Hindsight is 20/20

I realize now, at my ripe old age of 52, that I have been such a fool. I did not appreciate all the wonderful things that I took for granted in the past.

I still remember grumbling and pouting as I was forced to take a nap in the afternoon next to my mother in the blistering heat of Kolkata as a child. I wanted to listen to stories (or read when I was able) from my mother but she needed a break from me, I am sure. So she mandated that I close my eyes and fall asleep in the afternoon. I would open one eye to see if she was sleeping so I could quietly sneak away from her and have a few hours of freedom. Some days I could, most days, I got caught. It seemed like a punishment in those days and now afternoon naps, when I can get one, are such decadent luxuries that happen once in a blue moon.

Every morning, before I left for college, the woman who cooked for our family prepared pomfret fish in mustard gravy and hot, steaming rice for me. I barely touched it. I was so eager to leave home and eat junk food from Milanda’s canteen at Jadavpur University that I turned up my nose at the lovingly prepared meal at home. I picked at the rice and fish and Jhumadi (the chef extraordinaire) yelled at me, “Didi ar ektu bhat khao. Oi jonye tumi oto roga.” (Eat a little more rice. You are so thin because you don’t eat.) I grabbed my bag and shut the door behind me. I would kill for someone to prepare that exact same food for me. Especially when I come back home from work and have to prepare dinner.

Last night, I was massaging argan oil in my hair. It was a chore when I was little. Not that I had to do anything myself. Someone sat me in front of them, massaged coconut oil in my long hair, braided them tightly before I could go to bed. The belief was, if you tied your hair very tightly in plaits before going to bed, your hair grew faster. And hair oil was necessary for a full head of hair, of course. I dreaded this ritual. I hated anyone touching my hair. And the tight braids before bed time hurt my head. I was a demure child but I did rebel against hair tying before bed time. My mother, who cut her hair short, relented and let me go to bed with my hair open. That was such a win! But hair oil was a must. As I massaged hair oil last night, I longed for those loving massages again. I could go to a salon, of course. But it was not simply the massage though, it was the entire ambiance. Me sitting on the floor with my long hair down my back in our one room flat. The TV blaring in front. Ma sitting on the bed chatting with the household help and Jhumadi telling us her life story while putting oil in my hair. I can almost see the scene in front of my eyes.

So, the moral of this blog is soak up any nurturing that you are getting at his point in your life. If someone is doing something for you, enjoy every minute, don’t take any of it for granted. When you are adulting real hard and there is no one massaging oil in your hair or making you pomfret fish in mustard gravy or forcing you to slow down and take a nap, you will look back and sigh. Hindsight is always 20/20.


An accidental sunrise

The most important part of my morning ritual is sitting quietly in front of the photos of my parents with my cup of coffee and staring at their smiling faces. The world around me is quiet, fast asleep. The only sound that I hear is of the heating unit pumping blessed heat in our house on cold, winter mornings. I do this every day, without fail.

Today, as I got up to put my coffee cup away after my morning ritual with my parents, I happened to glance out of the window. I caught the sun rise, accidentally. Everyday, I wake up early and look inward instead of outside. And while I introspect and look back at memories or wipe away tears or question ‘why’ again and again, the sun rises with resplendent glory. I guess, this is nature’s way of balancing sadness with beauty. I will, perhaps, incorporate looking outwards in my morning ritual. After all, life is about balance.

A moment with Durga

This year I went to Boston to celebrate Durga puja with my cousin sister. Boston Durga bari’s Durga Puja is a beautiful four day affair that brings back memories of Durga puja of home. The ambiance, the joy, the rustle of new clothes, the trendy blouses, the designer kurta pajamas, the elegant sarees, the intricate jewelry, the smoke of dhunuchi and the crowd – all of these evoked the quintessential pujo feelings. If it wasn’t so cold as soon as one stepped outside the mandap (the tent in the parking lot of Braj Mandir Temple) in Holbrook, MA, one could totally feel like one was in a ghoroya puja of Kolkata.

I have my own unique relationship with the goddess. I don’t feel the need to participate in pushpanjali, or boron or any kind of ritual. My relationship with Durga is not one of a devotee and a deity. It is much more personal. To me, she is an embodiment of my memories of special four days every year. She is a feeling in my heart that is precious and invaluable. It is hard to explain. She is also a symbol of everything that I consider good. She is the divinity that, I hope, resides within me and within others. Every year, her celebration, reminds me to nurture this divinity within me and slay my inner demons so I am kinder, more considerate, less judgmental. Durga is also shakti – power. Those who wrote the Vedas knew the inherent power that women possess so they made a woman the symbol of power. Durga is all powerful yet when she comes to us she comes as the daughter of the house coming to her ‘baaper bari’ (her parents’ house). She is our beloved girl as well as the epitome of ‘mighty girl’. We do not worship her because we fear her. We worship her and love her because she is our very own, our dearest girl who assures us, inspires us, loves us and also blesses us. At least, this is how I relate to her.

During the four days of Durga puja, I sat far away from the idol while devotees stood in line to see a glimpse of Durga’s face. I admired the fashion, the jewelry, the little children instead of focusing on the mantras and the aarti. When everyone had left late at night and my sister was busy arranging the kitchen for next day’s massive preparation of food, I walked over to the front of the tent where the idol of Durga was placed decked with weapons in her ten arms and adorned with jewelry. The repentant ashura sat at her feet looking up, seeking forgiveness. And Durga had forgiven him. Her eyes, in this particular idol, radiated kindness, assurance. I bowed my head in front of the idol made of clay. But in reality, I bowed my head in gratitude for all the memories that her advent to the world has gifted me. She is my ‘shorot kal er neel akash’ (the blue sky of autumn), she is my ‘kashphul’ (according to Google, wild sugarcane that grows in Bengal during autumn), she is my smell of new clothes, my puja vacation from school, she is my mother’s laughter and my father’s relaxation, she is my memories of first crush and beating heart, she is my intolerable crowd, my pandal hopping, my Kolkata lights. She is the blisters on my feet due to new shoes, the rustle of my new clothes. She is my delicious street food and outing with friends. She is my counting pocket money to see how far that will take us. She is the crowded traffic on the streets, the red ribbon on the hair of the little girl who lives on the streets with her homeless family. She is the ‘bonedi barir pujo’. She is house full of relatives. Mostly, she is my feeling of joy and love and family.

She is all these memories that I keep in my heart all year and take out to savor during these four days every year. I will never get them back but I am so blessed that I have them forever.

“You don’t age!”

He commented as I put paper in the printer so he could get his print job. I have written about this customer in my previous blogs. He calls me ‘my lady’ but not in a creepy way. He calls me lady in a way that makes me feel almost regal. I feel I should raise my hand and give him a regal wave. I just smile instead while in my head I am waving – regally. You can read about him in this blog .

I just gave a foolish ‘Haha’ and thanked him. Yet as I walked away from the printer, I chuckled. I said in my head, “No sir! You are not getting off that easy. You are the one who asked me a few months ago if I was pregnant. And when I said I was just fat, you were so embarrassed and did not know where to look. You are just trying to get back into my good graces by calling me ageless. I am not falling for that. Moreover, you just saw me yesterday and the day before and the day before that. It is not like you saw me after a long time and realized that I don’t age. But you are still one of my favorites!”

I said all that in my head, of course. He is a regular at the library. I look for him if I don’t see him for a few days and hope he is ok. There are other regulars that have truly become part of my life. Some I talk to everyday while some I don’t. But if I don’t see them for a while I think about them. One gentleman tries very hard to convince me that I should buy stocks in India because the country is doing well and I will make a lot of money. I try equally hard to convince him that I don’t have the head for investments. He is undeterred. One gentleman prefaces his research questions by saying, “You know I am very curious….”. Another man said it meant a lot to him when I greeted him with a hello. He is somewhat passive aggressive to the library workers and I am a little wary of him but I greet everyone with a smile, he was no exception. It was good to hear that it meant something to him that day. We never know what battle each of us are fighting. One woman comes and shows me the salwar kameez that she wears from time to time – a gift from her Indian friends. She is very interested in India and tries to engage me in conversations about the country any chance she gets. Another gentleman finds faults with everything we do and I greet him with an energetic hello every time I see him. He gets a little flustered at my enthusiasm and grunts a hello back at me. I will take it. He needs help with computers sometimes and is actually quite appreciative when I help him. If I can get a smile out of him, I feel like my day is made.

I just wrote about some of the regulars. There are so many small interactions with customers at the library that make me feel connected. These are our wins as library workers. At the end of the day, these interactions are mostly rewarding. There are days when I am frustrated with the red tapes and delayed responses and unnecessary paper work, but interactions with my community – smiles, laughter, talk about books, research questions, book clubs balance out the frustrations. When I take stock of my work life, I realize I still love what I do.

Going back to ‘You don’t age’ – no sir, my favorite customer (and I don’t even know your name), flattery will get you nowhere! 🙂

Observations from the elliptical… and beyond

I chose the worst possible playlist from Spotify before getting on the elliptical machine today. I generally listen to 90’s Bollywood hits or a mix of Bengali songs about social change but today I chose the Bollywood Workout Beats (or something like that). Big mistake! The first song was almost ten minutes long Sanskrit prayer to Lord Shiva. Now, I have nothing against Shiva. I always thought he is a pretty cool deity although I find his wife (Durga) much cooler, but I don’t need to listen to someone singing paean to him for 10 minutes when my thighs are burning. I need songs that will make me forget the thigh burn. I don’t keep the phone available near me to discourage my inclination to check messages while I exercise, so changing playlist was out of question without interrupting the work out. Anyway, the songs that followed after that interminably long prayer song were not up to snuff either. So instead of focusing on the music in my head, I looked around and surveyed my fellow gym users.

  1. First, I love to see diversity in race, age, body types doing something for themselves. Older men, in their seventies, walking slowly or running, on the treadmill. Older women, doing the same and also stretching, practicing their balance.
  2. Young men and women focused on their phones, grim expression on faces doing feats, either freehand or on the machines, that I can only dream of and never achieve. I saw a young woman pull herself up a pull up bar and hold it for, what it seemed like, eternity. I marveled at her ability and strength. You go girl!
  3. Another young man held a plank forever. The core strength was incredible. My muscles quiver like jelly after 30 seconds.
  4. After a weight round, young men surreptitiously checked themselves out in the mirror, gently touching their biceps and strutting a little. It made me smile.
  5. One woman, a regular, gets on a elliptical, and has so much inner joy as she goes hard on the pedals. She raises her hand sometimes, moves her head, her hair flips all around, smiles. It seems her whole body is in tune with the work out. I would like to know what music she is listening to. She seems so very joyful. She was flipping her hair around today, moving to a tune that she could only hear.
  6. A very friendly trainer went around high fiving regulars, primarily older men and women. It is lovely to watch the camaraderie. Some regulars, after work out, meet at the lobby and chat over cups of free coffee.
  7. I observe the forms of some serious gym rats and make a mental note to emulate their form when I use that particular machine.

After my hour on the elliptical ended, I got off the machine, drank some water and changed playlist. With Arijit Singh crooning in my ears, I stretched and continued observing humanity around me. After a good hour and a half at the gym, I went into the locker room and got the shock of my life as I happened to glance at the mirror. Pagla Dashu stared back at me. A female version of him, of course. The top of my hair was completely frizzy thanks to the head phones, my face drenched in sweat, eyes puffy from lack of sleep and basic age related wrinkles. Pagla Dashu, my beloved fictional character is young, crazy and charming, if a little insane, but his name popped up in my head as I looked at myself in the mirror. If you are not familiar with him, click on the link – I already wikied him for you. I am considerate like that.

Before heading out, I put an online order for chicken biriyani from a local Indian restaurant. I justified eating biriyani right after a good workout by thinking, I am exercising for mental health and today, biriyani is essential for my mental health. I went to the Indian grocery store, right next to the restaurant, and picked up boring things like cilantro and spices. I also picked up a big bar of Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate but I put it back on the shelf again. I did work hard to burn some calories, I was about to put all those back in my body in the form of biriyani. Chocolate bar had to wait for another day. I did pick up a bar of Mysore Sandal soap. I have been missing ma and baba terribly these past days. That soap was their favorite. I wanted the smell of that soap. It is incredible how deep associations that mere smell can bring up.

I see no change in my weight so far. However, random folks have not come up to me and asked me if I was pregnant. So there’s that. And I feel a change in my mental health. I am more peaceful for longer stretches of time than before.

My brain is leaking out language!!

Last night I lay in bed trying to think of English for the Bengali word ‘abohela’. I tossed and turned to formulate a sentence. I could say the sentence in various ways to convey the meaning but the exact word was escaping me. Every time I tried to think of the English word, abohela took its place. When I can not remember something, I panic thinking this is the beginning of the end. I think of dementia, Alzheimer’s. I think of every horrible outcome that will take away my faculties and while I will breathe, my life would be meaningless. As I panicked, the word eluded me more. I had to get up and use Google translate. The English for abohela is neglect. I could not think of that word.

Just a few days ago, I could not think of the Bengali word for absence. I had to go to Google translate again. It is ‘anuposthiti’.

Interestingly enough, forgetting the English word did not bother me half as much as forgetting the Bengali word. Am I losing my beloved Bengali because I don’t use it enough? I sometimes worry I will forget to read Bengali – the language I love the most. The language in which I can truly communicate what exactly is in my heart or in my mind. But I get to use it sparingly in my life. I sometimes speak Bengali with Sahana or when I call my aunt in Kolkata. For 2 years now, I have not spoken it regularly since the two people I consistently spoke Bengali with, are dead.

My brain stops translating words when I am exhausted, late at night or I am sick or in pain. During child birth, I told Sean to stay by my side at all times. I said, “I know my brain will not decipher any of the English words the doc and nurses will say, so you need to be next to me to translate.” I told someone to translate from English to English to me. Sean does not speak my language. So he reiterated what the nurses or doctor just said but coming from a familiar voice, the language penetrated my brain through the pain. It did.

My brain is always confused also about the he/she pronoun. Bengali is a language where pronouns are gender neutral. My biggest difficulty, when my brain is tired, is assigning correct pronoun to the gender that folks identify with. Non-binary pronouns are easier for me and I make fewer mistakes with those than he/she pronouns. Moreover, there is only one Bengali word for hand and arm. I constantly forget to differentiate between those two body parts. My English pronunciation is different from Americans and I am sure, I often write and speak wrong English. That doesn’t bother me too much. I would, however, be very ashamed if my Bengali leaves me.

I have shelves full of Bengali books in my basement – a collection that my mother curated for me over the years. It is time to pull out some of my favorites to reassure myself that Bengali is not leaking out from my brain. Can someone really lose one’s mother tongue?

Thank you, 90’s Bollywood hits

No, really! Thank you to the toe tapping numbers of the 90’s Bollywood hits, the item numbers as we used to call them. I have loved listening to them in my 20’s on my cassette tapes, hated them being blared out of big speakers from puja pandals during Durga Puja, loved them again when I set up my new life here in United States and brought my cassette tapes with me. Then the songs got transferred to music cds which my baba bought for me and I packed them in my suitcase when I came back after a visit home. Now I listen to them on Spotify. They are a connection to my wild and crazy (not) teens and twenties. The lyrics don’t touch one’s soul or evoke any deep feelings, at least in my opinion. You don’t drown in the soul stirring music – at least the songs I listen to. Tagore’s songs are like a gentle salve for my soul, I listen to them when I want peace. The dhamakedar (upbeat) Bollywood songs that I like to listen to are energetic, often meaningless, and most importantly, catchy. They make your feet tap and even me, someone born with two left feet, wants to sway my hips to the beat.

I wrote in a previous blog that I have started going to the gym for mental health (and also since 4 people asked me if I was pregnant). The 90’s Bollywood hits are the reason I look forward to sweating it out on the elliptical – sometimes for an hour. I lovingly pack my headphones and phone as I get ready for gym. If I ever forgot either of those, I will truly turn around and come back home. Bottom line – I go to gym to listen to music uninterrupted for an hour and a half. The work out, my friends, is secondary.

And when songs from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge come on, or those from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, I pump the pedals to the beat. My pace goes up and boy, am I in the zone!

I wiped sweat from my eyes today, huffing and puffing at the elliptical and wondered why I enjoy this mindless music so much when I work out. I have tried music of Kabir Suman or Rabindrasangeet but they don’t quite get me through the pain. Hindi music, that too peppy numbers of the 90’s and early 2000’s, get the job done. As I listen to the same songs everyday and sing along quietly, I remember the memories associated with them. The memories of sitting with my mother or friends in the dark cinema hall, the thin, elderly ushers showing us our seat, the musty smell of the carpet in cinema halls like Priya or Ujjala or Nabina or Aleya.

In fact, the excitement of going to the movie theater started with the mini bus ride to the cinema hall when I was younger. Ma held my hand tightly as we got off the bus and stood in line to get tickets. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that ma, sometimes, even bought tickets from blackers (folks who sold tickets of a sold out show in black market for an elevated price) and I asked her hopefully “Did you get it?” We made the trip from home to the cinema hall in the blistering heat of Kolkata and we were determined not to go home without seeing the show. After the movie, there was always some lip smacking treats like the famous Ujjala’s chanachur, or phuchka or vegetable chop before the bus ride home. The music of those movies stayed on in my memory even if the stories didn’t. And today, many decades later, they still make me groove. Who remembers the huge posters of the actors and actresses that were actually drawn and painted by artists and posted up on the cinema halls and bill boards? Do they have those anymore?

I must have been a teenager when I saw an actress wearing a certain design of a salwar kameez and fell in love with it. I wanted to wear a kameez of the same design! So I cut out the photo of the heroine, Rati Agnihotri (if any of you remember her), from a film magazine and took it to our local tailor.

“Dada, I want my kameez made in this style.”

He took the cut out from my hand and looked at it intensely. He then looked up at me and slowly let his gaze slide down my skinny body. It sounds sexual but it was not. In fact it was the complete opposite. His glance was clinical and devoid of any emotions, He was appraising a body and wondering if his artwork will be worthwhile. Can the skinny frame of a young girl do his masterpiece justice? He then pointed to the voluptuous curves of the actress and looked at my figure that was pretty much a straight line. That glance was enough to convey his message – the cut is not going to look good on me as it looked on Rati Agnihotri. I had him make the kameez anyway. And he was right. The design was completely wasted on me. 🙂

Anyway, back to the songs. They bring back a lot of memories. And here is the thing though. I only remember the happy memories. I don’t remember the unbearable heat, the sweat, the smell, the mosquito bites, the scolding that I received for misbehaving. I remember when I hear these songs – ma, friends, friendships, Kolkata evenings, delicious street food, romance, beating heart as I thought of my boyfriend as I listened to Shahrukh Khan romancing Kajol via songs. And now those same songs are seeing me through pain. So thank you, 90’s Bollywood hits. You rock!

New year, new me, and anticipation

Hello, all you beautiful people. May your new year bring hope and resilience. That is my wish for myself and for everyone. Did you all make any new resolutions? Mine is to lower expectation from others. Bhagavat Gita tells me that is a path to being happy. I have started reading the holy book in the new year – one page a day.

This blog is to wish you all a happy new year, of course and also to tell you about my story of anticipation. A few weeks ago I was given a gift card to a book store. Whenever I think of the gift card, I get this surge of happy anticipation in my heart. Oh the possibilities!! Which book am I going to buy? Which book is a keeper? I drive by the book store almost every other day and each time my face breaks into a big smile.

I work at a library so I have books at my fingertips – literally. When I was a child, my mother bought me books, many, many books. I used to be sick almost all the time. To cheer me up, she brought home books that she picked up on her way back from work. As a teen, I spent my hard earned money buying used books from the very fine make-shift books stores on the sidewalks of Kolkata. Nestled among tattered Mills and Boons and Sidney Sheldons would lie books by Graham Greene, Gerald Durrell. Sometimes Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Jules Verne, Dostoyevski, Hugo….. We were encouraged to read good literature to broaden our horizons and to balance the trashy Harlequin romances which were instrumental in my education about ‘birds and bees’ since my mother never talked to me about any of that 🙂 ! My first date with my now husband was at Kolkata Book Fair. The fact that I did not like him too much that day is a story for another day.

In my before-library days, I used to buy books. So much so that my tiny house is full. I have both Bengali collection and English collection. However, after I started working at the library, I rather like the idea of borrowing and returning unless I find a book that I want to keep. The old habit of buying books and the joy it generated in me, holding a brand new book in my hands, sniffing the pages to inhale the new book smell, hearing the sharp crack as I turn the page – that feeling is intoxicating. The gift card can give me that hit. Yet, I don’t go in to the book store. I hold on to the anticipation of going in, browsing, touching, reading jackets, spending time. I spend time with books at my library so I am not sure why I am looking forward to my time in the book store, but I am. And that is strange yet wonderful. I want to stretch out this feeling of anticipation, my simple pleasure, for as long as I can. When the day is gray and I have plummeted down low, I will make the trip.

I am vacillating between two titles – Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama.