Sunday, December 31, 2017

Twenty things I will remember from 2017

1.    I got my first competitive research grant here. I started my first research study as principal investigator.

2.    I traveled (only) with dad for the first time. We went to Cambodia. We went to Thailand.

3.    In Nepal, I took a mountain flight to see Mount Everest up close.

4.    I got a summer position at TIFR, my first significant gainful employment in India. I taught my first graduate-level course there.

5.    My first Airbnb experience. This was in San Antonio. Ever since, I have become an Airbnb fan.

6.    My first time editing a book that got published this summer.

7.    I was hospitalized for peripheral vertigo. I also had dental surgery the day Trump assumed presidency. And this year, my lower back pain came back with full violence.

8.    I attended and presented at my first medical conference.

9.    I spent another year without driving.

10.I also touched the waters of the Arabian Sea for the first time.

11.I taught my first graduate-level course this spring.

12.My late-grandfather would have turned hundred this year.

13.My parents attend my public talk for the first time.

14.I installed a name plate outside my office in my mother tongue.

15.I gave my first talk at the American Center.

16.I went to watch exactly one movie at the theater (Murder on the Orient Express) and slept through most of it.

17.I started learning Urdu. On and off.

18.I went to my first American Thanksgiving dinner.

19.I packed all my things into suitcases, put them in my office, gave up my rental apartment and went off to spend a few months of summer traveling.

20.I got my first award after the name of a Bengali scholar. My CV got its first Bengali name (other than mine).


Saturday, December 09, 2017

Traveling with Baba

Fifty years ago, a young boy saw fascinating, hand-drawn pictures of the ruins of Cambodia in his school textbook and was blown away. He made a wish, a dream to be able to visit the ruins someday. Later, he went on to study history in college, but could never fulfill his dream. Finishing college led to gainful employment, family, children, and he only sunk deeper in responsibility. Then, a few years ago, he told his daughter about his dream, in passing. So off went Baba and I to explore the ruins of Cambodia together earlier this summer

Of course Ma refused to join us outright once she figured that it would be a physically exhausting trip. That it would be hot and humid, that we would spend hours every day exploring the ruins and climbing up and down high steps. So we respected her wishes too, and for the first time, went somewhere without her. 

The best way to know someone is by travelling with them. Baba and I have never spent one-on-one time before this (without another member of the family being around), and it was very enlightening. It was like knowing a person all over again, something that would not have happened if we traveled together as family. True to our nature, we had our hilarious and hardly-matters-in-the-long-run conflicts and arguments. And true to our nature again, we had a blast!

Baba is a history buff, whereas I have very little brain space for remembering dates and historical facts. He uses a historian's lens while I use a social scientist's lens. So while he spends weeks reading up and learning about a place even before he has arrived there, I arrive with a blank slate and take in whatever I see at the moment- what people look like, what do they wear and eat and talk about, how are physical spaces organized, and so on. 

The moment I reached Kolkata, Baba started enthusiastically reading me excerpts from all the books on Cambodia he had recently amassed, not that I got much of what he was saying. One night, I fell asleep while listening to him, floating in a soup of names of many unknown people that ended in "varmans." I might have even dreamed of a tune or two in my sleep composed by the famous R.D. Burman. Baba even prepared thorough hand-written notes about the history of Cambodia. I am not too sure if he thought that we would be taking a history exam at the passport control office in Siem Reap. Who prepares detailed, chronological, history notes before traveling somewhere?

Our host in Cambodia, Mr. Kim, is also a tour guide. He shows us a map, chalking out the things we could do in the next few days. I continue to listen with enthusiasm, although, my energy levels are depleting alarmingly. It's 3 pm, I still haven't eaten lunch, our flight was delayed, I have barely slept the previous night, and all I wanted to do is have lunch, drink a green coconut or two, come back home and fall asleep. Mr. Kim says something about some king building some temple, and that sets Baba off. Baba does not agree with a historical fact Mr. Kim said. Or maybe, he is convinced that Mr. Kim did not get the name or number of the king right. 

Whatever it is, he sprinted to his backpack, dug out his notes as reference material, and you should have seen the look of shock on Mr. Kim's face. Never has his knowledge been challenged by a man who had barely stepped in his country for 30 minutes. For the next hour or so, they animatedly discussed kings, their names and numbers and achievements. With every new varman for a king in a new generation they discussed, I saw my lunch stepping away from me further. Facepalming, I accept my fate of a hungry, grumpy, dispassionate listener, not understanding what difference it makes whether Yasovarman built monasteries or Indravarman, whether Prithvindravarman was the grandchild of another varman, and whether Harshavarman was more powerful or Suryavarman II or Rajendravarman or some other varman. That discussion on varmans led to both of them uncovering all their cumulative knowledge about Cambodia, the Khmer empire, its history, religion, and what not, lunch and everything else momentarily forgotten. And that is how Baba and Mr. Kim bonded, both of them deep in conversation with their notes and maps.