Lost in my own city


I went for my usual walk this morning but Dhakuria lake was closed for Holi so I took a detour, got lost somewhat in my own city, asked for direction, was told by the caring man that my destination was too far and ‘sister, take an auto, you can not walk that far’. I thanked him and turned around as I was walking in the wrong direction. The man continued to give me directions and to warn me of the distance. I smiled at him but did not tell him that taking an auto was not an option as I carried no money. So I walked and it felt good. I walked through my very familiar and now somewhat unknown city. Some of the old, now decrepit, houses in my path have been there for years. They were part of my landscape all my life. They evoked so many memories. The new buildings were remote and unknown and if you ask me, they don’t belong to the Kolkata I know – my Kolkata.

‘My’ Kolkata is getting smaller with every visit. Old, familiar houses are being demolished and new apartments are being built. The city is sprawling out in every direction. But those houses along Southern Avenue or the unchanged make shift stores on the sides of Rashbehari Avenue, or the hawkers calling out ‘didi ki lagbe’ (sister what do you want), assure me that ‘my Kolkata’ still exists in some small way.

And I remembered walking the same streets with baba when he walked miles and miles to stay in shape. He talked to, petted and fed every stray dog that crossed his path on these walks. They knew him and crowded around him for the biscuits that he carried in his pocket. As I walked today in the early morning hours, I felt him by my side – youthful, happy, fast and chatty. It was a good morning.

Don’t do it..


I spoke sternly to my hand as it slowly reached for the bottled mango Lassi on the refrigerated shelf in the new Indian grocery store that I went to explore.

“Don’t do it. Don’t you do it. Think of the added sugar. Think of your ever expanding mid section!”

My head reprimanded my hand. But guiltily, almost unwillingly, and in slow motion, my hand did grab the plastic bottle of Lassi and put it in the shopping cart. My face almost had a sad expression as I looked at what my hand had done. Right next to them were Indian sweets, among which were silvery Kaku katlis which I adore. I touched a box and moved my hand away. Next to them were Motichur laddus. As a little boy, Ryan used to love those. We called him our little Ganesh for his love of laddus were similar to the elephant headed God whose supposed love for those laddus is legendary. Ryan, however, has betrayed me and grown conscious of his sweet intake. However, I use him as an excuse in my mind when I pick up a box of laddus. “Ryan likes them” I say to myself. Ryan declines to eat a single one and so I eat them all. Can not waste them!

I exerted extreme self restraint and did not pick up either the Kaju katlis or the laddus. I felt Sean’s silent criticism of my choice of picking up sweet mango Lassi as we walked the aisles filled with ingredients, spices, snacks, soaps, oils, body lotions from my home. I picked up some green chillis, some turmeric and masoor dal. Looked for samosas and failed to find them. The new grocery store lost some points right there. Why won’t they have fresh samosas when I wanted them? Anyway, as we walked towards the check out counter, I slowly reached into the shopping cart, picked up the lone bottle of Lassi and put it back on the shelf.

“You don’t want it?” My surprised husband asked.

“Let’s get out quickly before I change my mind.” I walked faster, putting distance between myself and the shelf that held the goodies.

As we got in the car, Sean said it is fun to see me in an Indian store. I am, supposedly, like a kid in a candy store. The analogy is apt, but it is more like an immigrant in a store full of things whose sight, smell and taste bring back very fond memories of home. It is a wistfulness of what we left behind. It is also a joy to hold a tiny part of familiarity in our hands.

Yes, that is my mom.


“That is your mom!! What? How?” – this question has been posed to my white passing biracial son since he was in preschool. I sometimes wonder how it made him feel. By kindergarten, he was so used to this question that as soon as I showed up to volunteer at kindergarten luncheon, he would preempt the question from his peers by announcing “That is my mom. Yes, she is brown. She is from India.”

Once I was waiting in the hallway of a high school to pick up Ryan after a middle school concert. He came out with a few other kids. One girl, upon seeing Ryan greet me and come towards me, exclaimed, “Ryan, IS THAT YOUR MOM?????” And then, with the insensitivity of a 13 year old, she followed up that exclamation with, “No way! But you are white!”

Ryan and I will continue to baffle this easily confused world but I hope one day, the world will integrate colors enough to exclaim less when it sees us together.

Last night, as Sahana, Sean and I tackled the New York Times spelling bee, we got talking about how perception of parents follow us in our lives. Sahana said, “Tell me about it. My friends have told me all my life your mom is so pretty. OMG! Who wants to hear that all the time? Leave my mom alone!” She laughed. I have heard her say that before and we have laughed together about it.

Here is the thing that amuses me – different standards of beauty in the two countries that I belong to. In India nobody would give me a second look. I am old now but even when I was young nobody looked twice. My experience was very different in USA, at least in the part where I live.

I read a few books about biracial individuals who try to find where they belong. Good Talk by Mira Jacobs is a great book to read on this issue.

After 8 months


Sunrise

January 19th marked 8 months since my father died. January 10th was 8 months since my mother died. This journey of coming to terms with what life means now, without the presence of those who gave me life, has been an uphill battle.

Life, at least now, holds no joy.

I pretend. A lot. I pretend to act normal.

I am very mindful to keep my grief guarded so the person I am interacting with does not feel uncomfortable.

I dread going to bed.

I stay up as long as I can so when my head hits the pillow my mind does not race. I am truly terrified of nights and the solitude it brings when all hurtful feelings takeover.

I search a lot for answers and only find peace when I see beauty in nature.

It gives me solace to think that my parents’ energy is, perhaps, part of this beauty now. Or maybe their soul has been reborn in another body. Who knows?

On January 19th, as I sat quietly in the morning thinking about ma, baba and all the ‘why’s’, I saw this sunrise. And I thought “How fitting! Baba would have loved to see this. Maybe he is part of this beauty now. Maybe they both are part of this splendor.”

A joy


Yesterday, while out on an errand, I watched a little girl going ahead of her family. She could not have been more than 7 or 8. Her head was down and it seemed she was focused on the sidewalk below her feet. Her family walked leisurely behind her. But she was not walking though. She was skipping. She wore a white dress with rainbow colors at the bottom of it. Her shoes were white too. Her hair seemed wild, unruly and as happy as her motion was – bouncy. With each skip her hair bounced. And it all made a perfect picture of joy.

I watched her skip for as long as I could till I could see her no more. And on the first day of a new year, I thought of the joy she exuded – being with her family, somewhat ahead of them on a spring like December day, the last day of the year in fact, skipping instead of walking.

Microaggressions


First off, I feel so naïve about this blog I wrote in 2014:

https://what-mama-thinks.com/2014/06/27/racism/

Some aspects of it are true though. I still can not think of a single incident where I was discriminated against for being a brown woman. I guess I am just lucky. I also have closeness to white privilege being married to a white man. As race talks unfolded in recent years, especially after the tragic murder of Mr. Floyd in 2019, the protests against systemic racism over the summer of 2019 and conversations about racism in my own work place and family, I had time to analyze my personal experiences as a person of color in United States. I have experienced microaggression several times over the years, I simply did not have a name for it. The conversation where microaggression was directed at me left me with an uncomfortable feeling, a sadness and yes, a little angry. I could not pin point what it was. I was almost relieved when there was a name for it. I could say in my head, “Ah, so that is what it was! Microaggression!” A name to that kind of behavior somehow equipped me to deal with it better. Most of the microaggression that I experienced were not intended to hurt me, they generated from ignorance perhaps. And when you take out the intentionality from the words, it becomes a learning moment for the one who uttered them and teaching moment for the one who was at the receiving end of it. Of course, learning can only happen when both parties are willing to listen and speak up respectively. Once I discovered the term, I started speaking up when I encountered microaggression and people I am around on a daily basis, listened. I also self analyzed and learned what not to say to someone that might come off as microaggression. Personally, it was both a teaching moment as well as a learning moment. In my early days in this country, however, I have had aggressive comments directed at me with intentionality to make me feel bad about where I come from and the backwardness of my being because I come from a developing world. I think of those comments now. I wonder why those comments were made. Do people say them to feel superior at the cost of others or truly want to hurt others? I wonder how one feels when their words have hurt other human beings? Is it kind of a ‘high’ like sugar high? Does a ‘low’ come after?

In the blog written in 2014, I wrote I do not see color. I don’t think that is true. I have been extremely conscious of a person’s color in these days. And that has been a progression in my perception of another human being. As a newbie to this country, with only an overview of the history of slavery and white dominance in the Western world, I saw people’s color of course, but I did not comprehend the deep connotations of what experience the person had and/or continues to have due to his/her skin color. Now I am aware. Books on race, conversations, films, webinars – all have helped in raising my awareness about racial inequality.

I have read quite a few books, both fiction and non fiction, on race, inequality, microaggression over the last several months. As I said before, they all helped in my growth but one book that truly made me aware of other people’s experience because of their ‘otherness’ is Yes, I am Hot in This: The Hilarious Truth about Life in a Hijab by Huda Fahmy. I commend this short book to everyone who wants to know more about some experiences of the ‘other’ and examples of microaggression.

How are you coping?


Is it me or does it feel like this year keeps giving? I am sure we have had tough years before. We have dealt with it, many of us have moved on. I used coping mechanism to deal with my personal sadness. While going through a difficult time, I told myself time is the best healer. My feeling at this moment is intense, but with time the intensity will fade. I simply need to continue to live on through the time.

Compounded with global pandemic, other concerns are making life unpleasant. I can say with certain amount of confidence that many of you are in similar situation as me. How are you dealing with the time that we going through right now? What is helping?

I wrote two light hearted blogs back to back and realized, while writing them, that I was happy. They were silly ones about my 2 kids, however, reliving the memory of simple domestic story and writing them down was somewhat joyful.

Writing has been immensely therapeutic at this time. This blog was created in 2011. I was prolific and regular about writing something new. However, as the kids grew up, my materials for blog post dried up. I only had so many stories to tell. When the pandemic started and Sage died, I opened up this blog site again and started putting down my thoughts. It was a release. It helped.

What helps you cope?

Thank you.


Most years around this time, I ask myself a question. If I could change my life to make it better what changes would I make? And the answer, after some deep thinking, is nothing. I really would not change anything. I am grateful for what I have received in life. I am thankful for the love I get every day, the love I get to give everyday too.

This year Thanksgiving is different for so many of us. We are choosing to celebrate alone this year so we can celebrate together next year. My family did not drive up to eat Thanksgiving meal together with mother, brothers, sisters and cousins because we love them and want to keep them safe. Looking ahead, it seems unlikely that we will get together for Christmas either this year and that is heartbreaking. We live a distance away from our loved ones and mostly see them during these holidays. The prospect of spending the holidays separately is sad no doubt but hope is in the horizon. There is the hopeful news of vaccines being developed. I believe by next year around this time majority will be vaccinated and we will be together. I am keeping the perspective that in the grand scheme of things it is a sacrifice of togetherness for one year. This sacrifice we can make. A lot is at stake if we don’t. Lives are at stake if we don’t. Way too many lives have been lost already. Many have died alone. Very few families have remained untouched by the tragedy of Covid 19 and sadly, experts say, we will lose more.

I have spent a few Thanksgiving alone as my family drove up to see the extended family. No matter if I am with family or just by myself, I take some time to reflect and give silent thanks for my mom and dad, my husband, my children, the kinship that I have created and nurtured with some wonderful souls. This year, I continue to be thankful for all that I mentioned however, I want to write about my heartfelt thanks and deep gratitude to those that I did not include in my thoughts in previous years. My deepest regards go to the medical professionals who are truly super heroes caring for the sick at huge risk to their own lives. My sincere gratitude to the scientists who are working day and night to develop vaccine to protect the vulnerable from dying. My admiration and heartfelt thanks to all those essential workers who are taking big risks to go to work each day so we can stay home. When books are written about this pandemic, I hope the heroism and courage of these women and men are acknowledged. The entire world owes a whole lot to this section of humanity who took care of the rest of us, kept us alive, kept us fed, kept us entertained.

On this day of giving thanks, I bow to the goodness in you.

There will be many empty chairs at Thanksgiving table in this country as families remember loved ones who succumbed to Covid. My heart truly hurts for those families. Millions are hurting, physically suffering and emotionally devastated. We NEED to do our part to control the spread of this virus. We owe it to each other as members of humankind. Here is to hope that this shall pass with the help of our collective efforts, our compassion for each other, our desire to do what is needed for common good and yes, sacrifice.

Cultural Usurpation


Before I start my rant, I just want to mention that these are solely my thoughts and I do not claim to be the spokesperson of people who belong to Hindu or Buddhist faith. I write this blog after a long and thoughtful exchange of ideas between my daughter, who is half Indian and half white, and my husband who is white and belongs to the Catholic faith. My daughter asked me how I felt about people in this country doing the Color Run or wearing bindi and henna as a trend instead of truly understanding the significance of it all.

I have lived in my adopted country for twenty years now. I have made my home here, found my livelihood, nurtured close relationships, been vocal about injustices, celebrated the country’s triumphs and mourned it’s losses. I have voted and participated in activism. I have made this country my own. I have become a citizen. And I have never left the country of my birth. It is indeed possible to love the people, culture, traditions of two countries and most immigrants do this always. I believe that I am one of those lucky ones who can pick and choose the traditions and rituals from both my birth country and my adopted country. I can discard from my life, the rituals and traditions that conflict with my values and adopt those which appeal to them.

When asked where I am from, I proudly say I am originally from India. I love to showcase the culture that I grew up in, the clothes, the adornments and accessories that I bring from my part of the world. And when asked, I love to explain their significance, to the best of my knowledge. For example, the idea behind namaste or nomoshkar – I bow to the divinity in you. How respectful is that greeting? Namaste is a greeting which I think truly reveres humanity, or the divinity within humanity. It respects the innate goodness, that Hindus believe, resides in each one of us. But wearing t-shirts that say Namaste Bitch or Namastay in Bed may seem funny to those who do not revere or understand the gesture but it does hurt us, those who find the word meaningful and significant. I have reverted back to Namaste during Covid 19 and will stay with it after Covid leaves.

“May I ask you a question? What does that dot on your forehead signify?” I have lost count how many times I have been asked this question while wearing a bindi, and I love answering it. According to Hindu tradition, all people have a third inner eye. The physical eyes are for seeing the external world while the third focuses inward toward God. The bindi or the dot on the forehead also symbolizes the existence of concentrated energy. (according to https://www.hinduamerican.org/blog/the-purpose-of-the-bindi/).

If someone outside my faith, wants to understand the significance of a bindi, I am happy to explain or provide information. If they want to wear one, I am even happy to provide them with it. I do not think they are usurping my culture, they are embracing it just like I embraced the culture of giving thanks in this country. If wearing bindi becomes a trend without understanding, I am fine with that too. It does not harm anyone and you are not denigrating anything by wearing it as part of your fashion. I reiterate that this is simply my opinion and I am not speaking on behalf of the entire Hindu community. Others may feel differently and they are completely entitled to. I feel similarly about henna being a fashion trend. Take the beauty from a part of the world. Try to learn the significance. Spread the beauty. Beautify yourself. Why not?

Holi, for me, is more about ushering spring in than anything religious. Throwing colors on each other, for me, manifests spreading joy. The divide that skin color creates in my nation gets obliterated, at least for a day. If organizers of Color Run get inspired by the spirit of Holi and integrate that in creating an event to promote good feelings, more power to them I say.

The worst example, in my opinion, of cultural usurpation was Hitler taking away our swastika and using it as a symbol of pain. I participated in a discussion with an American woman about it on social media, of all places. The woman said the symbol has caused pain to so many people and if her name was Swastika, she would change the ‘horrid’ name. I know numerous Swastikas in my part of the world because this is what swastika means to people of my faith along with some other faiths and has meant this for 5000 years as opposed to few decades of hateful symbol:

In Sanskrit the word Swastika is a combination of the word Su (means good) and Asti (means to exist). The symbol of swastika stands for something auspicious and good for centuries.

A little on the history of swastika here.

The Nazi party and the white supremacists did the worst cultural usurpation of a symbol that is as old as mankind for the people of Hindu, Buddhist, Jain faith and made it into a symbol of hate for the Western world. How can we reclaim our symbol and erase all the negativity and pain associated with it? By starting a conversation? By willing to listen? By understanding that the pain that Nazi party caused to millions is absolutely horrific but also seeking understanding from the Western world the pain it caused us by seeing the symbol of such importance in Hindu (and other) religion reviled so? There are a pair of earrings that have been handed down by my mother’s family to the daughters. The heirloom is a diamond and ruby encrusted design of swastika. Every time I go back home, my mother urges me to take it back with me to America. “Wear it. It is so beautiful.” She is disappointed when I say I can not wear it anywhere outside India or in countries in the subcontinent. So those earrings languish in a dark locker in a bank. I do not have the desire to be judged as a brown Klans(wo)man by wearing them in my adopted country. And I would not wear it because I know how much pain is associated with the symbol. Ironically, though, when my ancestors designed the earring, they thought they were bestowing their blessings on their daughters who would follow them by protecting them with something pure and good. The blessing of my ancestors have become a symbol of hate in the world I live in.

There is a disconnect between people. It would be naive of me to not acknowledge that. The first step towards building a bridge is perhaps to listen and to acknowledge. The aforementioned woman kept using the word “horrid” even after being informed about swastika’s significance to a huge community of people. I tried to tell her I completely understand the pain this symbol causes to many but did she, in turn, understand that it hurts us to see what Nazis made it to be? She did not.

That is it. Rant is over. I say let us learn about new cultures, read up on it, ask questions, embrace the philosophy behind it if it appeals to us. The process can only be enriching. It is a big world out there.

As we reopen..


How are you feeling as we take tentative steps towards reopening? I feel, not nervous, but all of a sudden, overwhelmed. We have been in isolation since March 13th, 2020. I write this blog today on June 24th at 9:12 am. I just read some work related documents that I need to remember to do my job effectively. I will go back in a couple of days for a few hours. Truth be told, I am really looking forward to going back. On the other hand, I am apprehensive if my brain, which processed the ramifications of the pandemic for all these months and dealt with the roller coaster of emotions that I was feeling, will be able to handle the myriad of work related and real life related information that now it needs to not only process but remember. I read my emails requiring me to remember information on various aspects of my job and I quickly gloss over. I have started compartmentalizing on what I need to know NOW. I have created folders and sub folders to save the emails, after glancing through them, and plan to go back to refer in a ‘need to know’ basis. I am being kind to myself and hope you are too. How are you dealing with the influx of information that is, all of a sudden, pouring in?

On the home front too, information has started rushing in. My daughter’s college finally gave us their decision that they will open classes for fall semester according to plan. We were in a limbo as to whether she should get ready to furnish the apartment that she leased near campus or consider staying at home if classes went online. Now she is scrambling to find out who has a spare bed, table, chair, dresser and all that a poor student needs to get by for a year. As we make lists for all that she will need, my mama heart worries a bit about her catching the virus far away from home. I hear myself repeatedly talking about hand hygiene and social distancing. She is a responsible person and I know she will try her best. But still….

My son decided to take an intensive Chemistry class over the summer but that conflicted with his swim training. Thanks to the coaches, his schedule got adjusted, which meant ensuring he gets to his practice at 6 am in the morning. I am grateful to have a partner who is still staying at home and silently doing all he can to ease our transition back into life outside the realm of our home. He chooses to get up at the wake of dawn to take Ryan to his morning swim practice so I don’t have to.

All these changes are positive. All these show cautious yet forward progression towards life as we knew it before Covid 19 ravaged the world. My sedentary and anxious brain needs a little transition time, I guess, to function at its full capacity. We are all in the same situation, we all have to take the time we need to get back to being as effective/functional/productive as we were before the pestilence knocked us out of our orbit. We need to be mindful of each other’s unique position in this transition and show as much kindness as we expect to be shown.