Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fro -Yo!

I am referring to Frozen Yogurt.
I have entered every "tutti-frutti", honey berry, pink berry, red mango, tango fango - you can name and I have sampled their fare. There is a certain force that forces me to enter the portals of anything to do with sweet yogurt.

Being a Bengali, Fro-Yo is a part of our culture. Depending on which Bengali you manage to accost, our culture can demand from 4 hours to 10 minutes of lecture time. In my childhood, Sundays demanded special attention. My dad, whenever he was home, picked up two "bajaar-er bag" (market bags) and made his way to the neighborhood plaza. You had to have your own bags. Unlike here where plastic or paper is an option. It wasn't a plaza exactly. More like a farmer's market where farmers sat on the dirt road and laid out their fare on relatively clean pavements. Then they squatted down, fanned themselves and their produce with their tattered towels and got ready to haggle. As soon as the first shops were set up, the Bengali "babus" (gentlemen) queued up for the fish.

The best fish went quickly in the morning. The earlier you elbowed your nearest Bengali out of the line, the higher the probability was of getting a fresher catch. Bengalis weren't very polite when it came to fish. They assumed the business acumen they never had, when it came to buying their favorite "topshe", "illish(salmon)", "rui(Rohu)" and "chingri(shrimp)" "macch(fish)" (types of fish). A typical conversation between the vendor and the consumer would proceed this way.

"How much for the "macch"? The Bengali babu would bark.
"One for twenty. How many shall I pack?" The vendor moved on to the next question without bothering to find out if his customer was really interested.
"How about two for twenty-five?" The Babu would ask with a smirk. Inside he would think he was making a killing. Outside he would pretend that the vendor was making a killing.
"I can give three for thirty. Freshest stuff ever. Can't let go like this. Want it or not?"

The haggling proceeded till no one really made a killing. In my dad's case he ended up with four fishes, which he never intended to buy in the first place, at fifty-five rupees! It would inevitably mean a kitchen overtime for my mom which would turn into a domestic conflict for both of them. One time I have seen one or two of those fresh fish flying through the window and making their way to their home town, namely the nearest swamp. Of course there was no assurance that the fish would be the freshest.

After the fish and the "bhegetables", my dad would make his way to the local sweet shop. A "bhaar" of "rosogolla" would be packed along with "mishti doi"(sweet yogurt). (Bhaar is an earthen pot).

Misthti Doi or sweet yogurt was the Bengalis version of Fro-Yo. Of course no Bengali would be caught in Bongland uttering those words to a earthen pot of "doi". A Bengali household will hardly ever make "rosogolla" or "mishti doi" at home. Those are duties performed superbly by the local sweet suppliers. They have perfected the art so well that not a single "mashi" and "pishi" (aunts) I know will venture into it. I have however found a multitude of Bengali wives concocting their own blend of "mishti doi" in foreign lands.

When my dad returned from his morning market responsibilities, we would be waiting to grab his bags. The sweets would be the first ones he would lose control of. The Sunday morning breakfast would include the ubiquitous "luchhi alur dum" (bread with potatoes) and "rosogolla mishti doi" (sweets I just mentioned).

As a child I have finished several pots of Fro-Yo single handedly. Opening and closing the refrigerator door several times on Sundays was one of my favorite hobbies. (I couldn't put it down on my resume because there aren't enough people doing it to give it the "hobby" status). Long after all the goodies were gone, I kept opening the door, expecting something new to pop up. It never did.

The Bengali Fro-Yo served an important part in our lives. Every exam I recall started with a little blob of Fro-Yo. As I made my hurried exit from my house, burdened with overnight wisdom and a lunch box, my mom would pull me back. Holding me still, she would apply a generous dab of the sweet yogurt on my forehead. It was auspicious. It was for success. I don't know how much credit the yogurt took for my good grades but I do blame it wholeheartedly for my uncool quotient. By the time I reached school, the other ladies of my class would already have appeared, properly attired and perfectly "figured". Then they would spot us - me and my sister, perfectly rounded with an extra distorted circle of white congealed mass on their foreheads.
When I watched the epic and the war tales Doordarshan doled out on the mass media, the kings and the princes made their way to the battlefield with a similar mark ("tika") on their foreheads. No one thought it was un-savvy. Women worldwide sighed at the mark. The mark symbolized greatness. It even symbolized sexiness.

Mine on the other head made me ugly. I could not ask my mom to stop doing it either. Secretly in my heart, I needed a support system. Something that wouldn't fail when my one night cramming did. A weapon that would induce higher brain function for those crucial hours. Maybe God was testing me. The uglier I got, the better my grades were.
It was only in my college that I stopped having the white spot. That's when I started missing it.

Here, nobody dabs my forehead with yogurt any more. Interviews, tests, transitions, presentations go by without the yogurt touch. I would have to do a lot of explaining turning up with a monster white spot in an American workplace. My colleagues are still grappling with the concept of red dots ("bindis") and red spots ("sindur") without me adding another color to their overburdened spectrum.

I attempted making my first "mishti doi" after feeling all mushy about it. Halfway into the recipe, on step 2, pouring the molten sugar water into my hot milk, my milk curdled. The Fro-Yo dream dissolved into a sweet undefined paste. I have decided to give it another try before bowing my head to the Bengali Fro-Yo experts in Bongland. Their art remains supreme. I can bet they would give a good competition to the mango tango s in the area. As to how they would ever get their business out here - "maa Kali" knows!
(Maa Kali refers to Mother and Goddess Kali, a consort of Shiva)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Two in Two

It is cryptic, I agree. But that's the point.
Someone who was not very good at writing had once given me a priceless piece of advice. He had said, "Keep the title cryptic! Give as little away as possible in the first line. That way they move on to the next in search for the clue." What he forgot to mention is the degree of cryptic-ism.

Two in two refers to my life on the road, pertaining particularly to my car.

The month was July and the day was thirteenth. I don't suffer from triskaidekaphobia and hence I was a happy woman driving back from work on a moderately congested CA 237. My speed slowed down considerably and came to a halt altogether when I spotted an unending line-up of standstill cars with their back lights flashing red.I stopped. It was not very unusual to come to a stop on this particular freeway at this particular hour of the day. Everybody wanted to get somewhere at this time and because of the collective decision, individuals went nowhere.

I sat tapping my fingers about and distracted myself trying to hum an extra mushy song that I had heard a few days back. Drivers around me looked at me angrily. I knew they couldn't hear me with my windows rolled up. Or could they? It possibly had to do something with the heat and the general feeling of hopeless frustration one finds oneself when they have a wheel and a will but still no way to go.

I nodded, at no one particular and continued my mellifluous activity.

Suddenly, I heard a loud screeching sound. Before I knew it a loud bang followed. It was also accompanied with a forceful impact - on me. I bounced forth and back and realized it was my car that the screeching-car had hit. For a few minutes I knew not what to do.

Meanwhile the screeching car came to a halt on the shoulder of the freeway.
Other drivers looked at me expectantly. I was supposed to "do" something. The road suddenly turned into a stage and I became the second lead character. The first was the screeching car. On a standstill freeway this was the only form of live entertainment.

I drove over to the shoulder and parked quite a few feet away from him. There was no knowing if he had done it on purpose and on finding me alive, wouldn't want to do it again.

I got out of my car self-consciously. The traffic behind seemed to edge a little forward while those in the front stopped budging ahead. All the inactive drivers had something to do now. Namely stare.

I stepped outside my car. The damage was conspicuous. It was my first car which needless to say I bought with my first pay check. It had tremendous sentimental value and some stupidity involved. I paid more than I should at that time. Bargaining with conniving dealers was not my forte.
But my car was not at fault. It should not have met with this fate. I peeled my eyes off the rear end of my car, which was now pretty badly butted out. On the road lay the fallen remnants of a battle lost before it was ever fought. My face fell.

I looked over. The screeching car came into sight. It was white and was equally devastated. My black car and his white car had scars running down their opposite sides on opposite ends. Our cars might have even been mates in an earlier birth if their souls subscribed to Hindu Rebirth notion. Perhaps it was an unsettled debt that had to be dealt with?
His damage was more profound than mine. His face however looked more confused.

I walked over to him and said "Hi".
Some nearby drivers tried to edge their ears closer. Were they expecting me to be more dramatic?

If I was in India it would have been entirely different.

Roadside Romeos and Robinhoods would have emerged from their hiding. They would have presented and dismissed the case with a verdict in minutes. No investigation or deliberation required. When a pretty woman in short skirt is hit by a nerd in ragged jeans, the latter is at fault. Bingo! Case resolved. There would possibly be some needless expletive thrown his way and some unwanted assistance rendered to me. A over enthusiastic "Chulbul Pandey" might even come up with the idea of hospitalizing me, just on the off chance that I could be spiritually if not physically hurt. I pulled myself away from the Indian image.

I was in US and there were protocols to be followed. By-stander court-of-law was non-existent.

He apologized immediately.
"I am so sorry for all this. I am so sorry."
I gave him a woebegone smile. It was difficult to reprimand a person so contrite.
Before I could ask his name, he began again.
"I spaced out. I completely "zoned" out. I know I shouldn't have but I did."
I wondered which zone he went off to when everyone around him was stuck on 237. He looked pretty young to be wanting to go to space at this age. I myself have been toying with the idea of a space venture but I know I would never have the money.

"Are you below eighteen?" I thought that might explain his zoning-out syndrome.
"No no. I just turned nineteen!", he answered indignantly.

We exchanged personal information. I found out he was given to drive the worst car his family owned. And his family owned quite a few new expensive ones. Maybe his dad predicted these things well. If my dad was to choose to give me a car, he would have given me a rickshaw! I had a new found respect for his doting dad.

I found out that he didn't know the difference between an insurance policy document and a car registration one. Upon enlightenment it turned out he didn't have the former with him. He decided to call his dad. I nodded in agreement.

"Hello dad?" He said. (10 seconds of distinct silence).
"Yes, I am in CA 237, rear-ended someone, need the policy number NOW!" (10 minutes of indistinct loud noise.)
"Ok so it AB-blah-blah. Thanks!" He hung up pretty quickly.

I wondered what kind of father-son confrontation would be waiting for him and what kind of car-less plight would be waiting for me. If I was in his position, my dad, would denounce my mother first, blaming my driving skills on her side of genes.
Both me and my sister have been badly tossed about while growing up from one side of lineage to the other depending on whether we bumbled or we blazed. When I got my first award for coming third in my Class, my father lapped me and accolades up as being very like his side of genes. A day later I smashed his car window by an accidental ball hit. I was discarded as an outcast and sent off to the enemy camp, namely my mother's gene pool.The "bangal" (aboriginal Bengalis) and the "ghoti" (original Bengalis) live in constant strife and harmony. Me being the "bati"( "ba" from bangal+"ti" from ghoti) have seen much of the push-and-pull in childhood.

The next day I received my rental car. It was a car that no one wanted from the rental office. The person handing me the keys, looked bemused and said,
"I didn't know they still made these any more."

It was a Nissan Cube. Blue and big. My friends, named it the "Cartoon Cube". The square windows and doors boxed me in. My sense of thinking altered itself as well. I stopped thinking out-of-the-box. Instead of being "cool" in the cube, I became conscious.

My colleagues came around for a viewing and a free laugh therapy. On-road rage increased. Drivers screamed at the slightest delay I made in budging once it was my turn. At every turn, I came across amused or angry public.

Less than a week into it, I started feeling a little better. The car was a 2010 model and drove very smoothly. It had less than a 1000 miles on it. I felt privileged to be taking care of a pariah car.

A week later I relaxed and let myself feel at ease. It was afternoon. 3 o clock. At a red light. The light turned green. The car in front of me took 1 minute to move ahead. Being ridiculed for no good reason this past week, I refrained from honking at him and patiently waited. After all, I was at ease. Before I knew it, I was hit. Again. For a second I thought, the driver behind me had resorted to nudging me with her car to move ahead. Perhaps she preferred that to honking?

I let out a sigh before flashing my indicators and moving to the shoulder. It was a deja vu on a hot summer day. It was a teenage driver. She came out of her car and asked me, "What happened exactly?" She kept asking me the same question quite a few times.
"You hit me from behind. That is what happened." I explained, again and again.
She explained that her phone fell down and in an attempt to pick it up, her leg eased off the brake pedal and boom! I was hit.

The exchange was one way. She was least interested in me and continued her text-ing marathon. I felt like an unsolicited salesman when I forced her to note down my name and number.

My mother called me. She had heard of my driving debacle from my sister and was ready for a confrontation.
"You should stop driving", she said angrily when I picked up her call.
"I should what?"
"Yes of course", she continued. You have had two accidents and in two weeks! In different cars. The only thing common is you!" She had logic, I had to give that.
"Monty, Dumba and Bampi are all driving around. They never get hit. Why is it you?"
The three names belonged to three pestilent boys who grew up with me. Their pet names were very Bengali. Bengalis had a fascination for bombastic booming names. The moment you called your son it should herald a celebratory blast.Their lack of rear ended accidents were none of my concern.

It took a lot of effort to convince my mom of my lack of guilt despite being the prime suspect and link in both the incidents. Thankfully she did not head any of the insurance companies. I was in talks with three insurance companies at the same time, all of whom accepted that I was "100% not-at-fault." I breathed a sigh of relief.

My car was declared total loss. I wept silently at the verdict. My car looked forlorn. I refused to let go. I paid a sum of money and bought back my car from the insurance settlement. It is still pretty drive-able. I got it cosmetically modified at an auto shop.It stays parked now. It has been deemed an emergency vehicle or a garage car. I have resorted to driving another one.

I looked at it today. Parked solemnly, with a non-pretty butt, under the shade of a green tree. It has suffered in silence and reconciled itself. I haven't. Hence I dedicate this post to him.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Going Out of Business!

One of the memories I have of a sudden fit of joy was while I was walking down Westwood in Los Angeles. I was a poor immigrant student with huge dreams and very little green bills. In one such moment I spotted this watch shop. The name of which escapes me.
It had a huge banner hanging on its front face.

" Going Out of Business! Entire Store on Sale!"

That was my first brush with corporate cunning. I walked inside the store happy and unaware. Every watch on display had a strike-through price. The strike-through price was significantly more than the red-underlined price below it. As the strike-through prices elicited "Oh My God really?", the red prices made me go, "Phew! That's so much better!". As the watches sparkled and beckoned me I recalled my Class 6 maths lessons.

There were several lectures dedicated to marked prices, sell prices, and profit margins. The odd thing was that there were no problems in that chapter that dealt with loss margins. No matter how lowly a price the sell price turned out to be in comparison to the marked price, once you complete working out the problem correctly, lo and behold, there emerged a "profit"! In some cases I managed to get loss and I knew what that meant. I had to re-do my sum. It was a sure give away for a math-muddle made.

As I looked at these watches, their lowered red prices held me attracted.
An old man ambled towards me. He looked at me and said,
"Yeah that's a good one. Very expensive but now so cheap. That's what happens when you go out of business." He shook his head sadly.
I looked up. A part of me wanted to know the deep woeful story that was forcing this fat rich looking man to close his business. Was it a bumbling disobedient son? A prodigal daughter? Or both who squandered away his riches and forced their father to sell the last vestige of his hard work? He looked pretty happy. That seemed odd.How can a soon to-be-out-of-businessman look so dapper?

Maybe he had a mistress hidden away in the alleys of Venice? He was scuttling away from America to be with his secret paramour! That would explain his undue gaiety.

I tried to remember any out-of-business Bengalis. None came to mind. Bengali-s weren't exactly known for their business acumen. Too much fish and mustard made them PhDs and literary figures. The closest I could come to a business man was our chowkidaar/ gate-keeper. He had a side business of selling eggs and milk. He got hold of my mom and subscribed her to a month's supply of milk. Of course he coaxed her about how "new" his business was and how he had to have a month's money in advance before even the first packet of Mother Dairy could be dropped at our doorstep. My mom complied. Hardly ten days into the verbal contract, milk stopped appearing. Two days of condensed and evaporated milk teas later, my dad took matters in his own hands. He did a minor sleuth work.He found out that our gate-keeper had a new business model. The milk line of business was completely abandoned for the egg line. Since we were the milk customers, we got a personal hand written message of regret and one last packet of milk.

My dad was not a man to be messed with. This time he did major sleuth work and found out that the new egg line shop was set up not so far away from our locality. He decided to drop by. He picked up about a dozen eggs, smiled and started walking off. Our gate-keeper was aghast. When he asked for money, my dad said, you do have quite a bit of that left over from the milk money, don't you?

That was the last we ever heard of or saw his shop. He really went out of business and out of Kolkata. Maybe still sells his millk-n-eggs in Bihar...who knows.

I was jolted out of my recollection, by the old man standing right in front of me.
He was expecting me to go ga-ga over his amazing under-priced collection. It wasn't bad. The "80% OFF" was a neon light drawing me to it like a moth. After a laborious scrutiny of his watches under the glass cover, I selected two of them. One for myself and one for my sister.

As he gift-wrapped my purchases, he reminded me again of what a steal I had bagged and how infinitely happy I would be wearing them while his shop would disappear into nothingness. It hit me.

"Does this mean this is all Final Sale? No returns or exchanges?" I asked perplexed.
"Yes of course. I am going out of business. What you buy now, it is yours for eternity. Don't try to bring it back, not that you would ever want to return these wonderful watches." He answered smilingly.

It has been five years since that incident. Last time I dropped by Westwood while visiting my school, I found his shop still standing. It still had the banner proclaiming its eternal "Going out of Business status", only the font size and colors were different.

What kind terrific business acumen made him able to retain his business for so long? Was "going" never going to "go"? I realized that shops like that were actually flourishing all around me. They had a going-out-sale and then a few days later a "coming-in-sale" after altering a vowel in their names and declaring it as a new business. Selling things at final price also gave them the edge on getting rid of unwanted stocks and zero return policy.

The watch I bought for myself, stopped ticking long time ago. It went out of business much before its shop did. I guess it kept its promise and timed itself to die in empathy with its master, who never kept his word.