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."


Noel said...


First off, I wanna disclaim that I am no internet troll. I am a very avid blogger stumbler/reader. I happened to stumble on to your blog and I have read almost all your posts. Would like to offer my two cents and you certainly don't have to feel obliged to post it on your page.
You're a pretty good writer, as far as the skill goes. Your sytaxes are in place and so is your humor. It has been enjoyable to a good extent.
But I do have a gripe. And that is with your content. Why waste such a good skill in writing about banal and vapid topics? For example, I can't think of a single post that you have written about a book that you enjoyed or an evocative movie or a social issue that has personally affected you or a political stand. Maybe I am wrong about this one, but you do not come across as a prolific reader. In order to be a deep writer, you must be a voracious reader too; else, you'll be cutting only skin deep.
I believe a straightforward criticism can go a long way in deepening your talent rather than a mere pat on the back, with an "Oh you write so well!" My intention is no way to offend you.
I look forward to reading some stimulating posts from you. Good luck!

Meenakshi said...

Hey Noel!

I am in no way offended. And I am going to take your gripe pretty seriously. I won't like to lose an avid blog stumbler like you off my blogspot. So I am gonna go read and read and it will show in my posts.

Stay connected!

Noel said...

Thank you. I am so relieved that you took it positively.

à bientôt

Tania said...

I remember how we made fun of Bodhisatwa in college for wearing half shirts over his thermals. It's so cool to do that here!