Christmas mischief


One day, right after Thanksgiving, I caught my husband smiling a Grinchy smile.

‘Why are you smiling like that?’

He said he had an idea. A wonderful idea. Just like the Grinch, he had “a wonderful, awful idea”. He told me his plan and I gave him a hearty clap on his back for being so deliciously evil. He came up with the plan and I executed it flawlessly. It was a perfect team work.

I bought gifts early this year, right after Thanksgiving because what else am I going to do during a pandemic? As the gifts started arriving to my doorstep, I scooped them up, wrapped them right away, and wrote Sean’s name on each one of them. That was the plan. Sean thought of the idea of addressing each gift in his name so the kids would wonder when their gifts were coming. As the pile of gifts under our Christmas tree grew, Ryan and Sahana grew increasingly perplexed. Why was not a single gift for them?

They did not say anything for a while hoping their gifts will arrive eventually. To make it believable I wrote Ryan’s name in one big package and couple had Sahana’s name on them. They gave each other gifts so Ryan’s gift totaled to 3 and Sahana’s 4. Sean’s name was on 17 gifts. A week before Christmas Ryan started mumbling, questioning if more gifts were coming still. I said I was done.

“What?? NO! Are you kidding me? You can not be done. Sahana and I hardly got any presents. Its all for dad!”

“Yes, I see that! You know, I bought impulsively this year. I did not keep count on how many I was buying for who and I got carried away with Dad’s presents.” I replied with an embarrassed smile. That threw him off guard – for the moment.

Sahana was confused like her brother but she is older now and did not verbalize her thoughts but silently supported her brother’s tirades.

Over the course of the week, discussions during dinner were dominated by different thoughts on the inequality of the number of gifts, questioning my love for certain family members, quantifying Sean’s good deeds to have deserved so many gifts. Sean simply smiled while I said things like, “my love for you is not measured by materialistic gifts, my darling.” I do not believe that placated my son. To be fair to Sahana, she smiled and laughed mostly and said, yeah, yeah’ as Ryan carried on about how few gifts the ‘children’ got. I continued to look shame faced.

“Sorry guys! It does seem a little unfair. I guess I just got carried away!” That continued to be my refrain.

On the night before Christmas eve, when all hope of arrival of more gifts were extinguished, Ryan forlornly looked at his 3 gifts and said,

“I guess I am considered the scum of the family. Only 3 gifts while dad has 18. Even Sahana has 4 and mom has 7! What kind of family is this where parents get more gifts than kids?”

I said his gift was expensive and he will be happy. He was quick to show his gratitude.

“Mom, I thank you for that. But why did dad get so many gifts? How good was he this year?”

Sean and I laughed till we had tears in our eyes in the privacy of our bedroom. Ryan is absolutely hilarious without even trying. And his laments about lack of gifts were in good humor. I laughed helplessly at his funny quips and he laughed loudly too with his broken, teenage voice. It was truly entertaining last 10 days or so before Christmas. Laments and funny quips got more desperate and hence funnier as the big day approached.

Christmas morning dawned. We decided to take photos with our gifts in front of us. Here are the initial photos as I handed out the gifts.

Sahana looks happy with her meager gifts.

Right before we were about to open the presents, I pretended to look at the number disparity and shook my head.

“I went a little crazy with dad’s gifts and it looks bad for the photos. Here, why don’t we reallocate them and you two help him open presents.”

“No, no! Let all your friends know what you did this Christmas. Make sure you post them on Facebook. Why will we open dad’s gifts? Let him open his. We will wait. I have only 3 anyway.” Ryan said in his fog horn voice.

“Nah! Let’s redo this.” Amid protests from both brother and sister, I redistributed the packages. And then accompanied by unadulterated laughter, we told them about our naughtiness.

I had written Sean’s name in all caps for Ryan’s gifts. Printed his name for those meant for Sahana and wrote Sean’s name in cursive for the ones that were actually his. After reallocating the packages, the story changed, Ryan’s smile returned, Sahana’s weak smile brightened, Sean and I laughed till we cried!

Since he had no idea we had played a trick on them, Ryan wrapped an empty box for Sean with this note in it:

He looked peevish when Sean opened the package with this note, “Jeez, I feel kinda mean now!”

At the end, it was indeed a holly, jolly Christmas. There was laughter, there were exclamations, there were squeals of joy and thank you’s. There was acknowledgement that ‘we got them’. They never guessed what we were up to and ultimately it ended up being a fun prank. What we got out of it? Days of endless mirth at their bafflement, the fact that our son is very materialistic, our daughter has matured enough to not harangue us with questions about her gifts.

It was, after all, a joyful Christmas. And if you charge us with bad parenting, we plead guilty. But the laughter and evil planning behind their backs were oh so worth it. πŸ˜€

Here she is, world!


I read somewhere that we, parents, are building cathedrals as we raise our children. No one remembers the cathedral builders when the building is complete, yet our imprint stays on for lifetime. That thought is lovely and overwhelming in equal measure.

When my tiny daughter was placed in my arms 21 years ago, I was overwhelmed by the responsibility of raising this small human. I needed to ensure that she stayed alive, she stayed healthy, she grew up kind, responsible, happy. Was I up to the task? I don’t know whether I was up to the task, all I knew was that an inexplicable love surged through my heart when I first saw her. Buoyed by this overwhelming love and tenderness, I resolved to give this child of mine all I had. The new born turned into a toddler, a delightful child and willful as well. A child who constantly pushed the envelop. A child who made sure I was one step ahead of the game because she questioned her boundaries – always. A child who fell in love with written words, like her mama, at a very early age. A child who always loved school and loves till this day. Then she became tween: a very creative, bossy tween. Oh, so bossy! And quirky. I remember volume knob on the radio in our car had to be turned to a multiple of 5. Any other number bothered her. Then came the teen years. Like any other teen, she had fits of rage from time to time and felt completely misunderstood. Her father and I watched in despair, unsure. However, the periods of emotional turmoil were often juxtaposed with sweet moments of affection, intelligent conversation, nuggets of random facts that she liked to subject her family to. And poetry! She wrote deep, thoughtful, beautiful poetry during those years which left me wondering about the depth of her perception and thought. The tumultuous teen years, which I lovingly refer to as ‘the lost years’ were mercifully brief. From those raging years emerged a young woman with a certain maturity and sense of responsibility with an analytical and thoughtful mind.

I held this little girl’s hand and waited for her school bus to take her to preschool, I read to her and then with her, I helped her with homework, packed her lunch, kissed her wounds, both physical and emotional, laughed with her, played with her, listened to her thoughts and one day, all of a sudden I realized that her thoughts were spreading wings. She was ushering in new ideas into my horizon instead of it being the other way around. She was reading more complex books on diverse topics and she was slowly opening my eyes to new ideas and possibilities. That is when I realized she has overgrown her mama. She has truly grown up. 21 is just a number.

At first I thought I would write this blog about parents building cathedrals as they raise their children and when they come of age, the building is done. But no, the building, if I use that analogy, is far from being done. My husband and I have built the structure perhaps, but the real building will be completed by the newly minted 21 year old herself. As a parent, my hope is, we have given our child the right materials – in the form of love, support, encouragement, opportunities, values, beliefs and morals to complete her cathedral the way she seems fit.

Here she is, world. Here she comes. Give her a chance so she can shine her light. Spread her empathy. Shower her love.

Happy 21st birthday, Sahana.

Having an Indian mom


I found my daughter laughing hysterically before she left for work one morning. I looked up from my computer to find out the cause of this mirth. “Oh mom, I am sending you something on Messenger. Check it out! This encapsulates how I prefaced my less than A grades to you.” Mind you, she was sitting right across from me.

She sent me this tweet.

“This!! This is my entire childhood. This is how I justified to you my B grades. You just sat there staring at me as I explained although I got a B, most of my class got worse grades than I did. Only one or two people got a better grade than me.” she said laughing. When she used to tell me that although she got a B, her friend who is as smart as her also got a B. My response to that was, “Am I your friend’s mom? No. So I will let her mom deal with how she is doing in school. I am your mom. I will only look at your grades. So tell me, what went wrong?” And the excuses poured in. πŸ™‚

I continue to hold my kids at high standards. The way I was raised is ingrained in me. Good grades, ranking in class is expected, anything less is failure. As a student, good grades were important to me of course, yet thinking back, I believe I worked hard so as not to disappoint my mother. My grades gave her bragging rights to friends and extended family. As I raised my daughter through her elementary, middle and high school in a very competitive county, I realized the flaw in my way of thinking. I started wondering if my children are getting the grades so I can brag or are they taking responsibility for their academics? Are they truly enjoying learning? I remembered memorizing my lessons more out of fear and obligation than real interest in knowing.

At my ripe old age, I have realized students need to love learning. Only through love and positive experience can one truly learn. My class teacher in high school, one day, during our Bengali class told us to promise her that when we had our children, we will not push them for grades. If society berated us that our children were not performing well in the standard that society holds, we should lock ourselves in a room and throw away the key. Nurture their love of learning instead, she said.

I thought I was doing a much better job of raising my second child with an enlightened view of what learning should be all about. I tried to drill in him the lesson that he is working for himself, not for me. I asked him if he was enjoying his lessons, did he learn from his mistakes? What can he do better next time. At work, I feel superior to all those moms who come with their teens in tow and try to do their school work for them. I think in my head, “let your child be”, “let him or her learn”. And then I pat myself on my back for being that ‘level headed’ mom who has seen the light, who has found the perfect balance of expecting good results but instilling in the child a joy of learning.

All my lofty ideals of good, sensible parenting regarding my child’s education went out of the window this morning. I walked in to Ryan’s room when he was about to start the day’s session of Summer Chemistry. Yes, he is that weird teen who chose to take Chemistry over the summer to ‘get ahead’. He was checking his grades for the first exam. It is a B. Before I could utter a word, he started, “Mom, my friend ______, who is smart like me got a C+. And I know you are not his mom and you do not care about his grades. But I am just saying that this was the first test in the course and she gave some questions which we did not know….!”

The ‘Indian mom’ in me did not, much to my chagrin, relinquish her hold. I could not say, “It is ok. That grade is fine.” Instead, I said, “You are taking one class! B is not an acceptable grade. I want you to study harder. You need to get an A!”

Am I allowed to use emoji in a blog post? I am not sure but I am going to use an emoji anyway.

This one! πŸ€¦β€β™€οΈπŸ€¦β€β™€οΈ

Donate so mama can think.

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 πŸ™‚ .

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.

String bean


No matter what you do, never ever call a 10 year old would-be athlete who is flexing his muscles in a skin tight, two sizes small Under Armor undershirt, looking extremely skinny – a string bean. You will get an uproar of protest and you will be subjected to almost half an hour of persuasive argument that his muscles are not string beans and you will be made to witness him flex his muscles in different (very funny) ways to prove his point. I am warning you, don’t do it.

I did not do it either. Of course, I know better. It is the big sister who did it. On a lovely fall Sunday, our resident would-be athlete was getting ready for his game of baseball. It was the first game, we did not have the team shirt yet, so he was going to go in a stylish black and grey, hand-me-down Under Armor undershirt. He wears that particular one for superstition as well as style. However, it is a couple of sizes small on him. I watched the entire process of trying to put that shirt on with different maneuvers. I tried to intervene when I became alarmed at the prospect of his limbs getting stuck in the tangle of the sleeves of the shirt but I was paid no heed. What do I know? I am just the mother. So I left the scene to pay attention to other chores that needed looking after. In the mean time, he got the shirt on (I really am not sure how) and went in front of the mirror to check his reflection. He must have immensely liked what he saw since he went to his sister’s room to brag. I was told he started doing some ninja moves in front of his sister to show off the muscles and “six packs” (two packs max) that were highlighted by the tightness of the shirt. Ryan is by no means skinny but he is on the slender side. However the shirt had constricted his muscles so tightly that he looked like a straight line. Sahana watched him spring around her room for a while with bemused expression and then said with an indulgent smile, “Dude, you look like a string bean!”

The dude was in the throes of vanity and hence the term string bean did not bode well with his ego.

“I am NOT a string BEAN! Mom, Sahana called me a string bean!”

This was said with chagrin. His self worth was bruised, ego affronted. He ran out of Sahana’s room to do his ninja maneuvers in front of me to repudiate Sahana’s comment.

“Do you see my muscles?” He asked hopefully.

The only words popped in my mind were….you guessed it…string beans. And laughter – bubbling, uncontrollable laughter threatened to frizz out of me at his antics and his skinny arms, flexed hard to show off. I controlled my twitching mouth and oohed and ahhed appropriately to salvage the vanquished pride. I said he was starting to look strong and if he ate right and continued to exercise he will grow big and strong and most importantly, healthy.

Sahana continued to call him string bean but he is used to her teasing so with my support, he dealt with it better by trying some ninja moves on her. Before the situation could escalate, I said, “Oh look at the time. You need to get going. Get your bag and water!”

Baseball saved the day. But Sahana and I had a good laugh behind his back about his skin tight shirt and his stringy bean ness. But don’t tell him that πŸ˜€ !

Kolkata journey – Began.


“Mom, you are in a weirdly good mood! Turn it down to a 5.” Informed my sassy daughter gleefully as we chomped down a Dunkin Donut breakfast at the airport before our plane took off for Dubai. After two weeks of intense schedule, unnecessary worries of health, presentations at work and other issues, we were ready to take off – headed to roost. And yes, I was uncharacteristically chirpy.

After a thirteen hour-long flight to Dubai, five hours layover there and then a four hour plane ride to Kolkata, I was ready to hate the universe. But then, almost magically, the lights of Kolkata appeared beneath us. My hatred melted away leaving an inexplicable joy in its place. The relief of arriving at our destination was compounded by the relief of coming home. Ryan, who was sitting by the window, nudged me to show the lights of the city below us and seeing my ecstatic and expectant face, said in a very characteristic Ryan way, “Your time to shine Mom! Your time to shine! We are coming to your city!” I did have a tiny little pang in a remote corner in my heart – my city, not theirs, never theirs. My city indeed!

I have already written a blog about going home (Almost home) so I do not want to repeat myself, however, I did wonder if there are many cities out there in the world where those who belong feel such deeply personal ownership towards it. My happiness was shared by many of the passengers on board. A ripple of joy and excitement passed through the plane where murmurs like:

“Eshe gechi!” (we have arrived)
“Oi dekh Kolkata!” (See, there is Kolkata)

was overheard over the drone of the plane’s wheels engaging.

Since I am a Bangali, I shamelessly eavesdropped on the conversation of the young couple sitting across the aisle from me (they were speaking loudly). The young woman’s joy was written all over her face and I automatically felt a kinship with my fellow Kolkata lover. She hugged her little son in glee and said, “Babu, eshe gechi, Babu eshe gechi!” (Babu, we have arrived).
The woman’s husband quipped up, “Haa, joto kichu pocha, bhanga, nongra shei shohor e eshe gechi.” (Yes, where everything is nasty, broken and polluted, we have come to that city).

As one can imagine, a big argument ensued. The husband tried to say he was simply jesting but the wife’s Kolkata loving sensibilities were severely wounded,

After a relatively hassle free customs and immigration check we arrived at our designated carousel. I have written before that I find this last stretch absolutely unbearable but a miracle happened. The carousel never broke down like it has done in the past and both our suitcases danced their way to us only after about seven to ten minutes of waiting.

And then came the most coveted moment. The moment that makes two years of planning, worrying, anticipating all worth it. My smiling mother, my beaming father and this time my happy husband as well since he had arrived in India prior to us for work.

The hugs were awkward as usual. We still do not hug comfortably yet the happiness was palpable like you could almost touch it. My America born, very-used-to-hugging children threw themselves at their grandparents and were filled with kisses.

We emerged into the smoggy, dusty outside. I breathed in deeply and smiled. The commotion and complete chaos told me I had come back home. I smiled wide. And promised myself to imprint every moment of my waking time in my memory which then will sustain me till I can come back next time. I promised to feel deeply and meaningfully. I did.

Precision of Language


I will be the first to admit that I am not the most patient person. Every year, I make a silent resolution to be a little more patient than I was the year before. When I feel I am going to lose my temper, I try to reign myself in within me. I close my eyes, breathe deep and if possible, remove myself from the situation. But I fail sometimes. I give in to the angry, red surge that flows through my blood and my temper defeats me. I try again, and again. One day, I say to myself, I will win. I am doing better, I am told, Β than how I used to be.

Although I am an impatient person, I like to explain to my children the reasons why I ask them to do certain thing or forbid them from doing some others. I try my best to express my logic in meaningful language that will be age appropriate. My mother in law says she respects us, the modern parents, because her reason to her children was generally, ‘God made me your mother, now you listen to me. Do not ask questions!’

I allow questions. And I patiently reason with them, but only to a certain point. When I reach my breaking point, I let all the reasoning go out of the window. ‘Do it NOW!! Do it because I said so!’ Lately, Sahana has been saying, ‘because I said so is not a good enough reason, mom!’ I tell her that will have to suffice since my reasons only face rebuttals and more rebuttals from her. We have reached a satisfactory compromise. She tries to draw me in a debate for as long as she can. I try my tactics of being patient with her, and as I reach that dangerous breaking point, I use my ‘do it cos I said so’ arsenal. It works. The job gets done. We coexist (not always happily, but oh well)!

Yesterday, after dinner, I said to Sahana, ‘Please clean up the kitchen.’

‘But why me? I have a lot of homework!’

‘You will clean up the kitchen because I asked you to.’ My fifteen year old daughter’s response was this:

‘Precision of language, mama, precision of language! If you say you asked me to do something, you are actually empowering me by giving me a choice. If you ask, I could refuse. You must say, because you said so. In that case my choice is taken away. Since I am your child, I must do what you said I should do. And then I am bound to do it! So yes, precision of language!’

With that long lecture, she happily went to clean up the kitchen chuckling to herself. I also chuckled since we both read and discussed Lois Lowry’s The Giver which talks of ‘precision of language’ and we both decided we must practice it. I also chuckled because each age has its joys and challenges in different forms. Mothers of two and three year olds, if you think your toddlers are fun and frustrating, let me tell you, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Fifteen is kind of toddlerhood of adult age – willful, self centered, irrational yet adorable and sweet. If one takes the time one can get glimpses of the real human that is slowly emerging, always evolving, still malleable but slowly taking shape. I find the whole process fascinating, when I have the patience to see through the husk, that is.

Racism


I have been asked if I faced discrimination for my color when I first arrived in this country long, long time ago. My answer has always been “no, never felt it!” I came with the naivety that in the land of the free racism is found in its past. I came with the belief that there was equality and camaraderie, solidarity and respect for all. The truth was, I was oblivious. I wasn’t aware I was being discriminated against because in India, where caste system still prevails, race was not something one worried about. The complexion mattered for aesthetic reasons(it still does), race did not. We were not segregated due to our race, we were however, segregated for caste. When I think back to some of the comments that I have received in US, with my new found sensibility of race consciousness, I believe I should have taken offense at them. I, however, incredulously pondered upon the ignorance of the person making such comments. I did not take her/him to be racist. As I said, I was naive.

I still live in a bubble. Or I like to think the world that I inhabit is full of people who do not judge me by the color of my skin, but love me for who I am as a human. I do not feel out of place among white/ black men/women because my skin is brown. I have ceased to notice skin color.

But racism exists in abundance. I discovered racism among my children’s peers. I found out it is completely acceptable for children of specific ethnicity to call each other by pejorative terms that is indicative of their race. Children of other ethnicity are not allowed. On a bus to a middle school New York trip with my daughter’s middle school, I flinched every time I heard middle schoolers of certain ethnicity calling each other with a derogatory nickname. I asked my daughter horrified. She explained it is acceptable to do that. As I see my daughter’s friends I find there is certainly a tendency for children with similar background to form a clan. That is not necessarily a negative as long as there is respect for all.

Recently, I watched a Folk tale Celebration of my Third grader, just before the culmination of his school year. As I listened to bright, energetic little voices singing this song with passion, a kaleidoscope of skin colors up there on the stage, I could not help but smile.

Some of us come from a distant land
Some of us come from nearby
But all of us carry a treasure chest
with things that gold can’t buy
And when we share our treasure chest
We all grow rich you see
The riches of our treasure chest
Are what makes you and me.

Holiday games and stories
Languages and songs
Faith and courage and wisdom
And ways to get along, and ways to get along
And when we share our treasure chest
We all grow rich you see.
The riches of our treasure chest
Are what makes you and me.

By Minnie O’Leary

If that song does not describe the essence of America, the great melting pot, then I do not know what does. We come from distant lands, we come from nearby. We all bring our treasure chests full of songs, language, cuisine, cultures and share among each other to enrich our lives, broaden our horizons and hopefully encourage acceptance and respect.

The schools in my community are doing such a terrific job of treasuring diversity. As I sat there and smiled at the enthusiastic third graders belting out this song with animated expressions, I wondered if they will carry the message of acceptance and respect for all as they grow. Will they spread that among the generation that they procreate? Will they, if necessary, teach their parents and family members, dogmatism and superiority hinder social equality and growth?

They filled me up with hope that one day racism will indeed be a thing found in history books. One day skin color will shed all its connotations and become simply what it is – color of one’s skin. Respect will usher in acceptance and solidarity. And the world will put away their guns because there will be no need to kill.

I am a dreamer, you say? Why don’t you join me? πŸ™‚

A woman and a mother too.


My mother at an event giving her first public speech ever.
My mother at an event giving her first public speech ever.

That is my mother’s picture that you see up there. My mother, who just the other day said to me, ‘Nijer jonye to anekdin bachlam. Ebar ektu anyer jonye bachi!’

(I have lived for myself for a very long time, now I want to live for others)!

My mother was the extroverted extension of me while I was growing up. I was a quiet shadow behind my gregarious, fun loving mother. As I look back, I realize we were just that – an extension of each other. I did not know where she ended and I began, till I started branching out to become my own person. Since I was so intricately woven into her being while growing up, I did not consider her as a woman in her own right. She was my mother and that was the whole of her. The perception was selfish and yet that perception arose from a blind love too. Only when I became a woman and looked at my mother from the perspective of a fellow woman did I see the complete portrait of her. Not just the unidimensional one of a mother but also the little girl, the young woman, the young bride, the rebel, the survivor, the fighter, the whole entity of who she was and who she has become. Her journey, if you will, as a woman.

She fought for her right in the patriarchal family that she was born to right from the start. Fiercely competitive, she fought for her place with her brothers and boy cousins and strangely enough, she got it too. Stories of her spunk and competitiveness have been told and retold by her peers and elders with indulgent laughter. I have heard so many stories beginning with, ‘Tor ma….bapre, koto golp.’ (Your mother….oh dear, so many stories..)!

As a young woman in early seventies when women’s beauty was measured by the length and width of their hair, she went to a salon and cut it all into a fashionable page boy cut. Her society, family and friends were aghast. When covering a woman’s arms was the norm, she went and fashioned sleeveless blouses. There was talk. Married at 19 and a mother at 20, she did not have a chance to finish her graduation, so she went back and finished it when her child was 6 years old. I remember the celebration. When leaving your child and going out to work was frowned upon, she went and got a job. Almost everyday she came home with a book for me, so I was happy as a clam, waiting for her and a book at the end of the day. When women thought husband and hearth were the purpose of their lives, she declared loudly she did not like cooking and cleaning. Life has to be more than just that for a woman. She devoted her time to reading and on her child instead – reading Bangla literature to me, telling me stories that I still remember, reading poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, Sukumar Roy, relentlessly helping with whatever I needed help with. She fought with everyone and provided the best education that she could for her only child going beyond the family’s means. And she told me again and again that I was no less than a boy no matter what society wanted me to believe.

In her personal life, she always tried to break the glass ceiling by pushing a little more. She will perhaps be the first to admit that she made mistakes along the way. But she did not let that stop her from following her heart or taking chances while always choosing the best for me. Now that I look back, she truly lived for me, and then for a while, through me. When I went to college, the dynamics changed and she became an extension of me.

The woman who wanted to do things differently could not contain herself in her retired life. When I set her free, she soared. Yes, I set her free from my dependance, need and my responsibility. She and some like minded friends opened an organization to help the unfortunate men, women and children. I was uncertain about this venture but as she grew I looked at her with utter amazement and then pride. The picture above is from one of the events that her organization organized in Hridoypur Pronobananda Kanya ashram – a school for orphans. When I skyped with her later she said, ‘I was so nervous talking in front of all those people. I have never done it before.’

My father said, with a proud gleam in his eyes, ‘Your mother was very good!’

Life is a journey, I hear. Some rough terrains, some smooth sailing, some uphill battles, some downhill glides. Towards the end of our journey some of us get bogged down by the stress of it all, some of us choose to sit and rest and look back satisfied at the path they traversed, while some get a second wind, take flight and soar high. They finally get to spread their wings after all the responsibilities are done. The shackles that they sometimes willingly and sometimes unwillingly tie to their feet fall free with a resounding, joyful clang. My mother got the second wind. She is flying.

I look up to her flying high and unmindfully hug the shackles that tether me to the ground now. The shackles that I love more than my life. I smile upon them as I turn my face skyward. I say to myself, ‘One day I will learn to fly. One day my time too will come. One day I will grow up just like my mother!’

Happy Mother’s Day, Ma.

Despite..


Kolkata comes back in my blogs recurrently. I go to Kolkata in my mind, to roost perhaps, when my reality gets too overwhelming. Writing about Kolkata, thinking about my time there, gives me a strange sense of calm. Quite ironic really, considering the controlled chaos that Kolkata is.

Whenever I go back home, I look for continuity. I search for the city I left behind. The fast changing face of the city baffles me mostly. Like a typical Non Resident Indian, I lament the loss of the city’s uniqueness and despise the generic look of it with gated communities, huge, impersonal, air-conditioned malls, McDonald’s golden arches and KFC’s red and white General’s face, coffee shops in every nook and cranny. Kolkatans snort at such romanticism. It is easy for you to romanticize, you don’t have to deal with the daily inconveniences, they say. And they are right. No city stays frozen in time. They develop, they move up and move on.

My yearning for my old Kolkata remains, though. I desperately seek out the old city and find it still hidden beneath. I find the iron filigreed balconies in old mildewed buildings that have escaped the real estate developer’s greed (It is a matter of time). The conference of crows on the antenna of our neighbor’s terrace, the dome of the Science city as I sip my afternoon tea on the terrace of our building and look towards the horizon, the lonesome coconut tree that reminds me how green Kolkata used to be, the little boy completely immersed in flying his kite, the intense cricket match on the street in front of my house, the woman of the house stretching out her laundry on the laundry line on her terrace, Ram Krishna Mission’s dome standing tall in its white splendor and the smiles that envelope me in its warmth as I step off the taxi with my luggage ‘Didi, kotodin thakbe?’ (How long will you stay, big sister?)

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I found such continuity in the general demeanor and even the physical frame of the conductors of public buses. The customer service is still as I remember – impersonal, very effective, functional and rough around the edges. The physical appearances seem the same – lanky, young and somewhat reckless. My main means of transport, when I go back, are the rickety mini buses, public buses and auto rickshaws. I observe, with amusement, as the conductors continue to do the ‘phraaaaak’ sound with the tickets in their hand, reminding the passengers, with that sound, and their voice ‘Ticket, ticket!’ The bus drivers still drive recklessly, overtaking the bus in front to get more passengers.

One tradition continues, I discovered. The conductors continue to slap the side of the bus twice as the bus approaches a stop helter skelter, and yell, ‘Ekdom bendhe debe. Ladies, baccha ache!’ (Come to a complete stop, there are ladies and children who will get off)! Men don’t get the special treatment. As a fiery feminist in my young days, this discrimination made my blood boil. But now, this gesture brings a smile to my face. I smile because I have learned to pick my battles and also perhaps, I find another facet of Kolkata that remains unchanged.

I remember the tight grasp of my young mother’s hand, as she unsteadily made her way to the door of a moving bus with me in tow, shouting to the young conductor, ‘Bhai ekdom bendhe dao, baccha ache!’ (Brother, bring the bus to a complete stop, I have a child)! I did the same with my children. I held Ryan’s hand tightly and made sure Sahana held on, as I made my demand to the conductor, ‘Ekdom bendhe dao, baccha ache!’ The reply was standard as well, ‘Haa didi, ashun!’ (Yes sister, come) !

It was raining as we made our way back home from the bus stop. Monsoon in Kolkata is beautiful to watch from a high rise building and terrible to endure if one is on the road. As we carefully avoided the dirty water, potholes, garbage on the streets and rushing traffic, Sahana touched my arm gently and said, ‘This city is so full of love, Ma!’ I smiled in the fading light of the cloud covered sun. ‘Where did you find the love?’ I asked.

‘Did you see how the conductor cared? He brought the bus to a complete stop for us and even helped Ryan get down by holding his hand!’ She said.

Despite the gloom, I found my sun. And despite the squalor, Sahana found love.