Friday, September 07, 2012

Clothing with Confidence

I attended a seminar yesterday. The topic was the title. The presenter was a well attired blonde woman, with an MBA and a MS in psychology who had spent decades in image consulting. I was interested in what she had to say. Before I landed there, I had two weeks from registration to event occurrence to build my mind up in anticipation. The idea to me was "Judge the book by the cover". What you wear matters in the eyes of who beholds you, including yourself. My mind, still Bengali and a tad Amriki, thought things over. Growing up in Kolkata, your dressing is dictated by how much you sweat. For two hours a day, on a very auspicious day only, you tend to wear your finest. Once the demo is over, you bundle the thing up and run to the household in-charge, in my case, my mom, and ask her to do the rest. Which means dry cleaning or laundry. On the next auspicious day, you perform the same demo of your superior attire, but with new pairs of eyes ogling at you. Just like crop rotation, you would like your audience to rotate between the viewings. As a child, I honestly thought it didn't matter what I wore. Summers were brutal. Humid and hot, every single kurta and top, wore out their colors in a week. It didn't matter how much percentage cotton your clothes had, Kolkata was sure to take it to test. And I learnt something at a fairly young age - Sweaty is not Pretty. Winters were better. Cold and pleasant, you could think that a Bengali can be dressed in their best then. That would make you not just wrong, but also a non-Bengali. Because it defies a basic Bengali winter rule. Monkey cap and baggy sweater. No self respecting Bengali can step out without those on. My mother insisted on placing a tight red monkey cap on my just styled hair, and a maroon one on my sister's. My sister mutely accepted her fate. I rebelled. My hair styling had taken me good two hours and yielded two curly locks dangling right in front of my forehead. (I was into that fashion for exactly two weeks after I saw Asha Parekh movies) "Naa ami porbo naa!" I yelled. (No! I won't wear it!) My sister looked at me aghast. Was I out of my mind? I stared right back at her, like a angry young Bengali. I personally believe that Mr. Bachchan senior copied his trademark angry looks from the streets of Kolkata. I was naive. My mother pretended that she did not hear me. She pulled out two sweaters from the wardrobe. Both were two sizes bigger than us but one was way shabbier than the other. She smiled at my sister, who was still holding her shocked pose, and asked in her "rosogolla" voice, "Shona, which one would you like to wear today?" My sister snapped out of her melodramatic posture and beamed. "That", she viciously pointed at the non-shabby one. As my mom, lovingly helped my sis get into her sweater, I slumped down on the floor. When it came to clothing and food, I reigned supreme. I always chose the best available, left the remainder, hung around to see my sister's dejected face, and gloated away. In food, I made the choice, gobbled my piece of "sondesh" and then waited to break away a chunky part off my sister's share. Obviously, incremental changes of my devilry had all accumulated to a grand total, forcing the forces above to take matters out of my chubby hands into theirs. The conspiracy included my mother as well. Bundled in a double sized faded sweater, topped with a red monkey cap, the only visible elements of my body were my big eyes and my fat limbs. It didn't matter that I had my pink ruffled top inside. It didn't matter that there was a beautiful flowery pattern on it. All that one saw was a lopsided sack on legs. So winters were out, fashion wise. A non-Bengali might argue, what about Spring, and Fall seasons? There are Fall collections in stores here, there must be something like that in Bong land, no? Well, looming large on all those videshi fashion seasons, were our Monsoons. The torrential downpour, the lighting and the thunder of a Kalboishakhi could easily topple fashion sense out of a business classy person. His blazer would be atop a banana tree, his tie would be a noose around his neck and his trousers would be frayed out of proportions from the thorns biting into his ankles. Kalboishakhi tends to do that. And just in case you were able to stand your ground, you would be cowering under your big black umbrella. Your body, trying desperately to use the umbrella more like a tent for shelter. I doubt there is much fashion inside a tent. My fashion sense was tightly twined with Kolkata. I eventually stopped wearing two sizes larger, not because I grew a new respect for fashion, but because two sizes bigger than my size ceased to be available any more. The last time I visited Pantaloons as a teenager, the attendant helping me find a pair of jeans said, "These are all the teenage sizes we have. For your size you'll have to go to the back room. We keep our XXLs there. Can't really display them, you see." I squarely blame my mother for inculcating in me the necessity to wear bigger-than-your-size clothing. Every time my measurements were taken for the school uniform, she would instruct the tailor to make it two sizes bigger. If the tailor asked why, her response would be, "She grows in length and breadth rather quickly. Taratari boro hochhey!" That phase ended in teenage. Confidence always came from my academics, my rank in class, and my ability to do something well. Clothing wasn't a contributor. Undergrad life in the deserts of Rajasthan, ushered in a new era of fashion. I etiolated in the scorching sun of Pilani - the moisture and the color drained from my face and my clothes equally. I noticed that the brown desert induced the people to wear very colorful clothing. A lot of delicate weaving, needle work and mirror work. It was a great contrast to the barren land behind. I observed and admired, but couldn't make it a part of my wardrobe. The same faded jeans, the same kolkata salwars made it to the classes. Assignments, tests, tutorials, practicals demanded all my available bandwidth. Shopping was an unheard term. Amrika was a turning point. I must admit that my first year and half at UCLA I still clung onto my Kolkata roots, wearing the same thing in Beverly Hills as I would in Ballygunge. Professional life really changed my clothing sense. That brings me right back to where I began. The seminar. Knowning what to wear to make you look best was important. You never know who's noticing. Professional attire had a lot of "Do's and Don'ts". Point was it really was possible to look your best. All you needed to do was to invest some time and money to identify what colors make you rosy, what patterns shone on you, and what clothing flattered your body type. It didn't matter where you worked, it was imperative for you to look good in that setting. If tattered jeans and T-shirt could get you by, that didn't mean you did that. You still wore professional clothes. She emphasized on harmonious dressing- choosing clothes that went with your body, texture and size. If someone said, "What a nice dress you have on", it meant disharmony in your clothing match. The compliment you should be looking for is "You look great! Not your dress." Following the seminar was shopping. The seminar was held in Ann Taylor Loft and as soon as the speaker finished, the forty females ran amok among the clothing aisles. I found myself an orange top and turned around to find the speaker helping others choose their purchases. She turned to me and said, "Yes you can carry that off nicely." I beamed. My confidence in my clothing inflated two sizes. It reminded me of the day in Pantaloons - when the attendant pointed me to the XXL section. My mother had stepped in between my sadness and the attendant's sarcasm. She had said the very same thing. "My daughter can carry it off very nicely. All sizes look good on her." That defined my clothing sense. And I am holding onto that thought for the rest of my fashionable days...

Sunday, February 05, 2012

From the old to the new...

How do you say farewell? Is it easy to detach oneself from the multitude of friends and move on seamlessly to the next group? Does separation hurt?

Recently I had to say "Goodbye". Farewells don't come easy to me. Like a money plant, which entwines itself to its supporting stick, I found myself deeply enmeshed in my former habitat. I was attached at various levels. And to my dismay, I found it extremely difficult to uproot myself.

Growing up, we went to the same school from kindergarten to Class 10. The friends, the foes, the teachers, the class rooms were all known. As kids, growing at a rapid pace, our minds were very impressionable. We had "best friends for life" and we had pacts that were supposed to last till death. We promised eternal commitment to each of our best friends. And then, one fine day an opportunity came by. A more esteemed school selected us to join them. The logical decision was to enroll. And we did. But emotions did a Volta-face. I found myself shedding copious tears for two weeks. It was the first biggest decision of my immature life. I realized that I was not good at saying goodbyes. Knowing your weaknesses is a powerful tool for self improvement.
The sad-two-weeks later, the new school engulfed us. The new school mates looked at us queerly. The new teachers didn't know what to do with "two" of "me". I found every opportunity to crib and complain to my mother, when I returned home.
My mom squarely placed the blame on my deciding shoulders.
Having nowhere else to turn, I turned back at the new place. I found a bunch of new girls who were just as out-of-place as us. Then I noticed someone smile at me. I noticed a teacher's approval of my homework. I noticed they had a debate team where I could join. Suddenly, it wasn't all so bad. But the process was prolonged and painful. I suffered abnormally from being detached from my Alma mater. The new school, in all its glories, had a tough time wowing me.

The lesson I learnt served me well. I could not move on easily. I made a mental note to myself and decided not to move on, if I could help it. But life teases you in unfathomable ways. What you fear most, comes to haunt you often.

The next journey was leaving Calcutta. I never realized as I left my dear old Calcutta, that I would really never return. To this day, I realize I never bought my return ticket. Obviously the cycle repeated. Once in Pilani (Rajasthan), I spent a whole year coping with my "move". Unsettled, uneasy, I moved through the campus, looking for signs of familiar things. But there were none. In many ways, that first year, I missed out so much goodness that was around me. I played catch-up once out of my mourning. In my head, Calcutta was the best place on earth. I firmly and indignantly countered my friends when they openly criticized some of its real faults. The love for my home, increased day by day as my separation from it grew. Even today, I find myself bristle inside when people point out the pollution, the grime, the detriment of my favorite place. But now I don't react like a teenager anymore. I smile and ignore. I can't bring myself to agree, even as I know that they are right.

From Pilani to Los Angeles, the journey was like the proverbial "crossing of seven seas". I spent the whole flight weeping over Singapore airlines ice creams, and then another six months trying to run back home. As my six months of allocated depression was coming to an end, I noticed other trapped students. One of them, who was trying to flee back to China, became my best friend. Together we decided to endure it, till we could go back.
Life took a better turn. My old memories, vibrant as they were, gave a little room for the new ones I was growing. Los Angeles was amazing and for a freshly arrived "desi", it appeared glorious. My eyes widened at the sight of Brad Pitt outside the Westwood red carpet event, my taste buds danced at the medley of food options available, my heart widened at the friendliness of people around me and my mind boggled over the prospects available. I even found some Bengalis in my University but strangely they were unlike anything I expected. I was a newbie, brimming with love for Kolkata, while they were seasoned Americans. For them, Kolkata was just another place.

From University to professional life, the jump was huge. I remained a student in mind , struggling with professional etiquette. Student life and work life are vastly different and it takes quite a while to get into the groove of a working woman.

Just a week ago, I had to say goodbyes. To some of the best colleagues and friends I had grown over time. I realized, it was harder than I thought. So much experience in moving on in the past, did not help my cause at all. Like a tree that groans vehemently at being uprooted, I tried holding on and letting go at the same time. The toughest part was bidding farewell to the familiar faces, the people I laughed and joked with, those from whom I learnt immensely and those that constantly encouraged me. Finding a great working environment is a sheer luck!
It was very tough holding back the tears as I hugged my friends goodbye. The day when I had to leave all of it behind, hurriedly arrived. As I left my old place, I had to force myself to walk away without looking back.

The social media, the emails, the chat groups, the SMS-es keep me going. The period of separation and grief have taken over again. As I ruminate through my ordeal, the new place beckons me. The old memories glow like beacons of light, showing me what I will be missing.
But like it happened previously, will my struggles give way to a bright new beginning?


Wednesday, January 04, 2012

A Bengali Winter

Winter holds special meaning for a Bengali, very unique to him. A true Bengali values winter dearly, exposed as he is to a long sweaty summer.
The very thought of winter brings warmth. I grew up in Kolkata where we looked forward to the time when schools would shut down briefly and we would wait for "BoroDin" (Big Day) ,or Xmas. It is very common to call Christmas as Xmas. As a kid, when schools shut down during winter, I would go into hibernation.
Very like "Kumbhokorno", the giant brother of "Raavan", I would fall into delightful slumber, waking up only at the summons of meals. Munching baked, steamed, boiled, fried, deep-fried, delicacies I would ponder upon world peace, and such. Every Bengali ponders 95% of their time. If you catch a Bong, staring into nothingness, stand back! He is on the verge of a momentous discovery of his own. And perchance if you spot a Bengali with food in hand, mouth open, gaping in wonder at the air ahead of his nose, you know you have inadvertently fallen into the space-time continuum of a Baby Einstein. We tend to force ourselves as friend, philosophers, guides to unsuspecting friends and continually strive to come up with catchier remarks that will boggle the listener's minds.
I am one such person. On that far gone wintry day in Kolkata, munching a chocolate Monginis cake with a side of "Joynogorer Moyaa (special sweet balls from a place called Joy Nagar)" and "Puli Peethey" (sweet rice dumplings with syrup) I had come up with reasons for our love for Winter.
Well, really why do we love Winter so much and what does it mean for a Bong? I am one sample and it is a far fetched idea to extrapolate me and my observations into an entire community of people, but guess what that's what I am going to do.

The love for winter time is deep rooted in a Bengali's veins. It begins with waking up, feeling warm under the "Kaatha" stitched quilts and smiling at the bright shining sun. A hot chai never tastes better than in winter. Wearing the brightest and over sized sweater a Bengali ventures out. Wait! Before he can step out he steps back. The one clothing item a Bengali never leaves behind in winter, is his monkey cap. This ubiquitous cap in Kolkata, is just like the armor for Spartans in that crazy movie 300. The cap comes in various colors. Females prefer it in red while males settle for black or brown. The cap covers everything except the eyes and cheeks. The nose and the mouth are optionally visible. Every cold kid walks the street, looking (un)cool. Me and my sister did the same and have to this day retained our monkey cap and its legacy. As the Bengali Babu steps out dressed in sweater, dhoti, monkey cap, and an umbrella, he feels like a King. The umbrella serves multiple purposes in a Bengali's life. When not tucked under the armpits, it protects the precious head of a Bong against rain and sun, poke people in the queue to move ahead, act as a walking stick, but most of all, it is like the scepter of a king, establishing his imperial authority.
Winter time is magical. Cakes and baking aromas feel the corridors between the adjoined apartments. Neighbors squabble over superior cake recipes. When I was growing up, we had neither the baking oven nor the microwave oven. But my mother wasn't daunted. Armed with a pressure cooker, she set out to conquer the world of cakes. Her first effort involved packing sand into the bottom of the cooker and settling a flour mixture in a pan inside. We waited with bated breath as whistles blew. As the four of us huddled to watch, the cooker cover was removed. There, sitting cozily in the sand was our first fluffy home made cake. I shall never forget the joy of eating a cake that fresh. With ovens in my apartment and cakes that I have made a zillion times, the magic never recreated itself.

Christmas was a foreign concept until I heard about Santa Claus. I was in third standard then. This plump jolly old man in red and white uniform, distributed gifts to great kids on the Eve of Christmas. Buoyed by our newly acquired knowledge, we mentioned it to our mother, repeatedly. We believed it and somehow coming from the teacher's mouth, made it difficult to even disbelieve. I found out that stockings were required before anything could be gotten from this Santa Claus fellow. We had no stockings, chimney or fireplace, so our school socks went on top of our mosquito net that Christmas Eve. My mother ogled in disbelief. I looked up at my socks wondering what goodies would fill them up.
Waking up next morning, I looked up. Wrapped in Bengali newspaper, there was something on top. I pummeled and woke my sister up. As we both scrambled out of our bed, I reached for the gift. The smelly socks had not been touched. (I figured Santa Claus wasn't very giving when it came to smelly socks!)

Unwrapping like a maniac, we found our Christmas gift. It was a pair of Badminton rackets and shuttle cocks! More than delight, I was astounded! Santa Claus really existed! We brought the flat down, yelling for our parents to come and look. Once they were up, we rambled on and on in amazement, happiness and faith for Santa Claus, oozing from every word we spoke. I still recall my dad's remark to my mom (which I had ignored on that day), "Wow! They really bought this Santa Claus idea, huh?"

School friends, teachers, apartment bullies and neighbors were the next to know about our Santa Claus visit. Needless to say they tried poisoning our belief with logic and rationality. They finally won three years later.

It is the gifting idea, albeit foreign, but great that a Bengali likes about winter. Then there is the famous cake from the corner bakery shop. My favorite is Monginis and then my mother's office cafeteria. My mom bought fruit cakes from her canteen several times for us. Every Bengali buys the cake and the "moyaa" together for his family. A little bit of Christmas with a little bit of tradition. The holidays mean television shows filled with Uttam Kumar's movies or Shahrukh's prancing. And the end of the year synopsis which a Bengali remembers, revises and quizzes his neighbors on. Who died? Who won what? Whose record was broken?

I have found the Bengalis to be the most voracious reader. And a season of winter holidays translate into quilt, tea and a book/newspaper. My dad settled into his chair early in the morning with his newspapers and wouldn't budge until he had gone through every page. In winter, we would do the same. And then pick up a book and start reading till we dozed off into sleep. Every Bengali reads and sleeps to see what he has just read, come to life in his dreams. I am no different.

A hot sweaty summer is never as conducive to happy hours of reading as a warm cozy winter. We never had heaters, so colorful quilts with unique stitching adorned our beds. The workers knitted and sowed overtime for this month. Bengali grandmothers would be found sitting on rocking chairs on the terrace, during an afternoon, knitting sweaters for the little ones. The winter afternoons meant sitting in sunshine. It also meant running to the terrace with oranges,ludo game and a mat ("shotronji"). It meant supervision by mom and playing for us. Every time I smacked my sis in a game, I received an immediate counter smack from my mom. It was frustrating but that's how I learned world peace.

This winter I did much the same. Acted the Santa, ate a bunch of oranges in heat and bunch of sweets, played a game of Ludo with anyone willing, read a bunch of books, pondered upon world problems and felt ready to take on the world. New ideas formed seeds in my mind and like every pontificating Bengali, I am now on the look out for one whom to deliver my sermons! Happy Winter!