Friday, September 07, 2012

Clothing with Confidence

I attended a seminar yesterday. The topic was the title. The presenter was a well attired blonde woman, with an MBA and a MS in psychology who had spent decades in image consulting. I was interested in what she had to say. Before I landed there, I had two weeks from registration to event occurrence to build my mind up in anticipation. The idea to me was "Judge the book by the cover". What you wear matters in the eyes of who beholds you, including yourself. My mind, still Bengali and a tad Amriki, thought things over. Growing up in Kolkata, your dressing is dictated by how much you sweat. For two hours a day, on a very auspicious day only, you tend to wear your finest. Once the demo is over, you bundle the thing up and run to the household in-charge, in my case, my mom, and ask her to do the rest. Which means dry cleaning or laundry. On the next auspicious day, you perform the same demo of your superior attire, but with new pairs of eyes ogling at you. Just like crop rotation, you would like your audience to rotate between the viewings. As a child, I honestly thought it didn't matter what I wore. Summers were brutal. Humid and hot, every single kurta and top, wore out their colors in a week. It didn't matter how much percentage cotton your clothes had, Kolkata was sure to take it to test. And I learnt something at a fairly young age - Sweaty is not Pretty. Winters were better. Cold and pleasant, you could think that a Bengali can be dressed in their best then. That would make you not just wrong, but also a non-Bengali. Because it defies a basic Bengali winter rule. Monkey cap and baggy sweater. No self respecting Bengali can step out without those on. My mother insisted on placing a tight red monkey cap on my just styled hair, and a maroon one on my sister's. My sister mutely accepted her fate. I rebelled. My hair styling had taken me good two hours and yielded two curly locks dangling right in front of my forehead. (I was into that fashion for exactly two weeks after I saw Asha Parekh movies) "Naa ami porbo naa!" I yelled. (No! I won't wear it!) My sister looked at me aghast. Was I out of my mind? I stared right back at her, like a angry young Bengali. I personally believe that Mr. Bachchan senior copied his trademark angry looks from the streets of Kolkata. I was naive. My mother pretended that she did not hear me. She pulled out two sweaters from the wardrobe. Both were two sizes bigger than us but one was way shabbier than the other. She smiled at my sister, who was still holding her shocked pose, and asked in her "rosogolla" voice, "Shona, which one would you like to wear today?" My sister snapped out of her melodramatic posture and beamed. "That", she viciously pointed at the non-shabby one. As my mom, lovingly helped my sis get into her sweater, I slumped down on the floor. When it came to clothing and food, I reigned supreme. I always chose the best available, left the remainder, hung around to see my sister's dejected face, and gloated away. In food, I made the choice, gobbled my piece of "sondesh" and then waited to break away a chunky part off my sister's share. Obviously, incremental changes of my devilry had all accumulated to a grand total, forcing the forces above to take matters out of my chubby hands into theirs. The conspiracy included my mother as well. Bundled in a double sized faded sweater, topped with a red monkey cap, the only visible elements of my body were my big eyes and my fat limbs. It didn't matter that I had my pink ruffled top inside. It didn't matter that there was a beautiful flowery pattern on it. All that one saw was a lopsided sack on legs. So winters were out, fashion wise. A non-Bengali might argue, what about Spring, and Fall seasons? There are Fall collections in stores here, there must be something like that in Bong land, no? Well, looming large on all those videshi fashion seasons, were our Monsoons. The torrential downpour, the lighting and the thunder of a Kalboishakhi could easily topple fashion sense out of a business classy person. His blazer would be atop a banana tree, his tie would be a noose around his neck and his trousers would be frayed out of proportions from the thorns biting into his ankles. Kalboishakhi tends to do that. And just in case you were able to stand your ground, you would be cowering under your big black umbrella. Your body, trying desperately to use the umbrella more like a tent for shelter. I doubt there is much fashion inside a tent. My fashion sense was tightly twined with Kolkata. I eventually stopped wearing two sizes larger, not because I grew a new respect for fashion, but because two sizes bigger than my size ceased to be available any more. The last time I visited Pantaloons as a teenager, the attendant helping me find a pair of jeans said, "These are all the teenage sizes we have. For your size you'll have to go to the back room. We keep our XXLs there. Can't really display them, you see." I squarely blame my mother for inculcating in me the necessity to wear bigger-than-your-size clothing. Every time my measurements were taken for the school uniform, she would instruct the tailor to make it two sizes bigger. If the tailor asked why, her response would be, "She grows in length and breadth rather quickly. Taratari boro hochhey!" That phase ended in teenage. Confidence always came from my academics, my rank in class, and my ability to do something well. Clothing wasn't a contributor. Undergrad life in the deserts of Rajasthan, ushered in a new era of fashion. I etiolated in the scorching sun of Pilani - the moisture and the color drained from my face and my clothes equally. I noticed that the brown desert induced the people to wear very colorful clothing. A lot of delicate weaving, needle work and mirror work. It was a great contrast to the barren land behind. I observed and admired, but couldn't make it a part of my wardrobe. The same faded jeans, the same kolkata salwars made it to the classes. Assignments, tests, tutorials, practicals demanded all my available bandwidth. Shopping was an unheard term. Amrika was a turning point. I must admit that my first year and half at UCLA I still clung onto my Kolkata roots, wearing the same thing in Beverly Hills as I would in Ballygunge. Professional life really changed my clothing sense. That brings me right back to where I began. The seminar. Knowning what to wear to make you look best was important. You never know who's noticing. Professional attire had a lot of "Do's and Don'ts". Point was it really was possible to look your best. All you needed to do was to invest some time and money to identify what colors make you rosy, what patterns shone on you, and what clothing flattered your body type. It didn't matter where you worked, it was imperative for you to look good in that setting. If tattered jeans and T-shirt could get you by, that didn't mean you did that. You still wore professional clothes. She emphasized on harmonious dressing- choosing clothes that went with your body, texture and size. If someone said, "What a nice dress you have on", it meant disharmony in your clothing match. The compliment you should be looking for is "You look great! Not your dress." Following the seminar was shopping. The seminar was held in Ann Taylor Loft and as soon as the speaker finished, the forty females ran amok among the clothing aisles. I found myself an orange top and turned around to find the speaker helping others choose their purchases. She turned to me and said, "Yes you can carry that off nicely." I beamed. My confidence in my clothing inflated two sizes. It reminded me of the day in Pantaloons - when the attendant pointed me to the XXL section. My mother had stepped in between my sadness and the attendant's sarcasm. She had said the very same thing. "My daughter can carry it off very nicely. All sizes look good on her." That defined my clothing sense. And I am holding onto that thought for the rest of my fashionable days...

Sunday, February 05, 2012

From the old to the new...

How do you say farewell? Is it easy to detach oneself from the multitude of friends and move on seamlessly to the next group? Does separation hurt?

Recently I had to say "Goodbye". Farewells don't come easy to me. Like a money plant, which entwines itself to its supporting stick, I found myself deeply enmeshed in my former habitat. I was attached at various levels. And to my dismay, I found it extremely difficult to uproot myself.

Growing up, we went to the same school from kindergarten to Class 10. The friends, the foes, the teachers, the class rooms were all known. As kids, growing at a rapid pace, our minds were very impressionable. We had "best friends for life" and we had pacts that were supposed to last till death. We promised eternal commitment to each of our best friends. And then, one fine day an opportunity came by. A more esteemed school selected us to join them. The logical decision was to enroll. And we did. But emotions did a Volta-face. I found myself shedding copious tears for two weeks. It was the first biggest decision of my immature life. I realized that I was not good at saying goodbyes. Knowing your weaknesses is a powerful tool for self improvement.
The sad-two-weeks later, the new school engulfed us. The new school mates looked at us queerly. The new teachers didn't know what to do with "two" of "me". I found every opportunity to crib and complain to my mother, when I returned home.
My mom squarely placed the blame on my deciding shoulders.
Having nowhere else to turn, I turned back at the new place. I found a bunch of new girls who were just as out-of-place as us. Then I noticed someone smile at me. I noticed a teacher's approval of my homework. I noticed they had a debate team where I could join. Suddenly, it wasn't all so bad. But the process was prolonged and painful. I suffered abnormally from being detached from my Alma mater. The new school, in all its glories, had a tough time wowing me.

The lesson I learnt served me well. I could not move on easily. I made a mental note to myself and decided not to move on, if I could help it. But life teases you in unfathomable ways. What you fear most, comes to haunt you often.

The next journey was leaving Calcutta. I never realized as I left my dear old Calcutta, that I would really never return. To this day, I realize I never bought my return ticket. Obviously the cycle repeated. Once in Pilani (Rajasthan), I spent a whole year coping with my "move". Unsettled, uneasy, I moved through the campus, looking for signs of familiar things. But there were none. In many ways, that first year, I missed out so much goodness that was around me. I played catch-up once out of my mourning. In my head, Calcutta was the best place on earth. I firmly and indignantly countered my friends when they openly criticized some of its real faults. The love for my home, increased day by day as my separation from it grew. Even today, I find myself bristle inside when people point out the pollution, the grime, the detriment of my favorite place. But now I don't react like a teenager anymore. I smile and ignore. I can't bring myself to agree, even as I know that they are right.

From Pilani to Los Angeles, the journey was like the proverbial "crossing of seven seas". I spent the whole flight weeping over Singapore airlines ice creams, and then another six months trying to run back home. As my six months of allocated depression was coming to an end, I noticed other trapped students. One of them, who was trying to flee back to China, became my best friend. Together we decided to endure it, till we could go back.
Life took a better turn. My old memories, vibrant as they were, gave a little room for the new ones I was growing. Los Angeles was amazing and for a freshly arrived "desi", it appeared glorious. My eyes widened at the sight of Brad Pitt outside the Westwood red carpet event, my taste buds danced at the medley of food options available, my heart widened at the friendliness of people around me and my mind boggled over the prospects available. I even found some Bengalis in my University but strangely they were unlike anything I expected. I was a newbie, brimming with love for Kolkata, while they were seasoned Americans. For them, Kolkata was just another place.

From University to professional life, the jump was huge. I remained a student in mind , struggling with professional etiquette. Student life and work life are vastly different and it takes quite a while to get into the groove of a working woman.

Just a week ago, I had to say goodbyes. To some of the best colleagues and friends I had grown over time. I realized, it was harder than I thought. So much experience in moving on in the past, did not help my cause at all. Like a tree that groans vehemently at being uprooted, I tried holding on and letting go at the same time. The toughest part was bidding farewell to the familiar faces, the people I laughed and joked with, those from whom I learnt immensely and those that constantly encouraged me. Finding a great working environment is a sheer luck!
It was very tough holding back the tears as I hugged my friends goodbye. The day when I had to leave all of it behind, hurriedly arrived. As I left my old place, I had to force myself to walk away without looking back.

The social media, the emails, the chat groups, the SMS-es keep me going. The period of separation and grief have taken over again. As I ruminate through my ordeal, the new place beckons me. The old memories glow like beacons of light, showing me what I will be missing.
But like it happened previously, will my struggles give way to a bright new beginning?


Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A Bengali Winter

Winter holds special meaning for a Bengali, very unique to him. A true Bengali values winter dearly, exposed as he is to a long sweaty summer.
The very thought of winter brings warmth. I grew up in Kolkata where we looked forward to the time when schools would shut down briefly and we would wait for "BoroDin" (Big Day) ,or Xmas. It is very common to call Christmas as Xmas. As a kid, when schools shut down during winter, I would go into hibernation.
Very like "Kumbhokorno", the giant brother of "Raavan", I would fall into delightful slumber, waking up only at the summons of meals. Munching baked, steamed, boiled, fried, deep-fried, delicacies I would ponder upon world peace, and such. Every Bengali ponders 95% of their time. If you catch a Bong, staring into nothingness, stand back! He is on the verge of a momentous discovery of his own. And perchance if you spot a Bengali with food in hand, mouth open, gaping in wonder at the air ahead of his nose, you know you have inadvertently fallen into the space-time continuum of a Baby Einstein. We tend to force ourselves as friend, philosophers, guides to unsuspecting friends and continually strive to come up with catchier remarks that will boggle the listener's minds.
I am one such person. On that far gone wintry day in Kolkata, munching a chocolate Monginis cake with a side of "Joynogorer Moyaa (special sweet balls from a place called Joy Nagar)" and "Puli Peethey" (sweet rice dumplings with syrup) I had come up with reasons for our love for Winter.
Well, really why do we love Winter so much and what does it mean for a Bong? I am one sample and it is a far fetched idea to extrapolate me and my observations into an entire community of people, but guess what that's what I am going to do.

The love for winter time is deep rooted in a Bengali's veins. It begins with waking up, feeling warm under the "Kaatha" stitched quilts and smiling at the bright shining sun. A hot chai never tastes better than in winter. Wearing the brightest and over sized sweater a Bengali ventures out. Wait! Before he can step out he steps back. The one clothing item a Bengali never leaves behind in winter, is his monkey cap. This ubiquitous cap in Kolkata, is just like the armor for Spartans in that crazy movie 300. The cap comes in various colors. Females prefer it in red while males settle for black or brown. The cap covers everything except the eyes and cheeks. The nose and the mouth are optionally visible. Every cold kid walks the street, looking (un)cool. Me and my sister did the same and have to this day retained our monkey cap and its legacy. As the Bengali Babu steps out dressed in sweater, dhoti, monkey cap, and an umbrella, he feels like a King. The umbrella serves multiple purposes in a Bengali's life. When not tucked under the armpits, it protects the precious head of a Bong against rain and sun, poke people in the queue to move ahead, act as a walking stick, but most of all, it is like the scepter of a king, establishing his imperial authority.
Winter time is magical. Cakes and baking aromas feel the corridors between the adjoined apartments. Neighbors squabble over superior cake recipes. When I was growing up, we had neither the baking oven nor the microwave oven. But my mother wasn't daunted. Armed with a pressure cooker, she set out to conquer the world of cakes. Her first effort involved packing sand into the bottom of the cooker and settling a flour mixture in a pan inside. We waited with bated breath as whistles blew. As the four of us huddled to watch, the cooker cover was removed. There, sitting cozily in the sand was our first fluffy home made cake. I shall never forget the joy of eating a cake that fresh. With ovens in my apartment and cakes that I have made a zillion times, the magic never recreated itself.

Christmas was a foreign concept until I heard about Santa Claus. I was in third standard then. This plump jolly old man in red and white uniform, distributed gifts to great kids on the Eve of Christmas. Buoyed by our newly acquired knowledge, we mentioned it to our mother, repeatedly. We believed it and somehow coming from the teacher's mouth, made it difficult to even disbelieve. I found out that stockings were required before anything could be gotten from this Santa Claus fellow. We had no stockings, chimney or fireplace, so our school socks went on top of our mosquito net that Christmas Eve. My mother ogled in disbelief. I looked up at my socks wondering what goodies would fill them up.
Waking up next morning, I looked up. Wrapped in Bengali newspaper, there was something on top. I pummeled and woke my sister up. As we both scrambled out of our bed, I reached for the gift. The smelly socks had not been touched. (I figured Santa Claus wasn't very giving when it came to smelly socks!)

Unwrapping like a maniac, we found our Christmas gift. It was a pair of Badminton rackets and shuttle cocks! More than delight, I was astounded! Santa Claus really existed! We brought the flat down, yelling for our parents to come and look. Once they were up, we rambled on and on in amazement, happiness and faith for Santa Claus, oozing from every word we spoke. I still recall my dad's remark to my mom (which I had ignored on that day), "Wow! They really bought this Santa Claus idea, huh?"

School friends, teachers, apartment bullies and neighbors were the next to know about our Santa Claus visit. Needless to say they tried poisoning our belief with logic and rationality. They finally won three years later.

It is the gifting idea, albeit foreign, but great that a Bengali likes about winter. Then there is the famous cake from the corner bakery shop. My favorite is Monginis and then my mother's office cafeteria. My mom bought fruit cakes from her canteen several times for us. Every Bengali buys the cake and the "moyaa" together for his family. A little bit of Christmas with a little bit of tradition. The holidays mean television shows filled with Uttam Kumar's movies or Shahrukh's prancing. And the end of the year synopsis which a Bengali remembers, revises and quizzes his neighbors on. Who died? Who won what? Whose record was broken?

I have found the Bengalis to be the most voracious reader. And a season of winter holidays translate into quilt, tea and a book/newspaper. My dad settled into his chair early in the morning with his newspapers and wouldn't budge until he had gone through every page. In winter, we would do the same. And then pick up a book and start reading till we dozed off into sleep. Every Bengali reads and sleeps to see what he has just read, come to life in his dreams. I am no different.

A hot sweaty summer is never as conducive to happy hours of reading as a warm cozy winter. We never had heaters, so colorful quilts with unique stitching adorned our beds. The workers knitted and sowed overtime for this month. Bengali grandmothers would be found sitting on rocking chairs on the terrace, during an afternoon, knitting sweaters for the little ones. The winter afternoons meant sitting in sunshine. It also meant running to the terrace with oranges,ludo game and a mat ("shotronji"). It meant supervision by mom and playing for us. Every time I smacked my sis in a game, I received an immediate counter smack from my mom. It was frustrating but that's how I learned world peace.

This winter I did much the same. Acted the Santa, ate a bunch of oranges in heat and bunch of sweets, played a game of Ludo with anyone willing, read a bunch of books, pondered upon world problems and felt ready to take on the world. New ideas formed seeds in my mind and like every pontificating Bengali, I am now on the look out for one whom to deliver my sermons! Happy Winter!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Always On

The generation of connectivity has taken over. We are always on.

Not many moons ago, I was a disconnected outlier. Growing up, I never had a PC or a Mac. I didn't touch a keyboard until my fifth standard. I recall my very first encounter with a computer. A real one. It was a hot Saturday afternoon and my mom had taken the day off. To have some fun together, the three of us - me, my sister and mom got out to be at Birla Museum. This is one ubiquitous museum in Kolkata. Schools plan field trips there, parents try to kindle the scientific spark in their disagreeing wards in this place, a mathematically bent individual finds himself at home here and in general visiting this Science and Technology Museum is a sure sign to show off to your neighbors about your superior intellect and choices. We found ourselves at the ticketing booth without any preconceived notions.

Once in, we headed straight for the most crowded area. The idea among Bengalis is that, if one Bengali found it worth queuing up for, it probably was worth the other Bengali's time. My mom dragged us both into a long line of standing individuals and kids. People waddled about, without much hurry. Munching peanuts and talking with a mouthful, our neighbor in queue spotted us and dropped his question.

" Ki? Compootaar dekhtey esheychhen bujhi?"
[ Did you guys come to see the Coompootaar ? ]

A moment elapsed before we made out what he said. We nodded without comprehension. My mom looked at us and said knowledgeably to the enquirer,
" Yes. My daughters have always been strong in science and I thought why not treat them with a visit to the Computer thing?"

The man smiled broadly and looked at us as affectionately as a stranger could.
" That is very good. Push them hard and you might even have Marie and Curie at your home. Heehee!" He laughed at his own obnoxious joke.

The line moved slowly. There were two huge cream colored boxes that looked like mini television sets, with a huge protrusion on its back. There were two operators seated in front of each one. They were formally attired and acted very important. As we neared the hallowed room, we saw everyone taking off their shoes. It was mandatory for the health of the computers. It was much later in my undergrad, that this rule was repealed.Thanks to the massive amount of shoe thievery and swapping, prevalent among shoe-conscious undergrads at BITS.

Once in, we waited with bated breath to near the computers. Time was limited. Only five minutes per interaction. I waited for my turn.

" Who is going to play?" asked the bespectacled operator as we neared him. My mother pushed me ahead as an answer.

The man scanned me from head to toe and asked in a patronizing tone, " Have you seen one before?"
I nodded my head from side to side to indicate a negative.

He expected nothing else. He went straight into his well rehearsed monologue.

" This is the latest computer. The computer was first invented as a gigantic calculator by Charles Babbage. "

He looked at me sternly when I giggled at the name. I was thinking in rhymes and cabbage seemed so appropriate.
When I smothered my inept frivolity, he launched back into his speech.

" From then to now, the computer has been radically miniaturized and now looks like this machine. Take a good look", he said sweeping his hand like a magician showing off his best trick with pride, " this device is so powerful and yet so compact. It does calculations in a jiffy, and has nifty games "
I ogled at it hard. It looked like a gigantic TV, we had at home and although it didn't play games with me, it showed images in color. This thing was all about black and white.
It sounded amazing to me that the device would play with me. Till then all I had was my twin. Although she was fun, there were severe limitations to her gaming capabilities. Like for instance, there was no way she would play with me a game of Chess if she lost twice. Or if I smacked her hard for winning (which rarely occurred, of course), she would make so much ruckus that all gaming notions would be swiftly dispelled.

I took one more step closer to the machine.
The bespectacled wise man, smiled broadly.
" This one is made by IBM - International Business Machines and is called Lexmark. I have loaded a great game on it - Paratrooper! You can play it for 3 minutes!"

I was delighted. I inched close to the keyboard. There was a joystick (I found the name later), that the man operated to demonstrate how to play the game. My imagination ran wild when I laid my eyes on the monitor.

The black screen was dotted with white tiny helicopters.There was a small canon firing bombs at the helicopters and at the descending parachutes of men. Every time it hit something, the score increased. The fireworks that went off, with every hit was amazing. It was all in black and white but I saw how unique this "Compootaar" was. The image could be out of any low budget war movie, but in this one, I could change the script as I liked. I controlled the destinies of these parachuting soldiers. I eagerly grabbed the joy stick from the operator and tried to control the fate of the game.
Needless to say, I was a complete failure.

Coordinating a real hardware with a virtual canon on the screen, required more dexterity than I thought. Soon, the parachutes and helicopters overwhelmed my tiny canon. I had missed way more than I had hit. My score plummeted and my canon was hit by a mega bomb from some descending soldier. The game was over.

Confident that she would do way better, my sister approached the machine. She had listened and looked on intently when the operator was explaining things to me.
The moment the joystick came into her palm, my sister dominated. The canon fired balls, I never knew it had. The parachutes and people fell from the sky in vast numbers. Her three minutes were over, but her performance made the bespectacled gentleman, urge her to continue. For the next seven minutes my sister thrashed the life out of Paratroopers. She made the highest score and the operator delightfully clapped his hands together and remarked,

"Darun darun ( Awesome) !!! Well done! You have the highest score I have ever seen! Very well done!" My sister and my mother beamed brightly, just as my face darkened.

Bengalis, if they spot a spark, tend to pontificate. The operator had spotted the Ultimate Gamer of tomorrow and just had to give his share of advice to my mom.

"You are a very lucky mother. "Your THIS daughter" , pointing carefully at my sister and avoiding me altogether, "Has a rare gift". Trust me, this computer will become our future and in that future your daughter will rule. You should let her be near computers more often. If you can, come regularly to our Science Lab and Science Sessions. She will gain a lot of knowledge and experience there."

Almost as an afterthought he added, looking at me, squinting his eyes doubtfully,
"She can come too...."

My mother went into a gushing bout of joyous emotions. When she was done, we left the queue, with interested bystanders peering at my sister as some mini celebrity. I gave them all my perfected dirty look.

My mother took the suggestion seriously. The very next year we enrolled in their three month Summer Computer Camp. At the end of the session, my sister bagged the first prize and 15K rupees. We had learnt all about BASIC and LOGO, two currently ancient languages. That was just the beginning.

At school, Computer Science became a regular class. Drawing pictures, learning to code and to appreciate ALU, playing "Prince of Persia", I grew up with the wonder of Computers. BITS, Pilani had its own email forum, and for the first time, I used "pine" and created my first email account. Sending and receiving email became an insatiable addiction. Unlike an IPhone, that updates your inbox rather rapidly, finding a new email in an inbox was like undertaking a pilgrimage, in BITS. From the far flung hostel, one had to cycle twenty minutes to reach the IPC (Institute Processing Centre), leave his or her shoes outside,( praying to find them when they came out),and wait in line as the inching queue of eager students waited for a vacant device. Finally when you grabbed one, and held your breath as the inbox opened, one found, "No New Mails!" At the height of frustration, I have heard of students who emailed themselves just to see the euphoric line, "You've Got Mail!"

From BITS to UCLA, where Internet was created, my discovery of Computers and what they can achieve kept expanding. Engrossed in the study of semiconductors, I thoroughly appreciated Moore's law. The gigantic television sized computer of Kolkata shrunk drastically to a mini palm held device, and with every progress the computer made, it sucked in its users like a whirlpool's vortex. That leads me to my profound title.

An IPhone made staying connected and being followed infinitely easy. So much of our lives are public property. Within our individual social circles, we roam as celebrities. Much of our information is online. I have googled myself several times, and with every search the body of knowledge available, increases. I have noticed the phenomenon transform into an addiction. Staying away from the world wide web is like being a fish out of water. I have lived three months of my life without Internet and TV in this very Silicon Valley. That, even to myself is a great feat. My Chinese friend, finds herself updating her status, thoughts, whereabouts, fears, likes and personality like an open web page. Access is open to every one who cares. She is always on. Her clan is growing rapidly around me.

I miss those delightful nights in Kolkata, when power shut down. When every gadget was turned off. The sky was void of light pollution and stars shone brightly. There were no beeps, alarms, vibrations or ring tones.Men and women could be off the grid, and enjoy being there. It is impossible to imagine it now.

I wonder what is next. Now I delight in having the power to switch my IPhone off. I delight in having at least the option to hide away from the circles that seek me, occasionally. Will that right be there in the future? I wonder to myself, if "Always On" is just a sedge way for being "Never Off".

Maybe 2012 will reveal more, who know?

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Childhood Obesity

It is of much concern now in US. Every third program on NPR and on television seems to be about fat kids unable to frolic. A depth of reasons and repercussions are provided for this growing obesity pandemic. I wonder where all these reporters and columnists were, when I was growing up.

In Kolkata, during my years of growing up (and sideways), no one made a hullabaloo about childhood obesity. The thinking of a Bengali parent was different. Take for example, Mrs. Bose, Bomba's mother (the son's name has been disclosed to reveal his true identity). She firmly believed in the merits of a well-fed son.

"My Bomba is damn strong. It looks chubby but in reality he is muscular. He is just too young to sprout the right triceps. And he works so hard! So many Math problems he solves in a day - where will he get nourishment from if not from Rosogollas ?"

Bomba was growing up to live and love sweets. His breakfast, lunch and dinner had high refined-sugar contents. Added to that was the Bengali lifestyle. He was a sedentary good student. The longer he sat, the more assignments he completed, and the better grades he got. This meant his parents pushed him to sit longer. Playing outside was banished. To fulfill his need for fun, Mrs. Bose supplied an unending array of snacks, delivered directly to his desk. The vicious cycle of sit-n-eat, had Bomba entrenched in its grips.

I wasn't much unlike Bomba. My mother (over)fed us. Aside from breakfast in the morning we had two rounds of snacks. The lunch boxes we carried, overflowed with food. A side box was created to hold our deserts. Evenings meant snacking more and the snacks ended with full course dinner. Dawdling to school, coaching classes, and completing home works, left us lazy and lethargic. I remember sleeping being our favorite past time. "Physical Training" classes became Physical Torture at school.

The results were obvious. I became fatter and greedier.

My sister was always thinner than me. Set against my backdrop, she was proclaimed thin! It was on a relative scale, but soon people forgot the relativity and started accepting her as thin and me as fat. It boosted her morals and lowered mine.

Soon my classmates held a classroom Fat-Pageantry Contest. I was declared the unanimous winner. When my class teacher found out, she hid her giggle without much success and said, " At least you are first in this category!"

My sadness on being the "Baby Elephant" grew until my mother became concerned.
One fine Friday evening, she dragged me to a pediatrician.

The middle-aged doctor, looked up from his heavy glasses at me and then glanced at my mother. My mom began without a preamble.

"Arrey, take a good look at my daughter, Doctor. For some unknown reason she has become a little plump. But I would have thought nothing of it if my daughter did not mention that she was being called names at school. That is affecting her - mentally and physically. She seems to have lost some appetite. I did speak to her teacher to reprimand her naughty classmates. But I don't know what else to do - help!"

I twiddled my fat thumbs together, while my mom went about her monologue. Every doctor's visit was the same. My mother assumed she was the ultimate authority on my condition and gave me no chance to answer any questions. Any of doctor's incumbent queries were deftly fielded by her, so that I became a mute spectator to my plight.
Some docs didn't approve of this behavior. They would unceremoniously brush aside her comments and say,
"Arrey apni thamun toh! Ekey boltey din! Ma...bolo toh tomar ki hoyeche?"
["Why don't you stop? Let her speak. Dear, why don't you tell me what happened?"]

This time, the doctor listened to my mom, with complete attention. When she finished, he asked her,

"What do you feed her?"

My mother smiled broadly.

"Well, I try to be a good mother, but not always do I succeed. I make sure she gets all the nutrients in one meal or next. The list is not very long, for example, today, I made Chocolate Complan, Sabudana Khichdi for breakfast, for lunch I gave her a box of shrimp chowmein, sondesh, an apple, in the evening we are planning to have dosa for snacks and fish curry, dal, rice for dinner!"

The doctor ogled his eyes out.
"Orey Baba! Are you kidding me? Your daughter eats all this on a daily basis and yet managed to get through my chamber door! That's a miracle!"

My mother's face fell.

The doctor went out detailing a strict quarter diet plan for me. Basically everything I ate was cut into quarter portions. I thought to myself, "How am I going to live through this starvation?" I didn't have to. My mother discarded the doctor's advice as being unnecessarily cruel.

My childhood obesity did not get eradicated in my childhood. When I reached high school, my mother suddenly decided to enroll us in swimming classes. Every day for two years we went for forty minutes of water splashing. That did it! I went from "baby elephant" to "healthy" in a year. The rest of the body fat was lost during board exams results week.

The idea of a Bengali family to force feed every child in the name of care, might have had something to do with the obesity I saw around myself. With changing times and "Zero Sizes", parents have become less forceful. In fact, my mother has taken onto this generation pretty well. When I had returned home for the first time from US, she welcomed me in the airport arrival with a shocked gasp,

"Eeeshhh! Ki mutki hoye gechhis!" [ Oh! How fat you have become!"]

It was difficult for me to gobble the Bengali goodies after that, but my mother redeemed herself by offering me third and fourth helpings, insistently.

All those children struggling to deal with peer slim pressure would have had a better time in Kolkata. Their peers would seldom be slim. When something is in majority, it stops being questioned. Hardly anyone gave their super stout son a second glance and said, "This kid eats too much!" It was always, "My son comes from well-fed family!"

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Drawing Skills

When I was four years old, my sister suddenly sprouted drawing talents. She would pick up a magazine, and draw the girl on the front cover with ease and similitude that had my parents beaming. My mother would hold the art in her hands and remark,

" Ahh! Ki sundor ekechhey! Baah!" ["Ohh! So prettily drawn! Wow!]

Once she set it down, lovingly following it with her eyes, I would snatch it up to take a look. To be honest, it was indeed well done. For a girl my age, I surely didn't expect it from her. I was reluctant to admit my real sentiments.

" The nose is bloated!" , was all I said.

Steadily her drawings grew. Her talent sucked me in too. Even though I was a jealous spectator in the beginning, I soon became a peer artist. Together we would lay down our Camel pastel colors on the floor on a lazy Saturday afternoon. Our parents would be at work and we would be entrusted to our youngest aunt. She wasn't much into baby sitting as she was into cooking. It was very easy to find her spending the entire day in the kitchen - simply enjoying herself and her culinary escapades.
One of us would come up with the idea. It would invariably be me.

From childhood, I had been distinguished from my identical twin as the naughty one. I had broken more rules and blamed it on her than she could ever have. I had concealed the real story more often than my conscientious sibling, who broke down at the slightest frown from my mother. In short, I was more of a menace than her.

" Let's paint on the living room wall," I would say excitedly.

" It has the perfect shade of blue since the last time it got painted. We won't have to use the sky blue crayon at all!"
As if that was reason enough to get into this venture head first.

My sister wasn't moved. She wasn't exactly sure but in an undefined way, she felt it was wrong. Her conscience was forming at a much faster pace than mine. My undue zeal was not enough to drag her into it. I could have done it alone. But there is safety in numbers. You know, herd mentality. It is so much easier to say, " Enu started it, 'coz she is the artist!". My sister had already been unanimously acknowledged to travel far with her talents, so there was a high probability, she would get away, and with her, I would too.

" You drew that mountain scenary so well in class today. I think you should try it on a bigger canvas. It would look excellent. I would help you too!", I kept cajoling her. She finally gave in.

Armed with our crayons, we huddled close to the wall. Squatting on the floor, we set about painting a picture of something extraordinary.

Everytime I began a painting (to this day) , I have a vision of the final picture. That day, as I held the black color poised in my hand, I saw a village. The chimney was blowing smoke and near the fence guarding the hut, were two young boys, flying a multicolored kite. The birds flew along with the kite as the boys rejoiced in its lofty heights. A water pump served a beautiful belle with her water needs. She wore a red skirt, hitched up to her ankle, as she balanced two pots on her waist and her head. She had the most beautiful big eyes ever. Not far away, sat a man, observing this village routine. It had all been chalked out, in my mind's eye.

When I completed my work, a good hour later, my sister looked over her shoulder and remarked,

" Hee hee...what is that? a crooked cow?"

I frowned. There was no cow in the scene. Definitely not crooked. She assumed I didn't hear her from my puzzled silence. She decided to scoot over to my side and better explain herself.

" I meant this thing here, in front of the smoking train. Oooh! you seem to have got one velociraptor flying on a string - that's neat! Is that Jurassic Park? There are so many trees...", she trailed off, trying to decode my drawing. At this point, normal lily-livered seven year olds would have broken out into high pitched outbursts. I was strong. I simply smacked my sister on her head. She conformed to the norm and within two seconds, her cries roused the neighborhood. The rest is history. The village scene became the worst drawing I ever drew, just from the consequences itself.

Our repeated attempts on painting the living room wall caught our parent's attention. Punishments weren't enough to deter us ( definitely not me) so they came up with a better plan. Thanks to Mrs. Ghosh. She lived in the flat below.

One Sunday afternoon, she came visiting. She wanted sugar, but stayed over for tea, snacks and appetizers. Throughout her stay, she commented on the sad plight of the house.

" It looks horrible!" she said undisguisedly. She rebelled against the good guest rules.
" They ruined your painting job. And you guys paid so much for those Asian paints people, no? My Boombaa would never do that. He listens to my every word." She paused, beaming to an audience who weren't feeling as good about letting her stay.
" You know what? My Boombaa's classmate was as rowdy as your twins. His parents tried everything and then they put him in school. The drawing school! There's one in our neighborhood - Chitramukul. Why don't you take these two there?"

My parents saw the merit in her proposal, soon after she departed. My dad was made in charge of dragging us down there and getting us enrolled. Promptly on Sunday, at 9 am, we held our dad's hand on either side and made our way to "Chitramukul". The classes started right away. The head master was a balding beaming guy, who greeted us by pinching our chubby cheeks!

" They are in good hands, Mr. Chattopadhyay." He said with unnerving confidence.
" Just come back to collect them at 11".
With great relief and over alarcrity, my dad ran back home, abandoning us in a strange school.

Seven years later, we bid good bye to our drawing alma mater. It was the best artistic years of my life. There were no dearth of things to draw, techniques to learn, styles to try and instructors to admire. Amongst these budding artists, I felt alive. My sister outshone me in the classes and competitions. She would collect all the first prizes, while I came a close second. At regular school, we were soon recognized as good painters. We participated and nurtured our talents, on canvases and easles, far bigger than the living room wall. The beaming headmaster would continue smiling at us. He kept encouraging us, as he did his every student.

It was a small establishment. The instructors were poorly paid and the students came from various backgrounds. Several couldn't afford to pay the fees. But Chitramukul catered to one and all. It was a common ground for people, passionate about painting. I saw a boy, unable to afford palattes and yet painted such breathtaking scenaries. I was amazed at my lack of talents in their midst. I had the best brushes, palettes, drawing paper and colors - yet my picture would never come alive like his did.
For seven years we nurtured our skills and bettered it.

Colors still make me weak. Walking into Michaels or Joann's has me wandering like a child in Disneyland. Filled with joy - expecting something miraculous round the corner. I always end up buying colors and sketch books. On some weekends, when my laundry and vacuuming are done, I open my book. Spreading out my pastels, I pause.
This time, the village scene is clearer.
But as I paint it, I know my sister cannot just walk over and mock it. A part of me leaves the picture incomplete. On my next India trip, I will finish it, in her presence. Let's see if she will still see the crooked cow in the pretty damsel!

Friday, September 23, 2011


My Dad just retired. He has always been an ambitious person. He aimed high. Depending on who you spoke with my Dad came out as a man of many talents or none at all.
If you spoke with my mom and asked her, like an interviewer, what my Dad did, her response would be something like this:

"Who? My husband? What is this about? Is he in trouble? Are we in trouble? ...oh he is not...that's good to know! Phew! I have always warned him with dire consequences, but I never meant them. [ A broad smile ] My husband works hard. Very very hard. For his job. He runs around every day listening and obeying his superiors and (mis) guiding his juniors. At home, he mostly sleeps, wakes up to eat and falls back to sleep again. Sigh!"
At this point, the interviewer would probably move the mike away because the train of monologue is dangerously similar to a overworked wife's outburst. And that is no longer entertaining.
The next person to be asked would be us. Me and my sister. Perhaps, the interviewer would swing the microphone between our faces, not knowing if it makes any difference. After all we look alike - could we possibly have different opinions about our dad?
Depending on what our ages were at the time of the interview, our opinion about our dad would vary.

Age three: " heee"

Age six: "Bapiiiiiiiii is bhalo (good)!"

Age twelve: "I think my dad writes to us less. He needs to write more. I also think he makes my mother cry when he leaves and laugh when he is back. He works and works but not at home. I love my mother."

Age twenty-four: "My dad has taken care of his professional life very well. He is very ambitious and has made personal sacrifices to ensure his progress in the corporate ladder. It meant great places for us to visit, great education, good food, comfortable life but less of my dad's presence. I wish he was around more often. I enjoy talking to him. He has so many stories to tell. I miss him."

Age NOW: "Bapi is there now...but we have left home."

If the interviewer would pause there for a moment, perhaps he could discern the sadness in our voices. When we most wanted our dad around, he was missing. Now when I speak to him every day, I realize what I have missed.

His coworkers, peers and superiors admired, idolized, and patronized him. He was an ideal worker. He worked like it was his personal mission to make the company succeed. He zeal for getting more business, coming up with strategies and visions was amazing. As a result he was forever busy and travelling. I knew very little of his achievements ...until now.

Just a few days ago, my dad called me up. He wanted to know the recipe for chappati (Indian bread). Ever since he retired, he had been on a mission to lose weight. To his credit, he has already lost 16 pounds and 6 inches off his waistline! In addition to walking about and yoga twice a day, groceries, fixing the home and following my mother's instructions, he now wants to implement dietary changes. Using the power of Google vested in him, he has unearthed the hitherto unknown benefits of "whole wheat roti" over rice. In a Bengali household, "rotis" have always been an unloved step sister to the universally adored "rice" as staple diet. Since my mother refused to make him the chappatis (except on weekends), he has taken it onto himself to make them.

While giving him the instructions, I found myself amazed. I have had recipe downloads from my mother, but this was the first time my dad thought of me as a source of information. My father was never a fan of my cooking. In his words,
"It is neither Bengali, nor good."

Me and my sister had both been very distressed at the thought of our father retiring. My mother was slightly concerned, but not too much, because she would still be getting away to her work place to escape just in case my dad became too difficult to handle in his retired state. I could not comprehend my father sitting at home. He had always been so involved with his work, every minute, that the utter absence of it was terrifying. I worried he would slowly depress himself into a state of loneliness. All his power and influence would disappear with his bygone position.

I conspired with my sister and got his resume made. It was then that I realized the length and breadth of his professional achievement. He had been a success - in ways that I can only dream to be in my current nondescript position. Along with his resume,his Linked in profile was also created. The idea was to get him another job. No matter how much my dad wanted to retire, we did not want to let him.

The day came and went by. My dad was an official retiree. Much to our amazement, he got himself busy. Every time we brought up job hunting, he would silence us with his list of to-dos and chores. Apparently there was no dearth of work at home, under my mother's direction. He has started making a lesser fuss about every thing he cooks - because he cooks often now. Once my mother is off to work, he is left behind fending for himself. Much like us, he relies on "bread omelet" and "Maggi" on his lazy afternoons.

I feel closer to him now. All my life, I have spoken to my mother, every single day. My dad, irregularly. Now it is reversed. We share culinary mishaps and tips to avoid burning food while he realizes there is a wealth of knowledge to share. He unravels tales on life, work, astrology, fate, youth, interviews, blunders during our telephonic conversations.

I smile and laugh when he complains about hauling heavy grocery bags, rickety tin boxes that serve as commuter buses, the ruckus people causes in the name of reform and the general irritation he feels settling down to Kolkata. (California has become his first love followed by Mumbai!) I make a mental note to find my dad a job in US.

He always held the belief/philosophy that a person has a predefined job that they have to complete before they pass onto the next world. Since he retired, my dad tells me,

"I have completed what I came to this world to do." Before I can interrupt anxiously, he continues,
" That is why I do my remaining tasks (assigned by your mom) very very slowly!"
It amazes me how my dad finds humor in the irony of being "done" and having nothing more to do.

As both of us struggle with our professional and retired lives, we find a common place to share, to crib, to complain and to joke.

But above all, I rediscover my far away father! :)