Birthday well spent


The sun is shining brightly on my indoor plants as I look up and steal glances at them while I type out this blog. I breathe easier today. I survived an emotionally wrought day yesterday – baba’s birthday. As I reflect upon it, I have a sense of relief that it is over and also that it was well spent. Baba, for as long as I remember, was an empathetic listener to the elderly. I remember, in family get togethers he spent more time with the elderly than with his compatriots. He sat with them in our extended family reunions and listened to their stories. He always said there is much to be learned from those who came before us. They need to be heard. When he and ma started their NGO, they would often help impoverished homes for elderly. While they donated much needed items and fed the seniors, baba listened to the stories of their lives.

Yesterday, at work, I got called to help a customer download an audiobook on her device. As I walked to the floor towards the customer, I saw that she was very elderly, wheel chair bound. Her hands shook as she tried to press buttons on her device. With her permission, I touched her tablet (although we are not really allowed to touch devices of customers) and did what needed to be done to get her the audiobook. She was so relieved and at the same time apologetic that she was taking up so much of my time. I assured her, repeatedly, that it is indeed my joy to be able to help her. I love nothing better than connecting book lovers to reading materials and I am honestly doing what I love to do. She smiled. After we successfully downloaded her book, she was thrilled and excited to listen to it once she got home. Her eyes are not what they used to be so although she’d rather read, she cannot these days so she has resorted to listening to audiobooks. She told me a little about her sons and grandchildren before we said goodbye. She was afraid she was going to forget the steps to download books in the future. I reassured her that help was truly a phone call away if that does happen. As I turned to leave, she said to me, “Honey, I thank you for your patience. You have been so helpful and kind.” As I walked back to my office, I thought what a perfect way to celebrate baba’s birthday. He would have loved to hear this story.

There were tears. Of course there were tears and plenty of them. And there was laughter too, remembering his idiosyncrasies and his wicked sense of humor. I went to the garden in the library where my coworkers donated 2 paver stones in my parents’ names. I stood there by him, remembering his lifetime of love for me, Sean and his grandchildren. After I came home, Sean wanted to go pay his respects to the paver stones too. So we went again. I did not have flowers so I picked up a leaf from the garden (did not pluck it) and put it on the stone that has his name on it. Sean touched the stone, said a prayer. We then went for a walk around the lake as the sun went down and the colors of sunset reflected on the calm waters of the lake. We ended up at our favorite Indian restaurant and talked about grief, closure and love over dal, paneer and garlic naan. Baba would have scoffed at the choice of food (vegetarian) but he would have loved the celebration.

Graduation


I did not feel an emptiness in my heart when the black and yellow school bus swallowed my 5 year old Sahana to take her to her first day of kindergarten. I must admit I felt a sense of relief instead of sadness at the separation. I was relieved because little Sahana could not wait to get to kindergarten and start a new life in a new country. We had just moved to United States right before she started kindergarten. She was trying to understand and get acclimated to her new environment and she was looking forward to making friends in school. After kindergarten, there were other transitions – finishing elementary, moving on to middle school and then high school. High school years passed in the blink of an eye and a beautiful morning dawned for her high school graduation. She got admission to the college she wanted to attend.

Right before she went off to college, I had pangs of separation, of course. However, seeing her eagerness to experience college made me happy. She could not wait to leave home. And I was simply in awe of this young woman who was ready to move on and embrace a bigger universe.

We drove her to her college, got her settled in her dorm room and then it was time to say goodbye. We all went down the stairs of her dorm together. She stood on the pavement as we got in our car and started to drive away. I looked back to see her lone self standing on that pavement waving us good bye. I felt this immeasurable emptiness in my heart then as she got smaller and smaller in our rear view mirror till we turned a corner and we couldn’t see her anymore.

Four years have passed since then. In her junior year she waved us goodbye at the airport and boarded a flight for Madrid, Spain to spend her junior year abroad. While I was sad to see her go I was, however, more excited for all the adventures that awaited her out there. And adventures she had, the first being losing her luggage after she landed in Madrid. She arrived but her luggage did not. That unpleasant experience, thankfully, was followed by mostly fantastic experiences, knowledge, travel and friendships.

Covid 19 struck when she was in her 7th month in Madrid. She had to pack within 2 days to board a flight home. Her senior year in college was spent at home, in her room, taking classes via Zoom. She handled everything with mostly good spirits, hoping she would be able to graduate in person. That did not turn out the way she had hoped.

But today is the culmination of all her hard work and her resilience after being robbed of a senior year experience. Today she graduates with a college degree, magna cum laude in both her majors, with big dreams to give back to the world that has given her so much. My heart explodes with pride, love and joy as this young woman emerges in the world with so much potential.

Congratulations Sahana!

My big fat Bengali family is partying hard somewhere…


Elizabeth Kubler Roth On Death and Dying has written, “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”

I will take time off from my usual grief journal and write about a scenario which could be happening behind the veil, who knows? My aunt died yesterday in her sleep. My father died a few hours ago. The death march in my family continues. Anyway, I think all my family members over the years who have said sayonara are having a raucous get together somewhere without us who are still limited in our physical being. Although I was an only child, I grew up in a loud, boisterous family with grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. And when we got together the decibel level generally reached an unacceptable level for neighbors. In a middle class Bengali family, there was always a lot of food, sweets, snacks along with more than a generous amount of teasing, shouting, loud conversations about who can eat how much and laughter. My aunts did the cooking, my mother held court in a semi languishing posture because she was self proclaimed lazy. She provided the entertainment.

I think all my departed family is together now, partying hard…..somewhere.. There is the same raucousness, same loud teasing, same laughter. Food? I don’t know.

Sahana was waiting for her final grade in college. She was on tenterhooks because this grade was going to determine if she would graduate with magna cum laude. Well, she did. Because of the tragedy in our family, her achievements have not been celebrated like they should have been but she knows we are immensely proud of her. When she found out she will graduate with a magna cum laude, she said, “Oh mom! Can you imagine how much bragging didiya is doing up there to her family? Oh she will be obnoxious about it. She was always so proud of my academic achievements and talked about it to anyone who would listen.” When she said this, dadai was still breathing. But I am sure baba will look on with his usual beaming face as ma tells everyone how brilliant Sahana is.

It was a happy vision – ma with her youthful energy which she had lost towards the end, talking to her siblings, aunt and parents about her grand daughter’s achievements as her siblings try to pretend that they are as interested in it as she is. 🙂

I wrote this before baba joined them. Now everyone is welcoming him into the party.

“Arre Gautam, esho esho.”

What time is dinner?


Interracial, interfaith, transnational marriage like ours had and continues to have certain novelties, discoveries, realizations. Realizations about our differing norms, cultures, way of doing things, comfort zones. After a marriage of 24, almost 25 years, we feel like we dealt with most of them but there are times when the differences in our upbringing come to the forefront. One such realization came to me during the holiday season in 2020. It is the question that Sean asks, “What time are you planning dinner?”

I did not grow up with that question or truly planning a meal time during festivals or even during daily life. In Kolkata, when the family got together for any occasion, food was, of course, the epicenter of all festivities but the time when that food will be consumed was anybody’s guess. There were perfunctory questions about  what time is lunch or dinner but nobody knew. We ate when the food was ready. And even when the food was ready, the guests had to be coaxed to the dinner table if they were involved in a ‘jomati adda’ (rough translation would be engrossing gossip, although gossip is not really a proper translation for the Bengali word, adda). The concept of ‘adda’ is so quintessentially Bengali that there is no accurate translation of the word in any other foreign language or even any other Indian languages to the best of my knowledge. During a gathering, food was eaten in a certain hierarchical order that I have noticed – children were fed first followed by the men folk, lastly the women sat down to eat amidst much chatter, laughter and camaraderie.  As many know that in Bengal we eat with our hands. Sitting with others just laughing and chatting long after one’s food has been eaten with sticky fingers is one of my most fond memories. Time, during the days of celebration, was only of importance when one had to maintain the auspicious moments when a puja had to be performed. During the rest of the day, time was relegated to the back ground, it did not control us. We controlled our day. We were propelled during those special days by our needs – desire for togetherness, hunger, laughter, puja, rather than routine. Those days were refreshingly freeing, unbound from time.

My experience in USA has been different with my American family. During most of our celebrations – Thanksgiving, Christmas, there is a specific time for dinner. I observe in the torrential flurry of activities of my extended family, who prepare the big meals for our get togethers, how flustered they seem to get everything on the table by a certain time, all hot from the oven or stove top. Dinner will be served at 2 and that is the goal! I still can not get used to rigidity of time on a day of celebration. For me, the languorous stretch of time defines how a festival or gathering of family should be celebrated.

Sean asks me, always, what time is breakfast or dinner or lunch when I plan to celebrate bhai phota or a special breakfast or a special dinner at home. The question bothered me at the beginning. I felt the day was being segmented by tying meal times within a set time frame so I used to respond, “When it is ready!” That answer threw him off. I realized he planned his activities around the time I will give him for the meal I was preparing. So I adjusted. I give him a time and now I prepare food with one eye on the clock. It takes away the spontaneity of celebration, so when I go home celebrations take on more meaning when the chaos of meal times return.