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 It was much later in my undergrad, that this rule was repealed.Thanks to the massive amount of shoe thievery and swapping, prevalent among shoe-conscious undergrads at BITS.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! :)

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Magic of Movies and what if you made one...

In 2010 we launched ourselves into a serious project - movie making. We had a story, and a script that converted the story into dialogues and we had found experienced volunteers willing to give not just time and effort, but their 1000$ equipments as well. Movie making could not have been any more of a reality.

The story was from one of my older blog posts- Americaan Courthouse. Additional punch lines were included to make it entertaining and a script was readied. Ads were placed in craigslist for actors and they were found. Talent is overflowing in this bay area and waiting to be showcased. I decided to get the title role of the Bengali female caught by a cop for red light violation and faced with the difficult task of a court visit, something parents and culture had warned her to stay away from.

Rehearsals happened only twice - all the involved people were day time engineers in the valley and couldn't give more than weekends for this project. The project called for enormous project management skills - it was infinitely tougher to motivate and influence people who were simply volunteering. There was no money to be made. Except for YouTube fame, there was very little reward. It was lucky that everyone was equally driven.

From the stands, movies are alluring. An unsuspecting audience is easily consumed by the magic of the movie. He sees each scene in a seamless manner as if it was all done in a day. The story engulfs him and of course no one chronicles the real struggle of making something this magical. The actors of the industry always appeared as beautiful stars to me. I assumed they loved enacting their parts and their passion was the driving factor. ( Of course I must not forget the big bucks they made)

When we started the project, no one was going to pay us. In fact being the producers, we had to pay for renting locations, cars, and supplying food to the actors and volunteers. Food was the very least we could give these people working for free.

I memorized my lines, all the monologues, with expressions I thought fit. I chose my own costumes and did my own makeup. We had a volunteer managing Continuity and Script Accuracy. He noted down the costume details of every actor in case we had to shoot the same scene at a later date. He was also the most annoying person when you missed a word here and there. He was sure to bring it up, just when you thought you were capable of an Oscar.

Eight days, Four Saturday and Sundays for nine hours each day, the shooting lasted. Honestly if you loved acting, like I did, once you were through this rigors, all love was sure to take flight. Every scene were shot from three different angles and repeated between Standard and High Definition cameras, because we had two directors for this movie! At the end, only one of them stuck till the end with the same notions. And God forbid, if one of the actors even belched, the whole thing had to be done all over again! Because cameras don't lie. To my agony, in multiple actor scenes, one of us was sure to grin at the wrong moment in this comedy-drama (dramedy) movie.

The thing that enthralled me was the the process. Just as it was frustrating, it was equally exciting to see people come together to create the first motion picture we could all feel proud of. This movie obviously made me realize that effort is never directly proportional to the final outcome. I loved playing the distraught Bengali girl saddled with friends with mind boggling ideas for escaping a traffic ticket. The actors became friendlier and friendlier as we all stumbled through our lines and followed our hapless director's instructions. The camera man, lights man and sound guy had the worst plight. They had to hold the camera, light and boomer mikes throughout the nine hours, each day. At the end of shooting they had developed lean bicep muscles!

The onlookers for our outdoor shoots were few. Americans aren't as interested in independent movies as Indians are, be it a nondescript one. In India you are a celebrity if you are holding a video camera with a bunch of crew, shooting anything. Bystanders would clamour to get into the frame and look upon you with utmost awe, scratching their heads to recall, where they might have seen you. If you per chance need to use some one's shop to shoot your scene, he would offer it to you delightfully and might even serve hot tea! But california's south bay is completely different. We needed a Coach shop as one of our locales. When we approached them, we were very courteously refused. Frowning in irritation at our insistence, they gave us several forms and names of departments to appeal to, before we could so much as near their shop with a camera in hand. Our indomitable director,angered by this opposition, decided to resort to guerrilla shooting techniques! He had to drop his plan when no one joined him.

The shooting was a minuscule part of movie making. Four full weekends later, thoroughly exhausted, we came close to giving up. But most important work awaited. We needed to find an editor. Among the people who acted voluntarily, we found an experienced British guy, who volunteered his services. Reels were provided to him and coordination had to be done. When the director was shooting, he had a vision. But when the editor sat down to edit, his vision was sure to be different. A common ground had to be set before the movie made any sense.

Our editor decided to take off on a world tour, leaving our movie lying on his editing board. No work was done for five months. It took eight months before the first video draft was ready. Needless to say it came out way different from what we had in mind. Seven revisions later, it was close to what we wanted to see in the movie, true to the script. And then it was posted! On YouTube.

Every time I look at it, I recall the hardworking men and women who toiled to make it a reality. I am reminded of the amateur acting skills and some mature acting from people whose day jobs make them code and design. I am reminded of myself and my naivety in front of the camera. But most of all I see freshness- in every one's eyes. It's a dream to make a movie and being able to translate that to reality, deserves applause.
Despite the movie's nondescript YouTube life, I am proud. It feels great to create the Magic of Movies!

Americaan Courthouse:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Bengali Cook

One thing Indians love is eating. When you love eating, cooking good food automatically becomes important. (Eating out was considered more of a luxury when I was growing up...not so much now)

In Kolkata,surrounded by working mothers and fathers, the burden of cooking still fell on my mother. My dad approached the problem in his own way. He knew how to make everything but chose not to do so, unless pushed to a corner. He was cornered more often than he liked. Holding a transferable job made him easily susceptible to living long periods of time in distant locations without us. He learnt to cook by necessity.

My mother tried her tactics to get him to cook at home, when he came around staying with us in Kolkata, after yet another transfer. On some Sunday afternoon, when she was least interested in making any food, she would try to train my dad tactically.

"You know how to make the the khichdi, right? Just put a few vegetables, just the way you used to make while in Maharashtra and make it no? Even the kids like it that way." She smiled genuinely, with hope and advance appreciation. [Khichdi is a dish prepared of rice, lentils and vegetables all boiled together with spices]

My dad was a wise man. Domestic happiness was important to him, but not at the cost of his own. He was lazy,and loved his couch, his newspaper, his two-time tea and his sleep. Down below this just mentioned list, lay his family, his kids, and his deep concern about their future.

My dad peered over his newspaper.
"Khichdi? Why? There is no food left from lunch?"

"No", said my mother, gradually losing her smile.

"Hm mm...I think Khichdi is not what I like. Not too good for my stomach.I don't want khichdi. So what's the point of making it?"

My dad was right- only in his own way. He didn't assume anyone's preference mattered more than his own and why make something that he wouldn't be able to enjoy?

My mother didn't see his point. She saw his laziness. She scrunched her eyebrows together.

"What would you like to eat then?"

My dad smiled broadly. He loved this question.

"How about that "mocha ghonto", with "methi saag vada", and "chingri machher malaikari? A little white rice with it would go very well." [The items listed are traditional Bengali dishes. Mocha ghonto is a way of preparing banana blossom, methi saag vada is deep fried balls of a bitter leaf and chingri machher malaikari is shrimps in coconut gravy.]

My mother smiled, even as her eyes almost rolled over in disbelief.

"Sure, I think we all would like those. Why don't you start making these one by one?"

My dad felt slightly trapped. Just slightly.

"But I don't know how...", he said believably.

"Don't you worry, I am here. I will guide you through it. Let's begin."

My mother stomped off in the direction of the kitchen. My father looked at us in dismay. We had been mute spectators of this scene. Our inputs were never sought in these matters. I gave a smile. So did my sister. We meant no harm.

My dad made a face at us. Murmuring under his breadth he said,

"These two daughters are their mother's disciples! Never taking my side! Humph!", he said angrily.

Thus uttering, he neatly folded his newspaper, following the crease lines closely, placed it on the exact same spot on the table where he placed it a zillion times before, , got hold of his manly wrap-around ("lungi") and followed my mother into the kitchen.

The dinner we ate later was , as my dad put it, "Entirely his effort." That was very different from what really happened. My mom cut cleaned and fried the vegetables, my dad looked on. My mom de-frosted the shrimps, prepared the coconut gravy with spices while my dad used a ladle to twirl it all together-twice. The rice was his only genuine effort. The pressure cooker made his work easy. Tired from all the supervision, he vented his anger on us.

"Why don't you two help out in the kitchen? Why do we have to do everything even after we have daughters? That too two of them? You should help out from tomorrow- follow my footsteps."

We smiled as before.We were following his footsteps.

Bengali cooking, like every other cuisine, has an art and heart to it. You relish and enjoy the simple flavors slowly. The cook revels in joy when you take longer to finish your plate. I have seen such variety in the very same dish. My father and my mother were from two different kinds of Bengali backgrounds. The East and the West. ("Bati" and "Ghoti" respectively) Their cooking styles and recipes were different. Factor in the cook's skills and you have way too many things influencing one dish.

As a child, I enjoyed my grandmother's, more than my mother's , more than my dad's. Whenever my dad was asked to make anything , all on his own, we had a difficult time. We were obedient and mostly hungry so no fuss was made on our part. My dad however tended to make a humongous deal whenever he cooked. We ran into neighbors and family friends occasionally, where my father would begin a sentence with, " It was raining the other day when I made the khichdi." It was an exaggeration but my dad was widely admired as a helping hubby, father and cook.

I have seen the real Bengali cooks. They are called "Moharaj"(The Emperor of the Kitchen). They are males, usually pot-bellied, humorous and extremely adept in blending spices and melting hearts with their mouth watering preparations. Technical term in Hindi is "Bawarchi".

I met one not so long ago. During my sister's wedding, we hired a Moharaj to handle the cooking while my mother and the other women busied themselves in "Satya Narayan Puja" ( Worship of Lord Krishna). He was prolific. In one hour he had seven dishes under control. When we all sat down to eat, he single handedly served all of us.

"Oh babu ,eat slowly...let your tongue then your soul relish the taste."
He asked of me, as I tried chomping down my food all at once.

I smiled. He treated the adults like children, taking utmost care to ensure we tasted all his dishes and enjoyed them. Sitting like a patriarch he oversaw our moves. Every time any of us asked for a second helping, he beamed. It was pure bliss for him. He never ate with us. In his own words,

"The happiness to cook and feed were far greater than eating food."

From "shorshe illish" (mustard salmon), "aloo bhaja" (potato fries), "arhar daal with machher matha" (Lentils with fish head), "aatop chaal" (rice), "mangsher jhol" (meat curry) and "payesh" (rice puding), every dish tasted better than the last. I ate with my fingers. Eating with hand is the traditional way of enjoying Bengali food.We are a tactile bunch. "Kobji dubiya khaawa", or eating with your elbows inserted is an expression of deep appreciation of food.[Don't take it literally -it is just an expression]

When Moharaaj urged me to eat some more, I was beyond full.

"Aar kheley ebaar potol tulbo!" I said gathering my steel plate. [ "If I eat any more I might just die"]

Maharaj looked disappointed.I guess he assumed I was capable of consuming endlessly. Perhaps my size beguiled him.

The meal finally came to an end. Smiling with hands folded, Maharaj collected his fees from my mother. As he left, he said, "Don't forget me for your other daughter's wedding."

I never saw him again.

I cook too. Nearly not as much nor as well as did my grandmothers, my mother, my aunts and the legendary cooks I ate from. I cook in my way - with mild hint of Bengal in the dishes I prepare. It would be a misnomer to call me a Bengali cook.
The cuisines that I enjoyed once, have not come alive in my kitchen. Only when my mother was visiting, did I feel an old aroma, taste coming back. It brought back memories of food served on freshly cut banana leaves, with earthen bowls of five dishes and dessert, served on the floor as we sat on "satranjis" (mats). It reminded me of the cooks who served them - with utmost love and care. The look of happiness on receiving appreciation- be it in a burp, slurp or spotless plates. Memories that remain forever, waiting to be recreated, in a small utilitarian kitchen in California.

"One day," I say to myself,"I will grow up to be a Bengali cook."

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Moving Out Moving In Moving Up Moving On

In my life, I have moved a lot. Moved out, moved in, moved up and moved on. Each movement was significant. Each taught me a discrete lesson.

Growing up in Kolkata, we did not move much. Our school was a priority and hence my working mother decided to stick to Kolkata with us and her extended family, rather than following my dad all over India.Thus we stayed put. It was only when we got admission into BITS, Pilani that the first movement came about.

It was a small step for every other student but a giant one for us. Being over protected all our lives, moving out was a big deal. Not just that, living a life without parental supervision, was even bigger. While some of our fellow students looked at us jealously for having each other, we convinced them of our unique miserable plight. Being from the same family with 99% same genetic makeup, me and my sister only enhanced each other's sorrow. Home-sickness was magnified and fear of failure doubled. While one cried, the other woefully joined in! I can safely say, that my first year at BITS was the most depressive one.

Moving out for the first time, we packed everything humanely possible. Gigantic luggage's (everything duplicated) were stowed away in the puny room allotted to us. Fortunately, we became each other's roommates again. Just like home, we shared our space in BITS too. Needless to say, adjusting with a sister as roommate didn't teach me much. No one forgives you like your own family does.

BITS taught me a little bit about living alone. The rest was learnt in America.
In comparison, moving to BITS paled into insignificance.

With three suitcases packed, carrying pin-to-plane, I left homeland. This time it was serious. There would be no warden, no mess food, no food parcels or the quarterly visits from my mom and dad. This time, I had no sister. I was truly alone. And utterly miserable. I recall spending the better part of my Singapore Airlines flight crying. And the rest, I don't recall.

UCLA meant adjustments. I moved into a tiny apartment that was shared by more people than I liked it to be. I moved in with girls coming from all parts of India and one from UK. Each of us brought an unique tale to share. While sharing our space, we shared a part of our souls too. It was the beginning of the realization that not all roommates are mates to room with. Of course there were altercations. Sometimes you gave in and sometimes you held out. Nothing made you a winner.

It was the first time I actually learnt new things - about myself and about roommates.
My first cooking endeavor was lauded by my roommates as was my first culinary disaster criticized. I learnt making "Dosas" from scratch from a girl from Andhra, I learnt kneading the dough for "Paranthas" from a girl from Punjab, I learnt about "Crumpets" from my British roommate and above all I learnt to accept sharing with strangers.
Every roommate was a different story. As each one moved in, we got to know each other and as each of us moved out, we realized, not all separations were sad.

When professional life started, priorities changed. My accommodation was spacious and filled with me and just one roommate. I had the resource to have a better living. More space for oneself doesn't always translate into better roommate relationships. I was a new comer to living in Bay Area and fairly dependent in the initial months. As I learnt, I made mistakes and had some successes. My first roommate was an introvert lady. She was always proper. I admired her from a distance - because she maintained one constantly with me. We shared only common spaces and interacted through post-its. Conversation was overrated in the apartment. It lasted as long as it did and then we both moved on.
The next girl was much more talkative and sharing. We gelled well. It was fun watching movies, going to dinners, coffees with her. We were both busy and every time we met we shared something interesting. I enjoyed her company. Her personal life caught up with her and the roommate-ship ended. The next move was filled with highs and lows.

The first few months were an high.We bonded. She had very interesting tales to share. We made and shared food, tea, movies and gossips. We went on a shopping spree together. Gradually changes crept in. Her personal and professional disturbances rocked our sanguine boat. Things went from bad to worse. The transformation was drastic. Days became tougher. When I had first moved in I had thought to myself, that this was an upgrade. It really was. The apartment itself, the community, location, amenities, the roommate were all better than any I had before. I had to correct myself. From "moved up" I slowly "moved down".

For every thing that falls apart,people are not always at fault. Circumstances can drive individuals crazy. But at those moments of deepest troubles, one's worth is tested. Every relationship, however trivial, goes through it. Some fail and some bind forever. Ours were the former kind.
We moved out in separate directions, all for the better.

I soon acquired a roommate of the permanent nature. For better or for worse, my roommate and I are sealed into a pact of seven lives together. I tend to think, that the journey of moving, with its different shades have left me wise. All my previously learnt lessons have made me an attractive roommate material. I managed to convince my boyfriend to become my husband and move into my life. Till I hear anything to the contrary I am sticking to my super awesomeness!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Saraswati Puja

On February 8th my part of India celebrated Saraswati Puja. I had no idea about it until my mother called me up the night before.

"So where are you?", she asked without the "hello" greeting. My mother seldom followed the norm. She was an exception. I recall her calling her distant aunts after a very long time and as soon as the ringing stopped and someone said "hello", she would come up with the most innovative introductory lines. Like:

"Arrey, have you finished eating yet?", if it was somewhere near lunch or dinner time. When asked with such genuine concern about one's eating habits, one tends to mellow down. They inevitably ended up saying, "Yes, I just did. But who is calling?". Then my mother would divulge her real identity and quickly apologize for being incommunicado for this long.

Other times:

"Oh ho ! I have been meaning to call you for such a long time dear but my kids give me no respite! (Utter nonsense). But I had to call you today. Just couldn't stop thinking of you Jhumpa di", my mother finally breathed.
Jhumpa di on the other hand would have been rendered speechless at this unbridled affection from a hardly in-touch relation. Jhumpa di would end up saying,
"Arrey...not a problem, no! You are my sister - why would I mind. Tell me what's up?" It was not entirely true that Jhumpa di or similarly placed Bengali women didn't mind. They minded and they minded very much. But they mastered the art of hiding their anger and expressing their love.

After I clarified my geographical location to my mom, she went on to tell me about Saraswati Puja celebrations. There were none. Not in Mumbai, where she lived. But it was a holiday in Kolkata and she knew if she was there, it would be one restful day for her. She reminded me of a long forgotten Saraswati vandana. Her words took me to a time and place, when I was growing up.

Saraswati Devi is the goddess of learning and education. She sits poised like a lady on her pet vehicle - the Swan, carrying a "Veena" or ancient Indian's version of guitar. She looks very pretty and smiles upon all those feverishly praying students on the verge of their exams.
Saraswati Puja is also known as "Basant Panchami" . "Basant" stands for yellow. Most of my friends used to turn up in various shades of yellow and orange on this day.

When I was in Kolkata, my school celebrated Saraswati Puja every year. As girls, we dressed up in Sari and reached the class. That was a day to formally look nice, walk with an affected gait and absorb the admiring gazes of the onlookers. I recall blushing my way to the school bus stop, magnifying my sari-clad beauty manifold. Once in school, I ceased to be as important. There were always prettier looking girls, wearing perfectly wrapped saris. Once all your friends ogled and complimented each other, it was time for Anjaali. (It meant worshipping the Goddess along with the priest and offering flowers at the end of the recital of mantras). Books were submitted to be worshipped too. The subject that I dreaded most was always at the top of my list to place at the feet of the Goddess. I was convinced once her big toe or pinky touched the edges of my book, my lack of understanding would be replaced by profound wisdom.

I chanted my mantras and offered my heart filled love to Goddess Saraswati. Being in Kolkata, I knew that doing well in life only implied doing well in school. Before every exam I would not forget repeating her name, hoping she would magically make my grader lenient or miraculously give me an easier exam. It was all in the mind of the devotee.

Saraswati Puja also meant no studies for one whole day. My mother had warned us that we so much as scribbled anything, we stood a good chance of forgetting all acquired knowledge! It was an awesome deal! It was a fully endorsed break from school work! As children we couldn't ask for more. I have seen the happiest faces in school only on Saraswati Puja!

Evenings were meant to be enjoyed with "khichudi" (dish prepared from boiling rice, lentils and vegetables with spices) and deep fried potatoes. It was easily made meal thoroughly enjoyed by all Bong community on this day.

In BITS, there was a Saraswati temple in campus. It was always crowded on the morning of the comprehensive exams. To avoid rush hours, I paid my homage during the mid terms, hoping she would remember her long time devotee towards the end of the semester as well.

It UCLA there was no Goddess Saraswati but there were exams. And when there are exams, her blessings are a pre-requisite. I recall murmuring her devotional mantras before the start of every three hour paper. I hoped that even if I was in a foreign land, the Goddess could make the journey on her Swan, and patronize me if I remembered her.

Now there are no tests, no assignments no exams. Office life does not demand you to appear for these. When my mother repeated those mantras oh phone, I couldn't help noticing my negligence towards the Goddess of my childhood. She had become my sole faith and belief during my growing years. In the absence of motivation, I had stopped remembering her. Pretty selfish, I thought to myself.

I have managed to salvage a few of the hymns and mantras from my childhood. Just reciting them, makes me feel like a child. A flood of memories sweep through me and I almost yearn to sit down and write a time bound exam. Like many things in life, examinations are the least appreciated gifts. In those hours, they test and better an individual. Failures become pillars for enhancements and successes are appreciated enormously.

This mantra is a dedication to the Goddess who helped me build my career:

Joyo joyo debi
Chora choro shaare
Kucho juggey shoubhito
Muktaa haarey
Bhogoboti bharoti
Debi nomostutey!

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Being Uncool

Like every Bengali, I have an opinion about it. It does not matter whether I was/is/will be uncool but as long as I have Bengali blood flowing in me, I shall remain opinionated about it.

When I was in school, I recall hearing about states of energy. Hot,and cold had temperature definitions. Cooling was a process to attain a colder state. And if one was too cool, they could be frozen! Newton's law of cooling was also memorized by me. It said that the greater the difference between a hot object and its surroundings, the faster would be its rate of cooling. That was science. What I am heading for is social science.

Being a bookworm has its disadvantages. It was easy to miss out on worldly nuances. But I managed to offset it with a great sense of observation. The idea of being "cool" or "hip" did not set in until we were twelve to fourteen years of age. Things started changing slowly but surely around me. I started noticing things. Like caterpillars moulted into colorful butterflies, the children around me started taking form and shape into good-looking teenage girls. For the first time, we met each other on normal school days and noticed how pretty we looked. It was almost amazing to see the transformation.

"You look nice today!" became more and more commonly heard in class rooms and corridors.
I saw well waxed shapely legs and beautifully threaded eye brows. I saw accessories sprouting semi-hidden within the folds of blue school uniform. Girls started twisting the definition of acceptable jewelry within school premises. More girls ran for bathroom breaks in between lectures to "powder their nose". At this point I wish to clarify that I went to all-girls institution all through my school days. But the co-ed coaching classes and all-boys' school was always close by.
I heard small talk that no longer reminded me of childhood.

"Rahul came to tuition class the other day", giggled classmate A to her friend.
"Did he see you?", asked her friend B.
"I definitely think he did. I saw him stealing a look. I was dressed in my new red top and I am sure he would have seen how nice it looked on me." class mate A gloated.
"Some thing's cooking, huh?", classmate B asked mischievously.
"I sure hope so," said classmate A wistfully.

I was never part of these discussions. That's when the idea of social temperatures came into play. Room temperature individuals were not welcome in happening zones. You had to be in one extreme or the other. You could be "hot" or you could be "cool" but nothing in between. To attain these temperature ranges there are no fixed guidelines. Some of my friends who make fun of my Bong roots, tend to think that it can't be too difficult to attain cool status in Kolkata. I must say they are hopelessly wrong.

I agree that the stereotypical notion firmly held for decades consider Bengalis and fashion apart. Bengalis have always been the creative lot. And yes, fully opinionated as well. They have been known to be pretty too - by their sheer number of female leads in Bollywood industry. But Bengalis are fashion conscious- in their own way.

To begin with, wearing Shantiniketan style kurtas (long shirt), adorned with a lopsided 'jhola' (bag) for men is considered bohemian. Women wear a lot of unique jewelry made from clay, wood and metal. Gariahat in Kolkata is a long stretch of road hogged by hawkers peddling their ware.From hairpin to clothes, they have everything to make you look cool.

Over the years, definition of "cool" has evolved in Bengal. Beauty was considered the biggest asset and the more you had it, the cooler you were. In Rabindranath's, Sarat Chandra's compositions a beautiful Bengali woman had to be demure, plump, with long hair and an elephantine gait! "Gajagamini" was the word for it. Being plump was ancient impoverished India's definition for good looks. Things have drastically changed now - at least among the younger generations.
I remember on one of my recent trips back home, I had managed to lose a few pounds. When I reached home, my parents and my neighbors unanimously commented, "Ah ha ha! Poor thing! Her health has gone for a toss. She used to be so healthy, no?" They nodded their heads in sympathy.
"I recall her to be the fattest kid in the block. My son, Bumba, had once been shoved by her. He took two whole days to recover from the jolt. I wonder if the Chatterjees are hiding something..", one of our over-friendly neighbor chipped in.
Among my friends, the response was far better. They wanted to know all my secret diets, workout regimens and my esteemed opinion about how they should go about shedding their extra kilos. Being thin was being cool.

When I landed in the US, I was amazed by the change in attire. Wearing more than one top was fashionable. They called it layering. In Kolkata, when I wore two shirts together, I was called a clown! Shops were selling highly priced faded clothes! Faded was in. My friends bought torn faded spotted jeans and flaunted them about. I didn't buy any. I was absolutely certain that if I showed up home with any of those, my parents would gladly hand it over to the indigent!

I adapted slowly. Letting go of the long printed cotton kurta for the paper thin t-shirt. Wearing contrasting colors one over the other, matching it with weirdly shaped earrings, bracelets and ringlets. My Indian grad mates looked at me with approval and surprise. My parents blamed it all on "Aamericaa's Kaalture!"

As an engineer in bay area, it is quite common to be uncool. Once you clarify your occupation, every non-techie understands why you are this way. At work wearing jeans and a nondescript T-shirt is commonplace. If by chance, you appear in a dress or formal wear, it raises suspicions about your inevitable career switch. Your manager might even stop by to ask which company you went interviewing for! Scenario changes completely if you work for HR.

I have come to accept my temperature zone. I have seen both sides of the cool quotient and seen how being "cool", itself keeps changing. Like Vanessa Hudgens says, "Being cool is being your own self, not doing something that someone else is telling you to do."

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mission Peak Hike

There is some myth and some legend behind this hike. From the time I remember it, I have been intrigued by the lore that surrounds it.

The first time I heard about it was from a colleague at work.
She wanted to hike there with me on a Saturday morning. It was three years ago. Like every early morning plan on a weekend, this one also met with an untimely death.But the plan had begun with a lot of aplomb. My colleague told me of the extremely arduous nature of the hike. She also mentioned that one of her bucket list items was to reach the peak. Not having been there I had no idea what the peak held. Obviously with everything unknown, my imagination ran amok. I imagined the best.

The peak was grand, perhaps with a view unparalleled. Perhaps there were shops, selling 'vada pao' and spiced 'chai'! Greeting all who made it to the top with flower garlands? Maybe there were singers and dancers?

She also said, "Once we reach the peak, we can sit and eat 'paranthas'. I will take them with me, for you too!"
Alas! Our Paranthas-on-the-Peak plan never fructified.

Two years passed and Mission Peak became a long forgotten tale.

Last year, my super hiker friend mentioned it to me. If I were to meet him, we had to hike. His favorite was Mission Peak. He had been to Mission Peak more times than he could remember.
Once he had mentioned, "I go to Mission Peak on every full moon day - to see the moon", he explained.
I thought of telling him, "But the moon is visible from below too, you know..."

This time the hike was scheduled in the evening on a weekday. There was no escape. We met and the hike started.
There are four benches on the way - each of them symbolize one milestone in the hike. It tells you your progress and lets you know how much there is. The distance isn't great but its the elevation change that kills. I realized the best way to the top was to forget the journey. Talking was the way to go. As we kept climbing, I started gulping large breaths of air which prevented me from speaking. My hiker friend continued with his stories nonchalantly. For him it was a cakewalk. For me it was Mount Everest. I had never really hiked anywhere in Kolkata. I walked a tremendous lot but did not climb about. It is tough to climb on a flat terrain. The most I have climbed were stairs to our top floor flat. I have also never heard of a Bengali mountaineer.
It never made it to the top ten Bengali ambition list. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary were names we memorized but never imitated. I always thought that climbing and hiking were unnecessary ways of inflicting self-pain. My views radically changed once I reached Bay Area.

Panting and puffing, I made it the top with several breaks in between. My friend remained patient and resolute beside me. He admired my determination to reach the top. Once there, I hung onto the single pole there was and demanded my photo. It was a proof of my breaking the myth. The Mission to the Peak was finally accomplished.

I went several times post my conquest but only made to the benches. Sitting on the benches, dangling my feet, I chatted away happily with whoever accompanied me there. Reaching the summit was not on my agenda.

Today morning I joined an expedition to Mission Peak. Accompanying me were some pros and some freshers. I was in between.Once we started, two of us was always ahead of the rest. One of them was me. It was a beautifully cloudy day to climb. It was also very crowded. I kept running into familiar faces. It was fun to motivate the newcomers with the idea of benches. Sighting a bench was an occasion for celebration.
On the way, one of us took a restricted short cut. An uncle-ji spotted her.

He saw me watching the law-breaker and said, "She will get a ticket from the police. They are everywhere today. It costs 73 dollars!"
I didn't know what to say. I thought to myself, "What if she can afford it?"

Gazing at the high altitude views of the bay and singing encouraging and out-of-tune Bollywood songs, we made it to the top. As usual, all of us clasped on the pole and demanded photo-proofs of their achievement. There was a queue at the peak! People stood in line to get a mugshot with the pole! We stood enjoying the view and munching our well deserved snacks. It was a moment of greatness for me. Climbing is not in my genes and I feel extra proud when I think of bragging about it to my Bengali clan.

The way back was tougher on the knees but less strenuous. We gossiped our way to the parking lot and rushed to the nearest buffet available.I have a feeling I over-compensated for the calories I burnt.

But the myth has been broken. Mission Peak no longer remains a mysterious zone. But it does retain its charm. It is definitely worth the next hike and some more after that. :)

Friday, January 21, 2011

Letters from Bapi

I have grown up calling my dad, Bapi. It's a name of endearment. It is unique and different, (in my head at least). It lies somewhere in popularity charts, in between "Pitaashri" and "Pops".
I remember, one fine afternoon, playing in front of my dad. It was a jumping-walking game and it made a lot of noise. I was entertaining myself in the absence of my sister and my mother. My dad looked up from his newspaper and squinted his brows together.He probably wondered to himself, "How does she make so much noise single- handedly?" He never asked me to stop. My father has always been lenient on both of us. I was three or four at that time.
I stopped my prancing and gave my father a good long stare. I screwed up my brows like him and thought deeply. Then I asked the question.
"Who are you?"
He looked at me shocked. He recovered soon and then introduced himself.
"I am your father. You can call me Bapi". He answered solemnly.
From then on, I called my dad by that name.

I remember him being away on trips a lot. Once when he was assigned to pick us up from the school bus stop, the conductor of the bus didn't recognize him. My mother was the usual face he was accustomed to see. To ensure he didn't hand over two kindergarten kids to a stranger he asked us, " Do you know him?"
I took a good look at my father and said, "No".

My school bus drove away as my father stared at us in bewilderment and disbelief.
What happened next is history. It suffices to say that I was never made to forget this incident.

My dad had a transferrable job. His job was the reason he was away from us for long periods of time. He has traveled all over India and in recent years all over the world. His job took him to little known cities of India. He stayed for a an average of three years in places like Thiruvananthapuram (south) to Rajnandgao (north) to Cuttack (east) and several places in between. During all those periods of his absence he wrote letters.

The letters came in a square yellow envelope with two or three colorful stamps attached. The postmark showed the date and the place he wrote it from. It changed often. The letters were addressed alternately to me and my sister. I waited for them. So did my sister.

When my mother received the post and brought it along with her shopping bag, calling out our names, we rushed out. The name was always written neatly. Whoever the envelope was addressed to, felt super important for that day. As we carefully teared it open, the neatly folded pages of stationary tumbled out. Both of us sat down to read it immediately.

My father has a neat hand writing. His letters always had a header. There was a time, a day and a place. Whenever I read it, I tried to think what we were up to when my father was writing his letter to us. Irrelevant of who he addressed the envelope to, the letter always started with both our names.

His letters transported us to his world. It didn't matter how remote my father lived. His letter gave us a magic carpet ride. It told stories of his place, his activities and the uniqueness of the culture that surrounded him at that time. He had interesting stories he would narrate from his daily life or sometimes tell us a tale from history and mythology. With his letters there used to be cut-outs. Cut-outs from cartoon strips, a funny story or just a news item that he thought we should know. In those letters, my father connected with us. I was too young to realize his way of thinking but I definitely felt his positive energy.

I remember one letter from him. He was posted in Amravati at that time. It began something like this, "It is raining outside. There are big puddles on the road. The school kids are splashing as they walk. I remember how tough it was to take you both to the school bus stop in the rain.I recall it was difficult with your bags, the water bottles and the umbrellas. But it has been so long..."

My father made me feel how much he missed us without saying it aloud. The letters from my father were an integral part of my childhood. They allowed us to bond with a parent who wasn't always around. Every time my father came home, the house was filled with cheer and sound. His booming voice enlivened our place. By corollary, his departures were also marked with a depressing silence.

Now there are no letters. Letters from my Bapi stopped when I left for my undergrad. The era of cell phones, emails, text messages shut the door on handwritten
documents.I miss them dearly. As I speak to my Bapi on phone, I have the overpowering urge to ask him to write to me again.

"But whats there to write?" he asks. "We talk so often."
I nod in silence. But I keep asking. Maybe one day, my mailbox will have the yellow stationary envelope, post marked from India and neatly addressed to me. Till then I wait.

Monday, January 17, 2011

One phone call

Alexander Graham Bell has been credited with the invention of the telephone. His patent was granted in 1876.
Almost five score years later, it became popular in Calcutta.

I am struck with wonderment to think that there used to be a time when homes did not have phones. I remember that only offices had phones and other public institutions. Once we left home. there was no contact between the family members. I was too young to realize why I would need a phone in the first place. Early in the morning, school started. Once in school, talking incessantly with fellow classmates more than sufficed my desire for speech. If friends refused to talk, there was always my sister. She couldn't escape my garrulity.

At that time, receiving a phone call only meant one thing. Bad news. After all, when you filled forms you were only asked for emergency contact numbers. I remember one incident that occurred with a friend of mine. Like me, her family did not own a phone at home. Only her dad was working and hence he had access to a phone connection.

A call was placed to his office. When Mr. Maiti finally came from his third floor work desk to the fifth floor to receive his call, he was not only panting but slightly agitated. His wife would never call him. Even at home, she spoke to him only if she had to. His daughter was in school. And it was his daughter, that he was afraid of. As a father, he loved his Shonali. But in all fairness, she wasn't the brightest kid around. In fact, using the word 'bright' for his daughter would be an exaggeration. Shonali had managed to re-learn two of her grades. Unlike US, where every child can be "special" and flunking could just be another effort to "learn better", Calcutta schools were ruthless. Not just in Calcutta, the India where I grew up, tended to treat their children with tough love. You were not "special" if you failed a class, you were downright stupid. The teachers and the students treated you likewise. It was a harsh and honest world.

"Hello, this is Shomen Maiti speaking", answered Shonali's dad. His heart was thumping loudly in his chest.
Static came through the other end. The connection was not clearly audible.
"Hello, Mr. Maiti, we are calling from your daughter's school", answered the handset.
Mr. Maiti's fears raised their ugly heads.
"What is this about?", he asked fearfully.
" Your daughter just had an asthma attack. She needs to go home. Our school nurse treated her but she is still very weak. Definitely in no position to be at school. You need to come and take her home. And Mr. Maiti may we also remind you that you need to be more patient with your child. Her asthma could be caused by mental stress. You need to take it easy on her. She may be dumb but repeating it daily does not do her much good."

Mr. Maiti was stunned. He stared at the phone he held in his hand.
As a father, he believed he had the right to treat his child the way he pleased. And he loved his Shonali. He was in no mood to accept unsolicited advice from a pontificating school clerk! His Bengali blood rose within his veins. His breathing became intense and labored. How dare they call him up and tell him what to do? In his anger for a stranger, he forgot about his own ill daughter. When he remembered, the line in his hand had already become silent.

"My Shonali...she is sick..", he murmured to himself.
Mr. Maiti was taken aback by the discovery of Shonali's asthma. He never knew she had it. How did it suddenly develop? Was this one of those things that his wife told him and he conveniently forgot? He questioned his memory. he did not have time waste, he had to leave.

Making some lame excuse about visiting a client, Mr Maiti set out from work. When he reached the school, he went straight to meet the Principal. Half an hour later, she was ready to see him.

"Yes what can I do for you Mr. Maiti?", asked the middle-aged martinet.
"I came to take my daughter home. Shonali had an asthma attack in class today. Your office just called me." Mr. Maiti explained himself.
The Principal gave him a worried look. She had not instructed her staff for placing a call to any any parent that day.
"We never called you Mr. Maiti and neither did Shonali fall sick. Who called you? Did you ask that person's name?"

Mr. Maiti hadn't asked the name. The process of identifying and seeking identification over phone had not yet been introduced. Unlike here, where every customer service call begins with, "I am Luther and how may I be of assistance?", the Calcutta I knew believed that the voice was sufficient recognition of oneself. When phones first came into vogue, people became busy talking. They scarcely listened.

Mr. Maiti demanded to see his daughter. Shonali was called away from the boring history class to the Principal's office. She celebrated escaping a dull history monologue. When she reached, she was surprised to find her father there. Without a word her father hugged her. With a sigh, he looked at her fondly. She could almost see his eyes watering.

A long bear hug later, he turned back at the staring headmistress.
"I want to take my daughter home."
The Principal nodded in agreement. This father-daughter duo definitely deserved a moment together.

Mr. Maiti soon realized that it was a prank call. But he also realized that he loved his daughter more than he despised her lack of intelligence. Stress could make her sick and knowing this, he forbade his wife and consciously stopped himself from reprimanding their only child too harshly. What happened as a joke that day could become the reality of tomorrow.
Shonali became a better student under the guidance of her surprisingly patient dad. She also became a worse spoilt brat.

A week later, she thanked the young clerk for the call he said he had placed earlier. After all he had done for her, she had started to like him.
May be there was even a spark there.
Those who knew her well at school, had named her "michkey shoitaan", a mischievous devil.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Telepathy and Teleportation

My mother was a firm believer of the former. Telepathy is the sending and receiving of thoughts from one mind to another. Your mind becomes a transceiver, alert and capable. Thoughts pass like electric signals between your mind and someone remote from you. I believe it is possible. Sensing a loved one's discomfort and unease is a power everyone has. Cries of help and anguish, that you think you heard your child utter, even though they are not near you.

Teleportation allows your soul to travel to far off places. Renowned saints and great men have done it, or so the stories say. Bengalis have had their own teleporting men. Shri RamKrishna Paramahansa is one prominent saint among them.

My mother never believed in the plausibility of teleportation. Until she heard this story from one of her friends.

Animesh and my mother started working together in the same bank. He had joined their department recently. He was a family man. Totally and absolutely devoted to his wife and child. His wife was a home maker and his daughter was a mischief maker. Together they were the life and soul of his existence. My mother became a good friend of his - they both shared anecdotes of their daughters and took joy in the mutual love for their family. Animesh's was an average Bengali household with nothing exceptional.

It was soon time for the yearly review. When the results came out, it was a double shock for Animesh. He was made a manager and transferred to Cuttack, Orissa. It meant leaving Calcutta and his family. His daughter's school year was just half way through and it didn't make sense to relocate her to Cuttack. It was decided that his family would join him after a year.

Animesh departed with a heavy heart. Everyone who knew him, knew that becoming a manager did not make him any happier. In Cuttack, his work failed to immerse him. He missed his family sorely. When he came back home in the evenings, the silence haunted him. He missed the jangling of utensils in the kitchen, he missed the shouting of his naughty daughter and above all he missed the humdrum of his home.
Communication in those days was rather slow. Hand written letters and telephone connections were the best means. Phone calls didn't always go through. Animesh's neighbor had a phone and every time he called they had oblige him by calling his wife. To keep the disturbance to a minimal, he called once a week. He wrote everyday. Letters to his daughter and his wife.

One such phone call later he found that his daughter was sick. It was fever but she had become really weak. He became agitated. He wanted to get back home. Work wouldn't let him leave. At least not immediately. He sat down in his chair, depressed.

"If only I could see my daughter", he wondered.

He started recreating his flat. Those shabby yellow walls, the brown door that led to his home. That sofa, pointed to his TV, where he spent most of his waking hours. He was deeply lost in thought.

On the sofa he saw his wife. Clad in a green sari, she was busy knitting a pink sweater. Perhaps it was for his daughter.
Down on the floor, his daughter half-squatted, half lay. She was busy painting her coloring book. It was a mess. Nisha was not good at drawing.

"But why was she on the cold floor? Had her fever left? Was she fully recovered?"
"Nisha ..," he called out.

His daughter looked up. "Dad", she said in delight.
His wife's reverie was broken.
"Arrey you?" , she asked in shock.

The scene dissolved immediately. Animesh zapped back to reality. He was back, sitting on his stone cold chair, in a dark and gloomy room, in Cuttack.

The next day, he received a phone call at work. His wife had called during working hours, something she never did before.

"I saw you yesterday. You were wearing your grey kurta and standing in front of us. Nisha saw you too. Your face had a very dejected look. I have never seen you this grave. It is impossible and yet both of us have seen you. I think I am going mad. Animesh, please come home..." His wife sobbed on the noisy phone line.

Animesh eventually gave up his promotion, got back to his original level of work and happiness and joined his family in Calcutta.
He narrated this tale to my mother and his colleagues to tell them how this separation was affecting his mental sanity. It was also a living proof that he had managed to project his soul over a long distance. He had teleported.

As I sit in California, wondering what my parents are upto now, I wish I could teleport as well. I wish it was on demand. I can't.
I have to reconcile myself with video chats, thats semi-teleportation, after all. :)

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

When parents came visiting....

I have been in America for some years now. It started with UCLA, not so long ago, when I boarded Singapore Airlines from Kolkata amidst my mother's incessant cries, my dad's encouraging messages and my own bubbling fears. America at that instant was worse than the dense rain forests of the Amazon!

My parents came visiting this 2010 December. It was a period of shutdown and I thought it made perfect sense to have them around with me close at hand. I prepared myself and cleaned my place (extra effort) and headed off to SFO airport. I sat at the side benches watching the monitor, expecting my parents to pop up on the screen pulling a cart full of luggage. After forty minutes of waiting, they showed up. My dad, followed by my mom. It felt amazing! To see my parents see me in the land I disappeared to. I felt I was lost and now I was found. I hugged and smothered them with public displays of affection before they could shove me away and catch their breath.

I didn't realize how much I had scared them about the weather. They had bundled themselves up in double-digit layers and only their faces brushed the clean air. As they were stepping outside at the parking zone, the rain and gloom hit them. Coming from the Mumbai Monsoons, they were not looking forward to meeting the rain gods again. As I saw my parent's faces falling incrementally, I tried to keep my Christmas cheer up. I assured them that Christmas as a festival was probably invented here and the residents of this land go a long distance to make the place wonderfully decorated.

My mother asked, "I have seen Christmas decorations. They are up every year in Park Street (Kolkata). What's so special?"

I allowed myself an inward grin and told her , " You will see".

The seeing didn't really happen. As I repeatedly checked the weather app, the day continued getting worse. The incessant rains, the cloudy skies and the chilly winds cooled my buoyant spirits. The warmth of the central heating in my apartment suddenly became like a beacon of hope that neither me nor my parents wanted to let go off.
After much reluctance, we stepped out. We made it to the Golden Gate.

It was pouring. With umbrellas in hand, we got out of the car for some photo moments.
Golden Gate Bridge looked majestic. I had pre-warned my folks that the name was a misnomer. The color was a dull red one and had not a shred of golden glitter. They stood looking at what I thought would have surely bowled them over. It didn't. My dad has been to more countries than I have fingers in my hand. He liked what he saw but didn't exactly fall in love. The like started evaporating when I forced my parents to take a walk down the bridge in pelting rain. I wanted them to take a piece of greatness back with them, completely ignoring the chilly air that was freezing them to the bones. Needless to say when I pointed out the "Suicide point" on the Golden Gate bridge, they started empathized with those hapless souls who wanted to jump off and end their damn plight!

After a gigantic cup of small sized coffee, my dad calmed down. I noticed tea and coffee were the mood-fixers for him. I made a point to note it down. My parents noted the super-sizes of everything - starting from the lanes, to the cars, to food and drink sizes and some obese people. How the roads remained this spruced up, perplexed them a lot.I had never given much thought to the roads - a reason why my driving suffered.

I showed them the Crooked Street which was fun to drive through because I wasn't at the helm. The Union Square, humongous bejeweled Christmas trees and the lights everywhere made an amazing spectacle. Much to their joy, I allowed them to sit in the car the whole time. It was like San Fransisco Safari in the rain.

A few more decorated down towns later, which all looked the same to them, I decided to try something different. I took my parents to a nearby temple. They were in bliss the moment we stepped in! My dad even joined the evening "aarti" while my mom certainly tried to hum along. I was delighted. Moments later we joined the crowd in the dining hall where food was served. Spiritually uplifted and happily satiated my parents blessed me for getting them there. I got even better response when I drove them to a far off Gurudwara on Sunday. In addition to food and "prasad" they served tea. My dad immediately became their devout fan.

I wanted them to see Pacific Ocean. So off we went to Santa Cruz beach. Being a working day, the place was a dead zone. None of the boardwalk shops were open. As freezing cold waves touched our feet, I scampered back to warmth. We sat down on the sand for breathing in the ozone rich sea breeze. I spotted a double rainbow which meant I had to do quite a bit of clicking. My mom decided to task me with the camera.I clicked away to glory. Photos were captured with and without their knowledge. As we walked back towards our car, I dropped the camera. Usually, these hardware devices are meant to be robust. This one turned out to be extremely sensitive. The lens refused to open and the camera went kaput for all practical purposes.

Even though I was an electrical engineer,my parents pinned no hopes on me. My services were fiercely unwelcome. Like the gloom outside sucked the sunshine away, the broken camera, midway through their trip, sucked at my mother's happiness.
We continued clicking with mine.

With the arrival of my parents, I began enjoying sumptuous food- morning, day and night. Late in the morning, I got to wake up to the smell of my mom's aromatic dishes. I never really learnt any cooking from my mother while at home, being studious and unhelpful at the same time. When she visited me, I realized how vastly different her dishes were from mine. It was no surprise that my dad had a tough time appreciating my food on the day they first arrived.

I decided to indulge them in different cuisines. To that end, I took them to a best known Thai restaurant. The only thing they really liked were the steamed white rice and panang curry. I was not ready to give up. I dragged them to the only Ethiopian place I knew. The injera bread reminded them of dosas back home, only sourer. The vegetable platter was filled with simple curries that my mom makes at home. They liked the food but couldn't understand the "big deal" about building a restaurant around it. I gave up and took them to the nearby Dosa place. Their joy was unbounded.

I caught the flu bug and my recuperation prevented me from taking them to UCLA. To make up, we went to Stanford University Campus. The sprawling area and the greenery took their breath away.I clarified that my campus was much bigger in size. My dad refused to believe me.

For the days I went to work, I set my parents up with laptops, TV and books. My dad finished four books and read all the news that Times of India dished out, while he was here. My mom managed to stay up to date with all her Indian soaps.

Towards the end started the shopping. I drove them to malls in San Jose and Milpitas. I noticed that every time my parents sat in my car, my dad started reciting his "Hanuman Chalisa" loudly while my mom called upon all the Gods she knew. As my GPS navigated me to my destination, my parents gripped onto their safety belts for extra comfort. While I was driving, my dad diplomatically never criticized me. He knew better than that. My mother could not pretend for long. She openly berated my lack of driving skills and road safety. But then, she also accepted the fact that my "driving" was in itself a superb achievement. I was the first bold female in a long line of cowards. I emphasized that driving in the United States had more to do with necessity than cowardice.

Much shopping and a new camera later, it was time for them to leave. Packed and ready, we went to San Fransisco Airport to check in. Relieved of their check-in bags, we sat down in a cafe, right before the Security Check. The impending separation made all of us sad. I recalled that I could fix it. A Cappuccino and a Cafe Latte later, my father smiled widely. Recollecting the short trip that he had in America, he said that the Return Policy at stores was something he found mind boggling. How stores could accept returns on products as late as ninety days was immensely puzzling for him. It is unthinkable in India. In some stores, if you so much as touch it, it belongs to you!

He jokingly asked, "Can we return wives and children as well?"
My mother's scathing glare dampened his mirth considerably.

As I feverishly waved my hands from behind the glass doors of the Security Check Point, I felt an overwhelming sense of despair. My parents were leaving me to be half a globe away and I stood there, watching them depart. I understood what my mother must have felt, when I left her crying at the airport. In some ways, in this trip, while "trying" to take care of my parents, I understood their troubles better.

But like every effervescent Bengali, who smilingly bids adieu to their favorite Goddess- Ma Durga, I smiled and said to myself, "Ashchey bochhor abaar hobey!" . It will happen again next year. And hopefully much better. :)