Thursday, June 30, 2016

Viewing the world differently

We are very close with a certain family. Whenever I ring their doorbell, auntie shouts from inside, asking who it is. It leaves me a little confused, since she could look through the eye hole.

"It's me!," I shout back, instantly realizing how useless my answer is. Who exactly is this me? My parents have given me such a weird pet name that I am reluctant to shout out my name and let the entire community know. So I keep mum until auntie opens the door and tells me the story.

A petty thief got in the building, and on not being able to find anything better, stole their eye hole. So now, their door was left without anything to peep from. Uncle bought a new eye hole. Their daughter decided to take matters in her hand, and ended up gluing the new eye hole, but in the opposite direction. Auntie is still unable to see anything through it. So now, their son mocks his sister and decides to take things in his hand. He gets even stronger glue, takes the eye hole out, looks at it this way and that way with one eye closed like a detective would, and ends up gluing the eye hole exactly the same way again- the correct side reversed. Now the glue is so strong that it will not even come out. I actually saw it for myself. When I ring the door bell now, I can peep from outside and clearly see their living room while auntie comes up to the door to open it from inside. Auntie still has no idea who is standing outside.

The irony of this situation is not lost on me. For this could have only happened in a household with two engineer-siblings.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The art of doing nothing

Grandma goes up the terrace twice a day for her walks. I do not accompany her at 6 am, but I try to accompany her at 6 pm. And while she walks and rotates her hands and her neck this way and that way, I do absolutely nothing. This time with grandma has taught me the art of doing nothing. Sometimes, I bring a book with me, but barely read it. Sometimes, I bring my camera to take a few pictures of the coconut trees, the sunset, or the high-rise buildings under construction. But most of the time, I do nothing. I lie down on my back and take a short nap or look at the sky and the airplanes. Sometimes, I bring a bowl full of kalojaam or black berries with me. And while I munch on them, I deliberately try spitting out the seeds from the terrace in a projectile motion to see how far each one can go. I look at what's in other people's rooftops. Someone is growing bitter gourds or pumpkin flowers while the others have hung clothes to dry. I try to spot the different landmarks of the city- The Howrah Bridge, the Salt Lake Stadium. I try to identify the different kinds of birds, although my knowledge about birds is restricted to the crows, sparrows, and pigeons alone. I hum a tune or two, or think of some research ideas that I could pursue. But mostly, as grandma is working out and sweating it out, I take great pleasure in sitting with her and doing absolutely nothing. Because doing nothing for an hour everyday actually frees up my mind later on to do much more.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Fruits of labor

Imagine a life where the only responsibility you have, even if for a few weeks, is to buy seasonal fruits from the market while returning home. This started when I got my first job in 2005. Although earning, I was not expected to contribute anything at home. So I started buying fruits on my way back, as much as I desired for the entire family (although I always ate the lion's share). Kalojaam (blackberry), jaamrul (Java apple), lichu, safeda, you name it. I would happily come home, two large bags of fruits in hand. With my meager salary, I had never felt richer.

The trend continues. No matter whether I am in a bus or taxi, I always get off at the local market to buy fruits while returning home. I get on my haunches and hand-pick fruits. This time, I spotted a particular woman seller in between a bunch of men. Being appreciative of this, I started chatting up with her.

"Kalojaam koto kore?" How much? I asked.

"Ten rupees for 100 grams." she said.

Fruit sellers always quote prices for 100 grams here possibly because it tricks the buyer into believing that they do not have to spend much. Kaalojaam, or black berries are a close favorite after mangoes and litchis, and I have never found these in the US/Germany. So when I ask for 2 kilos, her jaws drop, and she gives me a 10% discount. I never haggle for prices, something that Ma and I always keep arguing about. Ma's point is, sellers always inflate the prices because people are going to haggle. My point is, if the price sounds reasonable enough (most things do now, since my euros give me even more buying power), I do not want to haggle with a poor man who is sitting in the sun and trying hard to make a living. If one does not haggle at Pantaloons and Westside, why haggle with fruit sellers? Those 10 rupees I save is not worth the kicks one gets.

So I continue to buy fruits from her whenever I go out, and we chat up. Now, she starts to watch out for me as well. One day, she gave me good quality plastic bags for things I had bought from another place because I was not carrying a grocery bag. The other day, she gave me a handful of kalojaams for free to chew on as we continued to chat. Every time I put a few in my mouth, she would choose a few good ones and place them in my hand. Who would have imagined making a new friend at the local market over buying kalojaams?

She was thrilled when I asked her name. She was even more thrilled and blushed profusely when I asked if I could take a picture of her. So she posed nicely and gave me her best smile.

Grandma and I have forgotten to eat other things, and have been happily overdosing on kalojaams ever since, our teeth and tongues perennially violet in color now. 


Monday, June 27, 2016


Every time I landed in Kolkata, he was among the first few people I would meet. Sometimes, we set up a meeting date even before I had reached Kolkata. With a thumping heart and sweat trickling down my face due to my nervousness, I would go meet him. And then, he would usher me inside, close the door behind him, ask me to lie down, grab my hand, and without wasting much time, go straight for my mouth. A quick summer romance, not really. For in the aftermath of all this action, we would often be left in tears, mine shed due to all the pain, and my father's, not shed, for the deep holes it made in his pocket.

This is the first time in many years that I have not had to see the dentist in Kolkata. Touchwood. Needless to say, my life is so much better for it and my smiles, so much brighter!


Friday, June 24, 2016

A sweet gesture

I am always drawn to places and societies where one can have real interactions with real people. Going out in Kolkata makes that happen everyday. I am headed home and get off the bus to walk some 10-15 minutes before I reach our apartment. It is extremely humid, and I am drenched in sweat, about to die of thirst. So I stop by the local sweets shop, and ask for the water jug for a sip (it is free). I don't know the owner personally. The owner not only forwards me the water jug, but also hands me a gujiya, a kind of sweet, for free. He smiles and says, "এটা খান, ভালো লাগবে।" (Have this, you will feel better).

I don't think he goes around distributing free sweets, but it is that moment, a moment when someone is dying of thirst and a kind man not only offers that, but offers something to eat as well. Your Big Bazaar and other chain stores with uniformed people working there and talking to the local customers in English will never do this for you, even if they wanted to, because there are cameras watching them and they are accountable for every rupee. My ma does not understand why I try to boycott buying from or going to malls and chain stores. I do not care to choose from ten different varieties of rice and wheat, or get that 10% discount when I purchase goods for a thousand rupees or more. I do not care about fattening the pockets of the already rich. I want human interaction. And I want my money to go to the local people. I don't just care about the product I am getting. I also care about where my money is going.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Water we waiting for?

A disaster of the somewhat innocuous kind brought all the 12-15 odd families in our building together. Usually, we do not keep track of the ongoing of our neighbors. We nod curtly and smile if we bump into someone in the stairway. But last afternoon, the water pump malfunctioned and we lost running water. We waited until evening, but nothing. The supply of stored water was slowly running out. Late evening, ma started making a few phone calls, asking when it would be fixed. We were supposed to visit a family friend nearby, so we showed up at their place with 6-8 empty bottles to stock up on drinking water. While coming home, we saw that all the men of the building were assembled together discussing what needs to be done.

Early morning, people were ready with buckets to fill up on municipality water that stops after 8 am. This actually gave people a chance to say hi and make small talk, since everyone was queued up with a common goal. As the line was getting longer, ma went to the neighbor from the adjacent building to stock up on buckets of water (which I dutifully carried upstairs). The neighbor also invited us to come back and take a shower if the water problem was not solved. This water crises forced me to meet at everyone from the building I usually do not go out of my way to meet.

9 am. The problem is fixed. Water is back. We are back to living our normal, isolated lives, watching TV with family and getting back on the internet. No more communal gatherings with buckets in hands, chatting up with real people. We are back to chatting virtually.

Water crises is bad. But thank god we did not lose electricity or internet. I also got a good workout first thing in the morning. I always look at the brighter side.


Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Old place, new things

I am not stranger to Kolkata. It annoys me every time I land at the airport and stand in line for immigration, always surrounded by a bunch of NRIs who cannot stop complaining about how slow the line is moving or how Kolkata is never going to change or flash their foreign passports to get ahead in line. Yes, the first thing I step out of the plane, I smell the warm, humid air mixed with phenyl/floor-cleaning chemicals. And that is the smell I associate with the airport, my gateway to my home. When in the US, I used to visit annually. Now from Germany, I visit almost twice a year. But every time I visit, there are certain things I relearn or unlearn. Day 1 is always the hardest, reorienting myself to a different, if not new way of doing things. It's like a switch in the brain that turns on and off. Here are some of the things that always surprise me anew in Kolkata.

1. Sweating. Every time I step out of the airport, my glasses fog. And I slowly start sweating. It's an alien feeling, since I do not sweat in Germany. Not even for a minute, unless I am working out seriously. The seasons are differentiated by the number of blankets and comforters I heap on myself, and summer means using only one instead of three. So suddenly when I am standing outside the airport, not lifting anything or working out and I start sweating, my clothes clinging to me, the feeling is very disconcerting. 

2. Roads. It takes my brain a little bit of re-programming to remember that we now drive on the left hand side of the road. It always surprises me how much smaller, bumpier, and un-geometrical the roads look. The first few times of crossing the roads without signal are scary, and I involuntarily look for the traffic lights with the red hand or the green man walking. It doesn't take long to unlearn the western ways and relearn the Indian way though. On our way from the airport this time, dad asks me if I see something different about the roads. Unmindful and still thinking about why I am sweating, I reply, "Yes, it's so much smaller and we are on the left, which is freaking me out." Dad was pointing out to how much cleaner and organized the roads now look, with road signs and all, thanks to our chief minister. His message was completely lost on me. 

3. Mosquitoes. Two days after I arrived, I woke up one morning, my right arm completely riddled with mosquito bites. In a strange way, it felt very nostalgic. Sensing a mosquito that’s sitting on my leg and killing it without seeing it is a skill that has taken me years to master. I don’t even know why we switch on the electronic mosquito repellant. I don’t think it works.

4. Lizards. I am used to staying up late. I am also used to raiding the fridge at night. Often, when I switch on the kitchen light, I see a lizard or two quickly crawl by on the floor. We have learnt to accept each other's existence. It feels assuring to know that someone else is up and scouring for food as well this late.

5. The ceiling fan. Eventually, when I am done working, I switch off the laptop and the tube light before hitting the bed. In bed, I lie on my back, looking at the silhouette of the ceiling fan moving. And I always wonder what if it falls on me? I wonder when they last serviced the fan and how well they checked the screws suspending it. Sometimes, I am afraid that my thoughts alone will change an unlikely event into a likely one. So I try to think of something else until I fall asleep. However, every time I lie down, I always wonder if I should switch it off.

6. The door bell. It’s amazing how many times the door bell rings here. In Germany, I don’t think I even have a door bell. If I am expecting someone, they just call beforehand.  There is no domestic help or newspaper person or mailman or the plumber or electrician to ring the bell.

7. Food. I am always thrilled by how much stronger fruits and vegetables smell here- garlic, ginger, onions, mangoes. My hand smells of food all day long. Back there, fruits and vegetables are four times the size, but hardly have any smell.

8. Wet bathroom floors. This is one more thing that takes me some time to get used to. The fact that there is always water on the floors. And buckets, yes. I don’t have any buckets or mugs back in Germany.

9. The domestic help. In Germany, I am the cook and I am the cleaner. I do the dishes and clean the floors. I wash my own clothes. I make my tea. Not here.

10. The clothes line. I do not have one back there. The dryer dries my clothes, although I feel so much better drying my clothes in the sunlight.

There are so many more, including experiencing extended periods of time when there could be no water or no electricity or no internet or all of the above. Electricity-wise, it is so much better than it used to be when we were children. I actually miss those one hour in the evening summer power outages when I would do nothing but lie on the terrace, looking up and admiring the night sky and the blinking airplanes while riddled with mosquito bites.


Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Living up to the image

My friend and I are dining at an upscale restaurant in Park Street, Kolkata. We have a lot to catch up on, but neither or us are ravenous hungry. So we order soups, appetizers, and drinks. Hours later, the person attending to us, polite and well-dressed and so far attentive to our needs, asks us if we are ready to order the main course. As we are very full, we politely decline, asking for the check/bill instead. At this point, our man laughs loudly and asks us, "Oh, are you dieting?"

A seemingly lame attempt to make small talk although an innocuous question, right? Wrong. Context is always important. Would he ever ask this to his male guests? Not only it is none of his business, questions about food, dieting, clothes, etc. are deeply tied to body image. I am tired of every friend and relative in Kolkata, male and female, commenting on how I look, how much better I used to look in the past, and how I must do certain things to make sure I go back to looking my older self again. These people are no brand ambassadors of good looks and fit lifestyles themselves, although I see them as people and not as balding people, pot-bellied people, smoking people, unfit people, or obese people. These people have no curiosity about my life other than my looks- nothing about where I work, what I do for a living, what I think of some of the pressing issues in the country, and so on. And now, this comment about dieting comes from a complete stranger, a person whose job was to serve us food. Because women are supposed to diet and look pretty and deck up and please others according to set societal norms. And women are either too thin or too fat or too dark or too bold.

Inadvertently or otherwise, stop reinforcing gender stereotypes, or any stereotype for that matter. It is not cool!


Monday, June 20, 2016

Black and White

Please share widely

A derogatory picture from children’s textbook depicting “beautiful and ugly” is being circulated widely and has been the topic for a heated discussion. A few things come to mind as I look at this picture that transcends the skin color divide.

1. “Beautiful” means light-skinned and “ugly” means dark-skinned.

2. “Beautiful” means wearing jewelry and “ugly” means the lack of jewelry.

3. “Beautiful” means having blonde hair and “ugly” means having dark hair. What people from the Indian subcontinent have blonde hair? This basically means “beautiful” is Caucasian/White.

4. “Beautiful” means some fancy dress and “ugly” means wearing a sari.

5. “Beautiful” means being rich, probably upper caste and “ugly” means being poor, probably lower caste and doing menial jobs.

I am not sure if I missed any other messages. First, why do we need to teach the concept of beauty and ugliness to children, especially using living examples? A pile of garbage is ugly. The devastation after a war is ugly. But people? Children pick on these cues very early, and now, this picture reinforces so many stereotypes, blatantly showing the aspiration of people from the subcontinent to look like a White person. Long before the evils done by the film industry or the skin care industry, beauty standards were set by the colonizers. We lost our souls and pride to them long back. We just did not know it. Why should a “beautiful” woman need to look this way otherwise?

Someone asked me what should be done. This is what I said. Teach the kid. Ban the book(s). Spread the word. Write about it. Detect the publisher of the book. Wage a campaign. Stop using fairness products. Stop reading books and magazines that promote these values. Stop dressing your children like Elsa and Anna and White queens and princesses because they are eventually going to grow up with identity crisis. Be mindful of the language used in matrimonial ads and boycott ads that promote discrimination based on skin color. Stop aspiring for a light-skinned daughter/son-in-law. The possibilities are as endless as our imaginations and our intentions.


Friday, June 17, 2016

German Visa

When I arrived in Germany, I had to go to the Rathaus (city hall) to register myself. There, they gave me a piece of paper that I took to another building called the Ausländerbehörde (Aliens Office) with other documents. There, they asked me to come back in three weeks to collect my residence permit after which I could go to any of the Schengen countries without a visa. And a tiny Sunny Deol voice inside my head shouted, "Tareeq pe tareeq, tareeq pe tareeq" (translated as, appointment after appointment, appointment after appointment, when will I get the permit?). 

My basic impressions of the visa system in Germany- There is a lot of paperwork and going back and forth involved. Even the Ausländerbehörde reminded me more of India- tons of files and paperwork stacked in their office. They actually sent me a letter at home, giving me an appointment date and time (compared to being able to make an appointment online). I have to be patient, knowing that they might ask for hundreds of documents and take weeks, and ask me to come back instead of mailing in my residence permit.

However, I absolutely do not feel uncomfortable, unlike my previous experiences in other countries where the security drove me crazy. No security check, no metal detectors, no one patting you or sniffing you. The officer will actually smile and not keep giving you suspicious glances. Things are more laid back and way more relaxed. 

I would love to know a system where once they see that work or studies is taking you to different countries, you will not need a visa anywhere in the world.

Until then, I love the fact that Germany exempts me from paying my visa fee, saving me some 100 euros every time.  


Thursday, June 16, 2016

Conferences and Weddings

Conferences are like giant weddings. Everyone you met there is somewhere in the spectrum of guests, people from your life you typically bump into.

The PhD adviser is more of the parent you are meeting after a long time. You go have dinner, talk about work and life. He tells you how to win people at the new job (in-laws), because what I do reflects on his training. Beaming with pride, he goes around introducing me to everyone. The pride on his face, and my occasional embarrassment felt similar to when a smart kid from town cracks the IIT-JEE exams, and their parents go about beaming in pride and showcasing their kid to every (highly disinterested) neighbor, distant relative, and visitor. I am more like the academic child.

Grad school friends/classmates: They are more like the siblings, the friends you made in the neighborhood where you grew up. Most left the neighborhood at some point while some stayed back. We talked about childhood, about the good old times, the scary courses and the fun professors, our anxieties about not being able to finish the degree, and so on.

The new department: Perhaps the future in-laws, the husband being the new position. The head of my future family (the dean) introduced me to everyone, bought me drinks, and told me how excited they are to have me. I am more like the new bride.

People from the current workplace are more like members from the current family. Yes, I will change families soon, but it is more of an amicable separation.

People who do similar work in the field. They are the potential future collaborators. People I might be developing intimate (academic) relationships with in the future. Academia is interesting that way. Once wedded, you are encouraged to go develop partnerships with others in the field.

And this is perhaps the most interesting one. I was standing with a group of people in the elevator when I saw a familiar face. I looked at the name tag, and I knew who it was. The person never recognized me, but I did, and involuntarily took a few steps backward in the elevator. A person who had interviewed me on Skype, but neither gave me a job, nor informed me about their decision. It was the ex. Someone you had wanted to be with in the past, someone who had rejected you, broken your heart. It might have disturbed me to bump into an ex just like that under ordinary circumstances, but now that I have recently made a new family, I felt like doing a happy dance inside my head in front of them. 


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

A random day of my life in Kolkata

Somewhere between pre- and post-2014, my perception of Kolkata changed. Pre-2014, I would visit Kolkata from the USA where I drove a car and was used to a certain individualistic lifestyle. Naturally, ma and I used to spend most of our time arguing over what mode of transportation to take, sullying the joys of going out together. I refused to take the slow-moving rickety buses, the dangerously-driven autos, or even the metro. My ma does not believe in taking cabs, classifying all cab-drivers as kidnappers, and we would often stand at the bus stop arguing about this. She later grew wiser, so instead of arguing, she would suspiciously nod and agree that we should indeed take the cab, admitting that buses these days are not reliable anymore. However, as soon as we reached the main road, she would hop on a slowly oncoming bus, shrugging and telling me that no cabs were in sight. She would be standing on the footrest motioning to me by vigorously flailing her hands, "Chole aaye, chole aaye, taxi paabi na." or "Hop on, you won't find a cab." The thing is, she didn't even wait for 5 minutes for a cab to show up. I see her innocent face and I know that I have been tricked. So now I can either stand my ground in which case ma leaves in a bus and I stay where I am, or give in and take the bus. At this point, the conductor joins her too in screaming and asking me to board the bus, "Chole asun didi chole asun." I give up, take the bus, and see a broad grin of victory on ma's face. "Shona meye amar, ma'er katha shunte hoy." "Good girl, you must listen to mommy." I promise never to travel with her again.

Post-2014, I am older and wiser, somewhat. I now live in Germany and do not drive anymore. I haven't even renewed my driver's license. I take the public transportation all the time. I know that it is convenient, environmentally friendly, inexpensive, and the right thing to do. So as I board my flight to Kolkata, I tell myself that I am only taking the public transportation. No more cabs for me. If I want to see interesting people, I must take the metro. My ma has never been prouder.

So one evening, I decide to meet a friend in the opposite end of the city. Kolkata metro is fast, convenient, and connects the city north to south. But taking the metro involves walking for ten minutes to the main road, taking an auto to the station, walking under the bridge and hope that no flying missiles from moving trains of the nature of used cloth diapers or flying excreta land on me, and then taking the metro. The humidity is killing me, my clothes uncomfortably sticking to me. I haven't even bothered to put on makeup. I was wearing a light rain jacket in June even last week when I was in Germany. And now, my sluggish sweat glands are working overtime. I take the metro and luckily find a seat in the reserved "Ladies" seat. I get busy trying to read a third-grade bestseller highly vouched for by my sister that was written by a celebrity-wife who clearly did not know what to do with her time. I am trying to focus on page 2, giving it a fair shot before judging my sister. I have a long way to go. The train stops at the next station, and I see a woman walking fast out of the corner of my eye. "Chepe bosun, chepe bosun," she instructs everyone sternly. I am hearing this phrase after such a long time. It means please squeeze in a bit to make space for me, and is said twice for added emphasis.

The thing is, obesity has significantly risen in the last decade or so with the Americanization of Kolkata. The booming "shopping mall culture" is a long rant for another day. While I am old-school and more used to being invited home and fed home-cooked food, people these days prefer hanging out at malls, walking aimlessly and looking at overpriced stores, taking selfies and partaking in Subways and McDonald's. Imagine flying all the way to Kolkata to watch people overdose on American junk food with gusto while I crave for two tiny shingaras, kochuris, and some jilipis. And I continue to embarrass myself in more ways than one. Recently, when someone asked, “Acropilos jaabi? Have you been to Acropolis?" (a recently opened mall in the southern fringes of the city that I had no idea about), I proudly beamed, "Gechi to. I was there last month, that is where I lost my passport." Before this Kolkata trip, I only knew of one Acropolis, the original one in Greece.

Back to my metro rant. While eight voluptuous women easily fit in a ladies seat 10 years ago, wriggling babies and hanging bags and all, the same space can now seat seven women, and a mosquito or two. The others look at each other clueless, feigning an act of wiggling themselves to fake an act of making space for the lady. But there is hardly any space left to make. Our warrior lady is getting impatient. So she screams louder, not even bothering to mask the underlying threat in her voice with courtesy. The other women feel perturbed now. However, I decide to play cool, and instead of looking up, continue pretending to read this horrible book where the writer talks about some first-world problem of her driver not showing up on time and she having to take an auto rickshaw. There is some action going on right next to me with some elbowing, rubbing sweaty arms, and muttering expletives. The warrior lady has made some space for herself finally, all of 2 inches that can barely have her touching her bum to the seat. As if on cue, the driver slams the brakes, breaking her inertia and making her real angry. So she walks over to me, and in that little space we had for 2 mosquitoes, she seats herself. What it means is that she is half-sitting on my left thigh now. And if that is not enough, her right hand, all bare and damp in her sleeveless blouse, comes and rubs mine. I immediately forget my book and with electrifying speed, try to shrink myself to half my width, almost wincing at my physical proximity with another sweating individual (with a fiery temper). As if traveling in a stuffy, sweaty metro was not enough, I now have a woman on my lap threatening me with her "Chepe boshun bolchi kintu!" while the metro sways at speed and makes me conjure traumatic images of getting a lap dance. I am repulsed beyond imagination. I try to think of my choices, or whatever remains of them. My book is long forgotten. I look at the woman on my lap, half-sitting on me and refusing to budge. I contemplate telling her, “Chepe boshte parbo na” (I cannot squeeze in, sorry and thank you). However, I don't think I have the courage to do this. Meekly, I obey her and jiggle myself some more, and when that does not work, go stand and offer her my seat. 

After 30 minutes of standing in the crowd, my nose precariously pointed at several armpits jutting from sleeveless blouses women love to wear, I get off the train in one piece, my lap still bearing the traumatic memory of the pseudo lap-dance it had recently received. Thanks to learning yoga for one semester in grad school, I had managed to stop breathing for most of my ride. I still have an auto rickshaw to take before I can reach my destination. I am smelling of 50 shades of sweat, and I do not even know which shade is mine. I try to squeeze myself in the right extreme of the backseat of an auto. However, my ordeal is far from over. A family of man, woman, and child come running, push me aside, and grab the entire last seat of the auto before I realize what is happening. The mustachioed man with a baby face is the first one to get in. Wow! There was a time when chivalrous men used to offer the back seat to women while flanking the driver. People have taken gender equity really seriously these days. So carefully arranging my half-flowing clothes, I seat myself by the auto driver, confident about smelling something new now- perhaps hair oil. In the next twenty minutes, the auto driver becomes a reincarnation of Keanu Reeves from Matrix, squeezing his vehicle in the lanes in between speeding buses and cars, zooming through approaching traffic in T-sections, making me sit even tighter to him, much to my dismay. Given a choice between falling of an auto rickshaw on the road or sitting uncomfortably close to stranger and smelling his hair oil, I prefer the hair oil.

I get off at my destination and try to enter the mall. However, I am stopped by two female security guards who deem it proper to pat my boobs with the metal detector before letting me in. From getting a lap dance to giving one to the auto driver to having my assets patted, my friends will never know the huge price I have just paid to commute from point A to point B. Ever since, I feign a heart attack whenever someone asks me to meet them at a mall during peak traffic. If that does not work, I just tell myself that 5 Euros (my bus fare in Germany everyday) is close to 377.87 Indian rupees. So once in a while, when I am not craving for any sort of adventures on the road, I just take the cab.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Where do you want to go?

A question every faculty interviewee is asked (at least in the US) is, “Where do you see yourself say five years down the line?” The thing is, no matter how good you are with words, you cannot manipulate the answer and lie your way through this question. To answer with honesty requires strong intuition, a lot of deep thinking ahead of time, and having a vision about where you see yourself and your career headed in the future.

On a different but related note, I sometimes have people seeking career advice asking me, “I want to study so and so field. What are the prospects I will have after that?” Let me tell you upfront, this question is every advisor’s nightmare. It is almost like asking, “I have decided to shift to drinking whole milk from 2% milk. How do you think it will affect my skin elasticity?” I have no way to answer that, even if I was the cow. Just drink whatever you want to drink, find out, and go enlighten the world.

So when confronted with this question, I ask back a simple question, “Where do you want to go in life?” I always get stunned silences and awkward pauses after that. It is ironic that even with so many choices, people rarely spend time to reflect inward and understand what it is that they want from life. Many don’t even know that it is a choice to be able to decide what you could want from life. The easier way out is to choose a field where there is ample demand of manpower and join the workforce. The thing is you can become a space scientist after studying engineering. But you can also become a trashy novel writer after studying engineering. So instead of evaluating what jobs a degree in engineering can get you, ask yourself who do you want to be and how might studying engineering help you in that.

My career trajectory looks circuitous, and anything but simple and linear. I have no two degrees in the same field, a bachelors, two masters, and a PhD. So how do the dots connect?

To answer this, I will have to tell you what I have wanted from life. Growing up, the only thing I wanted to do in life is travel. Travel not as a tourist, checking off destinations, but living in different places, understanding people, the local customs, language, food, and so on. I started to think of places that were safer for women. Looked like the US could be a viable option (it was all conjecture at that point, no one from the family had stepped even out of eastern India, forget the US), and if you had good GRE scores, they even funded your education. That was my line of reasoning.

So I started to work on getting into a good US school with funding. It didn’t matter whether I studied material science or animal husbandry. I came to the US with the sole and soul purpose of being able to travel and experience a new country. Now the answer to “what I want to do in life” was good enough to get me to the US, but not good enough to keep me there. After three lab rotations, I realized that studying cells and molecules is not my calling in life. So I was forced to reevaluate the same question again.

Aspirations are not set in stone. They are malleable, and evolve with time. I realized that I was more moved by the human experiences than the experience of being cooped up in a lab in freezing temperatures all day. I wanted to learn more about how people understand, learn, and thrive. So I switched tracks and applied for a degree in the social sciences. 

With time, the answer to “where do I want to go” evolved further. I wanted to understand the experiences of the underprivileged and the underrepresented better. So I started familiarize myself with some of the discriminatory everyday experiences of the underrepresented minorities. I spent hundreds of hours interviewing people and was very moved by their stories. A Latino person talked about their journey from being a first generation college kid to becoming the director of a program. A Black student talked about being mistaken to be the janitor by the professors because of their skin color. A woman told me how frequently she was mistaken as the nurse by her patients because of her gender. 

So I have spent years now looking at the experiences of the underrepresented groups. My research interests were so specific that now, my chances of finding a faculty position doing the same work had become extremely slim. It was the scariest few years of my life. I worried that I would continue to be a postdoc in the unforeseeable future, running other people’s data and fulfilling other people’s dreams. But I knew that work-wise, I was doing exactly what I was meant to do. There were very few positions, which also meant that once I identified the job, getting it was relatively easier. I had spent years preparing myself to do this kind of work. And although extremely lucky, it is not a coincidence that my new workplace has strong interests in studying the underrepresented population.

So now, with my new position, things have come full circle. My experience working in the lab helps me better connect to the people aspiring to become scientists. Of course things look oversimplified when I put it this way. The truth is that my path was not always very clear to me. However, I was always clear about what I wanted. Unless you know where you want to go, you cannot figure out how to get there. If I am standing at the Redmond Transit Center but do not know that I want to go to Downtown Seattle, how would I even know that I am supposed to take the 545 bus? I have planned my career, and my entire life around two simple desires, the desire to travel far and wide, and the desire to understand the human experiences (especially of the underprivileged) better. Once this was clear to me, figuring out the path was easy.

So the next time you want to know if a particular subject has some scope for you, ask yourself, “What is it that I want to do in life, and how will studying this subject help me get there?” Most of the answers in life lie within, and not outside you. The external answers are just signposts to guide you through the process.


Monday, June 13, 2016


For many years in my workplace, I have always eaten my lunch alone, and so did the others sitting in the same room. It's like everyone putting headphones and listening to their own music, in isolation. When deadlines loomed, "eating" as a verb was substituted by other action verbs. "Grabbed" a bite."Downed" some juice. Gobbled and guzzled. Nibbled and munched. Alone. Staring at the computer screen, using one hand to run data analyses or write emails, or reading news when both hands were needed.

Not in Germany. Every day at noon, the entire department gathers in the hallway. Someone starts knocking on all the doors in the corridor, reminding people it is time for lunch. Then we walk together, a crowd of 10-15 people. Not to another room, no. We step out in the sun, and walk a bus stop to the mensa (cafeteria). There, thousands of students, staff, professors, and sometimes their family gather to eat lunch. There is usually a very good selection of everything- vegetables and meat and fish and salads, at subsidized prices. We choose our food, we pay, and we sit together at a large table. We eat. We talk. We laugh. We share stories. We learn. And we eat. Not gulping mouthfuls between checking Whatsapp messages or browsing Facebook on smart phones. When you have a large group to talk to, you do not need technology to keep you company. I am often notorious for eating the slowest. So while everyone is done and I am still finishing the last few bites, everyone waits for me to finish up. No one leaves without me. 

Then, we go back to the office together, but not right back to work. Not yet. We go back to the conference room. One of us is responsible every week to brew the coffee and boil water for tea. All of us sit and drink tea or coffee. Someone is on weekly duty to provide the cookies and crackers. Even people who do not drink tea or coffee sit for a while with the group. At this time, whoever needs to get back to work is welcome to do so. Some people linger and talk ideas. Others go back.

Here, I look forward to sharing my meal every day. Since we all need to eat, why not do it together? It makes me realize the importance of stepping back, taking a break, and interacting as a group. Food is not meant to be had in isolation, a hurried affair in between finishing deadlines. This 1-1.5 hour long break everyday is not a waste of work time. It is included within the work time, to make sure people talk, communicate, share, wait for one another, and do not forget their social skills. By the way, "essen" is the German word for eating.


Friday, June 10, 2016

Every day after that day

48 hours since my bombastic entry into Greece. My first armed robbery (armed because they stole my valuables from literally under my arm). Hundreds of messages from friends and family wanting to know how I am doing. How am I? I am okay. Trying to cope after coming dangerously close to having to sell a kidney. I feel 10 times heavier. I have splitting headaches and nightmares. When bad news comes in little installments over a period of time (like an impending breakup or obesity), one gets more time to prepare. But when the same dose of bad news happens in 60 seconds leaving you almost bankrupt, the mind does not know how to respond. It was traumatic to take another metro after that.

But then, there are many good things that happened after that. The Indian embassy gave me a temporary passport in 2 hours. I met Sara, a fellow traveler from Singapore. Together, we did some sightseeing in Athens and hiking in a nearby island. Disaster was about to strike again when while hiking, we were chased byan angry donkey and had to run downhill for our lives after huffing and puffing and hiking for 40 minutes. We never made it to the top again, the donkey blocked the trail. Robbed by Greek thieves and then death by a donkey? There would be no dignity for me after that.

Now the big question that was plaguing me was, should I or should I not go to Malta next? And the even bigger question. Will they or won't they allow me to take a plane to Malta on a handwritten, temporary passport? I decided to leave it to my fate. What saved me is that they did not steal my German residence card. That would have jeopardized my entry even to Germany as my new passport has no visa. Between stealing a passport and stealing a residence card, they somehow cushioned my loss by stealing the passport.

The people at the airport were a little intrigued by a new passport with no stamps. I decided to shut my mouth until being questioned. A handwritten passport could have been a problem. But I boarded the 6 am flight. When the security people at the airport in Malta wanted to check my passport again, my heart stopped. They could ask me to return. They did not. They said, "Oh, you have a new passport? No problem, the residence card is good enough."

All this seemed to have happened a lifetime ago. Greece and Malta later, I came back to Germany, applied for a new passport, obtained one, and flew eastward ho to Kolkata for a few weeks. The mangoes and litchis have been cushioning my sense of loss so far.


Thursday, June 09, 2016

Grand(father) memories

Dadu, my paternal grandfather, has been gone for more than 23 years now. What I have is mostly fragmented memories of him being annoyed with me most of the time and complaining to my ma, since I used to be naughty. As I write this, some random memories surface.

Dadu was a Hindustani classical singer. Every evening, he would religiously do riyaaz at home. He would practice using his harmonium, and dad would play the tabla whenever he was around. I would be expected to sit with him and do riyaaz as well which used to bore me to death. Often, to annoy him, I would mimic him singing aa-aa-aa-aaa-aa in a funny way. Once, I even told him, “Dadu, stop teaching me boring songs. Teach me some Bollywood songs.”

I once threw away his dentures on the garage roof. Just like that. He could not eat solids for days after that. 

8:40 pm news on Doordarshan, and he used to be glued to the TV. Which meant I had to start dancing right in front of the TV to annoy him.

He used to tell me stories. Action stories about ghosts and rajputro (prince). No romantic prince meets princess mush. There were many kinds of ghosts. Rakhhosh. Khokkosh. Petni. Shankchunni. Konnokaata bhoot. Bemmodityo bhoot. Once the story was over, I would always ask for the lyaj (tail). This meant that a few extra minutes had to be added to the story, since I was not done yet. So the ghost would be revived, and killed once again. Every afternoon I returned from school, I would cartwheel on the bed and wake him up from his afternoon nap for my story time. And his stories never put me to sleep. They were like action movies. If anything, I would be wide awake and listening.

He used to wear a blue and white vertical striped shirt that is so firmly etched in my memory that once I was dining out with a guy friend and I said, “Goodness, you are wearing a grandfather shirt.”

So that I am not scared of ghosts, he had taught me the mantra “Bhoot amar poot, petni amar jhi, Ram Lokkhon bukey aachey, korbe amar ki” (The ghosts are my sons and daughters. God is in my heart, so nothing can happen to me). I am all grown up now and live alone, but sometimes when I hear a sound and get startled, I involuntarily start chanting this mantra in my head really fast.

After his cerebral stroke, his hands used to shake while writing. So once, I deliberately wrote a letter to dad with shaky hands, and gave it to him, saying that dadu had a note for him.

He would not let us say the word snake in Bangla after sunset. Some superstition. So every now and then, I’d go really close to his ears and say, “Snake!” And all hell would break loose. 

Okay, last one. Dadu used to walk very slowly, with a stick, and was a nervous and panicky person. His favorite afternoon job was to go around the house and count the number of people, to make sure everyone except dad was home. So he would go count Dida, Ma, and my sister. But where am I? Well, I was really tiny and short then. So as he walked slowly, I used to tippy toe right behind him. He would be walking the entire house looking for me, without realizing that I am walking right behind him (remember those Tom & Jerry cartoons?). Even if he realized, he walked so slowly that by the time he turned around, I would have turned around with him too.

I wonder where he is now. If there is life after death, I realize that he would be a twenty-something young man now, in some corner of the world. Maybe still in college. Maybe trying to impress young chicks with his music. And hopefully with a lot of hair. Ever since I remember him, he was bald. Actually my dad says the same thing. He has always remembered dadu bald.


Wednesday, June 08, 2016


Less than an hour into landing in Athens, I was robbed off my passport and many hundred euros in broad daylight inside a crowded metro. I have been traveling alone for many years now. I have traveled close to 25 countries so far, and many of them on my own. I usually stay at hostels and fit in easily with an international crowd. I am not shy or awkward and stay extra alert while traveling. I can read maps and I can navigate my way around even in obscure little towns where I do not speak the local language. I usually show up at airports an hour extra ahead of time. I usually get two printouts of documents kept in separate places. I stick to the crowded parts of a city, do not venture out at night, and never go for a drink with people I have just met at hostels. In short, I do all that I can to stay safe and not get drugged or killed while traveling, and in general. Then how did this happen to me? It's a useful (and very expensive) experience to share.

After landing in Athens, I bought a € 10 one-way ticket from the airport to Omonia. This required me to take the blue line from the airport to Syntagma, and then change to the red line for two more stops to Omonia. I had a trolley suitcase on my left and a small handbag on my right. I got down at Syntagma to change to the red line. When the train came, a group of men and women got on the train from the same door as mine. They were a part of a big gang. But this, I realized later. The moment I got on the red line metro, these people kind of surrounded me and did not let me move. 

"Omonia, how many stops? Next stop?" one of them asked me naively. They were all standing too close for comfort. 

"Two" I said and tried to move away. The crowd would not let me. Have you ever played kabaddi? You will know what I mean. They closed in on me. A man on my left held my left hand rather amorously. I jerked away my hand. He looked at me and smiled, asking to hold my trolley suitcase which was in my left hand. I immediately knew that something bad is going to happen to me. Intuitively, yes. I turned to the man on the left to grab my suitcase. He just would not release my hand. He squeezed it just like a lover would do. That was when someone on the right took a bag that was inside another bigger bag and had my passport and all my money. All this happened in less than 60 seconds. They got off at Panepistimio, the station before Omonia, and walked out in a group. By then, I knew that I had lost something, and something big. I just did not know (yet) what it was. 

When I got off at Omonia, I was relieved to see that my purse was with me. But the relief lasted for a second. Because my passport bag next to it was gone. 

So here are a few things you need to know. This, I can tell from my experience and talking to the police as well as the embassy: 

1. These guys operate in huge gangs, specifically inside the airport (yes!!) and in the metro stations. Women are also a part of these gangs. I was told they are refugees, but I do not know about that. 

2. They pretend that they do not know each other, but they do. When they target someone, they just close in on them. 

3. They use a distraction technique, holding your hand amorously or smiling flirtatiously, slightly pushing a heavier luggage from your hand. But remember, they have no intention to flirt or take your suitcase. This is meant to distract you in one direction while someone is working in the other direction. And they work really really fast, within a minute or so. They just get off at the next station and walk out. 

4. Distribute your money. I was going to once I checked in to my hostel, but it was too late. 

If you are a victim of a stolen passport, do the following: 

1. Immediately go to the police station for tourists. I first went to the metro police, who asked me to go to another police station, and I had to go to three police stations until I found the right one. 

2. Cabs in Athens are super cheap. If you still have some money, just take a cab. 

3. The police does not care. They see cases like this everyday. I was told that sometimes they are involved too, but I do not know about that. However, you need to take the police report to the Indian embassy (or the embassy of your country) as soon as possible. That report was written entirely in Greek. At the embassy, someone will translate it and issue a "temporary passport" that will let you fly back to the country of your residence. It is a hand-written passport and mine was valid for one year. The police report is the first step. The embassy cannot do anything without that. 

4. The Indian Embassy in Athens is super nice and helpful. When I explained what happened, they said they will try to get me a temporary passport within the next day. It's just like applying for a normal passport. The embassy charged me € 126 for a temporary passport, and issued it to me within two hours. They are super nice people. 

5. Take your temporary passport and get back to your country of residence. From there, apply for a fresh passport. 

6. ALWAYS travel with a photocopy of your passport and a few passport sized pictures. This, I did not do. The embassy needs to get all the information from your passport, which is why you need to carry photocopies. 

7. Get in touch with the embassy of your country as soon as possible. They are the only ones who can and will help you. 

8. No matter how much shock you are in, don't forget to eat and drink water. An empty stomach and dehydrated body will do strange things to your brain. You need to be alert and make judgments very quickly. I am pretty sure I hallucinated the entire night. 

So how does it feel? To say that I am shaken and shattered would be an understatement. I was too afraid to go to an ATM and take out money at night, and had to wait till the next morning to find some of my confidence back. My legs had no strength to move. I have never felt more helpless in a foreign country where I knew no one and was not even carrying a cell phone. I would not wish this on anyone. But I am glad that I was physically not hurt (I was told that some of them carry razors and pocket knives too). The thing is, it's not that I suddenly realized that my stuff is gone. I knew all the time that something bad is happening to me. But they put you into a trance. They distract you. As a woman, I would watch out for someone who is holding my hand. At one point, I feared that I might be mauled or molested. But that is a distraction technique. All this will be over in less than a minute. And a woman traveling alone with luggage makes a great target. 

I have many things to be sad about, but many things to be thankful about too. 

My passport is gone, but is replaceable. 

Thank God my US visa was not in this passport. 

They stole all the cash, but my bank cards, and most importantly, my residence permit was in a different bag and were not stolen. Without my residence permit, I could not have reentered Germany. Although I was within the Schengen area, airlines and airports are super strict these days after the Paris/Brussels attacks. You need to carry your passport at all times. 

I wish the money went to someone needy. It is a lot, but I will earn it back eventually. Passport, I will have a new one. But what I really lost that day was my self-confidence. I felt violated. I felt like someone had crushed my confidence and reduced me to nothing. I had no strength to walk on a street without cowering and feeling like I will be attacked again. It made me feel small. It made me blame myself for the hundreds of things I could have done differently. But as long as you are alive, everything is replaceable. I saw Athens after that, and traveled some more with my temporary passport. 6-7 men robbed me in broad daylight. But 60 people jumped in to help me. I am grateful to all of them. And a big thank you to the people of the Indian Embassy. You went out of your way to do much more than getting me a passport promptly. You made me feel safe and understood. 

And lastly, a little bit of something that perked me up. Miss Universe 1994 Sushmita Sen had the same experience at the Athens airport in 2012. I am very sorry for your loss Sushmita, but this might be the closest I have come to saying "same pinch" to a Bollywood celebrity I like.