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. :)