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."