Monday, July 31, 2017

Why I don’t do Whatsapp groups

There is a reason I consciously stay away from Whatsapp groups. These groups are usually filled with a deluge of fake news, forwarded messages, inspirational quotes written by questionable authors, blessings from God, and low-IQ jokes I do not need to read. Some of these jokes are so sexist and misogynistic that I am surprised women (and men) share, read, enjoy, and smiley-emoticonize them. Most of these stereotype women as shopping-maniacs, mother-in-law-haters, diamond-hungry (from the husband) people who are unable to stand up for themselves. Then there are saints walking on water, doctors performing medical miracles and transplanting the liver where the lungs should be, dating and mating tips no one needs to know, and so on. You can see why I am wary of these groups.

However, sometimes, I share my number with specific individuals because there was a need to stay in touch or sync up at some point of time. "Let's meet in downtown at 6 pm. Send me a Whatsapp message when you get there." That kind of thing. But then, some of them start sending me good morning messages and inspirational quotes every day. Why? Did I ask for them? These messages are usually appended by multi-colored flowers or sunrises in the background. Why am I being sent these? Why don't these messages stop even when I am not responding to them? 

Sometimes, my phone dings a good morning message in the evening, just because it is morning in some other part of the world. Sometimes, there are twenty quotes by Einstein that Einstein never said. Am I missing some social etiquette that I am supposed to know, etiquette where you wake up and instead of making coffee or using the bathroom, start roll calling random people good morning messages?

All these messages get muted first, and then blocked for life. But my question is, if that person was walking in front of me, in person, would they repeat the same thing that they just sent me? Imagine waiting at the bus stop and someone walks by me, suddenly shouting, "Good morning! You look like a flower today. Strength does not come from physical capacity, but from will." Or someone stopping by in my office and saying, "When a girl says that she can't live without you, she has made up her mind that you are her future." Or, "For every girl with a broken heart, there’s a guy there with a glue gun." Who is this making such sweeping generalizations? And why are they sharing these nuggets of wisdom unsolicited, even though they never hear back from me? 

I am not asocial by any stretch of imagination, far from it. Those who have met me know that I can talk about different things for hours. But again and again, I find myself at a loss for words when someone shouts out that "The Indian national anthem just won the best anthem award of the world by the UN," or "Good morning friend, have a nice Sunday, be with someone who is good for your mental health." Because, you, my unsolicited Whatsapp friend, are certainly not good for my mental health.

I was cell phone-free for 2 years, between 2014 and 2016. Those were the best two years of my life.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Of granulated garlic and maternal conspiracies

510g of granulated California garlic might seem like a very unusual gift to take back home, but there is a story behind this.

The day my grandma heard that I bought my tickets to Kolkata, she packed her bags and parked herself at my parents’ home. It didn't matter that I still had 2 or more months for the trip. Grandma wanted to have front row seats to the show of my arrival.

My best conversations with grandma are those where she tattles against Ma. Grandma is a great conversation-maker (unlike my Ma, who either speaks in monosyllables, or asks me one of the two questions, no matter what time of the day it is-


অফিস যাচ্ছিস?

Have you eaten? Are you on your way to work?.

Grandma told me about a conversation she had with Ma, deeply disturbed.  She said that ever since she arrived, Ma has stopped cooking.

Grandma: রান্না বান্না করছিসনা, বসে টিভি দেখছিস, কটা রসুন ছাড়িয়ে রাখনা, মেয়েটা এলে রান্নায় রসুন লাগবে তো।

Grandma: You haven't been cooking ever since I arrived, why don't you at least peel some garlic while you watch television? We'll need the garlic for cooking when the child (me) visits.

Ma: ছাড়ো তো,  এসে রসুন ছাড়াবে। ছুটিতে আসছে , ওর অনেক সময়।

Ma: She can peel the garlic when she arrives, she will be on vacation and will have lots of time.

Grandma is very concerned that Ma refuses to help in the kitchen, and wants to pass it on to me. Now, I do not have any problem with peeling garlic. Just that the ones you get in Kolkata do not have fat cloves like the ones in the US. They are only a tiny bit fatter than angel hair pasta. I have spent hours trying to peel them and chipping my nails in the process, my prehensile capacities seriously compromised after that.

It was time to confront ma. "Ma, is this what you said?" I asked. To which, she confidently answered, "I thought you love peeling garlic. Especially the ones that go in kosha mangsho, spicy dry mutton curry."

This is what emotional manipulation looks like. To think that very soon, my usability will be shifted to peeling onions, peeling thin garlic cloves, filling drinking water in the bottles, and opening the door when someone rings the bell. From the world traveler and leader and grant money negotiator and international collaborator and faculty and book editor and academic mentor and motivational speaker and the other different and cool hats I wear, I'll soon be the designated onion and garlic peeler, door opener, weight lifter (the person who lifts heavy grocery bags up the stairs), and the drinking water collector.

Forewarned is forearmed, and grandma has done her job well. The next challenge is for me and grandma to fight the evil forces around us together. Hence 510g of granulated California garlic- the first thing I packed in my suitcase to take back home.


Friday, July 28, 2017

The zzzz-factor

I have a strong history with sleep. I can sleep through anything- power outages, rock concerts, nightmares, loud wedding music, ringing phones, earthquakes, heartbreaks, neighbors audibly performing their procreation duties, plane takeoffs, anything. Doesn't mean I sleep all day, just that when I got to sleep, I got to sleep. This is the biggest reason I do not go for evening movie shows. I have slept through 300, and I have slept through Harry Potter (the only exception being Dilwale, it was so bad, I could just not fall asleep). People complain of being unable to sleep in flights, but I often doze off even before the plane has taken off. There are few occasions when I have actually had trouble falling asleep. Those are handful, and I clearly remember most of them.

But today, I set a new record. People who know me well also know my frequent tryst with the dentist, and how often I have been visiting one (actually, two) for the past year. This smile does come at a huge maintenance cost. I am mortally afraid of dentists. Who isn't? However, I fell asleep at the dentist's today, in the middle of another procedure. I am recovering from jet lag and it was my sleep time in Kolkata. So sometime while lying on my back, blankly staring at the blinding lights and listening to the music of a drilling machine with my jaws propped open like an alligator's, I fell asleep. This is so unbelievable, it's not even funny. It's a different story that I'm sleepless now. The anesthesia has worn off. Forget sleep, I am close to forgetting my baaper naam (father's name) right now.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

Holy bally cow!

When you enter the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu (Nepal), the first thing you see is the posterior side of a huge golden ox sitting, with its balls jutting out. Photography is not allowed inside the temple, so it was not possible to take a picture. But the first thing that came to mind standing at the entrance was, "Holy cow! Such huge balls!" The bull in New York City would be put to shame.

I am still standing there, staring in awe when another traveler, a stranger steps by me and exclaims loudly, "Holy cow! Such huge ballistic missiles!"

Let's just say, there was a lot of synergy in our thoughts. 


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

That picture (im)perfect day

The excitement of the first faculty photo shoot stirred up a lot of drama in my otherwise less happening life. The university photographer had contacted me many times to remind me that I needed a professional portrait for my webpage. And yet, I tried delaying it for as long as I could. Six months, to be exact. We all know people for whom, the excitement of the wedding shoot surpasses the excitement of the wedding itself. I could be going through something similar.

When I was scanning graduate schools in the US to apply many moons ago, what struck me (rather odd) was how happy faculty looked on their webpage. Where I was coming from, most people went “statue” in front of the lens. Yet here were professors rolling on the grass, sunshine lighting up their faces and showing perfectly aligned teeth, balancing pets on their lap as they posed for that perfect shot depicting the deceptively Utopian faculty life. The Utopian life where grant money flows freely, students flock to you looking for a project like ants to honey, and receiving awards and promotions are monthly affairs. Professors were supposed to look glum and serious- that was what I thought based on my worldview back then.

But more than a decade later, here I am, waiting for my picture to be taken. While procrastinating for all these months, I had hoped for miracles that involved fantasies of magically toning up, temporarily making the double chin disappear, or bringing an academic glow on my face. None of that happened. Instead, I developed dark circles under my eyes and grew lots of grey hair in these six months of chasing everyone and everything- department chairs, students, grant money, and deadlines.

I had to look like those happy people rolling on the grass for whom academia was like a carnival. And I now had my quirks too. I wanted an outdoor picture by a red brick wall. I even spent days wondering what I should wear to bring out the perfect faculty look in me. Should I match my clothes with the color of my eyes? Should I wear formals? Well, a formal jacket would be too formal and a casual shirt, too casual. I mean, given my role, I needed to look serious. But if I looked too serious, no student would want to work with me, and God knows that I have been having a hard time finding students. Since I am averse to pets, nothing or no one would be sitting on my lap. Considering all the time I spent in these weird, inconsequential thoughts around a portrait, I could have published a peer-reviewed paper in that time.

The day of the shoot, I had to wake up really early. I had to wash, blow dry, and straighten my hair. I had to apply makeup. It took me 90 precious minutes to do all this, minutes that I could have spent sleeping blissfully. In a forced bid to show me as me, I had lost touch of the real me. The real me woke up late every day, procrastinated until she had to spring out of the bed, get ready in 20 minutes flat, and leave home while combing her hair. If combing was too much, she would simply tie up the mess into a high ponytail.

What happened at work was even more anti-climactic. It rained like never before, washing away all my dreams of an outdoor photo shoot in front of a brick wall. Other faculty members gave me strange looks, some of them completely failing to recognize me. It happens when you show up at work every day without a trace of makeup, and then one day, you look like you are going to a carnival.

And then, I met the photographer- a petite woman a good ten inches shorter than me. And guess what? After months of procrastinating and planning, the shoot lasted exactly five minutes. Even shots (at the doctor’s place) last me longer than this shoot. As I was adjusting my shoes, she asked me not to worry as she would be only taking portraits. I might as well have showed up in my pajamas. The lady jumped on a stool, asked me to look a couple of different directions, and smile with different intensities. The stairway doubled up as the dark background. As I was trying to get comfortable thinking of striking a slightly sexy pose or pouting my lips, the dean of the school walked by. In between, I did manage to find a spot that had a brick background somewhere at a distance. The pictures were ready in a few days. I still don’t know if I looked faculty enough in them, but the selfies I took on my cell phone that morning before leaving for work looked way real and way more like me.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

A summer- in transit

I am in India this summer, as a visiting faculty. Campus life here comes with the comforts that are not a part of my everyday life. My home to my office is a good 3-minute walk. I do not have to take buses that run once in half an hour. I do not have to wade in the snow. I do not have to find parking. And then, just like all good things in life boil down to food, I make my pilgrimage from my office to the canteen four times a day- for breakfast, lunch, a meal in between lunch and dinner, and dinner. Meals are heavily subsidized, in price, not quantity. Suddenly, I do not need to go grocery shopping, cook, or clean up. And yes, breaks in between 3-hour long classes also come with tea, coffee, and sandwiches. Made. Served. All I do is show up, sit with my meals, and observe people. Some known faces. Mostly unknown faces. Some now-known faces that were unknown until yesterday. I continue to have trouble remembering names and putting them on the right faces. I just forgot that the canteen guy and I used to speak in Oriya many years ago when I first visited until he recognized me right away and started speaking in Oriya. But all that is irrelevant. My three main priorities these days boil down to teaching, remembering to hold Skype meetings with my colleagues in the US, and making that pilgrimage to the canteen multiple times every day.

If this honeymoon could last even a few weeks every summer, I'll be a happy academic.


When success sucks

A recent conversion with a colleague hinged on women in academia who are single. Although this conversation was based on anecdotal evidence, I would love to collect data to examine some evidence-based trends someday.

Back to the conversation, we felt that there are far more single women than men in academia- women who have faculty or non-faculty careers, women who are highly educated. In the US, I see so many women academics roughly my age who are single. Conversations with more men (those who are highly educated as well) confirm what some of them want- women with jobs but not necessarily careers, women who will have the mindset to shift cities or countries or continents or careers. That is why, perhaps, I see so many Indian men making their annual pilgrimage to get married to someone living in India, but the reverse is so rare- a guy moving with the uncertainty that he may or may not become gainfully employed in the US right away. Count the number of women you know who got married and hence moved to the US, and the number of men who did the same. Not to mention that we shared sad, yet funny stories about women who have been called "too educated," "too independent," "too liberal," and "too ambitious." The same traits like ambition, independence, and education that make men attractive may not have the same magic effect on women. Then again, we are speaking anecdotally here, and trends always have outliers. So for every ten or hundred women who have experienced similar things, one of them will always say that the world is not as bad as we think and they did not have any problems finding their suitable boy or having to choose between a suitable degree and a suitable boy.

This reminded me of a fictitious short story I had written sometime back.

The matrimonial ad said- “PhD, research professor, based in the US.”

“How many responded?” she asked.

“Three hundred,” he said, sipping his coffee.

“How many responded?” he asked.

“Three,” she said. “A schizophrenic, an unemployed man, and you.”


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

(Py)airport Drama

Every time I land in Kolkata, something funny happens within the first 30 minutes. This time was no exception.

I had a seat at the very back of the aircraft. By the time I got off the airplane and stood in the long, serpentine immigration line, I realized that I was among the last few to stand in line. It didn't escape me that US or Kolkata, I always get to stand in the longer line. The line for immigrants like me is usually longer than those of US citizens and permanent residents, just like the line for Indian citizens is much longer in Kolkata. Anyway, I was tired, disoriented, and could not wait to be done. I had been traveling for the last 30 hours, mostly over the North Pole and parts of Russia, which meant that I had only seen daylight in those 30 hours. I could barely stand straight.

When my turn came, a young guy at the counter asked to see my passport. He barked, in a rather gruff and rude voice, "Passport dikhaiye." (Show me your passport, in Hindi).

One, I was a little put off by hearing Hindi (and not Bangla) in Kolkata, and two, I was a little confused about how to address him. In the US, one usually starts a conversation with a polite, "Hi, how is it going?"

Without thinking, I translated it and asked, "Bhalo achen to?" (Are you doing well?)

What happened next was unbelievable. You see, I had no interest in knowing how the guy was doing, I was merely being polite. But I had forgotten that cues of politeness vary across societies. In India, (usually) no girl smiles at a stranger and asks how he is doing. People get down to business without spending time on niceties.

Holy rangoli, the man actually blushed 50 shades of pink and purple. He avoided further eye contact, grinned like a monkey, and started shuffling uncomfortably in his seat and staring at his crotch while fiddling with my passport. He almost looked like I had married him recently and he was the coy bride. With utmost care, he stamped my passport and handed it back to me, nodding slightly, a nod that probably meant, "You stay well too!" He barely managed a whisper while asking me, "Aapni Dubai te thaken?" Do you live in Dubai?

"Na, US e," I replied, before taking back my passport and walking away. I have no idea why the gruff, Hindi-speaking guy was suddenly cooing and blushing and making small talk. My only explanation is, no stranger chick had ever asked him "Bhalo achen to?" (Are you doing well?) with a smile before.