Friday, March 17, 2017

Thinking of 2016

It is hard to believe that we are already deep into March and I am talking about 2016 in the past tense. It seems yesterday that 2016 started and I was at Cajun Crawfish in Seattle with friends, donning my bib and gloves and eating seafood like gluttons. I left for Germany soon after, not knowing that I would be making three more trips in the next three months all over the US, mostly for faculty interviews.
2016 was a pivotal year in my life, and my career. It was craziness on steroids. I did a lot of new things, but more importantly, I had a lot of fun doing the things that I did. I ate rabbit meat in Malta and fried crickets in Mexico (and hated both). I almost got killed a couple of times, once after being chased by an angry donkey while hiking up a hill in Greece and once, when I got on a wrong train in Germany and landed up in the middle of nowhere at 2 am, being stranded at a desolate railway station for hours (I need to write about it). In the middle of a faculty interview, I managed to rip my pants and spent some time locked inside the dean’s office, stripped waist down, hurriedly sewing my trousers to be able to hang on to my dignity and continue with the interview. There was no dearth of adventure in my life. Amid all these little and not so little things, I will remember 2016 specifically for these reasons:
My grandfather’s passing: His passing not only left a deep void in me, but also made me face for the first time the consequences of my life choices of living away from the country, the land and the people, so far that saying goodbye would not be possible. He left behind a gaping hole in my heart that will never heal. I lost a person from my childhood, and there is only a handful people left from my childhood. I sometimes go through phases where I can sense him around me. Everyone from the family and extended family was at his funeral except me, his first grandchild. I haven’t found closure and I never will.
Losing my passport: Being robbed off my passport in broad daylight made me realize how paralyzing the instinct of fear is and how strong gut feelings could be. Although I would choose to be robbed off neither, if someone held me at gunpoint and forced me to choose, I’d rather they took my money than passport. A stolen passport remains in your record for a long time. I am often singled out for extra scrutiny every now and then. That incident in Athens shook me. Along with my passport and all my money, what I lost that day was my self-confidence. I felt small, and I felt violated. It wasn’t easy to think calmly in an unknown country I was visiting for the first time, being on my own. Losing a passport strips you off your identity. Suddenly, there is no way to prove who you are. There is no way you can board an airplane after that, even to your own country because without a passport, you cannot even prove what country you belong to. For a long time, fear had gnawed my insides. The feeling was very visceral.
Finding the job: 2016 was when I transitioned from finding “a job” to finding “the job”. It wasn’t easy and it took me a while to get there. It transformed things for me fundamentally, from working hard to fulfill other’s scholarly dreams to now working harder to fulfill my own scholarly dreams. Being faculty is one of the hardest things I have done in life. It takes up all my time and energy every single day. And that is exactly how I would have wanted it. I have a better understanding and much greater appreciation of my PhD adviser now. There were so many times I could not comprehend why he acted the way he did. Now, I finally do.
Moving back to the US: After two years of my linguistic exile in Germany, it was interesting to move back to the US once again as a resident and not as a temporary visitor. I have a driver’s license again. I have access to US Netflix. I am in the same time zone as many of my friends (or within a respectable time difference). I have a US number again. I can suddenly understand and be understood. These are little comforts that I had missed out on big time.
Traveling: 2016 will be my most well-traveled year. I traveled 16 countries (and 35 cities), 13 of which (countries) were new, and 11 of them, on my own. Paying monthly rent became a formality. I turned thirty five while hiking the forts of Dubrovnik and scaling the mountains of Montenegro. Visiting the concentration camps of Auschwitz was another significant experience. I took a cruise ship for the first time, all the way to Norway. I almost scaled the pyramids of Mexico. In terms of travel and experiencing places, there has never been a better year.
I am grateful for the many experiences 2016 brought me. 2017 has been relatively low-key so far. But I am not complaining.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Teaching: Then and now

Eleven years ago, I started my career working as a science/math teacher. I did that for a year before going back to grad school. That was the end of my teaching. Eleven years later, I started teaching again. But it's not quite the same anymore.

2006: Students used to call me ma'am, and different variations of it. Math ma'am. Chemistry ma'am. Funny ma'am. Angry ma'am.
2017: Students call me Dr. [My last name]. I keep nudging them to call me by my first name. Even then, an Asian student said, "Sorry, it is not in my culture, I cannot do that."

2006: I was given a syllabus the ICSE board had prepared.
2017: It took me an entire week of blood, sweat and tears to write my syllabus. I put two classes on reliability and validity testing and then went like, naah, not so cool. So I deleted them. Talk about acquiring syllabus superpowers.

2006: I used to feel like a celebrity putting "right" marks and my signatures in red ink, as if I was giving autographs.
2017: Technology has taken away the fun. Now, I grade word documents. And I put those red marks in my own calendar, just for kicks.

2006: I used to start reading the chapter an hour before class.
2017: Now, I spend the entire week reading up not just textbooks, but research papers, Coursera materials, and stuff on the internet.

2006: "Okay, enough questions. Let me continue."
2017: "Any questions?" (And I silently die a little inside when no one asks questions. Are they not engaged? Are they not understanding? Are they not connecting with me? PS: It takes exactly 3.87 seconds for a silence to get awkward)

2006: If I didn't know an answer, I would make it up on the spot.
2017: Now, I just say, "That's a great question. What do you think?"

2006: My comments went into students' evaluation.
2017: Students' comments go into my annual evaluation.

2006: "No one should talk now." (I had too much to say in 50 minutes)
2017: "Let's spend an hour doing student presentations." (I don't think I have enough to say for 3 hours)

2006: After my first class, I must have gone home, watched TV and dozed off peacefully.
2017: After my first class, I kept checking the online roster for 24 hours to make sure that no one had dropped out of the course.


Monday, March 13, 2017

Another immigrant story

I don't even claim to fully understand the extent of the discrimination and the anguish immigrants and their families recently affected have gone through. It is beyond my imagination. To be denied entry into your home must be the worst form of humiliation. And fear. And then to be shot, killed, become victims of hate crime! But I am an optimist and keep hoping that things will only get better from here.

In the light of this, I share a snippet of my own immigrant story. I do not even claim to equate the horrors of my story and the stories of people who were detained or were recent victims of hate crime. I have never suffered the horror and humiliation of refusal to entry, have never had a gun pointed at me, and pray that I never do. My purpose of sharing this personal story is to show solidarity among the immigrant community. Because specific immigrant experiences made me hardy, putting a thick cover on my skin and an extra spine while teaching me to let go of shame and self-doubt. And because although we are all a part of the tight-knit immigrant community, no two immigrant stories are the same.

I have been an immigrant since 2006. I moved to the US because I had heard great things about this country from other people, and I was mostly motivated to travel, see the world, go to a US university, and live independently. That was my basic agenda. I was 25 and believed that I had endless life possibilities (I still do). So despite vehement protests from the family, I said "okay goodbye see you!" and made a new home in an unknown country.

Between then and now, I have been severely affected by visa issues twice. I was working full-time both the time. As a result of this, I was forced to become unemployed and homeless twice. The first time, I was unemployed for eight months, homeless for five. The second time, I was unemployed for two months, homeless for two. For a single-earning member, it is like jumping off a cliff in the middle of the night in your pajamas and without a parachute, not knowing where and when you are going to land and if you are going to survive the fall. The sinking feeling of dread at the core of the stomach we talk about is a very real, bodily feeling I have experienced many times.

Both the times, the community jumped to help me, providing me shelter, food, a safe environment, a warm comforter, and love. I lived in different people's homes, in labs, at universities, sometimes sleeping on the couch, sometimes in my own room, but never in my car (though it was a real possibility too). Dozens of people leaped forward to take me home with them.

I had to leave the country. Twice. Never stayed illegally even for a day. Always came back legally. Both the times, some recommended getting hitched to a US citizen for reentry. Never contemplated doing such crazy shit. No self-respecting human should have to marry for need or convenience.

I was able to turn it around both the times.

The first exile was for five months. Went back to Kolkata. Had a blast. Came back to do a PhD with full scholarship in a great school. My life got even better.

The second exile was longer. Two years precisely. Moved to Germany. Had a blast. Traveled all over Europe. Came back as a tenure-track faculty.

Being an immigrant has taught me resilience. It has been a mental and bodily exercise to let go of the shame, embrace the uncertainty, and take whatever life offers. I hope that I do not have to leave a third time, but I am always prepared. It's like a fire drill one gets used to. With every move, I learnt to pack my bags more quickly than the last time. And I always figured how to find my way back. Because while Kolkata is home, this is home too. Homes do not depend on the country of birth or citizenship.

All said, I know that I still come from a position of privilege. If it ever comes to me going bankrupt and on the streets, I have a pretty good Plan B. I can always go back to living with the parents. There will always be free lodging, free food, plenty of love, and I am sure I can find a job too. That's a great backup plan to have. Not all immigrants have that Plan B.

The immigrant resilience should never be underestimated. Many who live in their privileged bubble and never have to deal with immigration issues have no clue what it feels like. 

I look forward to hearing other immigrant stories of courage. Because stories are powerful. Stories build human connections. Stories bind us together, especially during times of hardship. And because no two immigrant stories are the same. Please drop me a line if you write and publish your story.


Friday, March 10, 2017


Post-surgery, I have learnt and realized so many things. If I were to fight for mankind, I'd fight for liberty, equality, dignity, and my right to chew. 

As much as I hate the smell of overripe bananas, they are now my best friend. These days, I buy bananas in bulk and let them ripen. Because when you cannot chew, overripe bananas form an excellent base to mash up anything. It's different that every time I enter home from work, the strong smell of bananas makes me go bananas. I just can't stand it.

I have realized why some pregnant women go crazy reading pregnancy literature. These days, all I do is read literature on dentition. Every time I meet someone, the first thing I notice is their teeth. I must be losing my mind.

I have learnt to blend insane combinations of food that I never thought would go down my throat. Blended strawberry and yes, you guessed it, overripe bananas with milk. Blended grapes. Over-boiled pasta, cooled and blended. Avocados, mashed eggs and mashed potatoes with sweetcorn. Don't even ask me how I bear to eat all this. I am forever hungry, tired, irritable, and in a constant state of pseudo-PMS. Because it takes no time to digest liquids. You'll be amazed to know how constant hunger interferes with your thinking. It takes very little for me to have a meltdown these days.

And I no longer feel the urge to make small talk (simply because talking is so painful and I have to save my energy for the 3-hour long class I teach every week). When people ask me how I am, I no longer pretend or feel compelled to lie that I am fine. Because I only have less bad days and more bad days. My less bad days are the ones when I spit coagulated blood. My more bad days are the ones when I spit out little pieces of bone instead. I lost some bone graft last week, but they cannot do anything, just wait and watch me for 6 months and hope that I grow enough bone on my own. I wish it was as simple as growing hair or nails. I go back for weekly visits and looks like I am healing really slowly (which is why I am still not allowed to chew). And talking about pain, I thought periods are painful. I thought my leg fractures were painful. I thought eyebrow threading is painful. But nothing in my life had prepared me for the pain that comes when they put stitches inside your mouth.

At night, when I lay on my back and stare at the ceiling in the darkness, I often fantasize about eating a regular meal. Enjoying a piece of succulent bone from a plate of biryani and not having to worry that it can cause the makeshift bone roof that they have put inside my mouth to collapse.


Thursday, March 09, 2017

Happiness and health do not correlate

Nothing brings out intense punnery and sarcasm in me more than sitting at a doctor's office and listening to the breakdown of the bill that I have to pay out of my pocket even after insurance. I mean, I live in a country where you are sent a bill for holding your newborn (Google it if you don't believe me). Naturally, discussions around medical bills always make me edgy.

I listen to the detailed explanation at the dentist's and blurt, "Wow, that's a lot to chew on." The person is not amused and continues to explain what I would be paying. I see the final amount and cannot hold back anymore. I wonder if they also do kidney transplants on the side there. How does one even justify this kind of bill?

"Looks like I'll have to sell a kidney to pay for the teeth," I laugh out nervously.

I get very dirty looks, but it doesn't matter. Healthcare costs in this country make me wish I am dead before I get old or ill. If tooth implants cost this much, I don't know what other implants cost. I just started my job, and I don't have a bunch of sugar daddies waiting on me, not even one. I always walk out of the dentist's office in a state of shock and depression.

I look at the bus timings. At this rate, I will be using the bus for the next five years. There is still 20 minutes to kill, and it's freezing cold outside. So I aimlessly walk into the nearest store where I see light and humans. It turns out to be an overcrowded dollar store with people buying junk that they are better off not using. A minimalist here is a misfit, a pariah. I walk down the aisles, more for seeking heat than staring at mile-long aisles covered in colorful wrappers. It's amazing how the human civilization got eventually convinced that life is meaningless without material stuff (read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind for some interesting perspectives). I walk up to the frozen aisle and see all kinds of junk food at dirt cheap prices proudly on display. A bunch of people are excitedly stocking up on such inexpensive, calorie-laden, nutrient-deprived food for the holiday season, talking and giggling. Who knew happiness comes so cheap when the price I'm paying to stay healthy is throwing me into perennial depression? Happiness and health do not necessarily correlate, and the irony of the situation is not lost on me. Thankfully, my bus arrives and I extricate myself from the womb of one dollar consumerism.


Wednesday, March 08, 2017

From the dental diaries

November, 2016.

The walk back from the dentist's office this evening was long, introspective, and evoked a deep sense of sadness. I needed some time to let it all sink in. It started innocuously enough, when a crown came off, taking me to my first dentist in the US (I always saw dentists in India). The visit opened a can of worms in my life. I went back again today for a full X-ray. We ended up chatting for more than 2 hours. I was interested in knowing everything to the root (pun unintended). Long story short, I have undergone major tissue damage and bone degeneration over the years. So I will be regularly visiting the dentist at least for the next 6 months, if not a year. The visits will not be as chatty as today's, but will involve several invasive procedures, some with partial numbing, and some, full.

Apart from being terrified about degenerating health, dealing with pain, time involvement, and money, in that exact order, I feel an overwhelming sadness to the core. All this was preventable, had I started seeing a dentist like this 10 years ago. But being afraid of going bankrupt on student insurance, I never did. I always went back to India to get my teeth checked. In air crash investigation videos, they always tell you two things- one, a significant number of crashes are caused by human error that were preventable, and two, a plane can never go down based on one malfunctioning; it takes a series of events gone wrong like a chain reaction to bring a plane down. My thoughts are on similar lines.

In a 4-page long questionnaire they asked me to fill out the other day with questions ranging from dental history to mental history, I honestly wrote, "I am terrified of dentists. My apologies." I was not lying. Since age 5, I have had a history of experiencing traumatic dental incidents. At 6, a doctor had pulled out the wrong (and healthy) tooth without numbing me first, by mistake (he was old and had poor eyesight). In my late teens, I had my first root canal that involved a scary looking man with huge, hairy hands pinning me down for hours every Sunday morning. A few years later, I shifted to a female dentist to do away with the huge and hairy hands shoved in my mouth, only to have hands that smelled of cooking spices that induced a strong gag reflex in me. The gag reflex never went away, but only got worse over the years. The recent one was no better. I have been terrified of dentists all my life.

The sad part is having to go through all the pain every few years, spend huge amounts of money summing up to tens of thousands every time, and then learning today that I have lost massive bone tissue over the years. The root canals were never done well, the gutta percha fillings from 16 years ago didn't go all the way to the core. The crowns never fit properly and needed to be redone. The upper right wisdom tooth has grown at a precarious angle, hurting surrounding tissues. From angles that I have never seen myself before, my mouth literally looked like an airplane crash site.

Was this preventable? Possibly. I have only two responsibilities I take pretty seriously- staying alive and staying healthy. I brush more number of times than anyone in my family does. I don't do drugs or alcohol or soda or nicotine, I try not to do stupid things, get run over, speed while driving for cheap thrills, or voluntarily put myself in danger. Yet I have had freak accidents and lived with injuries that occurred inexplicably. The dentists addressed injuries but never did preventative care. Even the one last year, who said that he cleaned my teeth, lied through his teeth. The injuries were all there for me to see through a series of more than 24 X-rays I brought back with me, for posterity, thanks to Dr. Roentgen.

Am I upset? I am devastated. Losing teeth is losing a part of my body that I can never build back (unlike shedding the uterine lining, nicking my skin, or breaking a nail). I feel violated. It's not that I did not act on time. I never even knew until today that there was a problem.

I am prepping for a long and cold winter of suffering, bleeding, not talking, surgeries, sutures, implants, associated headaches (I already have one since morning), and a long recovery period. The optimist in me sees that I don't have oral cancer (they checked for that too), I live in an English-speaking country (imagine if this was Germany!), I have some form of insurance, am otherwise healthy (or so I think, god knows), and will eventually heal. But I keep wondering, was this not preventable? Because if it was, I would have camped outside the dentist's office in a heartbeat and made sure that today never happened. Sometimes, things in life do not add up, leaving you confused, with so many unanswered questions.


Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Getting high

My world was spinning around as I was trying to word my sentences at work. For the first time, I have been on such strong narcotics. I can see how it has messed up my brain.

For starters, my landlady said that I came out of surgery howling. I had no reason to do that, but anesthesia affects the cry-centers of my brain. She drove me back and brought me home, and as she did that, I passed out on the floor. I lost track of time. I had no energy to get up. I remember wondering what if the bed shrunk and I fell off it? The floor seemed safer. Such were my levels of delusion. She called my insurance (I had no idea where my insurance card was and my speech was a disaster), got me my medication, shoved them down my throat with a glass of water, all the while when I was splayed like a lizard on the floor, only, on my back, my hands and legs stretched out. I heard her come and go and come back. I was conscious that way. But since I had lost my sense of time, it felt a matter of a few minutes. I am glad she has a set of keys to my apartment.

There was utter confusion, lack of sense of time, and blurry speeches after that. I slept for hours, but did not realize how time flew. My emails were no longer coherent, and I kept forgetting words. The next few days have been a blur. I have restricted my activities to mostly the basics- finding food, eating, and getting back to bed. But today, I dragged myself to work. Two minutes into my bus ride, a strong bout of nausea hit me. I was dizzy, the world was spinning around me. The parking department guy takes the same bus (imagine the irony, parking guy takes the bus). I vaguely remember telling him that I am going to throw up. He not only escorted me to my office, but came back to check on me during lunch hours. Soon after, two kind colleagues barged into my office and literally ordered me to leave. The bus ride back was equally terrible.

That brownie I had in Amsterdam, I only felt a fraction of everything I am feeling now, only for a few hours. Saying that it was fun was a stretch, but it was educational. This is not. It's only been three days, and I am sick of these constant bouts of nausea. I cannot imagine how people take these drugs on a regular basis for pain management. It makes you realize how hard life can get when you are no longer healthy.

I am addicted to books on neuroscience and the brain. Reading is something, but experiencing first-hand how narcotics affect the brain is something else. Everything you do without thinking- speaking coherently, walking upright, digesting food without throwing up, being able to have a focused vision, and even a sense of humor, everything is going to be compromised. I have been sleeping 12 hours a day ever since, and I am still tired. I want to go back and reread Jill Bolte Taylor's book. But I can no longer read at a stretch without feeling dizzy. If you haven't read the book, you must at least listen to her TED talk.


Monday, March 06, 2017

The day before the surgery

Tomorrow morning 9 am, I will be headed to the dentist's for the big day. I would be starting a series of treatments that would last me all of 2017. I have died a little bit many times the past few months, (p)reliving the anticipated pain even before anything happened.

By the time I got home this evening, I was starving. I was so hungry that I could eat a bus, which is surprising because I am a ravenous breakfast eater but I never feel that hungry for dinner. It could be because I was not supposed to eat or drink after midnight, and by the time the procedure was over, my life would have changed. Or it could be because Thursdays are teaching days and I was just back from teaching and talking continuously for 3 hours, it was 9:30 pm, and my energy levels had depleted alarmingly. Or it could be because starting tomorrow, I would be on a liquid, pureed diet for 3 weeks, eating food with baby-food consistency. Or it could be just because I knew this would be my last pain-free meal for a while.

I was on the phone with my most faithful friend who calls me everyday to ask me how my day was. Even before I could talk about teaching class, my stomach was growling. I had to hang up. I never get this hungry at this hour. Maybe my body was preparing for a stress situation by storing up energy. The brain is pretty smart that way.

What would I eat at this hour? I had not cooked dinner, and as I inspected the fridge, I knew exactly what I was craving. It surprised me even more, way more than this unexpected hunger, because this is the comfort food I never crave. In my ten-plus years of staying away and cooking on my own, I have never once made this. I can imagine craving biryani and kosha mangsho and Chipotle, those are clearly my favorites. But this?

Well, I was not going to fight my cravings at least today. Pregnant women talk about sudden cravings, and I never understood it until today. The analytical me started to wonder what signals my brain was producing as I got a potato and an egg and put it to boil. I boiled some rice too, and as I did, I chopped green chilies and onions. I neither crave rice nor potatoes (I mostly crave meat and sweets), but my body must have been prepping for a fight-or-flight mode and was craving the carbs to store up energy. These were my thoughts as I prepared my dinner of over boiled potato, egg and rice made into a mushy, semi-solid consistency with ghee. I added the chilies and the onions and mixed the mush with some pickle oil. The smell was driving me nuts. I kept wondering how could a person who did not crave any of these ingredients (potato, egg, rice, ghee, chilies, onions, pickle) crave this meal. And suddenly, I had my answer. It wasn't about carbs or hormones or fight-and-flight responses or glycogen storage in the liver or anything. In anticipation of the stressful situation, I was just craving comfort food that I have old and fond associations with. Food is a lot about memories- childhood memories, nostalgic memories, romantic memories, school memories, like the smell of an egg roll always reminding me of penurious college days or the smell of macher kalia (fish curry) reminding me of wedding invitations. Even if this was not my most favorite food in the world, I was craving the comfort of family. This is what we ate when Ma was sick and unable to cook. This is what we ate when we came home from somewhere and Ma did not have the energy to cook (we rarely ate outside without occasion, Ma would simply throw in all these along with some boiled lentils). I was just craving the comfort of childhood memories, Ma's reassurance, and old and familiar smells.

The first spoonful of that piping hot dinner sent me straight to heaven. Tonight, I would not even have looked at fish fry or mutton biryani. There is nothing that could have made me as happy as this meal did. 

Wakefulness eludes me as I write this, and I can already feel my eyelids drooping. It is funny that even an hour ago, I was so anxious that I did not think I will be able to sleep all night. And now, I will soon find it hard to walk back to the bed if I do not leave this recliner. Tomorrow, we shall see tomorrow. Right now, the class has been taught (I am good until next Thursday), the tummy full, the cravings satisfied, and I am just grateful for good health, good appetite, and fantastic food memories. And of course all that ghee-drizzled, mushy dinner. Toothache, we will deal with tomorrow.