Happiness isn’t complicated.

I will be labeled as a happy person by most. I greet people with a happy smile. I never forget to raise my hand to neighbors as they are driving by. The fact that I generally carry dog poop in a plastic bag in that hand and raise the dog poop in greeting is beside the point. You see, I generally see my neighbors when I walk my dog. I always wave frantically to drivers who let me go by with a casual flick of their hand. I am overwhelmed by the show of generosity in people in general.

And then there are occasional days when I am run down, cranky, hungry and tired. Then the gloom descends. Then I am a Grinch, I can literally feel my heart shrink three sizes. I don’t want to smile at the nice lady handing my provolone cheese at the super market. I smile anyway because I, too, work in customer service. Anyway, this evening was such a time when I felt I bore the weight of the world on my shoulders. I went to work, dashed back to cart my two children back and forth between swim team, football practice, confirmation meeting. In between dropping off and picking them up, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up provisions for the week. Grocery shopping, being one of my least favorite activities, did nothing to elevate my mood. The tiredness and empty stomach aggravated my grumpiness to no end.

While I tried to zip by the aisles, throwing things in my cart, a young mother tried her best to block me at every step of the way. She was having way too much fun in the grocery store with her toddler. The toddler wasn’t walking yet, she was scooting around on the dirty floor of the super market. The germophobic me shuddered at the scene and the veteran mom in me wagged a finger at the new mom. Get that baby off that floor immediately, woman! I wanted to scream. As I stood, somewhat impatiently at the deli to get my three-quarter pound of provolone, I heard a squeal. I turned around to a scene that brought the biggest smile to my face. The baby was taking her first steps – at the supermarket. And the mother was squealing her encouragement and filming the momentous event at the same time. The other grumpy shoppers like myself, stopped in our tracks to savor the moment. The woman in the deli left my cheese on the weighing scale while we all joined in aaahing and oooohing at the feat of the proud toddler. She waddled for a few moments and then went down on her bottom with a happy, two teethed grin. We all clapped! “Awww, honey, do it again!” “What a big girl!” “You are walking!!” Comments came from all sides. The mother looked at us, beaming, ‘Her first steps! She took her first steps!’

A special moment in the child’s life, and in the mother’s life, as well. We, the grumpy, Grinchy shoppers at that supermarket will always be a part of their joy and special memory. The thought made me happy. The line was long at the check out counter. I didn’t complain. I went to my car, unloaded my groceries and asked a woman who parked next to me if she needed my cart. She took it with a big smile and a grateful ‘thank you!’

Happiness isn’t really complicated, if you think about it. There are these little moments strewn around us like treasures. The moment when the big black and yellow school bus pulls up to my drive way and I see through the window a beautiful teenage girl sedately walking towards home, lost in her own thoughts; or a rambunctious seven-year old running like Usain Bolt because he is free from school. The moment when I see the back lights of Sean’s car backing into the driveway after a day’s work. The moment I feel the wet nose of Sage touch my feet in unconditional love. The lonely dove sitting on the electric wire against the back drop of a spectacularly clear, blue sky. The moment when I look out of kitchen window into my back yard to see the most fascinating sunset. I can string these moments together and wear them as a garland when my heart starts to shrink three sizes down. I simply need to look around and be mindful of the innumerable moments that I own, yet often, don’t realize.


Spare the child, I really don’t care about the rod!

Corporal punishment and its effectiveness have been part of discussion for some time now, since the new fangled parenting books hit the markets. I read parenting books with a grain of salt because there can be no one formula that we can apply for every child. Each child is different, what works for one may not work for the other. I read some anyway because I can always find a new idea that I think may benefit my children and help me be a better parent.

There are some absolute truths in good parenting, though, the first being consistency. Setting out rules and expectations and following them and holding the children up to those expectations. Of course, the expectations should not be unreasonable so the child is set up for failure. While being consistent on the core values, certain flexibility often makes the journey more fun for both the parent and the child.

I do believe, however, corporal punishment is not effective means of parenting. It instills fear and in some cases, it breeds violence. Why do we punish children in the first place? The goal is for children to realize, from an early age that each of their actions has a consequence. Good choices yield positive results and bad choices bring on unpleasant reactions from the grown ups. The end result of spanking or time outs is the same – to make the child realize that they made a bad choice. The parents take the responsibility of ingraining the socially acceptable behaviors in a child when they start toddling around. Most of the parents teach their children to keep their hands to themselves since they cross the threshold of preschool. Children are naturally physical, keeping their hands to themselves is an acquired social skill that are taught by parents and teachers. If the parent uses their hands to inflict physical pain, what message are they conveying? I have seen a father swat at his child to stop him from hitting a peer. What did the child really learn? It’s ok for dad to hit, but it is not ok for me to do the same? Prime example of double standard right there. Children may display a desired behavior for the fear of getting physically hurt, but is that desired behavior ingrained in them? Will they behave well because that is the right thing to do?

Many equate lack of corporal punishment to lackadaisical parenting. Kids get spoilt if they are not dealt with a firm hand – literally. Spare the rod, spoil the child may just be the most quoted line from the bible. I have heard we are bringing up a generation of spoilt adults because we believe in the new fangled parenting of not spanking. That, I think, is far from the truth. If a child is occasionally spanked for some misgiving, yet the parents give in to all his demands at other times, he will eventually grow up to be selfish, spoilt and yes, to some extent, violent. When it is their turn to be parents, chances are, they will continue corporal punishment quoting ‘spare the rod, spoil the child.’ I do think a parent can be strict and effective without raising his/her voice as long as they stick to their guns. Some feel a spank here and there is far more effective than constant nagging. I agree nagging is useless. the children tune you out, it falls in deaf ears but kids get used to spanking too. They know it hurts for the moment but the moment passes. So it is not really a good alternative.

Most spank their children to teach a lesson, and not to really hurt them. Ideally, if the anger element can be kept out of spanking and it made clear to the child that this kind of punishment is being meted out to him for a particular bad behavior, it MAY yield result. But there are parents who need lessons in anger management. Corporal punishment is a slippery slope then, it can lead to a trip (or many) to emergency rooms. It has happened before and happens often, unfortunately. Does spanking in childhood traumatize the child for life? Most cases, it doesn’t. They grow up and live to tell the tale. I was spanked pretty regularly, now I laugh with my mother and give her a hard time about it. She says she made a mistake when she hit me. She has realized later in life she shouldn’t have inflicted pain and I should never, ever hit her grandchildren. Yes, we see some double standards here 🙂 !

Having said all that, I know it is easier said than done. I have smacked my children a few times in their lives. I have come close to spanking them many more times than I care to remember. I have seriously counted till ten to get my anger under control. I have yelled at them, nagged them, and done everything that parents do when they lose control. I am not holier than thou, by any means. But then hated myself later remembering their scared eyes. I lost control. Moreover, I lost control on little people who are completely dependant on me. I am their protector, I would never want them to ever feel I will inflict them physical pain. I am an assertive parent and I want them to recognize my authority over them for making serious decisions but not by beating them to submission. I apologized to them and promised I will never raise my hands again. I have kept my promise.

Are my kids going to be better humans than another who is spanked in childhood? Heck no! I hope they will be happy, successful individuals and so will be the child who was occasionally spanked as a form of punishment. The choice of corporal punishment is more about me as a parent. It is about what kind of parent I want to be. The idea of inflicting physical pain to teach a point does not appeal to me. That doesn’t mean they won’t hate me till they are thirty. And the same fate awaits my fellow parent who reaches for the rod instead of taking away a favorite toy for thee days for a particularly serious misgiving. I just won’t have to say later, ‘I shouldn’t have hit you when you were a child. That was a mistake. But don’t you EVER lay on a hand on my grandchildren!’ 🙂 ! At the end of the day, not choosing corporal punishment is really about who I am and what kind of parent I want to be.

The gift she gave me.

I was in seventh grade when I met her for the first time. The doorbell rang, I raced to open the door and there she was, looking back at me with a toothless grin. Not a single tooth to be seen in that wide smile she gave me. She was hungry and was wondering if I could give her any food to eat. The request for food was made in an empty stomach, but the smile that accompanied the request was one of pure joy. The smile reached her eyes.

She was an old woman, probably early to mid seventies, short, very thin, and as I said earlier, toothless. She had an old saree draped around her thin frame. The saree must have been white at some point but had turned gray with wash and use. I had watched Satyajit Ray’s movie ‘Panther Panchali’ recently and there was Indir Thakrun (a tragic character from the movie) right there in front of me. Her story wasn’t unusual. A childless widow with no money, no support, all alone in old age. She didn’t beg on the streets, but got by somehow with the help of her neighbors. She woke up that morning to find there was nothing to eat so she went from house to house to see if someone could give her food.

The connection was instant. She must have touched some chord in my young heart. I ran in to get her some provisions. Our relationship started that day. She didn’t come everyday, maybe once or twice a week. She wiped her forehead with her gray saree and rested her bony legs as she told me stories of her life. What I found wondrous about her was despite being in terrible poverty where she had to depend on neighbors to survive, she had an inner light, an inexplicable joy surrounding her. She laughed while telling her woeful tales and never forgot to thank the lord for letting her witness yet another day. And she had the most beautiful smile that I ever saw. She blessed me – every time we met. Instead of saying goodbye, she said, ‘May you be a queen one day, my girl! May you get a lot of love in your life!’ Being a queen was not on the top of my list those days, so I simply said, ‘Mashi, (aunty) come again!’

I tried to be sneaky while getting rice, dal, vegetables for my adopted aunt, but it was more of a game between my mother and I. She knew how much I was giving, yet she was indulgent and looked on quietly while I hid cups of rice from her. I still remember how the old woman’s eyes lit up in anticipation of a good meal if I could produce an unexpected vegetable or a seasonal fruit once in a while. One time, my mother bought a saree for her during Durga Puja, the biggest festival of the Bengalis. I remember, she cried.

She came to us regularly for almost three years, and then suddenly, didn’t. I thought about her sometimes, my family asked me where my adopted aunt was but I am ashamed to admit, I didn’t go looking for her. I didn’t have a clear idea where she lived. Also, youth is probably a bit self oriented. I was heady with the feeling of being young, growing up and just life. Priorities changed. I can’t say I forgot her, but she definitely slipped way down the totem pole as I moved on.

The elderly woman in my past embodied the spirit of old India, in its best and its worst. She represented the widows of India, uncared for, cast aside. Yet she remained accepting, joyful, thankful. In those days, she could ring people’s doorbell and ask for help. She wasn’t kept out by the security guards of modern-day gated communities. In those days the neighbors actually took care of her in the way they knew best. I seek for this warmth among the glittery malls and glass and concrete corporate houses in the big metros when I go back. Sometimes I get a whiff of the India I left behind, but often times, I don’t.

I think of her often now. I wonder how her end was. If death was kind to her, or she died alone. I think she came in my life at that particular time for a reason. She came to teach me empathy. She taught my tender, young heart to feel the sorrows of another and to try to help in whatever capacity. I also question who was truly helped in that situation. I gave her some food for sustenance, but what she gave me in return is invaluable. The lesson of kindness.

I later read Mother Teresa’s quote ‘If you can’t feed a hundred, then just feed one’, and I thought of my adopted aunt. As Albert Einstein said ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’. My cups of rice were indeed countable, her blessings and lessons to me, were not.

Going to the beach…

We drove down to the beach to expose my poor parents to some camping experience. We hyped up the trip, expounded on the ‘fun’ aspect of camping on the beach. The sun, the sand, the water, the blue sky, the roasting hot dogs on the fire, the camp fire songs and stories. My parents come from the congested city of Kolkata. In Kolkata, we don’t go camping – generally. In the pleasant winter, we go to the botanical gardens or the zoo for a picnic, at least we used to when I was little. So camping was going to be a completely new experience for my mom and dad. We conveniently forgot to mention the uncomfortable sleeping conditions, the bugs, the darkness, and the other negative stuff that non camping lovers highlight and true campers pooh pooh. I am somewhere in the middle. But this post is not about our camping experience. This post is about the stream of thoughts that I had on our way to the State park for our camping trip.

The back roads that led to the beach flashed some images of rural Bengal in my mind and how different the two settings are. What different emotions these two very different scenes evoke in me. Last year, Sean and I took a road trip to Shantiniketan, famous for the Viswa Bharati University that was founded by Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore envisioned a different kind of education for the young, malleable, open minds that children have. The minds with endless possibilities that can achieve great things only if they were set free to think outside the box. He created open air class rooms where classes were held under chateem trees, the teachers taught in the open air, under the sky, amidst nature. I had seen the university a few times but I wanted to show my American husband what my favorite poet, visionary and educator, Rabindranath Tagore had envisioned and created.

Our car sped through the controlled chaos – unplanned, haphazard greenery, chaos even amidst the resplendent green, mud huts, small plots of land being ploughed by man and oxen, brown-skinned people, scantily dressed children looking on at the passing cars, collecting water, playing marbles. Little ponds in between, women drawing water for household chores, the earthy smell mixed with the smell of cow dung and manure. Thin cows and water buffaloes grazing, stray, mangy dogs, squawking chicken, songs of Rabindranath Tagore playing in my mind – the familiar, soothing feeling of a scene from home, a feeling of belonging. It will be presumptuous of me to assume that the people that we saw in those surroundings were happy. I realize that thought would be naive and idealistic. But the aura was one of simplicity. I will also say this, it was easy for us to feel that way sitting in our air-conditioned car, looking out at the hard-working men and women and enjoying this feeling of being relaxed and carefree.



The contrast to here is stark. The planned stretches of farmland, picturesque houses far in between with white picket fences, healthy looking lonely, dappled horse flicking its tail, fattened cow grazing. An Amish gentleman trotting steadily on his horse-drawn buggy in his traditional Amish clothes; tall, shiny silos raising their proud heads high up proclaiming the prosperity of their owner, automatic, giant pivot irrigation systems irrigating the farmland, a farmer on a tractor – occasionally spotted. Images of apple pies and fried chicken flood my mind’s eye and make me desperate to taste some. It is neat, orderly, slightly clinical but a sense of peace and quiet, a sense of calm.

As I said earlier, the two scenes in two very different countries evoke two very different feelings in me, both positive, both peaceful in different ways.

Since I was already in a mood for comparing, the beaches brought out different feelings as well. The beaches here mostly have clean yellow sand, relatively less polluted water, lots of skin, umbrellas, beach chairs, sun lotions, beach toys and sand castles. Bathrooms and concession stands to make one’s beach experience pleasurable. I love to just get up and go for a long walk by the ocean feeling the spray on my face, the sand under my feet and the sun on my shoulders. People generally bring surf boards, go surfing, swim, eat their food, put more sunblock on, read or sleep. When I go to a beach in this country, I mainly look out at the horizon and try to fathom the expanse of the sea, and expand with it in my mind. I notice the changing colors of water more, I notice the blushing red sky at sunset, I look up at the full moon up in the sky, I notice the sand dunes and the shadows they cast as the sun changes position, I am more in tune with nature.

In India, nature for me takes a back seat since there is so much entertainment and people watching on the beach. Girls in their full traditional outfit, salwar kameezes, giggling at the edge of the water, daring each other to go in. Men in their underwear, a little deeper, in the water, maybe up to their knees, urging their respective wives to come to him. The young couple gets some sweet moments of shared intimacy in the water as the waves crash them against each other. The newly wed bride holds on to her young husband and laughs a happy, content laugh. The elders in the family, if present, look on with a bemused, indulgent smile on their faces, happy that the man is taking care of his woman. All this touching will be frowned upon as soon as they leave the safety of the water. A married woman of mature age wears a salwar kameez instead of her regular wear – a saree and revels in the guilty pleasure. The pictures will be her only memories of this change once she goes back to her regular life. She will never wear anything but a saree there. The hawkers sell their ware, photographers try to take pictures of you and make you buy them. Food sellers cook food right by the beach making the air aromatic with the heavenly smells from their smoky woks. People buy cheap shell jewellery, eat road side food, it is a carnival every night by the beach. In the midst of all this, the sun rises with the same splendor and casts brilliant light on the sea, the sea changes different hues of blue and aquamarine, the sun sets with resplendence. I sometimes get a glimpse, often times don’t, since my eyes are glued to the mass of humanity.

I am at a good place. I find my sense of balance by belonging to both these countries. I need my simplicity, and I need by orderliness, the beauty of nature refreshes my soul and my fellow humans make me feel a part of a huge plan. I need it all and lucky me, I get it all.