Friday, April 29, 2016

For the love of language

A conversation heard in a crowded bus gave me goosebumps recently (a big reason I prefer taking the public transport rather than driving in isolation is the variety of people I get to see). In a tiny North German city, of all things, two people were conversing in Oriya!

You see, I am Bengali by ethnicity. Sure, we speak Bangla at home. However, I was never raised in Bengal. I was born in Bihar, and spent the first 16 and formative years of my life in Orissa. That's more years than I have lived anywhere else (9 in Kolkata, 8 in the US, 1 in Germany). I learnt to read and write the language in school, and used to speak fluently until I left Orissa. In school, most of my friends were native Oriya speakers. I was one of them. They were one of me.

We did not start growing roots in Bengal until my father decided to buy an apartment in Kolkata in the early nineties, forcing me to spend lonely summer vacations there. I had no friends. The topmost-floor, west-facing apartment that remained locked rest of the year was unbearably hot and smelled of concrete and cement, and the few highbrow, big-city coevals I met made no qualms in letting me know that I was not one of them and I was not welcome (although I spoke perfect Bangla with them). So I spent the summers reading voraciously, learning my Bangla alphabets at home, and finishing math chapters ahead of time. Oriya had such deep and comforting roots for me that the moment the train entered home (home being Orissa then), I would get dizzy with excitement seeing the Oriya letters imprinted bold black on a yellow background at the railway station.

It is not surprising that hearing the language after so long gave me goosebumps. A person who raises you is as much your mother as a person who gives you birth if they are not the same people. Although Bangla is my mother tongue, it is Oriya that raised me. I had barely started school when I said my first swear word (ghusuri, meaning a pig) in Oriya, long before I knew any Bangla swear words. Somehow, the other languages I spoke always stayed with me. Bangla, I speak everyday with my family or close friends. Hindi, I hear every day because of my addiction to Bollywood movies and music. But somehow, Oriya left me. I was never able to find people I could converse with on a regular basis. Suddenly, I was swept with nostalgia. I longed to visit the towns, the homes and the schools I grew up in. The guava tree where the monkeys lived and regularly invaded our home. The mango tree whose branches we used to hang ropes from, swinging with cousins in the summery afternoons. The huge black gate wherefrom our physician landlord used to enter in a bottle green ambassador every day. Such is the power of language that it took me on a 34 year long road down the memory lane.

My parents (both Bengali) have similar relationships with other languages. My mother with Hindi, and my father with Bhojpuri, because both of them spent significant years of their childhood in different places of Bihar. I wondered what language my children would yearn to hear, like I am doing for Oriya. Other than Bangla, they might grow up learning German. Or American English. I don't know. The deeper our roots grew, the wider our branches spread, the more we embraced different cultures. Maybe someday, I would feel similar nostalgia hearing German. The next time I am in Calcutta, I might make a trip to my childhood places. Walk the streets I haven't walked in 18 years. Touch the walls. Get excited reading off movie posters stuck on the walls, like I used to do as a kid. You see what havoc two strangers I heard speaking in the bus today wrought? They opened floodgates of nostalgic memories for me. They enlivened chapters from my childhood I had almost forgotten about.


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Stealing the show

I call mom, and hear a strange "Hello?" I know this hello. It means she is doing something she does not want to discuss.

"What are you doing?"

"Kichuna". She is quick to answer, "Nothing!" 

I hear the unmistakable signs of her breathing fast. 

"Mom, what are you doing at 3 in the afternoon?"

"I am walking," she finally tells me.

"Where to?"

"To the cinema theater."

My mom found her liberation after 35 years of marriage. She is a die-hard cinema fan. She has to watch every cinema, Bollywood or Bangla or whatever, on large screen. She could watch back-to-back movies everyday for her entire life. 

However, she is also someone who has had a mostly sheltered life. Never worked outside home. Never worked for money (household work is work too, just that it does not pay monetarily). Never traveled alone. From living with her parents to living with my dad, she has never lived alone. Her hobbies and interests are something she indulged in as long as it did not affect the quality of her family's life. You get the picture. 

But then, she recently got tired of asking everyone to accompany her to watch movies. People were busy, people were disinterested, people did not care. I have been one of those people too who disappointed her. 

So one day, she took off alone. To watch a movie. After being married and in-company for 35 years, she just went ahead and watched a movie alone. And she loved it.

Ever since, weekdays after lunch, she takes off to the local cinema place. It's not as crowded on weekdays, and they even give heavy discounts on Tuesdays. 

"I love it. Now I do not have to depend on anyone's mood. And no matter whether you go alone or in a group of 20, you are always watching the movie alone."

She has nailed it. She just told me about the most profound realization many of us still do not have. The realization that your experiences are always your own, and everyone is living life on their own. She said that she'll be happy to go with us if we ask her to. Otherwise, she is happy going alone. 

And just like that, she shifted the power dynamics, from being a victim whom no one accompanies to the cinema, to a person in charge, who will be happy to give us company only if we need it. I am so proud of her, I am beaming. Because just like her, I do not wait for company to do the things I want to- travel, eat at a restaurant, watch a cinema, go on a long drive, visit the Disneyland. I have done it all alone, and loved it. Ma must have looked at me many times and thought, "My daughter is just like me." Now, I look at her and think, "My mother is just like me. Independent, when not inter-dependent." 

"Okay, I have to go now. I am almost there. You know, the security people know me so well by now that they do not even check my bag. They just let me in," she beams proudly.

"Great. What movie are you watching?"

"Saala Khadoos"

For a moment, I thought that she was talking about me.


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Why am I not playing the “fabulous woman” tag either

A few days back, there was a lot of hullabaloo when I questioned women nominating each other to rise up to the challenge ofmotherhood and post their pictures. Thinking that two wrongs can make a right, someone with a lower IQ started this even more disturbing chain of nominating each other who are proud to be fabulous women. Here, take a look:

“I have been nominated to post a picture that makes me happy/proud to be a woman... I'm going to tag the ladies that I think are fabulous, and who do not need to be a mom or a wife or a daughter necessarily, to post a happy/proud pic of their own. If I've tagged you as one of these awesome women, copy the text and paste it to your wall with a picture, and tag more ladies who can hold their own, without any labels!!!”

Now this is what I find so wrong about this post other than the three exclamation marks, there periods and typos (picture is not pic), and the fact that you claim “without any labels” although you ARE labeling yourself happy/proud/fabulous/awesome/lady in these lines.

I don’t do these tags because I am not considered as fabulous [insert noun of your choice] by most women. Neither married, nor a grandmother or mother, nor a wife or even a pet owner, most women consider me a freak, someone not in their league. And why wouldn’t they? I am in my thirties and still single by choice. I spend my free time traveling the world or watching air crash investigation videos. I live in hostels during my travels. I try to avoid Indian potluck parties, and show no interest in bonding with women who cannot hold a conversation beyond the prices of lentils at different Indian stores or an impending visit of in-laws in summer. I am not a part of any makeup group where you post (scary) close-up pictures of all the makeup you were wearing when you went to do that weekly grocery chore. I don’t pose wearing sarees and standing in a group like the choo choo train, exactly at an angle of 45 degrees to the ground, showing shiny straightened hair and perfect dentition. I have nothing to contribute to a conversation about diapers, Gerber, or how scary it is to drive a car. Most Indian women of my generation wouldn’t even consider inviting me home, let alone tagging me in any of these posts. However, there are more important reasons.

I see these tags and labels as being not only offensive, vain, narcissist, and divisive, but also dangerous. A combination of two words often has more meaning than the simple addition of these two words. For example, to call myself fabulous is something (honest, maybe vain at the most). To call myself a woman is a truth. But when I call myself a “fabulous woman”, it has many underlying layers of meaning. Fabulous compared to whom? Other women whom I am calling less fabulous? Or a fabulous woman, compared to a fabulous man? And what exactly have I done to deserve this label? Even if I was fabulous, shouldn’t others be the one calling me that?

Now think about this. What if men started a similar chain of posts, tagging each other as fabulous and posting their pictures? What if they started describing why they are fabulous? It will not be long before someone is going to call on them, labeling them sexist (even though they never posted anything sexist). Sexism isn’t always about men propagating it and women being at the receiving end. I find this post on Facebook equally sexist. If I was a man writing this blog post, I would be instantly labelled a sexist. 

In principle, I usually post stuff that is either informative or entertaining for others. This kind of post is neither. It is not like those “ten books I read” or “twenty movies I loved” tags, which at least is informative to some. It could be vaguely entertaining for the self, but not for others. Can you tell us why do you consider yourself a fabulous woman? Have you overcome a disability? Saved someone from drowning? Climbed a mountain? Donated for a cause recently? How exactly is the narcissistic picture you just posted portraying the legacy of a fabulous woman? To call oneself fabulous (or fabulous human) is something, but the tag of a fabulous woman comes with even more accountability. And by the way, what is the credibility of the woman who just tagged you (and herself) as being fabulous? What is her claim to fame?

Would you be okay sharing stories from your life you are not very proud of? Like maybe when you hurt someone or judged someone? Would you be willing to own up to those stories? Stories of glamour and glitter don’t make you fabulous. Stories of you being first in class don’t make you fabulous unless you are willing to share stories of the times you failed. Stories of you flaunting your shiny new car don’t make you fabulous, unless you are willing to share a story of about your shortcomings. And even if you did those, let others be the judge of whether you are great or not.

You can argue that these are innocuous posts that do not mean much. For me, if you post something on social media, it comes with a lot of responsibility. Be accountable for the words you write. Take responsibility for the messages you give and the energy you bring in to a conversation. Nothing you post on social media is innocuous or without a message. It shows who you are, and what your values are (much more than your claims of who you are). I find it intriguing that men never participate in such posts (unless it is a challenge where they have to pour a bucket of ice on them in the freezing cold). It’s women who tend to propagate such divisive messages. Married versus single. Mother versus non-mother. Awesome versus not-awesome. And women versus men.


Monday, April 25, 2016

Pastastically Yours

This is not a pasta-making recipe. This is my experience of making (rather assembling) pasta for the first time. As much as I love Italy for travel, I am not a fan of pizzas or pastas. Now my sister has this annoying (endearing according to mom) habit of putting close-up pictures of everything she cooks on Facebook. I find it annoying because someday, I would be chewing my way through dry and leathery, tasteless whole wheat toast wondering if pet food tastes the same when I see close up pictures of tandoori chicken and fish tikka. So this morning, when I saw pictures of pasta, I was like, I've got to make this. It didn't matter that I am not a fan of Italian food at all. Just like you see your friend buy a nice house with a yard or acquire a catch of a partner and go like, "I've got to get this too, whether I want it or not!" Sibling rivalry kicked in, and it was war! (In my mind of course, she had no clue).

I started with studying the picture first to see what all she had put. Half the ingredients were missing from my kitchen, since tomorrow is grocery day. I had no mushrooms or bell peppers or grated cheese. But whenever in self-doubt, I always tell myself, "If I can finish grad school, I can [make pasta/drive cross-country/learn German/insert any action verb of your choice]." (although the two events are not correlated). I knew I was not going to look up Google or YouTube for pasta recipes. Just like your average guy does not believe in reading maps or asking for directions, and refuses to reform even after being lost in the Amazon rainforests for months, I refused to look up recipes. The picture she posted and my gut instincts (pun unintended) about cooking would have to suffice.

"So what all goes into pasta?" I asked myself, standing in the kitchen. Olive oil, came the first thought. Since my kitchen is not pasta-friendly, I contemplated if I could use hair oil instead. Wisdom kicked in soon, and I realized that the hair oil I use claims to be fortified with amla and not olives.

So I fried onions and garlic (not in hair oil), added frozen carrots and peas, and added salt and pepper. Many months ago, a neighbor had left me an unopened bag of pasta when he left his apartment that I was planning to take to Calcutta for my Bengali family with misplaced Italian identities. I boiled that pasta separately and dunked it in cold water. I had no idea what white sauce or red sauce was made of, so I diluted the Indian chili sauce bought from Chandni Chowk and used it as sauce. I added a few thin slices of the cheese I eat with milk every morning. Seems like in my excitement, I had forgotten to go easy on the pepper. How to alleviate spice? Boiled potatoes came to mind, but potatoes in pasta? Whole milk was another idea. I added a generous helping of it, which not only alleviated my burning taste buds, but also brought a soupy, mac and cheese kind of consistency (I always associate soup with health food, never mind this was a cheese and starch soup). Looked like my ad-hoc assembly of pasta turned out to be pretty palatable, even without the olive oil and the Italian herbs and spices. I am still not a fan of pasta, and will probably not make it for the next few years. Basic Indian food, I can cook. But I don't get this pasta-pesto-pistuto business. Antilog, I get, but anti-pasti? You can argue that I could have saved myself all the trouble by dining at an Italian restaurant. But I can bet that it would have cost ten times more and taste not even half as good as my Chandni Chowk chili sauce waala pasta. 


Friday, April 22, 2016

Judging a bottle by its cover

Baba Ramdev has been omnipresent in our household for decades now. In an era when watching television before evening was a strict no-no, my mom would dutifully watch his yoga programs first thing in the morning, hoping that watching proves to be at least half as effective as doing it. So this time, I was not surprised when I saw that the entire household has been taken over by his brand of products. From cooking spices to breakfast food to hair oil, personal care products, cosmetics, and even the vermilion my mother wears on her forehead, everything had Baba Ramdev's stamp on it. Open the kitchen drawers, open the bathroom shelves, he is everywhere. 

Now, I strictly refused to use these products, mainly for three reasons- Did not like the smell, did not like the name, and did not like the fact that everyone in the family was obsessed about him, using terms like "natural" with no idea about what natural is. Ironic enough, my sister has an equally voluminous stash of beauty products collected from Europe and America, although she has never stepped outside India. 

One day while taking a shower, I am pleasantly surprised to find a bottle of shower gel amid a jungle of Ramdev products. L’Occitane is a very favorite brand of mine (French in origin), and I remember getting all excited about discovering this store when I visited France earlier one summer. It is an expensive brand, and I use it quite conservatively. I am quite surprised that my sister knows about it too, and more importantly, has a huge collection of this brand, way more than I do. I happily take a shower, but wonder why I step out of the shower smelling of papayas and pumpkins. 

Looks like she emptied a bottle of Baba Ramdev's hand wash into the L’Occitane bottle.

We haven't been on speaking terms ever since.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Of tea and coconuts

Our domestic help (wonder if there is a better term) in Calcutta knows that "didi" (elder sister, referring to me) lives abroad, and visits occasionally. I had never met her prior to a recent trip, but heard many interesting things about her. A woman in her twenties, she went ahead and had her system ligated after she was forced to conceive. These are stories you typically do not hear every day, even among the upper and empowered classes. 

Now this is not your average hourly help in the US who shows up in their car, cleans your mansion in silence, and leaves. Growing up with temporary help (those who do not live with us, but show up for a few hours every day) has been an essential part of my life in India. She is a little different though. She hates missing work. While every household complains of domestic help gone missing from time to time, this was surprising. I later learnt that every morning she arrives, ma makes fresh and hot rotis and curry, and feeds her a proper breakfast. Food is a great incentive, naturally. She was so happy to see us when we arrived from our week-long family trip earlier. "Chhuti nitey bhalo lagena tomar?" (Don't you like vacations?), I had asked. 

I am not a tea/coffee addict, and drink it only when I have company. She drinks a different kind of tea than the rest of my family. Her's is boiled with milk, spices, and ground cardamom, and I love that kind of tea. Every morning, she and I would sit and drink our cup of tea, chatting up. She talked about her family, her desher bari, and so many other things that I listened to with great interest. She now knows that I love coconuts, especially green coconuts, and she already got me some from the neighbor's tree. 

As I am getting used to the comfort of drinking piping hot cardamom tea every morning and chatting up, she disappears. She calls ma to inform us that her one-year old is suffering from measles, and she will have to stay home. This being a contagious disease, ma asks her to take her time until the little one gets well. With my tea drinking buddy gone, I have lost my motivation of drinking tea. I am leaving in two days, and will probably not meet her anytime soon. I miss her funny stories and her energy. I wish I could meet and say goodbye once.

As if hearing my thoughts, she rings the bell one morning. She is lugging a huge bag, and I rush downstairs to see what the matter is. She is looking haggard, like she hasn't slept in a long time. She is wearing her usual nightdress with the dupatta thrown in. It might seem a weird dress combination to someone not used to this, but this sight of wearing a nightie and throwing in a dupatta before you go outside is pretty common in Calcutta. She places the huge bag on the floor, careful not to touch me so that I do not catch measles germs. She knows that I am leaving soon, so she got me six coconuts. These are not coconuts really, but a stage between the green coconut and the ripe coconut (something she calls "laava", and not a daab or a narkol, although I have never heard of the word before). She got hold of the neighbor guy, bargained prices, and bought me six of these. These originally have a thicker shell that I am not so good at removing (I can break coconuts though), and she takes time to remove the shells, so that all I have to do is split these open. These have a very tasty, soft and white flesh (shNaash), and a lot of sweet water inside, much more than an average coconut does. She hands me these, wishes me luck, and leaves. I tell her that I have missed drinking tea with her, and she says that she hasn't even had the cardamom tea ever since. She has a sick baby waiting at home, and tells me that she felt conscious walking on the streets, not having combed her hair or preened up like she does. She still got me the coconuts though, taking me by surprise.

In my Calcutta trip, love has come to me in all shapes and sizes and ages and circumstances, and I have received it with open arms. Neighbors feeding me whatever they cook on a daily basis (kumro, chalta, tyangra), because I do not get to eat all this in Germany. Strangers (strangers to me, not to my parents) bringing me narkol naadu. People showing up to tie my sari, because I am not good at tying one. Friends inviting me home and cooking my favorite food. Friends calling me cabs because they have discount coupons that would save me some money. And I continue to accept love with gratitude, enriched by the daily life experiences of the immediate people in my life, collecting all the stories they tell me, creating memories, and feeling the magic of this place. 

Breaking a coconut to that.


Monday, April 18, 2016

Othering the non-mother and the lesser-mother

Update: Another post I wrote on this.

“Accepting the motherhood dare. I was nominated to publish a picture that makes me happy to be a mom. I am going to tag a few friends who I think are fabulous mothers and can rise to the challenge of publishing a picture of their own.”

I find the wordings of this post utterly disturbing. I repeat, I am talking about the wording of the post, and not about the concept of posting pictures of your children in general. I enjoy seeing the pictures of (most of) your children on Facebook, until you get to an obsessive point. Some of you, I do not know and do not care much. Most of you are my friends, and I feel happy. I even “Like” and of late, “Love” some of those pictures.

However, I find the above “motherhood dare” game disturbing at many levels. When I first saw a few women chip in, I shrugged it off as one of those low-IQ-but-innocuous chain posts on Facebook. Posting the color of your bra, the size of your shoe, we have seen it all. However, this post grew viral in no time, and everyone and their aunt were suddenly rising to the challenge (whatever that meant). I found a well-written article that mirrored my thoughts. So I posted it on my wall, asking what exactly was challenging about publishing pictures (that you do anyway), and what exactly was the “dare” part of it? Many got angry. Women who never write on my wall started defending themselves. Some who have not interacted with me in the last ten years “Like”d the posts of others defending themselves. Clearly, I had stirred up a hornet’s nest.

To paraphrase some of the conversation (since I cannot directly quote people without their consent), women asked what is wrong with posting motherhood pictures when people were posting pictures of their life events anyway. Everyone refused to see that I had problems with using words like “dare” and “challenge”. I had recently met a Mexican immigrant, a single mom of two who worked four jobs and earned meager wages cleaning people’s homes and toilets. If she fell sick, there would be no money coming. To me, that is a challenge. I recently met an eminent professor, a stalwart in her field, who had to bring up a child while being a graduate student, TAing three courses and doing full-time research. She had no help from parents and one day, she passed out in the parking lot out of sheer exhaustion. That to me is a motherhood challenge. I know a parent whose newborn was secretly taken away from them because the partner did not get along with them and decided that they will no longer have a role to play in their child’s life. The parent has been fighting for their rights. To me, that is a challenge. A fellow blogger has had the most difficult birth that I have known of, fighting against all the odds to keep their premature newborn safe and healthy. I know women who want children, but have not been able to conceive. That is a challenge.

To me, my own life choices are somewhat of a challenge. I wish to have children, but have never had a stable job, have been working in yearly contracts for the past several years, did not find a partner whose intellect complements mine, a person who can look beyond the money he makes and the model of the car he drives, and refused to get hitched to anyone just to get some stability and security. I know that I am running against time, and I may not have a child in this process of getting set up in life. But I do not earn enough right now to raise a child on my own, and I have decided to stay single until I find someone who believes in an equitable relationship and makes me feel that we are worthy of being with each other. There are mothers who are alone and working very hard to make ends meet. And then, there are women who want to be mothers, but cannot be due to many reasons. To think of some elite, privileged, smug women who have access to all the basic needs, who are social media savvy and posting their pictures as a challenge, a dare, seemed somewhat ridiculous, insulting, and marginalizing. Marginalizing not only to the non-mothers, but to the lesser-mothers. It’s like welcoming some people to an elite club and telling the rest that you do not belong here. As I reflected on my post and the angry comments it instigated, a few things came to mind:

1. My biggest question was, “So what exactly was so challenging and daring about this post? Did you overcome a disability? Climb Mount Everest perhaps? And when you handpick some of the so called “great moms” according to you, aren’t you marginalizing the “lesser moms”? Why did most people think I was making a personal attack against all the mothers of the world, and to the concept of motherhood in general? What might have led to such wide discrepancy in understanding?

2. Why were women writing on my wall, dissing me and defending themselves? While they posted pictures on their walls, I posted my thoughts on my wall. I never questioned them or commented on their posts. They did, to me, on my wall. Isn’t that intolerance towards alternate-opinions? Not only do you do things you assume correct, but argue and shut people who are differing in their own spaces?

3. I have heard so many women say, “Motherhood makes me complete.” Why haven’t I heard the same thing being said by men, that fatherhood makes you complete? And why don’t women (or men) say, “My job makes me complete. My degrees make me complete. My parents make me complete. My dog makes me complete.” and so on? Of course this is a general question, a reflection, and not a criticism. How can any one thing make you complete and the lack of it make you incomplete?

I had looked forwarded to some constructive comments and reflections. Something more that “You are wrong and you need to feel happy for mothers just like we feel happy for you when you visit a new country or get a new job.” None came. What came were lame, weak explanations something on the lines of, “We are modern day women. We do not judge you. It’s the older generation that did. Our generation is very progressive.” Some more sweeping generalizations on the lines of “these things never happen in our generation.” Perhaps this is what blind racism or blind casteism looks like. To totally not acknowledge that racism and casteism still exist.

Interestingly, women from our generation give me a lot of flak about my life choices, and these are women roughly my age. When I finished a PhD, they said, “Get married now, and your life will be complete.” When I found a new position and moved continents, they said the same. It is like something was always amiss according to them. With every milestone I reached, the need to be coupled to feel complete became even more profound. And the judgment came too. Big time. “This is abnormal. How long can you stay alone? Everyone needs someone. How will you have children?” People assumed things about me, that I am alone and lonely and unhappy. The discrimination was always there. Unmarried or childless women are still treated as second class citizens by our own clan. This, I speak from personal experience. 


Sunday, April 17, 2016

Not drinking problem

In my German learning sessions today, they dedicated an entire 30-minute unit to teaching how to say only three words (wine, beer, and restaurant), and the different variants of it. 

"Do you want to drink something? Yes, I will have a beer at your place. Or I will have a beer later, at so and so restaurant. But what will you drink? I will have wine. No, no. I will have a beer with you at that restaurant located in that street and that square. Would you also like to eat something? No, I only want to drink a beer. Excuse me. I want two beers please. Thank you." And so on ......

The thing is, I neither drink beer, nor wine. Maybe I should just learn how to say coconut water in German instead.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Grand Storytelling

A gentleman once boarded a crowded bus on a wintry morning, traveling with his wife, and two cauliflowers. Freshly plucked, he had bought them from the grocer near the Howrah Station for an excellent deal. A pair of huge cauliflowers with ripe florets weighed down his arms while he stood in the crowd. With her tiny frame, his wife had somehow managed to find a seat in the bus. However, he kept standing, making small talk with his fellow passengers, like he always did. 

For the rest of the ride, he held on to the bus rails with one hand, beaming and recounting to the fellow passengers how he had struck gold by managing to find these cauliflowers for ten rupees only. The fellow passengers nodded with interest. As the rickety bus continued to navigate the cobbled streets of Howrah, the gentleman continued to chatter, telling people about the wedding ceremony at home. His nephew was getting married soon, and the cauliflowers would be cooked for lunch by the women in the family. The three brothers lived together in a big house, with their wife, sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren. The daughters and sons-in-laws were visiting too. Caterers were not in vogue back then, and the women in the household cooked together for every ritual before the wedding, although there would be a designated group of thakurs (cooks) hired for the main wedding spread. 

The fellow passengers listened with feigned interest as the chatty gentleman talked. When the stop arrived, the gentleman and his wife got off the bus. And so did one of the fellow passengers. Without preamble, the passenger shoved a ten rupee bill in the gentleman's hand, grabbed the cauliflowers, and vanished in the crowd. Just like that. The gentleman looked at the ten rupee bill, too confused to react quickly. Didn't he just carry the heavy produce all the way in a crowded bus, so that his family could cook it for lunch?

His wife misunderstood what happened, thinking that her husband just handed the cauliflowers as a good Samaritan. She bickered. He lost his temper, his ego already bruised. He argued back. And like children after a fight, he just started walking faster, using long steps. The house was a good fifteen-minute walk from the bus stop, and her four feet ten inches were no match for his six feet one inch frame. Not used to walking alone on the busy streets, she was hurt and confused, and wiped tears as she walked as fast as she could, trying to catch up with her husband. Still angry, he soon disappeared into the crowd. 

She crossed the dhopa'r maath (washerman's field), the narrow bylanes, and the pond, taking the final left to enter the corridor to the house. A movement caught her eye, and she turned to find her husband strategically hiding himself behind a tree, so that he could watch her walk back safely without her knowing it. She ignored him and entered the house, bursting into tears, managing to summarize the basic details of the event as she wiped tears. The brothers, sisters-in-law, nephew and nieces scolded him for acting childishly, while he stood there all grumpy until his anger melted. They did not eat cauliflowers that day, but still had a good lunch. 

My grandma just recounted this autobiographical story back from the nineties, for the umpteenth time. I have heard this story many times now, but still ask her to recount it. This is because I love my grandma's knack for storytelling. And once she did, I summarized it here. This is an ordinary, commonplace, inconsequential story from one day of my grandparents' life. Nothing life-changing, nothing spiritually awakening. But I still love it. I think that grandmas are the best storytellers, giving you a glimpse of a world where you either did not exist, or were too different to relate to. I have many friends here who grew up in different countries all over the world. I am curious about the stories all your grandmas told. And while I hope that you share some, I will try to document my share of stories, from my grandma's point of view.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Our homegrown celebrity

A few years ago, grandma fell very sick, taking to the bed. Diabetes led to the gradual failing of her kidneys, and she had to be hospitalized for a long time. It's a story from many years ago, she is perfectly fit now after working out, having lost 55 lbs and slimming down beyond recognition. But back then, my mom visits her one day at the hospital. She is hooked to a dozen different pipes and monitors. Her face is all swollen, eyes closed, breathing heavily. A number of instruments are constantly recording her vitals. The doctor is wondering if they should start dialysis. Grandma is sick beyond recognition.

When my mom sits by her bed, grandma slowly opens her eyes. With great effort, she tries to smile. Despite her condition, there is a twinkle in her eyes. She tells mom, "Do you know, Suchitra Sen's physician is now my physician?"

In her tryst with death, what excites her about life is that she now shares her physician with a celebrity. When her physician recently died, grandma expressed her sadness to my mom, "We lost our physician. Suchitra Sen and I."

Suchitra Sen was a renowned Bengali actor of the yesteryear from the 1950s. Someone like Meg Ryan of Hollywood or Madhuri Dixit of Bollywood.


Monday, April 11, 2016

The real art of living

I often write about my grandma, because there is so much to write about her. At a time when all of us have been disappointed with life, she tells me that what keeps her going strong despite all the odds is the single minded desire to live.

Grandma fell very sick about 2 years ago. Her blood sugar and cholesterol shot up, kidneys went haywire, and there were many things that went wrong. From hospitalizations to passing out, she saw it all. Since then, she cannot drink more than one bottle of fluid a day. Which means that if she has a bowl of lentils or soup, she will have to subtract the same amount from a bottle of water. Imagine thriving in the Indian summer that way.

Eventually, grandma decided to fight her diseases. She completely changed her diet. For someone who has no access to the gym, she started brisk walking every day. She did this for a while, and lost 25 kilo (55 lbs). Imagine losing that much weight for someone less than 5 feet tall, and that old (Metabolism slows down with age). Eventually, all her diseases started disappearing, and her readings came back to normal. Now, she wakes up at 4 am everyday and sprints up to the terrace for her walks, goes up and down 5 flights of stairs every now and then (she lives on the fifth floor), takes all the washed clothes to the terrace to dry, takes care of grandpa, and is much fitter. I recently saw her picture, and she looks so thin, that I could not recognize her, despite knowing her all my life. I joked that she could easily join Hollywood. She has almost become grandma/2. 

My uncle one day got her a piece of fish fry, and she said that she was looking at outside food after 1.5 years. She was so worried about eating it that she nibbled on it, and took an entire hour to finish it little by little. And last we spoke, she told me the same thing. I do not care about good food anymore. I just want to live well.


Saturday, April 09, 2016

A post from the post office

The last time I went to the post office, the gentleman almost barked at me, since I spoke no Deutsche. Of course why I was at the post office is a rant for a different day altogether. This time, I was prepared, armed with my knowledge from unit 1, chapter 1 of my lessons.

"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, "Hähnchenfleisch, 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 in a rote fahion,

"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, April 08, 2016

Tooth and nail

I am not miserly at all. As long as I do not have to borrow from someone, and still save something for the rainy day, I believe in living well, eating well, and traveling well. I will not put myself through discomfort to save a few bucks, or not do something I really want to do just because it costs money. 

However, a tube of toothpaste completely changes my personality. Every morning since last week, I see myself vehemently squeezing it with all my strength to get that extra bit out before I have to trash the tube. I even have a new tube handy, but I can't let go of this one. My hands hurt, my nails break, but every tiny squeeze I get out of that tube feels like victory. 

Sometimes, I don't really understand myself.


Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Poster Child

I was in the bus, on my way to work this morning, watching people, when a bygone memory from more than two decades ago made me nostalgic. We used to live in a little town, little enough that very few buses took you around, but big enough that the ride to school took about 45 minutes every morning. Every day, my sister and I would hop at the back of the cycle-rickshaw, enjoying the cool breeze and lack of traffic very early in the morning. And all through that ride, our favorite pastime was to count the number of cinema posters of Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, the two prominent actors in Bollywood. I was a non-supporter, but since sister was an Aamir supporter, my default poster counting went for Shah Rukh. 

We had rules too. Big time. When one of us would be losing, we would make impromptu rules, like the actor has to be visible on the poster to count. Or, we could not count posters that were old, and hidden beneath newer posters. And there was a way of counting too. Whenever we spotted one, the person would shout- Aamir 1, or Shah Rukh 12, making Raju Bhai, the rickshaw puller chuckle. Sometimes, when we felt generous, we would help the other person locate posters. But if we were our default mean selves, we would just say- "Hey, you just missed that poster on the wall, but since you cannot see it now, you cannot count it."

I do not see any point to this game now, but for strengthening counting abilities (it was already strong, I was in the eighth or ninth grade, my sister in the second grade), getting familiar with movie names like English Babu Desi Mem, Guddu, and Zamaana Dewaana, and just staying engaged during the long ride. The game was so pointless, so without any agenda, that it was good. So good that years later, I think about it and feel nostalgic, wishing that I could still be counting movie posters on my way to work now.


Monday, April 04, 2016

Discovering Barcelona

There are many things that make a city memorable. History, art, culture. And then food, music, and most importantly, people. Barcelona told me goodbye with as much energy as it said hi. I spent the last few days soaking in the energy that the city had to offer. Gorgeous views of the mountains and seas. A super efficient public transport system. I stayed at a hostel, like I always do, getting to know the local people and meeting more travelers from across the world. A super small but functional room (more like a large walk-in closet) with a twin bed, a tiny table, a wash basin, a window overlooking the west, and a reasonably good internet connection. The hostel was in a nice neighborhood, with parks, cafes, and a huge fruit and vegetable store. Most days, I was happy skipping meals and eating the juiciest of grapes and oranges instead.

I had an early morning flight back to Germany. Although the metro runs until late, it doesn't run at that hour. However, the hostel people told me that there is a bus running every twenty minutes that would take me directly to the airport. Although they mostly spoke Spanish and some broken English, I was able to figure out which direction to take the bus from. They told me something like bus is €2.15, taxi is €25.

So 3:45 am, I stepped out of the hostel after leaving the keys in a box, the door closing behind me. I walk up to the bus stop. It is absolutely dark, and for some reason, it feels more like a midnight in India than US. Occasionally, a person is walking by. There is a cool breeze blowing that is so comforting. Occasionally, a car would pass by. I admit I am a little nervous. Although I am a bus person, I am wondering if it was a good idea to be waiting at the bus stop alone at that hour. There is no guarantee the bus would show up, and since I do not have a phone, there is no way I can call a taxi. What if someone attacks me? What if I never make it to the terminal?

The minutes ticked by slowly. The digital display overhead showed a couple of names of places, date, time, and temperature in yellow. The silence was getting unnerving, despite the cool breeze that was so comforting.

Suddenly, at 4:03 am (3 minutes past the scheduled time), I saw bright headlights and heard loud music. My bus appeared out of nowhere and suddenly braked in front of me, to my utter relief. I hopped on to it to realize that the bus was full, with hardly any space to stand. Loud Spanish music was blaring. The driver was saying something in Spanish. It felt like I had hopped inside a party-bus. Everyone was talking loudly. The driver handed me my change with one hand, the other hand on the wheels as he took sharp turns. If you have seen Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris where Owen Wilson hops inside a car and goes to a party every night, you will know what I mean. A midnight party bus with rambunctious people carrying heavy suitcases and playing loud music drove me to the airport. The bus was completely full with airport passengers, with hardly any space to stand. It was past 4 am. I wonder if the city ever sleeps.
I was almost tempted to stay on the bus and go back to Barcelona. This city is like a magnet. It draws you in, and makes you want to stay here forever.


Saturday, April 02, 2016

Bare Walls

The bare walls in my home are a testimony to how my life has changed over the past decade with these cross-continental moves. The homes where I grew up never had bare walls. They had framed and garlanded pictures of the Gods and Goddess, and the deceased people in the family. The walls had calendars too. Every year, the new ones would replace old ones, just like life. Other than the few smaller ones, there was one single-paged, huge Dey's Medical calendar we hung every year, just like every average Bengali family did. Holiday dates were marked in red and bold, a huge red cross in the middle of the page. Then, during the Bengali new years in April, every local Mishtanno Bhandar (sweet shop) gifted us smaller calendars rolled with blue/black rubber bands along with a box of sweets. These calendars were smaller, less overbearing, and had Bangla font (and Bangla months) with pictures of Ma Kali or Ma Tara. The design and the fonts changed every year, but the subjects remained the same- Ma Kali, Ramkrishna Paramhansa (Swami Vivekananda’s guru), or Baba Loknath sitting on a lotus.

Eventually, as we grew older and Archies inundated the markets, calendars stopped being free and Ma Kali was substituted by other forms of Mother Nature. Scenic waterfalls and snow-capped mountains from unknown lands. Birds, flowers, and bees. As the science of photography improved, every hue of the sunset, the ripples of water, and the yellow and black stripes on the bee's abdomen became even more distinct. We saw lands and flowers and insects that were not familiar, not local to us, and reveled in it. By the end of the year (and with parental permission, which was very important), I would remove those calendars, taking a pair of scissors and go snip snip, making wall hangings, collages, book covers, and bookmarks out of them. Calendars made excellent book covers, although the laborious act of covering every book I read died with me finishing school.

I wonder how many of us use wall calendars these days. Technology has shrunk our entire worlds (including people) inside our smartphones, computers, and online Google calendars, taking away with it the excitement of flipping through and changing the pages of the calendar every month.

Even after all these years, my heart somersaults in joy whenever I see a stack of calendars. I sometimes pick them up although they no longer make it to the walls (hammering nails in the wall takes effort). The calendars just get lost somewhere amid piles of textbooks and research papers. As for the walls, they continue to remain bare for me. Unlike my friends, I do not hang pictures of anything anymore, even my family or my photography. After moving to seven different homes in four cities across two countries and two continents over the last ten years, I have decided to go minimalist. I no longer accumulate stuff that I will not be able to carry to my next home. Not only is accruing stuff laborious, the act of getting rid of stuff is emotionally painful. So my walls continue to remain bare, with only a tiny, rectangular Seattle magnet on one of the iron rails of the heater. The Ma Kali calendars are a relic from the past, something I only get to see and relish when I visit the local dry cleaners in Calcutta.


Friday, April 01, 2016

The language of love

My German lessons- I try to listen to 30 minute recordings of two people making daily life conversations every day. They keep repeating the lines, and that helps me learn German. 

However, listening to these conversations has also fueled my fertile imagination. It started with an innocuous hello, with the guy asking the girl if she is German, telling her that he is American, and understands only a little German.

Soon, the girl told him that his German is quite good. I smiled. Conversation flowed freely. Words were exchanged. The next time, he asked her how she is doing, and she said thank you, asking him how he is. I was not just learning German, I was also beginning to paint a rather hopelessly romantic picture in my mind. This was just lesson 3, and there were about a hundred of them. I wondered if they would be driving to see their grandchildren by the time I reached lesson 90. 

Then came the action verbs, naturally. Would you like to eat something? Maybe drink something? Yes, sure, at the restaurant by the Opera square. And they met again, and again. Sometimes on the Beethoven street, sometimes on the Goethe street. They ate dinner and drank wine. By lesson 6, they were asking one another if they would like to meet at the restaurant, or at their place. I was grinning broader with every passing day. Then, he asked her if she would like to do something. I winked instinctively. She replied aptly, saying that she would like to buy something. 

I went ahead of myself, and Googled how to say "I love you". I knew it was coming sometime soon.

Eat. Drink. Do. Buy. I kept hoping for more intimacy with every lesson. He was always asking, and she was more than willing. I knew that soon, they will be a couple, and travel Antofagasta together. Take a Flugzeug (airplane) from the Flughafen (airport). Until I reached today's lesson. He asked her again if she would like to eat something at his place.


"At 8 pm, or at 9 pm?"

"No, not at 8 pm, and not at 9 pm. Certainly not." 

"You don't want to drink something at the hotel?"

"Yes, that's right. I do not want to eat anything, and I do not want to drink anything."

Wow, that was harsh! Surely I learnt a lot of no-words today. No, don't want, certainly not, not at 8 pm, and so on. But I wonder what happened to her.

My fictional love story is beginning to see some friction now.