom had made this amendment, that as long as I was safe and arrived home before dad did, and this socialization did not affect my grades, it was fine. She is pretty cool that way. But when dad made rules, there was not much room for negotiation.

I have gone through different phases of introversion and extroversion in life, and college was a phase when I had suddenly turned into a gregarious kind. I used to attend biology classes in southern Calcutta, and instead of immediately taking the bus or metro, I used to hang out with friends and walk to the metro station before taking a later train home. Some days, I used to spend some time walking with my best friend, having fuchkas, exploring the shops, and chatting up before coming home. That was also the time when I was taking an active interest in knowing the city, so I used to accompany my friends to Howrah, Maidan, College Street, Gariahat, and where not. The expectation was always the same- Be home before dad is home.

Now those were the days of a struggling, penuriousness student. I could not afford a cab, so I had to take the bus or metro back. While taking a late metro, I used to dread bumping into dad. Instead of walking, I often used to run, hop, and scramble my way home during the homestretch from the Mode (the home bus stop) to the apartment, a good 10-15 minute walk (I did not have much money for taking a rickshaw either). My heart racing and adrenaline rushing, I would pray that I reach home before dad did. I was rebellious enough to not follow his rules, but wanted to be respectful of mom too, since she let us have a lot of leeway. Sometimes, when he took an earlier metro, mom would text me, and make up a story like I was just 15 minutes away, fetching groceries for home. I do not know if being an overprotective dad was a gender thing, but I am not going to judge or analyze, especially after all these years. If nothing, it taught me that wherever you are, whatever you do, there will be rules, and it is best to play by the rules to avoid conflict.

Anyway, I graduated, moved out, and forgot all about rules. In the US, I no longer needed to come home at a particular time. I partied late night, stayed over at friends', went to Bollywood dance nights, traveled for work and fun, took late night flights, rented and drove cars at night, took off to other cities or national parks Friday nights, without being answerable to anyone. 

So that day, after a decade, I was coming home late (late by our family standards), and it felt like reliving my twenties. The only difference is that this time, I could afford a cab, and I was visiting temporarily. I usually do not stay out late at night in Calcutta now, I am just too lazy or jet lagged to beat the heat and traffic and go anywhere. As the cab stopped at the traffic light, I could feel my heart racing, me impatiently looking at my watch and wondering if dad is home. My own present response to memories more than a decade old made me uncomfortable. I don't know why I was worrying, it was probably old programming. I'm older, just as wise as in my twenties, and totally independent. But I hopped off the cab and scrambled upstairs, wondering if dad would be mad at me after all these years.

As expected, dad was home early from work. However, he never said a word about me being late, leaving me a lot relieved, and somewhat confused. Some old habits die hard. His did. Mine clearly did not.


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Bus Lover

My mom has taken her love for riding the city buses to a whole new level. She is crazy-obsessed about the bus, to the point that we often wonder if she had some feelings for a bus driver or a conductor at some point. Whenever we need to visit the other corner of the city, my knee-jerk response is, "Abar bari theke berote hobe?" (Do I have to step out of home again?), while hers is, "Yaay! Amra bus a kore jaabo!" (Yaay! We get to take the bus!)

Needless to say, mom and I are always fighting and arguing. I don't necessarily mind taking the bus, but a cab is faster, although mom questions what I will do with the extra time since I am on vacation. Then again, I do not fancy standing in a crowded bus, tucked between the armpits of people, smelling their sweat and perfume and whatever they ate for lunch, and occasionally getting a squeeze in the bum. She takes language classes three times a week, and loves commuting to the other end of the city (easily 2 hours one way) in a bus. For me, it is simple. I spend roughly €3-5 in Germany on bus fares every day. I can easily take a cab in Calcutta with that money. 

Earlier, mom and I used to waste a lot of time standing at the bus stop and arguing about this. She would say things like, "Chol na, raasta dekhte dekhte jaabo, koto hawa debe, koto lok dekhbo, poisha noshto korishna, taxi waala bodmaash lok hobe, onno kothao niye chole jaabe”, etc. (We will see so many people, it is breezy, the cab driver might abduct us, etc.). Then, she got smarter. She would say, "Yes, let’s take a cab.", and while we waited for the cab, me happy that mom has finally grown wiser and wondering why not a single cab is in sight, an extremely slow and rickety bus will crawl up at a snail's pace, the conductor inviting everyone with open arms to board it. Mom would get super excited seeing the bus, and like Chachi in the movie Chachi 420, she would run and hop on the bus and wave to me, "Aaye aaye shiggiri aaye, bus chhere debe" (Come quickly, the bus will leave). Talk about deception. Once she is on the bus, I cannot keep standing on the roadside, flagging cabs. I am forced to take the bus, fuming, and she looks at me innocently and says, "Look, it's so empty. There was no cab anyway." She has tricked me so many times now.

When she cannot argue anymore, she will say something like, "We are humble people. We have to travel like this." Once on the bus, she will nicely plug in her iPod and listen to music. Now, I find it hard to believe that someone with her collection of electronic gadgets comes from a humble background. Once, the family went for a wedding, and when I asked how was the wedding, she said something like- “It was great. We had a lot of fun, being decked up. And that bus ride was amazing.”

So mom goes to Sikkim and injures her spine. She is in a lot of pain, and cannot move an inch. We somehow manage to bring her to Kolkata, and get the doctor's appointment in the other extreme fringe of the city. I mean, this place is so far that I have never even been there or do not even know how to get there (I pride myself in knowing most areas of the city). We book a cab that picks us up from the doorstep. It being her birthday too, I try to pep her up and tell her how this will be a fun birthday ride, traveling in all this comfort. We suspect a slipped disc, a dislocated spine, and she is really nervous. When I tell her what a slipped disc is (having suffered that myself a few years ago), she is petrified and breaks down. She fears that she will never walk normally again. 

We go to the doctor's, who says that although it is not a slipped disc, her condition is bad. He recommends physiotherapy for a month, and gives her pills (10-15/day) that is expensive enough to blow big holes in the pocket. We have waited at the doctor's for almost 2 hours now, and in that time, I have managed to see what pain and suffering looks like. There is an evident stench of sickness in the air, and I have controlled my gag reflexes a few times now. We are finally done, and dad and I have managed to buy all the pills and understand how many she needs to take at what times of the day. Mom is limping a little less now, although the limp and the pain are very much there. 

"Did you hear, no slipped disc", she says.

"Yes, that's a relief!", dad says.

"So now, can we please take the bus home? Pllllease!"

She looked so heartbroken that evening, taking another cab back home.


Monday, February 15, 2016

The Malady of Ageing

There was a half hour wait at the doctor's office. A little boy with big, bright eyes showed up with his parents. On asking him what had happened, he showed me his right arm, which had a huge, black burn scar. The rongmoshal er baaji (colored fire cracker) went off in the wrong direction and burnt his arm.

Despite his injury, the little fellow seemed to be in high spirits, enjoying the attention everyone was giving him. The medicine shop owner gave him a disposable plastic injection cap to play with. He first turned the cap into a makeshift pistol, standing like a cop, hands on hips, and pointing at everyone. Then, he pointed at the doctor's office and said, "daktar kaku ke injection diye debo" (I will give the doctor an injection shot). When the fellow went inside to get his wounds dressed, we heard loud screams and wails. A candy or two would have been nice to pacify him, but all I heard was the doctor's rather scary, baritone voice saying, "noro na noro na, rokto porbe" (Don't move, you will start bleeding again). Rokto! Blood! What a morbid thing to tell a little child.

And why was I there? Because I have no real ailment, except perhaps the malady of old age. I was there with the reports from my blood work for a battery of tests- Blood sugar, urea, thyroid, creatinine, cholesterol, and the other usual suspects. I was pretty convinced that nothing is wrong with me, but science relies on data and not instincts. I have no issues with sleep or hunger, I could eat anything and fall asleep anywhere. But I am in that age bracket that demands that I get myself checked from time to time. I was there at the same doctor 16 years ago when I had a real injury, like the little one did. I had slipped and fractured my leg. Dad had hauled me up on his shoulders like we do with babies, and carried me to the doctor's. I was no lightweight back then, but being lifted seems unimaginable for me now. I was instructed to rest for a month, and what a ball I had. Friends visited me every now and then, signing "get well soon" notes on my pink plaster, turning it into a mural. I was almost sorry to let go of my plaster after a month.

The nature of my ailments was different then. Now, I go to the doctor to make sure that my heart, lungs, kidneys, and innards are working fine, and I am not at a risk of having an unforeseen heart attack, collapsing on the streets, and dying out of the blue.


Friday, February 12, 2016

A foreigner in my own land

Two random people. Two occasions. Same question.

I lay under the glaring lights in the dentist's office, looking my most uncomplimentary self. My mouth pried wide open, I shivered on hearing the drill and the suction pump inside my mouth. I wrenched my hands together, paralyzed with fear. The seconds tick by, painfully slowly. My mouth felt dry and salty. When I was asked to wash my mouth, I smelt dental cement. I spat blood. 

I was asked to lie this way, my mouth agape like a crocodile's. The dentist has seen me in a way no one else has- vulnerable, afraid, open-mouthed. He got up to wash his hands, instructing me to stay still, my mouth wide open. Knowing full well that I will not be able to reply, he asked his final question-

“Aage to US e chhilen. Okhankar passport hoye gechey?”

(You were in the US before this, right? Do you have a US passport?)

What was I supposed to say? And why him?

And then, a guy showed up one fine morning to do my blood work. I think Calcutta is the only place where I can afford such luxury. You pay someone a very reasonable price, and they show up with their paraphernalia to draw blood. I am mortally afraid of seeing blood, already reeling from a 12-hour fast. So I held on to dad's hands tight, looking away. The man took hold of my right hand, pricked a needle, and drew four vials of blood. 

"Didi, hoye gechey. I am done. I'll be on my way"- I soon heard, much to my relief. And while he was putting on his shoes, the final question. 

“Green card hoye gechey?” Are you done with your green card?

I am too confused to make sense of his question. How is a green card related to blood work? They don't even offer Green Cards in Germany, even if I wanted one.

Paraphrasing Jane Austen's opening line in Pride and Prejudice, "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person living outside the country must be in possession of a US passport or Green Card, even if they do not live in the US, and even if that piece of document has nothing to do with their health, dental or otherwise."

Go ahead. Delegitimize me, because I do not live in the country country. Although you are the one who swears by McDonald's and Subways, celebrates Halloween parties, replies in accented English to my Bangla queries, and shows up in western wear whereas I hardly wear anything other than sarees, I am the outsider. I am the foreigner. I should be the one trying to fit in.


Thursday, February 11, 2016


Sometimes, it feels like I visit Calcutta to visit family, and a man. This man makes me wait for him with nervous energy, and the first thing we meet, he wastes no time but goes directly for my mouth. But not to kiss me.

I am talking about the dentist. 

Weeks before I land, my sister meticulously makes an appointment. There is no time wasted. I meet him even before I meet my greater family, cousins, recent crushes, or ex-flames. This is because every time I visit Calcutta, I have no idea how long these dental sessions would last. Sometimes, a few days. Sometimes, weeks. This pretty smile comes at a huge maintenance cost. 

This time, I thought it was not too bad. I was here less than a year ago (sobbing and having meltdowns and tantrums in this same seat), and what could go wrong in ten months? Just that the cap he had put on after my root canal last year had come off. Seemed pretty innocuous. My brother-in-law had the same problem, and was done in less than ten minutes. He had even smiled and waved at the dentist saying, "Dekha hobe abar", or "See you soon!". I think that the irony of that statement was lost on him.

So as usual, I was there at the dentist's. His two assistants instantly recognized and smiled at me, very used to seeing me now. Chiranjeevi was making some hip thrusting moves on the television with a chick less than half his age and weight, making me christen him Pelvis Presley in my mind. At least, it took my mind off the impending ten minutes. 

Only this time, I was not going to get away in ten minutes. The dentist looked at the chipped cap, and tried thrusting it in my mouth with all his strength. Just that it wouldn't fit well anymore. So I had to come back for a few more sessions, when they cut me open once again, and reset my tooth for that perfectly infectious smile one could swoon over. It was little relief that he did it for free, since he was the one who did not set things right the last time. When my grandma had to replace all her dentition, she actually opted for a teeth setting that resembles Madhuri Dixit's (I am not kidding). I think I am still a few decades away from the luxury of that choice.

Anyway, knowing how I make the best use of the situation, I decided to go in the opposite direction from home, so forlorn I was. There was only one thing that could cheer me up at that hour. A pair of fleshy green coconuts. I visited the square close to home, where my mom usually encourages me to bargain a little. But I do not. Anything good that comes for less than €1 is not worth bargaining for. Just that the green coconut guy was really concerned, not knowing how I would have two coconuts in one go.

"Bari niye jaaben? Nijei khaben? Pack kore debo?", he kept asking me. (Will you take it home? Will you share? Should I pack it for you?). Thank God he did not enlighten me about the calories two coconuts contain.

At least I walked back home feeling content, temporarily happy, and thankful for having teeth. According to me, tooth problems are better than toothless problems, and graying hair is better than a receding hairline. Tomorrow, we shall see tomorrow.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

School Children

 I spent some time last year traveling Sikkim, a beautiful state in India located in the Himalayan mountains. Taking the mountainous, roller coaster rides, sitting in the back of an SUV, and having my innards constantly shaken to the point that I thought if this can actually and miraculously people of constipation. I spent a lot of time being on the road, mostly driving through extremely steep, mountainous roads and navigating dangerous switchbacks. Frequently, I saw little children in groups of twos and mostly threes, walking to or back from school. It's evident that they came from poor families. They wore school uniforms with ties, and never carried school bags. Most of them were single digits in age. When in threes, there was usually someone slightly older among them, escorting the younger ones. Often, they walked with their dogs. The children never seemed to be in a hurry. They took their time squatting by the roadside and examining stones, twigs, flowers, and insects. There were no school buses and no parents escorting them. They walked dangerously close to the edge of the mountains, and excitedly waved at us as we sped by, leaving a wake of dust through the half-built mud roads. Our driver told us that they are used to walking long distances. And I had so many questions as I watched them from my backseat, moving in reverse before disappearing. If they all went to the same school, why did they walk in groups of threes, at different times of the day? Don't they have fixed school hours? Where were their school bags? How did they make sure that they are not lost? How did they walk during harsh winters? Why were they never escorted by adults? How did they get the energy to hike such lengths through the steep mountain roads? What jewels did they seek in those pebbles and twigs they collected?

There is so much to observe, wonder, and learn when you are on the road. I come from the strata where I am used to seeing children being escorted to schools by adults, in cars and buses. They carry cell phones for their safety, and are computer wizards. They are busy, enrolled in a bunch of coaching classes after school. They learn to swim, dance, paint, and recite with elan. They come first in class, and are duly reprimanded by parents if they do not achieve that coveted 95+ percent. That is one reality, the one borne from the complexities of city-life, children caught and strangled between a web of parental aspirations and societal expectations, their lives mostly run by machines, nannies, tuition teachers, and helicopter parents. And then, there is this reality. Of little children who walk to school in chappals, excitedly waving at cars, being escorted by their dogs or older siblings, and crouching over the ground to play with flowers and insects. I have a feeling that there are beautiful stories hiding here, chapters of human lives that have never been explored and have not made it to the mainstream media. If I could, I would shadow them to understand what the harsh lives of these simple people from the mountains look like.


Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Landing in style

Landing in Calcutta for me is landing in style. I live dual lives, and with time, I have learnt to switch between the two. My life in the west can best be described as calm, methodical, and predictable. I know exactly what I am supposed to do every day. In my free time, I read, write, and ruminate. Sometimes, I work on my own and do not talk to anyone for days. If I want space and privacy, there is ample of it.

Then, I take that flight to Calcutta, and my entire way of being changes. I step out of the air-conditioned airport lobby, trying to identify my parents in the crowd. However, my glasses fog momentarily due to the humidity, and I am unable to see anything. While I am still trying to recover, a pair of hands grab my luggage, and wet, sloppy kisses start raining on my cheeks from nowhere. As I regain my composure, I realize that dad has taken charge of my bags, and mom, my cheeks. The first time, I was extremely disoriented, but this is routine now. Glasses fog. Baggage is gone. People grab me. I know I am home.

As we make our way to the car parking, the first thing I notice is that I have started to sweat. The feeling, although not quite alien, is uncomfortable. Back there, I only sweat under controlled environs, when I am working out. I am still wearing sweaters and coats because it was freezing cold when I had started. I might have parked my car at the airport parking and taken that flight singly, but the rambunctious crowd that awaits me at the other end of the world always consists of mom, dad, siblings, siblings-in-law, and an assortment of neighbors or close friends. All of them have stopped whatever they were doing in life and have showed up to come pick me up. I suspect that if dad owned a bus, more people would show up at the airport. Kakima and her family always send their car to pick me. As I am finally settled in the car, my hands involuntarily looking for the seat belt although knowing that there is none, the fun ride starts. Dad is more restrained in showing his joy, so he sits in front and instructs the driver in his baritone voice what roads to avoid. But the rest of the family goes wild, laughing, joking, pulling my cheeks, and saying inappropriate things. My mom had rechristened me "bachcha" (kiddo) at some point, and although I made her promise that she would never call me that outside home, she forgets her promises and shouts my name from the opposite street, making a dozen heads turn and my head shake in embarrassment. The car moves through the bumps and the potholes, shaking me as I squint outside and try to recognize the streets. I do not, because every time, there are new flyovers, new streets, new malls, and more people. For a change, people who look like me. 

"Chul koto jhaakra jhaakra hoye bere gechey. Eto mota hoye gechish. Kaanchkolar jhol khaabi aaj theke. E ma chul peke gechey. Hagu hochhey to theek kore? Jaanish paraaye ei cholchey. Eder breakup hoye gechey. Ei cinema cholchey. Ranbir er cinema dekhechish? Ebaare ekhane ekhaane khete jaabo, bujhli?"

("Your hair is so grown now, we need to get it cut. How did you manage to put on so much weight? We need to feed you green banana curry. My God, look at the graying hair. Are you still suffering from constipation? Do you know so and so in the neighborhood eloped with so and so? Do you know so and so broke up with so and so? Such and such movies are in now. Have you checked out the latest Ranbir movies? We should try out these restaurants this time.")

If you have seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you will exactly know what this crazy family of mine is like.

As I get off the car and make my way upstairs, all the close neighbors are waiting to greet me. Suddenly, there are so many people, and so much commotion. Hordes of people show up to meet me, and the commotion continues until I go back to the other home, a home where there is no one to pick me up from the airport, carry my bags, or shower sloppy kisses. I am blessed that even at my age, this is the celebrity treatment I get. I can literally get away with anything here. I can ask for anything I want to eat or drink, travel anywhere in the country, and my wishes will be fulfilled. Even as I am walking towards my apartment in Germany, my head buzzes from all the commotion. It feels like I just woke up from a dream where I showed up at a party and thousands of people were merry-making. And then, I insert the key in the lock and open my apartment door in Germany. Absolute silence. Everything just the way I had left it, orderly, in place. The calm and the silence is back. The only mementos I have brought back with me from the trip are memories, hundreds of pictures, and home cooked food that will last me the next month or so. 

Old age is going to be very hard for me to get used to. I am well aware of that.


Monday, February 08, 2016

Funny Fire Drill

Colleague: There is a fire drill today. When the fire alarm goes off, collect your jacket, exit the building, and wait outside. 

Me: Okay.

Colleague: And don't tell anyone else.

Me: Why not?

Colleague: Because it is a surprise fire drill. People should not know beforehand. 

Me: Then why did you tell me beforehand?

Colleague: Because you do not understand German. 

(I still haven't figured out what not knowing German has got to do with the fire alarm. The alarm did go off, almost rupturing my auditory canal. But I need not have known German to do the needful.)

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Rich me. Poor me.

I did not know the day I became rich. And I did not know the day I became poor either. Simply because I don’t understand German.

Let me get to the poor bit first.

My German bank gives me pretty poor service. I say this because they do not fulfill the basic expectation of an international customer- communicating in a language the customer understands. By language, I do not mean Swahili or Igbo. I mean English, a language spoken by many in the western world. I have often gotten the “deer in the headlights” look whenever I request to be spoken to in English- in person, on the phone, or in emails. Last December, I started getting a series of emails from the bank. Every time, I replied, asking to tell me in English instead of German. No one replied. Then one day, just like that, they deducted €5 from my account. Just like that. Since my bank statements are also in German, I had no idea what I had done.

In Hindi, we have a saying about the iron cutting the iron. I let the German cut the German.

I asked a German friend to look into this. She called the bank. Apparently the emails were about asking me to confirm my home address. Since I had replied in English, instead of replying to their query, they assumed that I had changed addresses without letting them know, and they deducted €5 as penalty. €5 is not a lot of money, but it was wrongfully taken. I have been promised that the money will be deposited back since the confusion was cleared. Time will tell.

Banking in Germany is funny. In India, you get interest when you put money in the bank. In the USA, you do not get interest, but you do not have your money taken away either. Germany is a different beast. Here, I pay money annually to own a credit card. And with every transaction I make (when I spend money, and even when someone puts money in my bank, like my salary), the bank deducts some money as transaction fees. It will take me a long time to understand this country.

Now about the rich part.

Last December again, I had applied to the German government to give me some travel money to go to the USA. They said that they will let me know by March. I assumed that let me know in this age means sending an email.

I never check my mailbox (letterbox) simply because no one writes me letters. So when the German government sent me a letter two months before their March timeline, it lay in my mailbox for two weeks, unattended. One night, I was bored and could not fall asleep, and decided to kill time by checking my mailbox. I took the stairs, went up, and opened my mailbox, expecting an empty one. There lay a big fat envelope. With shaking hands and bated breath, I opened it. Five pages of German text. Not a single word I could decipher. Not even a keyword like “Herzliche Glückwünsche” (congratulations) or apologies. Just five pages of plain German text. Imagine my plight, holding the result of my application and not knowing what it said. I waited the entire night.

The next morning, the same German friend came to my rescue. My application had made it, and it was five pages of rules about what I should do or not do to be able to claim the money after the conference. I wonder why they didn’t send an email instead. Imagine, the letter lying there for two weeks. I could have been a happy person half a month earlier. 

On a different note, I recently got an award from the university for being "an impulse driver for innovative, trend-setting teaching" at the university. Two eminent people from the university even signed it. I haven't received an award like this since the sixth grade, but some kind of validation is always nice. These days, I've taken validation-whoring to a whole new level. Any award, any publication, anything CV-worthy happens, and I get busy updating the CV. Traits of someone on the job prowl, you know!

Always a fan of the German way of doing things, I love how they even framed the certificate and directly put it in my mailbox. No drama, no ceremonies, no blowing kisses in the air and hugging people and fake tears and making false promises of changing the education system on my part. The funny thing is, I don't really know what exactly the certificate said, since it is once again in German. Colleagues kept coming in and out of my office, congratulating me and admiring it, but I had no idea what exactly was written. It was later that a kind co-worker nicely translated it for me in a word document, formatting it exactly the way it looked, but in English. It's an interesting experience for me, being a part of a system and navigating mostly out of instinct, fulfilling the expectations and achieving the benchmarks, but not really getting it.

I emailed the award-issuing person, thanking them, and asking if they could send me a translated version of this award in English. I still haven't heard back. I'm sure they rarely get an email from an awardee, not happy with what they have and asking them to issue another award.

So that is the summary of my life in Germany. A part of a heterogeneous mixture, and not necessarily a homogeneous solution. I am a part of the society, but I don’t blend in. I stand out. And while I struggle with the language, life happens. I get money. I lose money. I get awards. But I still don’t get the language. The analogy I love to tell people is, living in Germany is like living in with a very good looking man who does not speak to you. I am enamored by this place, and how beautiful it is. But the place doesn’t speak to me. We live like two separate entities, like two strangers in the same house. Together, but not gelling in.


Monday, February 01, 2016

A strangulating mass of nothing

I have some stuff inside a few suitcases hiding away in a friend’s garage in a different country. Things I did not want to throw, and things I did not want to keep. Things I did not know what to do about. This time, I decided to go through them, and cull through the clutter.

And so I did, in the dark and damp garage. Going through stuff, and mostly throwing them. If I did not need them this long, I was not likely to need them.

Then, I opened a particular suitcase. Inside it lay a tangled assortment of cords, cables, and wires of every kind. Laptop chargers. Extension cords. Internet cables. Router cables. In blacks and blues and whites. I could have sorted through them and separated them. But something was so off-putting about the sight that I stared at it for a few minutes, shut the suitcase, and put it back. I did not have the mental bandwidth to sort through a tangled bunch of wires.

So many relationships around me are lying around, just like that. Unsorted. Not important enough to spend time or analyze them, yet just sitting around. People on Facebook I have never met. People I have met, but do not communicate with. Never said hi in years. Don’t really care about their status updates that have got nothing to do with my life. Never wish them on their birthdays. Couldn't care less about their annual trips to India, posting pictures of everything they do or eat. I have no idea what they are doing in my virtual world other than taking up space. Maybe someday, just someday, I would need them. Someone might just come in handy. Just like perhaps someday, I might be in need of one of these cords, cables, or ropes. That day, I will be happy that I did not throw them all away. Or maybe, I will never need them. But they will be sitting there in the garage, in a place where I don’t have to see them every day, taking up space. Because sorting through the mess is going to take time and effort. And I do not have the enthusiasm to do that. I don’t think I have more than ten close friends, and maybe a hundred good enough friends. I haven't spoken to more than fifty in the past year. But all eight hundred of them will be lying there dormant, witnessing every milestone in my life they do not care about, and sharing every milestone of their lives that I do not care about.

Just because sorting takes time and effort. And sometimes, it is easier to just let go and let things be.