“I will not diminish you by saying thank you.”


Little cousin

We are fundraising for my little cousin sister, Doyel, to help her fight cancer. You can read about her ordeal in my blog:

Kindness of Strangers.

I urge you to please donate/share the following link to your social media pages to help her prevent cancer.

https://milaap.org/fundraisers/support-arundhati-dasgupta?utm_source=shorturl

Although we have a long way to go to fund her entire 30 months of extremely expensive medicines to prevent the relapse of her cancer, we have been touched by strangers’ kindness. People around the world have donated money to Doyel and shared the link to raise visibility to the cause and raise funds. When Doyel heard about the expenses of her medicine, she balked. Unless one is a millionaire, how can one afford medication that costs $3850 a month? But one of her friends, who is truly a guardian angel, Arundhati, decided she will start a crowdfunding initiative. Doyel needed to be convinced and finally she agreed to try.

My cousin sister is fighting the real enemy, the big C, valiantly while we are fighting alongside her trying to procure the necessary medicine. Interestingly enough, complete strangers joined our ragtag army and we are seeing progress. All of you who helped by donating, sharing, sending her good wishes, saying a prayer for her, helped her in her fight. We request you to continue to spread the word. I do not know whether we can raise enough funds to cover the cost of her meds for 30 months but we know we will give it our best shot. And with your help we can come close.

“Thank you bole toke chhoto korbo na.” (I will not diminish you by saying thank you). Doyel said those words to me as we discussed fundraising to fight her cancer. And with those words she ushered in sentiments that men and women my age or older, grew up with in India. I have long moved over to the world of “thank you”s and “I love you”s but I did not grow up with them. I was not taught to say the words thank you when receiving something. That may seem shocking and/or uncivilized to Western world, but then they will miss the sentiment behind giving and receiving in my world.

So how did we show gratitude when we received something? We smiled and we gushed how much that object or word or gesture meant to us, how much we loved it. It was, and among my family members still is, unacceptable to say thank you for a generous deed, word or gift. You don’t thank your own, you simply love them and they know. There is no right or wrong about it, this is just a difference in culture. The sentiment of gratitude and appreciation are conveyed in different ways – by words in some countries and by gestures in others.

You, kind people, all are my own. I will not diminish you by simply saying “thank you”. I think you are absolutely amazing to join in the fight for life of someone that you have never met. I say you are amazing for showing empathy, for showing grace to a fellow human in need. I say you make this pandemic ridden world beautiful by showing that compassion is greater than any calamity.

I bow to the divinity in you.

🙏

Please share the link to raise funds to cover Doyel’s medicine so can beat cancer once and for all.

https://milaap.org/fundraisers/support-arundhati-dasgupta?utm_source=shorturl

My attack days


I used to attack people once upon a time. You seem shocked. Don’t be. Nobody got hurt. I will get to it but if you read my blogs, you know I like to ramble before I get to the point.

We lived in New Delhi, India for 6 happy years right after our marriage. Let me tell you, New Delhi apart from other things, was my food nirvana. Sagar Restaurant in Defense Colony for South Indian food, Pindi for North Indian food, Kareem’s in Old Delhi for Mughlai khana, paratha gali for parathas…… I could go on and on. Not only were there fantastic restaurants that kept me in constant food coma, I made friends who fed me authentic North Indian food and on top of that, I had a lovely woman staying with us who cooked all the Bengali food that my heart desired. Life could not have been better.

Then we got the news from Sean’s organization: “Pack up your life, folks. You are moving back.” We moved back to the US.

Moving back to US meant searching for a house and fast since Sahana was going to start kindergarten in the fall of that year. After looking for what seemed like forever we settled for a house that we liked. But I had questions. Nope, not about house inspection or radon level. That was Sean’s department. My first question to the home seller was how far was the library. She said it was just 2 miles away and if I did not mind a long hike, I could walk there. I was sold. The second question, however, I knew she could not answer so I did not ask. Where was the closest Indian grocery store? You can take the girl out of India, you can not take the love of Indian food out of the girl.

We did find 4 Indian grocery stores within a 5 mile radius of our house. I bought the staples, made North Indian cuisine but my soul wanted comfort. It wanted authentic Bengali food. It wanted alu posto (potato curry with poppy seeds), shorshe r jhaal (gravy made with mustard seeds). In India, I never cooked those dishes, they were cooked for me. I had no idea how to crush poppy seeds without sheel nora, or make a smooth but not bitter paste of mustard seeds for the mustard based gravy. How do I describe sheel nora? Bengali version of heavy duty mortal and pestle? Here is image taken from Google:

Life Without Alu?: Shil Nora (Sil Batta)– stone spice grinder

Our moving in to this house is a story in itself which deserves another blog post. Suffice it to say, I was a few months pregnant when we started living in our current house. And my desire for alu posto and shorsher jhaal took the form of a craving of epic proportions. I still did not know how to crush poppy seeds. In those days I was not aware of the amazing kitchen gadgets that are out in the market. I did not have much experience in the kitchen to begin with. But I WANTED to know. I NEEDED to know. So this is where my ‘attack’ story starts.

The first attack happened in a local Sears. Sean, little Sahana and I were at Sears buying an appliance when I heard Bengali being spoken near me. I whipped my head around to see who was talking in my mother tongue. A few feet away from us was this couple who were deep in conversation about their purchase. They were speaking to each other in Bengali. Without a second thought, I left my husband and little daughter, walked right up to the couple and asked, quite unnecessarily, “Apnara Bangali?” (You all are Bengali?) Well, they were speaking in Bangla to each other, of course they were Bengali.

They barely had time to smile weakly and ask me if I was one too, when I launched into how I am new to the area, I need to crush poppy seeds and mustard seeds. Did they know a good way to do it?

I chuckle now, wondering what they thought of me then. You need to understand, though, I was pregnant, I had the cravings and I think I was longing to reach out to something familiar, something comforting in my new land and in my new state.

I believe they told me how to make a paste and also the tip about pulsing the mustard with some salt so the paste does not become bitter. It was many years ago so I don’t recall why, however, I do remember asking several unsuspecting Bengali immigrants what their trick was to make a smooth paste of ‘posto’ and ‘shorshe’. There were several other ‘attacks’ before I found myself on a strong footing when it came to ‘posto bata’ (ground poppy seeds).

I eventually bought a coffee grinder to grind my precious seeds and also a small magic bullet which I do not let anybody touch. While I mastered making smooth paste of posto, my fresh mustard paste always turns out bitter. I have tried using salt, I have tried using a green chilli. I am a failure in that department. So I use mustard powder instead. It is a poor substitute but it works in this foreign land. I have my fill of pure mustard sauce, lovingly pasted (not in a sheel nora anymore, too much work) in a mixer, when I go back to Kolkata.

I smile now when I think about those new, ‘fresh off the boat” days. I did live in US for about a year, right after our marriage, before Sean got transferred to a position in India. When we moved back after 6 years of living in New Delhi, I did not have culture shocks. The novelty was more about how to adjust to life in the suburbs, navigate the education system here and how to nurture and parent my child in a society, of which I knew very little about. And also how to crush poppy seeds and mustard, how to bring back a whiff of home.

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.

Food and us


Long, long time ago when I was very little and was just learning to read English, my mother bought a picture book for me. It was mainly pictures of two blonde children, their white dad, their white mom and their yellow dog. The few sentences in that book talked about their usual day. For example, they woke up at 7:00 am, ate breakfast, played with their dog, went for a picnic – mundane things like that. The most surprising element in the book for me was that the mother started making dinner at 4:00 pm and the family ate dinner at 5:00 pm. I remember reading that line again and again in amazement and wonder. I always wondered what the family ate and it confused me to no end that dinner was prepared in one hour. Since I was a wee lass, I have seen and observed a very different rhythm of life, not only in our household but in the society in which I was nurtured. The rhythm of our very middle class Bengali life was completely food centric.

When I was 4 or 5 years old, the morning started with intense smoke. The household help put fire to the earthen stove called unoon. It required coal and cow dung patties. Experts could get it going with minimum smoke but if one was not an expert or the coal was not completely dry, the smoke permeated the whole neighborhood. Water for morning tea was boiled on the burning stove, followed by breakfast. Generally the menu for breakfast was decided the night before. Tea was accompanied by biscuit (cookies), while real breakfast was cooked. After breakfast, the household help came to my grandfather asking what the menu for lunch and dinner would be. My grandfather held the purse for family expenditure so the menu for lunch and dinner was a joint decision by my mother and him. Sometimes they disagreed and then there would be problems.

When I was older, we first had kerosene stove and then gas stove with two burners. Ah, the luxury!! Two burners were so appreciated and the hassle of not having to get the earthen stove going every morning was the best feeling ever by those responsible for cooking family meals. This is how the day went in our house and it is safe to generalize in this case and assume that this is how the day went in most houses when I was growing up. My mother, at that point, decided the menu for lunch and dinner, the household help went to the market to pick up ingredients for the meal. She came home and started the process of chopping vegetables, gutting fish or cleaning meat, preparing spices. When I was young, we did not use ready made spices. Cumin paste was made from scratch, turmeric paste obtained from turmeric tube, gorom moshla was made by crushing cardamom, clove, cinnamon sticks in a mortar and pestle. I still remember the sound and smell of fresh spices being prepared and the noise of sheel nora in our kitchen. Lunch menu was definitely different from dinner menu. In between, there had to be elaborate breakfast – luchi torkari, and evening snack – porota alu r torkari or Bengali chowmein or alu r chop (fritters of different kinds). We had tea (milk for young ones) and biscuit when we woke up, around 9 there would be a hearty breakfast, lunch around 1 or 2, tea again around 4, evening snack around 6 and dinner around 10:30 or 11 pm. This was typically how much we ate during a day off. So one can imagine, the household help’s day was spent in the kitchen. With the advent of gadgets and ready made spices, life became much easier but for many families the number of meals in a day remained the same.

For me, someone used to seeing life revolve around preparing food, it was incredible that the mama in the family started preparing food at 4 pm and the family sat down to dinner at 5 pm.

Being a mama in the family now who loves to cook but hardly has time anymore, I now smile at my amazement at the book. Most days we scrounge around, make do with what is lying in the fridge, boil some pasta and slap some pesto on it, make peanut butter and jelly sandwich and make dinner in less than half an hour. Those days I think that mama in the book must have made some elaborate meal – it took her a whole hour!

An Immigrant and Carl


I was fresh off the boat those days when I landed a job in a downtown hotel as a Select Guest coordinator. New marriage, new job, new country – life, then, was a little overwhelming, very exciting and full of hope. I was trying to understand this new country – its culture, tradition and most importantly, the accent. There were many ‘aha’ moments and then there were ‘oh my goodness, is that true?’ moments. At work I was somewhat of a novelty. In the mid nineties, I was the only Indian in that company so the questions I got ranged from ‘did you go to school on an elephant?’ to ‘are you an Indian princess?’ to ‘are you so quiet because if you talked loudly the tigers will come and get you in your country?’ (yes, I have been asked this question in complete seriousness. And yes, I used to be very quiet once upon a time, mainly because I did not understand what people were saying, the accent, you see!)

They were days when I looked down upon unfamiliar American sports and considered baseball as a poor cousin of the king of sports, cricket and considered American football bestial. Sean tried a few times to expound the virtues of baseball (faster than cricket) and of his team Red Sox but I argued relentlessly to prove him wrong. He made fun of cricket and I made fun of baseball.

As a Guest Coordinator, I had to attend meetings every morning with the Assistant General Manager of the hotel along with the heads of reservation, front desk, hospitality etc. One time, the hotel was hosting a big event where love and pride of Maryland, the star baseball player of the state was going to feature. So at the meeting, I said, “So when Carl Ripken arrives….”. I was cut off quite rudely as the room erupted in laughter. There were loud guffaws all around me. I looked at them puzzled. What caused this eye watering mirth? The Assistant GM said, “What did you say? Carl Ripken? Hahahahaha. Guys, we have to take her to a ball game. We need to educate her in baseball! It is our responsibility!” More hahahahahas followed. I was still puzzled. “What is so FUNNY?” The head of Reservations was a very nice woman who finally wiped her tears and said, “His name is CAL Ripken and he is a legend in these parts!”

See, growing up in a country which was under British rule for many, many years, I knew the language relatively well and I was certainly familiar with names like Tom, Dick, Harry, John, Johnathan, Carl, Bill, William, even Julian (Enid Blyton, Famous Five, in case you are wondering). I was not aware someone could be named Cal. I thought my American mates said Cal but they just pronounced Carl in a different way than I did. And yes, I perhaps never encountered Ripken’s name in written words. There are many excuses I can provide but the bottom line is, I never lived down that story during the time that I worked at that hotel. I was often the target of a friendly banter about ‘Carl’ Ripken.

Cal Ripken is coming to my library for a book talk. I have a baseball crazy almost 11-year-old, who has read Cal’s books and would dearly love to see this legend and perhaps shake his hand, if he is allowed. The tickets to that event sold out in four minutes and I could not get him a seat. His face fell when I told him that. Now our only hope is to try to buy a book and see if he can get a picture with Cal. In between calling the library to secure a spot and trying online, I remembered this story from the past when I did not even know the name of this man at one point. And here I am, getting excited that he will use a room close to my office as his green room before he talks about his book, and I may get a glimpse of him. I have indeed come a long way!

I don’t think about it often, after living in this country for so long, but I realized yesterday what a daunting task it is for immigrants to any country to learn whatever they can about the cultural, social and political history of the land they have emigrated to. The venture is exciting, enlightening and yes, overwhelming.