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.

Living through Covid 19


Our isolation is not over yet. I write this blog while we are in our 10th week of isolation. As I went to bed, woke up to a world that lost more people than the day before, perused the news about more information about the pandemic, logged in to work, ate lunch, went for walk, dinner, books and then bed again, life fell into a new monotonous rhythm yet the mind experienced myriad of emotions.

When our work closed, I remember, the first week was full of uncertainty, yes, but also some excitement. Due to school, work and travel, our little family did not have much of a chance to be together for the last few years. The oldest was away in college and then Spain, the youngest was boarding in school. Sean traveled at least 40% of the year. We thought we will be off work for a couple of weeks, we will practice physical distancing from the world, flatten the curve and life will be back to semi normal. In retrospect that idea seems so naive.

Sahana and I love to cook so, right away, we occupied the kitchen and cooked different types of food. We even thought of a cooking competition while we were in isolation and we were confident us girls would beat the boys hands down. When all this is over, I will look back on that time with a smile. We shared so much as she cooked and I cleaned the dishes. Our innermost thoughts, hopes, fears, desires – all came out in the familiar comfort of the kitchen, doing a task we both loved to do. Ryan, Sean and I started watching one episode of a tv show, Rome, everyday while snuggling together in bed after the day was done. Sean and I took long walks exploring the neighborhood, often accompanied by Sahana, when we talked about her future, our years together going forward. We brought all our board games out and played raucous rounds of Risk, Ludo, Apples to Apples. We smack talked, strategized, teased and laughed. We even bought badminton rackets and I showed the family who is the boss in badminton. Soon Ryan’s athletic prowess deemed my brilliance but that is not the point here. Gradually, though, the enthusiasm and excitement of the isolation starting fading away. Board games were forgotten, badminton rackets were rarely picked up, hours went by in companionable silence. Fifteen year old Ryan retreated to his room attending school and stayed there after school was over. Sahana still went for walks with us, baked a lot, watched shows on her phone and she talked. I got more involved with trying to figure out how to work remotely and Sean conducted all his work from home. He probably was most seamless in transitioning to remote working.

There were days, though, when sleep would elude me as I lay tossing and turning in bed in grips of anxiety. My parents were far away and I have no ways of getting to India if they need me. There were unexpected tears at this new normal. And with that came guilt. Are these tears justified compared to what so many others are going through? I have a home, my family is with me, I have a paycheck coming, my husband is getting paid so why these tears? Why such profound sadness?

Like thousands others, I figured I would document the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of this pandemic so future students, while writing papers on this historic pandemic, have plenty of primary sources right at their finger tips 🙂 .

So what was bad for me?

Fear. Fear of not being able to go to Kolkata if something happened to my parents. I had to mindfully remove that thought from my head before I could go to sleep each night. Every morning when I woke up, I checked my phone to see their activity on social media. Most days, I called. Fear was the worst.

Despair at the news.

Irrational anger at the universe for Sage’s death at this time. Now that I was home all the time, his memory haunted me more. I had a physical yearning to pet him, to have him back. Why did he decide to die all of a sudden? That was very bad planning on his part. I felt cheated. Circumstances will not allow me to have another pet right now. But I did not want another pet. I just wanted Sage. I told you. It is irrational.

Uncertainty about the future of my rising senior in college. Will she be able to finish her school year in person? What will happen to the lease of the apartment she signed if she has to take her fall classes online? Will I feel comfortable at work? I work with public. How bad will it all be in fall? Will I feel comfortable giving my friends a hug ever again? Will Sahana get a job? What will happen to college funds?

What was still good?

I really like my family on top of loving them.

I will remember this pandemic via the smell of fresh ginger garlic paste. Why? Because Sahana started a sourdough starter. And each day, instead of throwing away the excess starter before feeding the ‘mother’, she mixed some milk, chili flakes, fresh ginger/ garlic paste, some chopped scallion and made a delicious pancake. We ate the ‘waste product’ topped with fresh sliced tomatoes, home grown basil leaves, fresh mozzarella. You should have seen and tasted the deliciousness! That smell will always remain as a memory of comfort during pandemic.

Food that Sahana cooked, delicious and various. As an Indian mother, my proud moment arrived when my daughter made perfect samosas filled with potatoes and peas. My job here was done.

Ryan’s excited face as he explained one of his esoteric thoughts on aliens, historical facts and his interpretation of it, de extinction of extinct species. His constant playful bantering with his dad when it came to number of push ups and sit ups. Flexing of muscles and more working outs. His face, when flushed with the excitement of a new idea, made me smile inwardly. He was always a thoughtful child and while he tried his best to maintain aloofness as a 15 year old, the thoughts that came in his head needed to come out. His family members, at dinner time, were the best recipients.

Seeing Sean at work, listening to his meetings all over the world trying to mitigate hunger, poverty. And sometimes glaring at him for speaking so loudly that I had to leave the space to listen to my zoom meeting. Then laughing with the kids about it.

Sitting outside and looking at bunny rabbits play with each other.

Birds. So many birds. They were perhaps always there, I did not notice them with such focus. Waking up to their chirping and ending the day with their twits.

While riding this roller coaster of emotions, I learn to be patient, a trait I lack. And I learn to stay hopeful despite moments of despair. This will end. We will emerge. World will heal. Amen.

In the meantime…..deep breaths.

Alienated or standing out?


I was volunteered to sale books at my daughter’s high school on my birthday afternoon. She heard the word books and she volunteered her mother. I love how she makes that instant association. Later, she realized it was my birthday and meekly asked, “Oh, it is your birthday? Will you do it?”

I, of course, did it. What better way to spend a couple of hours on my special day than to sell gently read books to book-loving teenagers to raise money for a good cause. I was in. I was also lured by the prospect of my high schooler sitting next to me during her lunch break. She said she will sell books with me while she was at lunch.

As I sat there among milling teens I observed a microcosm of the world we live in. It is all in there – the groups, the sub-groups, the layers, the sub layers. The popular teens – confident, dressy, flying hair, The gamers with the certain look and hair, the athletes, the scholarly ones colloquially known as nerds. The groups were different in demeanor, looks, attitude, confidence but they were similar in one aspect – the device they held in their hands, their smart phones. It was clear that the different groups sported a certain look and that look was one of uniformity within the group. I chuckled silently at the thought that these same teens who try to break out from the norm try their best to fit in and belong within their own peer group.

The high school has implemented the BYOD (Bring your own device) rule this year because they felt that social networking is and will be an integral part of the times and world that these young people will inherit. The objective of the school system, by allowing device in the school, was to teach the young adults responsible usage of social networking. I will not get into the debate of whether the experiment is successful or not. As I see it, it is a way of the education system to save face and tell the children, ‘Fine, bring your device to school, because we know you are sneaking it in anyway.’ The other benefit, according to the principal, was the children can use their own device to pull up resources during instruction time. And the ones who don’t have their own device (the tiny minority) will have access to the class computers.

The lunch break was an interesting time to observe the teens with their mobile phones. Most of them walked while their eyes were on the phones, different expressions played on their faces – beatific smiles, frowns, nonchalance, excitement and so forth as their fingers browsed internet/Facebook/ tumblr/snapchat. They walked with their friends but did not interact with them directly, like we used to. There were, however, interactions! Their laughter and camaraderie revolved around jokes/messages that they found on the phones and shared with their real life friends. Although it was odd to see them connected to their devices while their friends of flesh and blood sat right next to them, I did observe solidarity and enjoyment. It seemed odd to me only because I have experienced the laughs, angers, sentiments and direct communications with my friends before this wired age but these children have not. But these children have sustained their friendships, built and broken them, in this way. Whether the relationships they make now in this unique way will withstand the test of time, only time will tell. I recently read a beautiful post written by a friend lamenting the loss of direct communication. I lament it too and I feel our children are missing out. But then again, our children have hardly experienced or nurtured many friendships in our way, how can they miss what they never experienced?

There were some loners too. And there I saw the advantage of cell phones. If you are eating your lunch alone, you don’t seem conspicuous any more if you have your phone in front of you. You can blend in just fine if you hypnotically look at the screen held in your hand like everybody else. You don’t have to hide your head and find a corner to sit so no one will notice your loneliness.

My daughter has an antiquated device at home, but I was not convinced enough to send that device to school with her. I said she could use the school computers to access resources. She has done fine without her iPod in school. When I mentioned my observations to her she looked at me with ‘now you understand how alienated I feel because I don’t have a device at school’ expression. She said it too. I said, “How about you looking at it in a different way? Instead of feeling alienated, how about this idea – you are standing out?” She nodded her head disparagingly, “You don’t understand Mom. It does not work that way.”

Just another day at the library.


I was sitting up at the kiosk, looking at the book presentation that I have to do next week when a man came up to me holding his library card up.

Man: I want to sign up please.

Since he already had a library card, I knew he was not talking of signing up for one of those. I was confused.

Me: Sign up for what, sir?

Man (impatiently): Sign up for a computer!!

I smiled and said, ‘Oh, you don’t need your library card to use our computers. Just choose one and start working!’

He stared at me for full five seconds and then said, ‘Your computers don’t work, do they?’

I was, naturally, taken aback by this presumption.

‘They work fine sir. Just choose anyone.’

It was morning hours and the library was relatively empty. Just a handful of customers were using the computers.

He walked over to one, and as he pulled the chair to sit down, he said in a loud voice, ‘You are shitting me! Your computers don’t work!’

I turned towards him again and assured him in a most pleasant voice that they do work and he should try to use one.

He pushed the chair back in loudly, walked towards the elevator and told me loudly, ‘I am going to __________ County library, where the computers actually work!!!!’

All I could do was stare at his receding back dumbfounded.

I felt a surge of anger at the unfairness which was promptly replaced by hilarity as I shared the story with my coworkers.

Later, I thought from his perspective. Experience must have taught him nothing is free in life. If you are offered free service, it must not be just that good.

I wish he had given our free service a chance 🙂 ! But…..oh well!

Visitors


I sat in the doctor’s office and flicked through the pages of the book that I brought along. The rising panic at being examined intimately and the annoyance of having to sit takes away the pleasure of uninterrupted reading. The door opened and a heavily pregnant woman of Indian origin walked in, followed by her saree clad mother. From the youthful look of her, the woman was perhaps pregnant with her first child and I simply assumed her mother had flown all the way from India to provide her with care, support, love and nourishment at this hour of her need. Mine did 9 years ago. The memories made me smile. Yet there was something in the body language in the elderly woman that made my heart yearn to touch her shoulder in reassurance. An uncertainly, a certain diffidence in her every action that proclaimed ‘I am so out of my comfort zone’! The daughter guided her mother every step of the way, telling her where to sit and wait while she filled out her paperwork, the mother held on to the daughter’s coat and water bottle so she could have her hands free. Once the paperwork was done, she made sure the daughter’s back did not hurt, touched it and said something to her in a language I did not understand. I was called then, and as I followed the nurse into the doctor’s office, I tried to catch their eyes to smile, but they were busy among themselves.

These days, as this country gets richer with the advent of different cultures from all parts of the world, many seniors are making the long trip to come here to visit family. The sight of elderly couples in traditional outfits walking a few steps behind their immigrant family, with a look of wonder and bewilderment is quite familiar, especially in the cities and other touristy places. Since my loved ones live far away, I often watch these visitors with pleasure mingled with envy, and more often than not, give a big smile if I happen to catch their eye. And more often than not, my smile is either acknowledged a tad late and returned with a surprised smile, or I just get a surprised stare – I don’t know you, why are you smiling at me? And more often than not, I notice the diffidence in their body language. A feeling of uncertainty about being in a foreign land with a very different language and culture manifests itself in their steps, expression. That, and also a sense of amazement at the novelty of the place, at how different it is from their homeland. And when I see the uncertainty, I want to reach out and give them a hug. I, of course, am not crazy enough to do it but I want to 🙂 !

So I seek out the ones who look most vulnerable and in need of help at airports when I travel from India to the United States. I unashamedly eavesdrop – I am a Bengali after all, and when I feel there is enough confusion between an elderly couple at what the next step should be in this complicated process of immigration and security check, I take it upon myself to guide them through it. And trust me, the feeling of relief at having a guide who speaks their language is almost palpable.

Many visit to be with their loved ones for a few months and many, while doing so, try their best to be as helpful to their sons or daughters as they can. They sometimes come in an hour of need and try to alleviate the stress of child-birth or new job or any other crisis by being here and helping in any capacity. When I first came to this land of do-it-yourself from a land of abundant domestic help, my family back home just about cried at my condition. ‘The poor girl has to do everything by herself. She has no help!’ they lamented. At the beginning I wallowed in self-pity and lapped up the commiseration till it started getting old. Then I tried to convince them I am not doing anything out of the ordinary, majority in this country do everything without much help. The argument to that was, ‘they are used to it, you are not.’

My parents, when they come, take over certain chores to give me a break. My mother takes over the kitchen, and my father takes over the responsibility of the dog and the children. He often regrets the fact that he can not drive and hence, can not go to the grocery store and spare me that chore as well. Oh, and he switches the laundry, empties the dishwasher AND cleans their own bathroom. One incident stands out in my mind. It was a hot summer afternoon and I was mowing the lawn. My father came out with a bottle of water and waved at me. I was thirsty so I took a break and gulped down some water. He asked me if he could do part of the lawn while I rested. I refused to have him help me, I said, ‘Go inside, stay cool!’ He, however, sat out at the garden bench with my water bottle in his hand with a distressed expression on his face the entire time I mowed the lawn. Once I was done, he was equally impressed with my lawn mowing abilities and disturbed that I married a man who made me mow our lawn! He said a few times, he felt very helpless sitting there while I toiled in that heat. And when Sean came home from work, after an initial hello, he launched into how I mowed the entire lawn, how hot it was, how impressed he was at my strength and what not. Later, in the privacy of our bedroom Sean chuckled, ‘Your father certainly had an accusatory tone when he told me about your lawn mowing prowess! Did you feel there was a hidden message to me cloaked in your praise about ME making you mow the lawn?’
And I said, ‘Buddy, you better believe it. His princess married a pauper who MAKES her mow the lawn. His heart is breaking!’

😀

The man from the faraway land came home.


I lied through my teeth for almost three months.

“I have double shift at work today. I have to leave by 9.00 am’ – was a common one. Every Saturday I would leave home after a faltering, mumbling lie. Walk with a fluttering heart towards Golpark bus stop, the heart rate increased as I neared Ram Krishna Mission. As I turned the corner I always broke out into a sweat of happy anticipation and guilt.

“Will he be there?” He always was. He stood in front of the Ram Krishna Mission, brighter than a sunshine, facing the corner where I would come from. As I turned the corner, his face split into a huge smile and I glittered like a diamond under its brightness.

After sneaking around for a few months, I decided my over active conscience can not bear the burden of this sneaky rendezvous, I needed to tell my parents that I was seeing someone. And the ‘someone’ belonged to a far away land.

So one summer afternoon as I lay next to my mother, I decided the moment was as good as any.

“I wanted to tell you for a while, I met someone I like.”

My mother’s head turned, excitement, apprehension in her eyes.

“Oh, really? Who is he?”

I knew the answer to “who is he” would be the hardest. He belonged to a different country, a country very far away.

I wanted them to meet him and nervously, they agreed. I was nervous, my parents were nervous and I believe Sean was nervous as well, although he does not admit it today.

The day finally dawned when he was supposed to come. Our house was cleaned thoroughly, the tiny living room was given a make over, the curtains were washed, cushion covers replaced, my seventeen cats were reprimanded and asked to be on their best behavior. My mother supervised the work and asked me if I thought the preparations will be up to Sean’s satisfaction. I reassured her he won’t really care. And then there was the question of what to offer him to eat. Although I had been seeing Sean for three months, we really had not shared a meal since our meetings were short and between meals. I had no idea what he ate or what he liked. I was not helpful, I just said, “Oh, don’t fret about it.”

Finally in the evening, Sean’s car entered our narrow alleyway. My mother was nervous and a little angry with me for putting her in this position where I thrust her into this realm of the ‘unknown’, out of her comfort zone. She did not know what to say to a man who was not from our country and did not speak her language! Why did I not find an Indian boy to fall in love with? Anyway, Sean entered our house holding two beautiful and expensive looking bouquets. He extended the bigger one to my mother and the smaller one to me. Neither ma nor I had ever received flowers from anyone, let alone a man. Flowers, rajanigandha sticks, were bought on our birthdays and put in a vase when we expected guests. We were baffled to receive flowers and worried right away if we had two vases handy to put them in. Sean seemed very comfortable. He shook hands with my dad and settled comfortably in the couch. Ma asked in halting English if he wanted any tea. Sean said, “Yes, sure. Thank you!”

At this point, my mother asked me to follow her. I went in towards the kitchen. She turned around to me with and said with gritted teeth, sweating a little,

“Ekta kotha o bujhte parchina!! Ki kore kotha bolbo?” (I can’t understand a word he says, how will I carry on a conversation?)

I said, with a concealed chuckle, “I will translate.”

After hot, milky tea and some halted conversation, mainly around me and how we met, a little about his work, they offered Sean some sweet yogurt – mishti doi, a specialty of Bengal. He accepted and ate it. Later I found out, he does not drink tea and he hates yogurt of any kind! The evening ended, Sean left and we started talking about him behind his back.

“He seems like a nice man. But the accent! Oh the accent! Can’t understand anything! How do you understand what he says?”

I said, “You get used to it. I can understand him fine!”

A trend started. He became a regular in our house. He had a very active social life, yet most evenings he came over to just hang out Indian style, sitting on our big bed with his legs folded under him, mainly laughing and listening, teasing my mother and perhaps observing the middle class Bengali culture through us.

I have been in several embarrassing situations and my parent’s unabashed pride in my achievements was certainly one of them. The pride was sweet, very endearing yet embarrassing. My trophies, cups and certificates were treasured in our Godrej almirah and Sean, once he became a bit more familiar, was subjected to each and every one of them, followed by a lecture on how smart I was and how well spoken and how many debates and public speaking competitions I had won. I was a catch and he better believe he is lucky to have received my attention – this message was delivered in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways by those two who did consider me their prized possession, no matter how little I mattered to the world. I tried to divert the conversation, but I was ignored mostly. Sean showed interest with a quick amused glance in my direction and a meaningful smile which conveyed, ‘Oh you will be teased about it later!’

As our relationship grew and became richer so did his association with my immediate and extended family. My grandmother became Sean’s fast friend. They were often found in a corner in a family gathering, didun talking nineteen to the dozen to Sean about her trips to Belur, about her arthritis pain and other metaphysical discourses. Sean nodded and contributed to the conversation in English. This continued after our marriage and till she passed away to the other side.

A relationship between two individuals does not stay limited to just them, does it? It  spreads its sweetness (or bitterness, as the case may be) to the people related to those individuals. Sean’s zest for life and his ability to spread love and cheer made him a favorite not only with me but with my family. We had our challenges in bringing our love to fruition but I believe our love and respect for not only each other but for those who we love helped us overcome those.

After eighteen years of togetherness I look back on the day when my two worlds met and how they interacted with each other. There was that fear of the unknown, there was curiosity, there was a little pride, there was a lot of stress and there was happiness too. It is with a smile that I  look back and reminisce on how it all started, how we found acceptance and love in not only each other’s hearts but also in the hearts of family who nurtured us.

Off to visit the Mayans – Day 6, Tulum


We slept in on the sixth day. Our vacations are those that you NEED vacation from, but all of us seem to thrive in action, yes even Sahana, if she is not dragged out early.

After yet another chocolate croissant Starbucks breakfast we got in Escargot to drive 40 Km to Tulum. Both the children had enough of ruins at this point but not their ruin loving mother. Tulum was built between the 13th and the 15th century and was an important port for trade, especially obsidian. The ruins, perhaps, do not match in grandeur with the impressive ones at Chichen Itza or Uxmal but the setting of the ruins is indeed spectacular! It stands on a bluff facing the east and the ancient shrine of the Diving God greets the rising sun every day over the breathtakingly beautiful Caribbean sea.

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I am not sure what word would describe the blueness of the ocean. There was not just one blue though, there were different hues and shades of blue. No matter how talented an artist or a painter is, can they ever produce that perfect hue in their canvases or papers? Is that blue an example of what perfection is? Just so? Not a bit more and not a bit less? As I read my journal, I see I wrote down ‘pristine, turquoise, aqua marine – none of these seem to really bring forth the true hue of the color blue.’

The children decided to jump in the water while Sean and I continued to tour the entire site paying homage to the reigning deity of the area – the descending god. It is a figure with legs splayed upwards and head down diving from the sky to the ocean.

According to Ancient History Encyclopedia:

The Temple of the Descending God, located at Tulum, is an intricately designed structure which is illuminated brightly by the setting sun every April 6th – which is the birthday of The Descending God (so named because he is always depicted with his feet in the air)and is carefully aligned with the planet Venus. While it has long been held that Tulum is the only temple complex to depict the Descending God, his image has been found elsewhere. Attempts to link him to the figure of Jesus Christ have been dismissed by all reputable scholarly authorities.

The camera, as some of you know, is almost surgically attached to my hip. As I walked the ruined walls at the edge of the cliff and looked down at the brilliant emerald sea beneath, I kept stopping to take pictures. And when I looked at them later, I discovered I had taken picture of the same scene again and again – a multitude of times, obsessively. My desire, perhaps, to capture the entire day, along with the blue sky, the wispy clouds, the magnificent ruins, the mass of humanity speaking various languages of the world, the sea, the moments, my family, my feelings of joy and fulfillment, in each shot.

After walking throughout the site, Sean stripped to his swimming trunks and entered the water. I did not bring any change of clothes. Nor did I have swim suit underneath. So, like a true Indian, I followed my husband in the water, fully clothed. And had the best time swaying with the waves.

Finally, when nobody could ignore the pangs of hunger any longer, we made a unanimous decision to bid adieu to the sea, the sand and the ruins to head towards Akumal, north of Tulum, towards Playa Del Carmen. We were on a mission to find the restaurant La Buena Vida in Akumal, as suggested by some fellow travelers from Canada. The nachos there were to ‘die for’ they said. The setting of the restaurant, on a tiny cliff by the sea, was unparalleled, they said. We had no directions, no GPS and Sean refused to ask directions. By sheer instinct he got us there while I grumbled about typical male pride about directions. He parked the car and said, ‘Here you go, we found it!’ smugly as we walked in. There were palapas roofs on picnic tables by the water and we were directed to one of those.

La buena vida – the good life. The name is chosen from one of the cardinal principles of the ancient Mayans, live the present moment fully. Be in the moment. Nothing is more important than being in the moment, living it, doing it justice. The worries can wait.

I live by the important (for me) mantra ‘This too shall pass’. In moments of sorrow, this thought gives me solace and the courage to face my sorrow. In moments of joy, this reminds me that happiness too is transient and I must make the most of it. The memory of the happy times become that jewel that I wear around my being, which embellishes my soul. Hence the photos, hence the journal.

I remember sitting there with my little family looking at the vibrant blue water, the coral reefs afar, the gentle sway of the palm trees, the yellow sand beneath my feet, I thought ‘this moment too shall pass’. But I am so grateful to HAVE this moment, to be able to live it fully. I remember thinking this must be what true happiness feels like…la buena vida.

We drove back to Merida on the seventh day and headed back home on the eighth morning. I brought back happy times, laughter, thoughts, bonding and the realization how different traveling with the children is becoming. I remember hauling luggage and entertaining both of them during long flights to India. This time, however, Sahana navigated the airports, Ryan lugged around our heavy suitcase and a backpack. My offers to help carry luggage were refused with ‘we got this, Mom!’ I ended up carrying only my purse the entire trip. That was sweet, but somehow bittersweet.

This was the last post of the trip. Thank you so much for reading my journey and being a part of it. I appreciate you all greatly.

Off to visit the Mayans – Day 5, Xcaret.


If any of you have traveled with a teenager, you probably know to give them a wide berth after waking them up early (very early) to catch a plane, bus or train. We woke Sahana up amidst whines and groans to catch our scheduled Easy Tour van at 8:30 am to go see Xcaret (eshcaret). Xcaret is one of Maya Riviera’s most popular destination – a ‘eco archaelogical’ theme park where one can go snorkeling in the part underground river, relax on their impossibly soft, yellow sandy beaches, swim with the fishes, pet dolphins, eat a 28 course buffet lunch, visit a mariposa (butterfly) garden, take pictures with macaw on one’s shoulders, see soft pink flamingos, tapirs, pumas, jaguars, turtles – all this at a high price. And yes, it does possess the ambience of a Disney theme park. You can have your adventure under well controlled environment.

After packing our bio-degradable sunscreen (only bio degradable are allowed since you get up close and personal with sea creatures), swim suits, change of clothes, hats, shades et all, we grandly exited our Adventure Experience Hotel after greeting the lovely receptionist a cheery, ‘Buenos Diaz’. Sahana just grumbled.

We had no time for a sit down breakfast so we ran to grab something from a nearby Starbucks. Cafe latte and chocolate croissant for me, chocolate croissants for Sahana and Ryan while Sean got something distasteful and healthy – egg white and cheese sandwich. We chomped on our breakfast while waiting for the van and slowly, like the rising sun, Sahana’s disposition became sunny with every bite of the croissant. It is funny what chocolate can do to a choco lover.

The van arrived promptly at 8:30 am and after stopping to pick up some other fellow Xcaret adventurers, it dropped us off in the expert hands of our guide, who then expounded upon the do’s and don’t’s of the theme park for the next 20 minutes – in Spanish! After 10 minutes or so, Ryan asked, “Can we please just go?”

Finally his very elaborate lecture ended, he extracted promises from us to meet him at the exact spot no later than 9:20 pm and after procuring that he let us loose and left us to our own mischief.

The plan was simple. Three of my family members would get on a boat with their rented snorkeling gear and get thrown off the boat mid-ocean to swim with fishes while I would find a lounge chair by the aqua marine water and update my journal.

Snorkeling in mid-ocean was not my idea of fun. As we waited for Sean, Sahana and Ryan to board their boat, we watched people getting kissed by dolphins, petting them, hugging them, playing with them – at a steep price. When Sahana heard how much it cost to touch a dolphin, she exclaimed, ‘Gosh, no!’

Macaws at Xcaret.
Macaws at Xcaret.

As the children and Sean waved goodbye to me and their boat turned a corner, I walked back to the beach, found a quiet spot under a beach umbrella and brought out my notebook and pen to retrace our steps with words. I realized a smile often formed at the corner of my lips as I recalled a particular incident in our journey together, a special moment of bonding as my notebook filled up in that hour and a half.

The gorgeous indescribable blue water.
The gorgeous indescribable blue water.

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After an exuberant retelling of how exciting the snorkeling was, how fearless Ryan and Sahana were, how many fishes they saw and how they separated from the group to swim with a sea turtle, we went to an elaborate and sumptuous lunch in an international restaurant within the park (the price of the ticket included the buffet) which incorporated varied local delicacies along with dishes like pasta, fish and chips etc to accommodate all kinds of taste.

My plate. I went back for seconds and thirds.
My plate. I went back for seconds and thirds.

The next adventure was snorkeling down a part underground river – along with the mother this time. The water in the river was about 6 feet deep and the mother had already asked the guide in very broken Spanish whether it was safe for someone who can not swim well to go down it. The guide had said, ‘Oh sure!’ The mother was not sure if something had gone lost in translation. Bravely donning my snorkeling gear I took my valiant husband’s hand as I flopped my flippers on the stairs going down to the river. The first touch of water sent shivers down my spine. It was a chilly 75 degree Fahrenheit. There were two options to go down the river – one way was outside, lit up by the sun and pleasant foliage overhead to form a lovely canopy over your head, or the dark, sinister tunnel through which the river flew secretly and where the rays of the sun were prohibited. Ryan chose the tunnels. And I unhappily complied. Mistake.

I have claustrophobia and I have a fear of water. An unhappy combination if you are about to float down a river that flows through pitch black tunnels. As soon as we entered the tunnels, floating and splashing, I knew I was in trouble. I felt panic rising in my throat. And for a few moments I thought I could not do this. The tunnels were pitch black, there was not a single glimmer of light to illuminate our way, we had to feel for the sides of the caverns through which we floated by or jutting rocks with our hand. While struggling with my fears of enclosed space and drowning, I felt something touch my legs.

“Sean, is that you? Did you just touch my legs?” I screamed.

“No, I am right here. Next to you. Here hold my hand.” He said.

“Oh my gosh, something touched my leg. Something living touched my leg. A rat touched my leg!” I was almost hyperventilating in panic.

“No rats, no rats. Rats will drown here!” He tried to pacify.

“Then it was a snake! We are swimming through sewage water with rats and snakes! Why did you agree to come through the tunnels? Why did we not go the other way?  It is all your fault!” I was wailing.

“You are doing great! I am right next to you!” The good man consoled me as he pulled me along.

A man, trying to navigate his family around my thrashing legs, had touched my legs. Not rats, not snakes, I discovered in a few minutes, when he said a fearful sorry – fearing my madness!

Thankfully at regular intervals there was sunlight pouring in through holes above us. We found Sahana waiting there for us, waiting to see how her brave mother was faring. She too, did not like the dark and was complaining that Ryan always gets his way about everything. Floating down the river in the sunlight would have been so much more pleasant. After gulping down the sunshine at these breaks, I sorrowfully plunged in the murky dark waters again, just to get to the end of it. Those moments of light were such blissful ones. I truly appreciated the phrase ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ when the tunnels regurgitated us floaters into clear water and blinding sunlight. Surprisingly though, somewhere between starting the river journey and ending it I learnt to rely on my life vest and finally started believing I was not going to drown. Somewhere along the way, when we got out into those sporadic moments of sunshine, I put my snorkeling gear on and put my face in the water, I learnt to breathe through my mouth. Somewhere along the way, I pried loose my fingers and let my tightly held fear slip away. Instead I grasped on to the belief that I can do this. And that is when I started having fun. As I put my face in the water and opened my eyes, once the tunnels ended and we emerged onto the sunlight, I discovered a brilliant world underneath me. Fishes of different hues swimming along beneath me. It was a moment of wonder, a boon of sight – ‘I once was blind but now I can see’ moment.

The day ended with a truly spectacular show of the cultures of Mexico which dated from the cultural aspects of Ancient Mayans and ended with modern-day Mariachi music.

Ancient Mayans playing a game resembling field hockey with a ball of fire.
Ancient Mayans playing a game resembling field hockey with a ball of fire.

By the end of the show the people in the entire stadium, irrespective of their country of origin, were rocking, clapping and chanting “Mexico, Mexico” It was a moment of bonding with the beautiful, hospitable, very pleasant people of a truly enchanting country of rich cultural heritage.

We kept our promise and returned to the tour guide by 9:20 pm. We were dropped back at our hotel tired, hungry and very content. After a quick dinner of lousy pizza and a promise to Sahana that we will let her sleep in tomorrow, we turned the lights out.

Oh, and if you are worrying about my infected finger still….rest easy, the antibiotics are working. Both the swelling and the pain are down. Dreaming of the ruins of Tulum that we plan to see tomorrow…

Off to visit the Mayans – Day 4, Playa Del Carmen


The fourth day was unplanned. We had run ragged since we arrived in Mexico, so we decided to take a day of rest. Fortified with painkillers and antibiotics, I peeked out at the sunshiny day outside from our hotel room and greeted it with a wide smile. The sun did the same.

Sean got roped into listening to a vacation share sales pitch. I grudgingly agreed to it since the deal was they would give us heavily reduced tickets to the eco theme park Xcaret if we gave the sales team our time. We sat through the sales pitch in a beautiful resort while the children played on the beach. We refused to shell out $20,000 to buy two weeks of vacation and came back with four tickets to the eco theme park.

Mexican food is delicious but after four days of tacos (the children disliked the authentic tacos there since the meat was chopped and not ground and the taco sauce was different than what they are used to in the US), pibil, guacamole, nachos we were ready for a change of palate. We craved some soul food – Italian! We lunched in an Italian restaurant on fifth Avenue in Playa Del Carmen where the food was delicious and the price was exorbitant. Sea food fettucine for me, gnocchi for Sahana and Sean, salmon and shrimp pizza for Ryan, which he did not like.

After lunch we strolled back leisurely to our hotel, nodding to the local shop owners, smiling at fellow tourists. We came back, changed in our swim suits and found our beach by 3:45 pm. While the man and his cubs frolicked in the water, I donned my hat, shades, sarong and went on a long walk along the beach. Beach attracts me for the blue ocean, the faraway horizon where the ocean raises to kiss the cloud filled blue sky, the spectacular sunsets, the salty tang of air, the gritty feel of the sand beneath my feet, the intricate carvings on an abandoned sea shell. It also brings me close to the stillness, the carefree joy, the familial bonding that my fellow humans bring to the beach. Very rarely do I see wo/men bent over their electronic devices. They either rest, play, sunbathe, walk, bond, laugh by the water or in it. This coming together of nature and mankind makes me happy. I am both the observer and the absorber of nature and man.

The evening was dedicated to the beautiful beach city of Playa Del Carmen. Locals lamented the loss of its beauty and simplicity with the booming tourism and development of this area. As Cancun got overcrowded resorts started buying up property and developing Playa. Gone are Playa Del Carmen’s sleepy days. The city now dons a new apparel every night and glitters for the people who come to visit. We dined at a 100 percent natural Mexican restaurant, which the grown ups loved and the children did not care for.

After a satisfying, all natural, healthy meal at Playa Del Carmen.
After a satisfying, all natural, healthy meal at Playa Del Carmen.

Then we walked the entire length of Fifth Avenue as Sahana and Ryan licked their double scoops of ice cream from a glittery Haagen Daaz. There were men on stilts, overpriced artifacts, trinkets, masks, designer stores with that homogenous smell of designer perfumes. There were ferrets, snakes and baby Chow chows to be petted and taken pictures with, if you paid. Local artists painted on the roadsides and sold their paintings. Musicians serenaded diners in open air restaurants. We ended up at Punta Playa (the port of Playa) where we sat with local families and watched street performers performing skits in Spanish. Sean drew me closer and flicked his head up at the sky. I looked up following his gaze to see the splendidly shining moon finally emerging from behind some dark clouds, over the ocean. Sean found my hand and held on. We stood there for a while, my back against my husband as the moon played hide and seek with us and slowly, ever so slowly, disappeared again. How perfect was that moment!

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We were back at the hotel by 10:30 pm and were asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillow. Xcaret tomorrow – snorkeling, floating down secret river, flamingos, dolphins…