Happy 10th birthday, my library branch.

Ten years ago, on this day, I walked into our palatial library with my husband and 2 young children in tow. As we drove in, we were astonished to see police officers directing traffic. The grand opening of my branch attracted a huge crowd, about 7000 community members – large enough for the county to send police officers to manage flow of people and cars. I remember walking around in awe, looking at the space, the gleaming stacks and columns, the terrace, the collection. Each book seemed new, smelled new. I remember thinking working at a library such as this would be a dream come true.

The dream did come true for me as I was hired as a Part Time Customer Service Specialist only seven months after the grand opening of the building. Within a year, I switched departments and joined the Research and Instructor team but remained part time to take care of the children. After a couple of years, I got a Full Time position in the same department and I work there still.

I have written before and write often how life affirming working at a public library can be. We get to interact with a microcosm of humanity almost on a daily basis and we realize 98% of the people, our customers, are kind. But apart from the sense of purpose that I find at my job, my work place has proved to be my anchor when I realized I was slowly sinking to a deep, dark place after both my parents died. I was told to take as much time as I needed. But after a few days of baba’s death, I felt I was succumbing in the quicksand of grief and I needed something to emerge from those depths of suffocating sorrow. I went back to the library. I wanted to be by myself, but needed to be busy. My colleagues gave me that space but remained close enough for support. I remember shelving cart after cart when I first came back. Shelving carts of materials kept me moving, and gave my mind a sense of numbness that it sorely needed. Between the stacks with only books for company, I found some semblance of peace. Public libraries are assets in the community. It comes to the aid of many as they look for opportunities to move ahead in life. It came to my aid by providing me with a job, a group of caring colleagues who have become family and my public library job saved me when I needed saving.

So happy birthday, my library. May your journey to enrich people’s lives continue, may you continue to promote equity and inclusion, may you continue to be a safe place for all and a cornerstone for the community. I am blessed to be part of that journey for a while.


Will wear the mask in a minute..

Our library has a mask mandate and as a library worker, one of my jobs is to remind customers to either pull up their masks over their noses from their chin or actually wear a mask if they plan to peruse our collection, use our computers or use our study space. I am a non confrontational person and a hard core introvert on top of that. So every time I see someone without mask, I groan inwardly, take a deep breath before I begin my diffident journey to ask that person to mask up. I have come a long way in these 10 years to politely assert myself in such situations but I still dread it.

Anyway, this morning as I was shelving in the poetry section, a lady came up to me and said in a soft whisper, “There is a man sitting out there with no mask on.” I assured her I will talk to him right away. After taking some deep breaths and groaning inwardly, I walked over to the gentleman.

“Sir, I am going to have to ask you to put your mask on since there is a mask mandate in the library.”

“Oh, sure mam, sure! I am just drinking my coffee.” He pointed to his disposable coffee cup and then also showed me his mask.

I thanked him and told him to put his mask on as soon as possible. And walked away. I continued shelving in other sections and then walked back to where he was working to clean up shelves. He looked at me with the corner of his eye and lifted his cup to his mouth. He was still mask less after 15 minutes. And I had a sneaky feeling that his coffee cup was empty. He was simply using that as a prop to continue to remain mask less. I chuckled at his ingenuity. I had to walk up and tell him to mask up now and if he needed to sip he could pull his mask down to sip and put it back on again. He was not as pleasant as he was during our first interaction but he did put his mask back on.

As I made my way back to the kiosk, I noticed a young man who did not have his mask on. I breathed, groaned and talked to him about doing the right thing (Could you please put your mask on, sir?). He did right away. I walked away. The next time I went near him, he had taken it off and put it on the table by his laptop. I just stood there next to him for a few seconds, staring at him. He looked at me, slowly retrieved his mask and put it on his nose.

Near the kiosk, I saw a very elderly woman walking towards me in hesitant shuffle, without mask. “What did I do wrong this morning to deserve this?” I asked the universe as I approached the woman and said my refrain – pull your mask up for crying out loud! (I worded my request differently, of course). She slowly pulled a mask from her pocket and put it on without acknowledging me or my polite request at all.

Then my shift ended and I walked away from the desk. I entered my cubicle and shook my head at humanity.

Khushi’s Christmas gifts and happy haunting.

Khushi requested that I bring her a school bag when I go to Kolkata. Instead of waiting for that long, we ordered a school bag, a set of pencils with a cool (I think) looking pencil box and a water bottle for her from Amazon India. The packet has arrived at our apartment in Kolkata. However, I told Gouri and Breshpati (Khushi’s mom) to hide the gifts till Christmas and give them to her as a Christmas present.

Gouri planned further ahead. She asked Breshpati to keep the gifts next to her when she falls asleep on Christmas eve so she wakes up on Christmas day to a surprise. Supposedly, baba, Khushi’s adoptive grandfather, bought several gifts for her every Christmas and asked her mother to hide them and put them by her side on the night of Christmas eve. Gouri wants to continue that tradition that dadai started.

I listened to Gouri’s excited voice and felt so intensely sad about all of it. Not the gift giving, of course, but the fact baba is not here to give her the Christmas joy. Gouri plans to have someone write a note saying the gift is from didiya and dadai. I wondered if that will scare the little girl – receiving gifts from dead grandparents.

As I cried after the phone conversation, Sahana explained to me that the idea was brilliant and Khushi will not be scared. She will understand that this giving of gift is simply a show of love. Despite death and tragedy, love flows uninterrupted and that is the beauty of living. She said, if Khushi thinks didiya and dadai are haunting her, it is a kind of happy haunting. She won’t mind. 😀

“That made me so happy!”

I have written before that the words ‘thank you’ and ‘welcome’ were seldom used in our childhood. Now that I think about it, there are no literal translations of the word ‘welcome’ in Bengali. When we were gifted something, we used to say “I absolutely love this.” (bhishon bhalo laglo). And we smiled big. That was saying thank you. And when we were thanked in some way, we reciprocated gratitude by either smiling big in return or saying something like Spanish speaking people say – de nada. We said some variation of “oh that was nothing”.

I wished my Uncle and Aunt a happy marriage anniversary this morning. In response, my Uncle blessed us, “Tora khub bhalo thakish.” (All of you stay well). That was his ‘thank you’ for my wish – his blessing. And my Aunt said, “Khub khushi holam.” (That made me so happy). My wish made her so happy!

As I pulled books for customers this morning at work, I mulled over the sentiments. My good wishes made my Aunt happy. That response is so much more meaningful to me than ‘thank you’. It spoke to me and made me smile. I could visualize her face thousands of miles away, smiling at my words reading my wish on her special day. That brought a smile to my morning.

Baba too had trouble saying thank you to wishes. When I wished him a ‘happy birthday’ or ‘happy anniversary’ he got a little confused and wished me ‘same to you’ in response. And ma scolded him that he did not follow ettiquette – ‘Arreh, thank you bolo!’ (say thank you). But ‘same to you’ was funnier and his confusion was so endearing. We always laughed.

Space on your book shelf.

A friend shared this beautiful quote with me, which I promptly shared with my book loving daughter, as well as my book loving friend:

“There is space on everyone’s bookshelf for book you have outgrown but can’t give away. They hold your youth between their pages, like flowers pressed on a half-forgotten summer’s day.”

I left my country for love with simply the clothes on my back and just a couple of books that I could not leave behind. And then, I brought back books after each trip home. I think hard on which books made the first trip with me, but unfortunately I don’t remember. They are mixed in with all the books that I have accumulated over the years. I wish I could remember.

However, I have brought back books that transported me to their worlds temporarily during half forgotten summer days in my youth. Books like Adorsho Hindu Hotel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay holds my youth within its page. Tenida Shomogro by Narayan Gangopadhyay holds my youth like pressed flowers within its pages. There are too many to name – Chander pahar, any book written by Nabonita Debsen, Shirshendu Bandopadhyay, Rabindranath Tagore, Ashapurna Debi. Along with these stalwarts of Bengali literature reside one and only Jane Austen, Gerald Durrell, Somerset Maugham, Charles Dickens, Enid Blyton….

Memories of devouring the pages of Adorsho Hindu Hotel is always a soft place where I land when I think back on my reading memories. I remember our cool first floor room darkened by thick curtains to keep the angry sun out during summer afternoons, and I, half inclined on our bed, reading about Hajari Thakur, a cook in a cheap roadside restaurant in rural Bengal – a man invisible to society due to his poverty, slowly becoming visible because of his humility, work ethic and integrity. It is a story of the success of ‘everyman’ without compromising his ethics. Weaved within the story is the fabric of humanity, complete with love, greed, exploitation and opportunities. The story pulls at my heart string to this day when I think about it. And when I think about the book, I think about my mother. They are synonymous because in my mind’s eye she is always present next to me when I am reading this book. She reads her own book as I read mine. I see this scene vividly when I close my eyes.

About half an hour…

It was cold outside but the morning was golden with bright sunshine. The sun streamed into our living room illuminating the photos of ma and baba. As I sat in front of them like every morning, sipping my coffee, I visualized in my mind’s eye the moment when those photos were taken. We have those moments.

I put on my coat, put in my ear plugs and went out for a brisk walk on a crispy cold day. The melodious voice of Kabir Suman singing Rabindra Sangeet poured on to my soul. As I crunched on the dry grass, felt the soft sun on my face and soothed my soul with music, I thought of ma and baba. A strange thought gave me peace today. I don’t know if they are looking down upon me, but I want them to be free of me and my life. I want them to start anew. Go on to your next life, find new happiness, forge new relationships, fall in love again, create your own tapestry of life with love and friendship and yes, loss too since that is inevitable. I will live out my life with the memories and in my mind I will always feel your love for me, my children and my husband. I don’t want you to look down upon me. Be new you.

I am writing this after my walk before the glow of contentment passes and the familiar feelings of anger, longing and heart break return. But while it lasts, I will cherish this new feeling of being able to let go.

You learn to live…..

…..is what I said to my cousin this morning who lost her mother to Covid a couple of weeks ago.

Right after my parents died, a friend messaged me saying I will learn to rebuild my life around this chasm of loss. She learnt to do it after her parents’ death. At the time it seemed impossible. But after six months, I understand what she said. And it is so sad that I am heping my little cousin deal with her mother’s death by drawing on my own experience of loss. She went back to work last week.

“I am worried about facing people, answering their question about how I am doing,” she said.

I was too. I was afraid of making people uncomfortable as they came face to face with me and my grief when I went back to work. I told her to be sincere in her one sentence acceptances of condolences and then ask the person how s/he was doing. It worked for both parties. It deflected the discomfort and conversation moved to a neutral zone. She followed my advice – with success, she reported later.

She sent me a poem today by E.E Cummings – I Carry Your Heart With Me and I sent her this quote from The Tea Dragon Tapestry by Kate O’Neill – “Everything that happens is part of your wholeness. The sadness, the loss, the hurt, as well as the joy, the love, the friendship – it is all part of your tapestry.”

All through time, I believe, humans have held up each other this way as they navigated through labyrinths of intense grief and loss. I believe there lies the beauty of life, in forms of solidarity, support. I received it (and continue to receive it). I am paying it forward to my little sister. “I am here for you. Lean on me”. This sentence carries so much power. And meaning.

Ignorance, insensitivity or microaggression?

At the call center of our library, the conversation went like this:

Customer: You have a sweet accent. Where are you from?

Me: Thanks. I am from India.

Customer: Which part, North or South?

Me: I am from the east, Calcutta.

Customer: Ah, you mean Kolkata. It is called Kolkata, right?

Me (a little excited): Yes, Kolkata. Have you ever been?

Customer: No. Now, do you still throw your dead bodies in the water?

Since I have been in this country, I have been asked if I went to school on an elephant or if tigers roamed in our streets, but this was new.

Me: That is not the norm, sir. The dead bodies are either cremated or buried depending on the beliefs of the dead person. However, India is a huge complex country. There may be bodies that are put in the water but those cases are exceptions.

At this point, the conversation shifted to pre independent India and for some strange reason, my father. The next question was:

Customer: So did your father know Gandhi?

Me: My father was a little child when India got its independence.

He asked where my father was. I told him he died of Covid this year.

Customer: So did you take his body to Varanasi? Don’t you go to heaven if you are cremated in Varanasi?

At this point, I asked if there was anything else I could help him with since I had other calls coming in. I had helped him already with research questions before the topic of my ‘sweet accent’ came up which was followed by deluge of questions about India.

Later, I thought about the conversation and his questions. There was no intention to hurt me or malice behind those queries. He was an older man who wanted to exhibit his book read knowledge about India. Yet the questions reeked of microaggression. So what was it? Ignorance, insensitivity or microaggression?