Instead of using the very useful tool called Google search I still go old school, like arriving at a mall without checking first what time it opens. I did just that in Kolkata, when, after dragging my feet for a couple of days, I bit the bullet and went to shop for some summer kurtis for myself. I must have written before that I detest shopping with a passion. I believe it has something to do with making decisions. I have a mental block and the damage is irreparable. I found myself in front of West Side Mall in Gariahat at 10 am because I wanted to beat the shoppers but parking lot seemed unusually quiet. I asked the gentleman guarding the mall, ‘Kota e khulbe? (When will it open)’ I was there right at 10 presuming the whole world operated on US store hours. Well, I was wrong. India…
As I sat on my couch on a dreary evening during a raging pandemic, I made a resolution. I decided to celebrate all the festivals that came my way without appropriating any tradition or religion which my fusion family does not belong to. Since I am culturally Hindu, I was safe with celebrating Kali pujo, Diwali, bhai phota and since my partner is a practicing Catholic, we were also good with Christmas. For Bengalis, Kali pujo is a bigger celebration than Diwali, although I hear that these days Diwali is celebrated by Bengalis all over with great fervor. I like that. Celebration is hopeful. Especially during these trying times.
I decided to go all out for Kali Pujo/Diwali this year to dispel the gloom that is slowly yet surely descending on me due to the current circumstances. My “all out” consisted of lighting choddo (14 in Bengali) prodeep on the night before Kali pujo (Friday, Nov 13th), wearing a saree and cooking.
Choddo prodeep, or 14 earthen lamps, are lit to respect our 14 generations. A little background on this ritual:
Folklore in Bengal says that the spirits of ancestors come back to the household on this night and these diyas help them find their loving homes. It’s believed that our ancestors are at a proximity to us and bless us on this day. It’s a way to pay homage to choddo purush — fourteen ancestors, seven from each side of the family — requesting them to save everyone from evil spirit and ghosts. This is very typical of a lot of Hindu celebrations where we think of the departed and pray for them before we move on to the ceremonies of the current like nandimukh.
I am not religious. I don’t worship goddess Kali with shlokas and flowers, however the idea she represents, that of female empowerment, has fascinated me since childhood. She is the ultimate boss lady among Hindu pantheon of gods and goddesses. She is simply incomparable. To celebrate her awesomeness, I decided to cook on the day of Kali pujo. I fasted too. No, not for any religious reasons. I fasted to cleanse my system so I could feast at dinner.
The menu for Kali pujo was:
Doi begun (eggplant in yogurt sauce)
Malai kofta, paratha and Bangali sooji with ghee, raisins and cashew.
After cooking all day, I donned a saree, lit diyas and invited family to the table.
That was the extent of our Diwali celebration yet it energized me for the next day. We were going to celebrate bhai phota, a ritual where sisters bless their younger brothers or seek blessings from their older ones. My sweetest memories during my growing up years come from the day of bhai phota when we all got together for a day of chaos, laughter, blessings and of course, food.
I woke up early to get breakfast ready before the celebration started. Breakfast was baked French toast with apple and pecans, hash brown casserole, blueberries and bacon. I had done most of the prep work the night before, so all I truly needed to do was pop the baking dishes in the oven.
I had the phota tray ready with sandal wood paste, kajol, diya, some grass and rice for blessing.
Sahana gave phota to Ryan, Ryan touched her feet to get her blessings. We had the computer on so my parents could witness the ritual virtually. Sahana then gave phota to Sean and my father via computer. Since she was little, Sahana has broken tradition and given phota to Sean on this day. Khushi gave virtual phota to Ryan with utmost seriousness. Folks in Kolkata blew on the conch shell, the sound of which traveled through ether to shower us with good omen. We ululated on both sides of the pond. Our two sounds met somewhere in the middle and technology made it possible for us to celebrate it together. Somewhat.
By this time, I was exhausted. Yet the nervous energy within me propelled me on to make narkel diye chhola r dal (chanadal with coconut), luchi. Sahana made a potato curry to go with it. My two days worth of intense cooking was consumed within 20 minutes.
My family got into the spirit of things. Sahana was an enthusiastic participant and even the boys donned kurta pajama to support my desire to summon my childhood joy to my adult life.
For a weekend, we ignored the raging pandemic outside our little home, we ignored that I cannot go home to see my parents, Sean cannot go home to celebrate Thanksgiving with his family, we ignored the fear of us catching the virus. The celebration was a respite from the constant anxiety. Now my fridge is full to the brim. We all will eat leftovers to empty it so Sahana can store ingredients for Thanksgiving meal that she plans to cook. She has even created a spreadsheet with the dishes she will prepare or delegate. We will go from one celebration to the other. And perhaps, pretend for a while that life is how it should be.
I thought I would end the blog there. But no! I came home from work yesterday and discovered that my house elves have been busy. They transformed my plain house into magical just by bringing in a magical tree.
We went to the city for a walk on a gorgeous fall day. It was one of those days when I give thanks to be alive and experience the cerulean sky, sweet sunlight, my loved ones near me. After walking around for a while the inevitable question arose, where do we have lunch? The consensus was a tiny Lebanese restaurant which once turned Sean and me away in the past because they were hosting a private party. They could not seat us and were profusely apologetic. Fortunately this time we were welcomed and guided to our seats outside.
The owner was a pleasant looking man with very gentle manners. He handed us our menus. Sahana and I ordered the yogurt drink ayran and our food. When the drinks came out, I took a sip and was instantly transported back home! It tasted exactly like lassi or ghol (buttermilk drink) and just how I like it, salty not sweet. The next time the gentleman came out to check on us, I mentioned how much I loved the drink. I told him I was from India and this tasted just like home. My comment seemed to make him very energized and happy.
“Oh, I am so glad you like that drink. I get nervous when people order that because they don’t anticipate the taste. When I bring it out, they drink it and then they ask me to add sugar. I say no, I am not going to add sugar. That is not how this drink should be drunk!”
This business owner refuses to sweeten the drink from his country for people here because that is not how the drink is drunk!! I related to this on so many levels. I know and accept that one should eat (drink) according to his/her tastes but I can not help but judge when Sean puts peanut butter and jelly on a daal paratha. He sees my face acknowledges the judgement, eats it anyway, and laughs.
Sean’s first encounter with a server in a restaurant in Kolkata was similar to this gentleman’s outrage. He ordered rice and roti and the server told him roti was not available. I presume there may have been some words lost in translation as well during that particular exchange of dialogue. Anyway, when food was served, Sean noticed that his companion got a roti with his order. Sean looked at it with bewilderment and asked the server, “You told me roti was not available!” The server said with a nod of his head that the dish Sean ordered was meant to be eaten with rice. Food dictatorship!
Some things just go together and you simply don’t mess around. If you do, you hurt food connoisseurs like me, like the owner of the Lebanese restaurant, like the belligerent server at the restaurant in Kolkata in 1994. You just don’t do that. You incur our wrath and disdain, if you do!
Friends often commented in the past, or rather when we did not live this reimagined life and Sean traveled constantly, “Oh your husband travels so much, you don’t have wet towels lying on the floor. Your house must be clean!”
No, it is not. My husband is truly the picker upper in the house. The house was cleaner when that guy stayed home for more than 2 weeks at a time. Although I should say that travel for the last 8 months has been a distant memory. Sean has not kept the house as clean as I expected him to. We all are somewhat past caring about the little things at this point. Well, he is also working all his waking hours, now that there is no “going to office”, putting in work hours at office and distancing himself from it at home. There is no boundary any more.
Well, the point of this write up is really my choice. I have the day off and the house is …not quite filthy but well on its way there. Last night I went to bed determined to dedicate today to cleaning. I woke up to a gray, gloomy, rainy day. Perfect day for cleaning, right? Wrong, if you are me. I weighed my options. Do I want to clean or do I want to make koraishuti r kochuri (pea filling stuffed fried dough)?
I procrastinated. I talked to my parents in Kolkata. I messaged some friends to chat. I discovered Sahana has used up ALL the ginger in the house. Ginger is important to make the pea filling. I checked the freezer and found a forgotten bag of peas. I have flour and powdered ginger. I have cumin powder and garam masala. Most importantly, I have the desire to put in all the work needed to make this labor intensive delicacy of Bengal. I will go to any length to avoid cleaning, work harder even in the kitchen.
I checked the dirty floor and dust laden surfaces. I introspected within – what does my inner self really want to do? My inner self chose koraishuti r kochuri. As if there was any doubt.
Here I go. Cleaning is for another day. How to make Koraishuti r kochuri? This fantastic cook, who happens to be a friend has got you covered. Here is her channel. See this particular recipe and her other recipes.
50 was just another number till I went to my doctor for my physical. A little special perhaps, but still more or less another number like 49 or 51. But my doctor’s ‘wit’ hit home the truth. Wow, I made it to 50! She said, “Here is the slip for getting your colonoscopy done. And your bone density scan. Happy birthday!”
What does being 50 mean to me? I thought of this as I drove home from the doctor’s office.
Memories of youth have started fading so I try to think of them often, or write them here. My futile attempt to hold on to the beautiful ones and relinquish the ones that are not so beautiful.
Being 50 is looking at the mirror thinking, “I look darn good for a 50 year old” and then looking at a photo of me thinking “Jeez, look at those bags under my eyes!.”
Being 50 means insomnia often. But there are plenty of books to read so the quiet of night and sleeplessness bother me less. The tiredness on the following day does though.
Being 50 means seeming slow to my fast moving children when it comes to technology.
Being 50 means desire to travel intensifying – post Covid, of course.
Being 50 means being sad sometimes for no apparent reason.
Being 50 means not feeling invincible anymore.
Being 50 means glimpses of my mortality and surprisingly being unafraid of the thought.
Being 50 is losing myself in my memories of childhood, youth and young romance with my handsome beau.
Being 50 means realizing that my children need me less and less.
Being 50 means being picked up and twirled around by my 15 year old son when he realizes he is close to getting in trouble. I invariably laugh. He does not dare if he IS in trouble.
Being 50 is caring more for doing my part in the world AND caring less about slights/snubs/insults.
Being 50 is also being thankful for the opportunities that I have been given.
Being 50 is being freer in thoughts.
Being 50 is being confident.
Being 50 is creaking of joints.
Being 50 is groaning a little while getting up as the knee twinges.
Being 50 is being afraid of losing loved ones.
Being 50 is shedding superficial relationships.
Being 50 is enjoying silence.
Being 50 also means starting to think of how life will be in the next phase.
Being 50 is giving thanks to be alive on a gorgeous day amidst nature.
Being 50 means finally finding my “good side” for selfie, directed by the daughter of course.
Being 50 means not quite understanding how being 50 should feel!
I am not showing you my bare back without reason. I promise there is a story. Many moons ago, when I was a little girl, sleeveless blouses were revolutionary and scandalous. In my middle class upbringing, the idea of women showing their bare arms or wearing the saree in a way that the midriff shows was a big taboo. So what did my gorgeous mother do, despite the hushed whispers and raised eyebrows? She bought and wore sleeveless blouses. She wore it with style and grace laughing at all the snickers and criticism.
I, however, never ventured to wear sleeveless anything because my arms were like two thin sticks growing up. Also I was timid and conformist despite my firebrand mom constantly urging me to be confident. When I wore a saree for a special occasion, I always wore blouses with “airhostess sleeves”. When we went to get blouses tailored in my childhood/youth, the tailor invariably asked if we wanted airhostess hata (sleeves). That style was adopted by the stewards of Air India, the only international government airlines of the country. The sleeves of this particular style of blouse were long, the back was severe and covered. A saree, which is 6 yards of fabric, with an airhostess style blouse, if properly donned, could cover every inch of the woman’s skin. It was all very propah, professional and may I say, severe? When I left India in the mid nineties, I came away with that one style of blouse in my head and in my suitcase. I knew no other.
Unbeknownst to me, India burst into the fashion world with its textiles, talented designers, bold cuts, fusion designs and subsequently blouses for sarees saw tremendous improvement in terms of variety and cut. I was completely unaware of all the changes, being far removed from any kind of fashion. One year, I went back home and needed to get a couple of blouses stitched. I sought the help of my fashionista cousin sister. My little cousin took me under her wings like she always has since we were children when it came to fashion. She is a gorgeous woman who really knows clothes and style. Since she was probably 4 years old she had a pronounced sense of fashion and make up which only improved with age. She was tireless in her efforts to bring me up to snuff with make up and fashion. “Didi, wear your hair this way.” “Apply the kajol that way, it will showcase your eyes better.” “Use brown liner instead of black for a natural look.”… so on and so forth. She always urged me to color my hair to hide the white that are getting prominent each day. Except last year, when I went home and she saw my silver highlights, she approved. These silver strands in black hair is the popular trend, I was told. I felt elated to finally have her approval in matter of fashion!! My reluctance to learn how to apply make up did not deter her from trying, bless her heart!
Anyway, she took me to this tailoring shop called Senorita near Hazra road in Kolkata, gave them instructions on the type of blouse she wants for me, sat in a chair and started her scrutiny. The attendant listened to her directions and called the tailor to take measurements. The tailor who walked in was a man. I gulped! A man will be taking my measurements for a short, tight-fitting blouse? After the first few seconds of unease, I relaxed. He was a professional and knew what he was doing without making me feel uncomfortable. Then I yelped! I felt his measuring tape going way down my back, seeking permission from my sister where to stop, which meant how deep the cut of the back of the blouse was going to be.
As his tape went further down my back, I exclaimed, “No, no! Not that much! That is too much exposed. Stop!”
Now, I wear short dresses, shorts and I often wore my sarees in the past to show off my midriff and flat stomach (also a thing of the past). I have no inhibitions about showing my legs so why not the back? You have to understand, someone who wore severe blouses all her life and covered every inch of her back, this deep cut was indeed scandalous. I don’t know why such inhibitions (prudery?) about showing my back while I show my bare legs with no qualms.
Both my cousin and the attendant of the shop, however, paid no heed to my protests, promising me the cut at the back was classy and just right, very fashionable and not exposing any extra flesh that does not need to be exposed. I gave in. And you see the result.
As we stood side by side preparing our quick lunch in the kitchen on a work-from-home day, I casually mentioned to Sean that I will be needing the office space that night from 6:45 till 8:00 pm as I was co producing a virtual class for the library.
“Oh no!! I have a virtual cocktail meet with big donors where I am presenting and answering questions!” he exclaimed. And looked at me with I-am-so-sorry eyes.
We really don’t have an office space in our house. There is a little office room which we transferred into nursery when we moved in as I was pregnant with Ryan. After spending all his infancy, babyhood, boyhood years in that little room Ryan finally took over Sahana’s room after she went to college. Sahana beautifully rearranged Ryan’s former (tiny) room and settled in it when she came back home due to the pandemic. It has a cozy dorm room feeling to it, complete with color changing lights.
Over the years, all our ‘office’ work and school work were done on the kitchen table. We did not feel the need for an office since I work for the library system and Sean travels all around the world for his job. The little time we had after our respective jobs was spent on carting children to soccer, basketball, music, swim practices and meets. Once the pandemic hit and we pivoted to online work we realized we were in trouble and we also realized as a family that Sean is a very loud office mate.
During pandemic, I took many trainings while we waited for the library system to resume service, facilitated book club and had to meet with co workers virtually. I often found myself glaring at Sean, who also met with his colleagues virtually and rather loudly. As he gained steam and got excited about whatever they were discussing, the decibel level increased. I often glared at him and huffed off with my computer on mute to the bedroom and shut the door. More than once I was either asked by colleagues if I was on my bed and if planned on falling asleep 😃 ! After both our meetings, Sean asked, “Was I too loud? I am sorry!” The next time our meetings conflicted, he would start off with normal voice and then predictably grew louder and louder as his meeting progressed.
As months went by, Sean started bringing his office into our home. It started innocently enough! A big ring light came for his zoom meetings, then huge banners of his organization were delivered to set up as back drop. The last straw was all the photos that he had on the walls of his office came home with him one day along with the bowls he used at work and silverware. He then took a very handy desk from our main floor which held all my electronics, laptop and devices, and took it downstairs to the basement and set up a nice office space with the ring light for zoom meetings. My stuff were relegated to a small white table.
When I saw the neatly set up office space, I rubbed my hands in glee, immediately planning to usurp it whenever I had classes to teach or facilitate. My classes are generally in the evening so I figured they will not coincide with Sean’s meetings since those are primarily during day time. Win, win! Or so I thought. The first day I decided to stake my claim on his hard work, he had a cocktail meeting. Who has cocktail meeting during virtual work? What is the point of that? Sean does not even drink!
Sahana happened to be in the kitchen when we were having the conversation of our meeting conflict. She decided to be helpful and made a comment. Big mistake! I jumped on her right away.
“Can I use your room then?” I turned to her with bright eyes. She had a lovely set up for her online classes.
Although she was taken aback, she agreed and I found her room nicely cleaned, all ready for me once I got back from work. The class worked out beautifully. I did make Sean feel bad about the conflict, admittedly unfairly and he relinquished the office to me for my next class while he took phone calls from all over the world upstairs, next to the children’s bedrooms where they were trying to attend virtual classes. And he was, as usual, loud.
This morning was beautiful and Sean was talking to his colleagues over phone on our back deck. I saw that he finally met his match. A blue jay flew close by, settled on a branch near him and proceeded to tell Sean, in no uncertain terms, that s/he can beat him hands down in volume any day. Its on! Sean became louder by the minute and the blue jay kept pace. As I heard the competition between bird and human, I smiled. Situation is less than perfect in so many homes. We need to find whatever humor there is, we need to laugh, we need to give, we need to share, sometimes office space even. We need humor to get by.
Author Brit Bennett gifted me a phrase that I have been looking for all my life to describe myself and my dark sisters in this world. Growing up in a country where beauty is measured in how little melanin one has in one’s skin, I understood and related to what Jude Winston, a character in Brit Bennett’s breathtakingly beautiful book, The Vanishing Half felt in her school, her blue black, dark skin a contrast to the light skinned African American children. She was called a ‘tar baby’. Nobody wanted to be her friend or sit with her fearing her dark color would contaminate their fair skin. The question, of course, arises why did Black people revere their light skin and why did Black people shun Jude for her dark, glistening color? Because white skin meant (and means) freedom, white skin meant (and means) opportunity, white skin meant (and means) grabbing the lion share of world’s resources. And white skin also meant (and means) beauty.
Of course, colorism in African American community is just one aspect of the story. The Vanishing Half tells the story of 2 sisters Desiree and Stella Vignes, who were born in a small town called Mallard in Louisiana. A town which was so small that one could not find it on a map. The town had a history though. The founder of the town, Alphonse Decuir, a newly freed slave was son of a white man and a black woman. His color was white and he married a light skinned woman to start off a progeny of very light skinned, white passing African American descendants. The Blacks in the town of Mallard could pass for Whites. The Vignes twins, great, great, great, great, great granddaughters of Decuir, were no exceptions. On August 14th, 1954, when they were sixteen years old, Stella and Desiree, finding no future in Mallard decided to run away to New Orleans. No one in Mallard, including their mother Adele heard from them in 10 years. After 10 years, one morning the townspeople saw one twin, Deisiree walking towards her mother’s house holding a little girl’s hand. Desiree returned back to her mama with her baby girl Jude, but Stella was gone. Stella, the quiet one of the two, left Desiree in New Orleans itself and word had it she lived as a white woman. Why? Stella hoodwinked the world and existed in it as a white woman to free herself from the shackles that bind black people. An incident in their childhood involving their dad imprinted in Stella’s mind that white people had the ability to hurt non whites and not be held accountable for it. Stella wanted to protect herself from that possibility. However, as we read about her life the question arises at what cost did she choose to lead a life of lie? Desiree had not set her eyes upon her twin those last 10 years. It seemed like Stella had disappeared into thin air. Jude, however, does not look anything like her mother, Desiree. She is dark like midnight. And no matter what her white passing grandmother applies on her skin, her color never fades. For inhabitants of Mallard, this blue black child is like a fly in milk, a ‘tar baby’, ‘ugly.’ And later in the story, she is perceived as beautiful, “difficultly beautiful” for some perhaps.
The story is told from perspectives of Desiree, Stella, Jude and Stella’s daughter, Kennedy to give a fuller understanding of the characters and the story. The progression of the plot is non linear, jumping from 1954 to 1968 and then backtracking a few years, only to jump ahead. But this technique was so seamlessly done that it adds to the fluidity of the plot. The book touches on many issues like race relations, transgender, relationships between sibling and children, domestic violence and love. And they all are folded in beautifully within the story of the sisters, the lives of their daughters and other supporting characters that build the foundation of the plot.
This book is brilliant. And I am grateful to Brit Bennett for she the gift of the phrase that will stay with me forever. Difficultly beautiful. Those of us with dark skin grew up hearing:
“You are ugly because you are dark.”
“Black is ugly”.
“Too bad her skin is so dark, she could have been pretty otherwise.”
“Nobody will marry her because she is so dark.”
And it went on and on and on.
We are beautiful, though. We are difficultly beautiful. Difficultly only to those who have been conditioned by society to define beauty in the way that society, media, race dictates. We can only hope they can break out of the shackle. It must be so binding!
I published a new blog today and after 5 hours of publishing it, my viewership is 17. I have had 10 visitors and my blog site has been viewed 17 times. Before the day ends, if I get 30 views, I will call it a successful blog post day. I guess the whole point of putting one’s thoughts online for public consumption is to have public actually consume it. Well, public in general is not consuming my blog at all. There are, I believe, many reasons for it.
Folks do not like what I write or how I write.
Folks are not interested in what I say or have to say.
There are many engaging reading materials out there.
I am not reaching out or engaging in the blogging community to bring in more viewers.
I seem to be getting followers but they are simply not reading my blogs.
There are myriad of other reasons but my brain is too tired to think of those.
Since there were 0 views on the blog for the last 3 days before I published one blog today, I started wondering what I should do to promote viewership. Should I write more, read more blogs of other bloggers, join blogging groups, comment and like blogs, all of the above?
Then I thought about why I write. I started writing blogs when I was going through a difficult time about 9 years ago. I do not want to share specifics. The blogs were happy and cheery tales of my children. While life was full of terrible anxiety, the blogs were full of sweetness and happy thoughts. They allowed me to cope with reality. This site was my happy place. After the crisis passed, children grew and life became busier, the blog site was mainly forgotten till the pandemic hit. Again, the blogs came to my rescue. I started putting down my thoughts, memories and stories on this platform, ones I thought were worth sharing. Although very few people read it, I have one dedicated reader who reads it without fail, rates them with 5 stars and posts a love on my Facebook share, and tells me often that my blogs make her happy. Her love matters most as these blogs contain a large part of her tween and teenage, her mother’s thoughts and stories of her life. These blogs will hopefully serve as her treasure chest of memories once I am gone.
So do I want viewership to my blogs grow? Absolutely! Will I make an effort to be part of a blogging community? No. The reasons being I am lazy, I like to read books, write my thoughts once in a while and watch Call of the Midwives obsessively (lately).
At the end of the day, I write because it makes me happy. Some of you read the blogs and leave a comment or like. That makes me happy too Thank heavens I kept my day job! 😀