My big declaration on Valentine’s day!


We were married for no more than 3 months. I was totally fresh off the boat in a completely new country trying to deal with all the newness compounded with culture shock as well as living with a brand new husband when my newly wed groom declared he needs to travel internationally for work. Although I was 26 years old, I had never lived alone in my entire life. Forget living alone, I did not even have a separate room in all of those 26 years. When I heard I was going to be alone in an apartment in the middle of a bustling American city where I knew no one, did not know how to drive, did not know the streets very well except a few, I had a panic attack. Anyway, he left. I survived. That became the central theme of our relationship. Sean would travel every month for at least one week, more often two. I got used to his travels so much so that all I wanted to know from him were the dates of his departure and arrival along with his flight details. The names of the places he went to seemed made up anyway – Ouagadougou, Bangui, Jonglei, Agadez, Huehuetenango! During all these comings and goings, we built a life, had 2 children and a dog. And I got high blood pressure from worrying about him. He traveled to Afghanistan during Taliban era, to Sri Lanka when the rebels tried to blow up the airport where he was waiting at the time to catch a flight home, to Indonesia and adjoining countries after Tsunami, to Liberia while Ebola was rampant, to Bhuj, India AND Haiti when the horrible earthquakes claimed thousands of lives. In Haiti, he was in the middle of his shower when the aftershock of earthquake happened, and he had to rush outside with a towel around his waist.

The children got used to dad’s travels, they were sad when he left and ecstatic when he returned. It was all that they knew. Sean’s travels fell into the natural rhythm of our lives together. I ran around taking the children to their practices, swim meets, after school activities and when I could not be in two places at once, I asked for help from friends. It took a village.

Sean was grounded literally since the beginning of the pandemic. He has not traveled since February 2020 and does not have any plans to travel in the near future till things settle down and/or we get vaccinated. This state of static is new for both of us and I wondered how it would be to have him home 24/7. After a phase of initial adjustments we got used to his constant presence, his loud, booming telephone calls, his obsession with exercising and walking. And his constant giving. The man is a giver. During normal times, when he was not traveling, he made sure he did double doses of helping in raising the children and doing more than his share of housework. When he was with us, he was completely with us. Even before leaving for his trips, he tried his best to make sure my life would be as comfortable as possible while he was away. There have been times when he landed at the airport after a 17 hour plane ride, dropped his bags at home and drove to a swim meet or went to drop a kid somewhere because I was some place else with the other one, or he came home after a long trip and cleaned up the house because I could not (or did not) get to it. This past year he proved yet again what a great house husband he is, constantly picking up after me, keeping my car full, driveway clean as well as doing regular grocery store runs along with swim practice drives for our son. I told him with 80% sincerity that I would have even written a book about him and named it The Perfect Husband if only he could make gourmet dinners. Giving, doing, is his love language and he pours his love over us. His love spills over from his immediate family to those around him, his community, his work family and his global family.

As I wrote before, having Sean home at a stretch has been a new experience for me in our 24 years of marriage and as I was contemplating how it has been to be in such close proximity with my traveling partner, I realized it has been like being draped over with love, care and comfort. During this sad, awful time of anxiety and frustration, he has been my source of optimism. His faith and hope have often lifted me from depths of despair. So my big declaration on this Valentine’s day is that I LIKE my partner very much on top of loving him. That is it. That is my big declaration on this day of love.

“Sue them if I die!”


I have written before I did not learn to cook while growing up. I studied, read, played and then worked. I would come home to food cooked for me. Similarly, I did not go to the market to buy fish, meat or vegetables. On a side note, as I write this, it sounds so privileged but trust me, many of my compatriots grew up the same way in middle class Kolkata.

Due to my inexperience in shopping for food, I do not recognize half the fish that was bought, cleaned and cooked in our house. And I also do not recognize the zillion greens or shaak that baba brought home. Baba is a leafy green connoisseur. He can distinguish between palang shak (spinach), pui shak (no idea what that is called in English), shorshe shak (mustard greens) methi shak (again, no idea what this is in English), mulo shak (radish greens, if that is a thing), and many, many others. He diligently bought leafy greens, had our cook prepare them for the family and insisted we all eat it. I hated every one of them of course, turned up my nose and complained. Now, in my middle age, I crave each of them – slightly sauted with garlic, nigella seeds, dried red chilli, some mustard….

Anyway, yesterday I dragged my son and my husband to an Indian grocery store to buy Hilsa fish – one of the few that I know well. I also bought a huge bag of greens which I presumed to be spinach. This morning, as I opened up the bag of greens and inspected the giant leaves and sturdy stalk, doubts crept in my mind. Is this truly spinach?

Sean was in the kitchen getting in my way. In reality, he was making blueberry pancakes for breakfast. I asked him if he knew what those greens were. I made him smell the leaves:

“Is this spinach? This is spinach, right?” I wanted reassurance.

He shrugged, “I have never seen leaves so big.”

Now you have to know, our acquaintance of spinach is truly limited to boxes of baby spinach from the supermarket. Hesitantly, I chopped the leaves and started prep work for my ‘chocchori’ – a bengali version of veg medley.

“Listen, sue the store if I die by consuming these strange leaves. Make yourself some money. Profit from my death.” I gave him sage advice.

“Well, I can’t!” He replied.

“Why not?” I asked, puzzled. In this country you sue the heck out at the drop of a hat.

“You don’t know if they were selling these leaves to eat! For all you know, these may be meant for cleaning the toilet!”

I had just mixed the leaves in a pan with the other vegetables that I had painstakingly chopped and turned the stove on.

I turned and glared at him. He chuckled.

Office space


As we stood side by side preparing our quick lunch in the kitchen on a work-from-home day, I casually mentioned to Sean that I will be needing the office space that night from 6:45 till 8:00 pm as I was co producing a virtual class for the library.

“Oh no!! I have a virtual cocktail meet with big donors where I am presenting and answering questions!” he exclaimed. And looked at me with I-am-so-sorry eyes.

We really don’t have an office space in our house. There is a little office room which we transferred into nursery when we moved in as I was pregnant with Ryan. After spending all his infancy, babyhood, boyhood years in that little room Ryan finally took over Sahana’s room after she went to college. Sahana beautifully rearranged Ryan’s former (tiny) room and settled in it when she came back home due to the pandemic. It has a cozy dorm room feeling to it, complete with color changing lights.

Over the years, all our ‘office’ work and school work were done on the kitchen table. We did not feel the need for an office since I work for the library system and Sean travels all around the world for his job. The little time we had after our respective jobs was spent on carting children to soccer, basketball, music, swim practices and meets. Once the pandemic hit and we pivoted to online work we realized we were in trouble and we also realized as a family that Sean is a very loud office mate.

During pandemic, I took many trainings while we waited for the library system to resume service, facilitated book club and had to meet with co workers virtually. I often found myself glaring at Sean, who also met with his colleagues virtually and rather loudly. As he gained steam and got excited about whatever they were discussing, the decibel level increased. I often glared at him and huffed off with my computer on mute to the bedroom and shut the door. More than once I was either asked by colleagues if I was on my bed and if planned on falling asleep 😃 ! After both our meetings, Sean asked, “Was I too loud? I am sorry!” The next time our meetings conflicted, he would start off with normal voice and then predictably grew louder and louder as his meeting progressed.

As months went by, Sean started bringing his office into our home. It started innocently enough! A big ring light came for his zoom meetings, then huge banners of his organization were delivered to set up as back drop. The last straw was all the photos that he had on the walls of his office came home with him one day along with the bowls he used at work and silverware. He then took a very handy desk from our main floor which held all my electronics, laptop and devices, and took it downstairs to the basement and set up a nice office space with the ring light for zoom meetings. My stuff were relegated to a small white table.

When I saw the neatly set up office space, I rubbed my hands in glee, immediately planning to usurp it whenever I had classes to teach or facilitate. My classes are generally in the evening so I figured they will not coincide with Sean’s meetings since those are primarily during day time. Win, win! Or so I thought. The first day I decided to stake my claim on his hard work, he had a cocktail meeting. Who has cocktail meeting during virtual work? What is the point of that? Sean does not even drink!

Sahana happened to be in the kitchen when we were having the conversation of our meeting conflict. She decided to be helpful and made a comment. Big mistake! I jumped on her right away.

“Can I use your room then?” I turned to her with bright eyes. She had a lovely set up for her online classes.

Although she was taken aback, she agreed and I found her room nicely cleaned, all ready for me once I got back from work. The class worked out beautifully. I did make Sean feel bad about the conflict, admittedly unfairly and he relinquished the office to me for my next class while he took phone calls from all over the world upstairs, next to the children’s bedrooms where they were trying to attend virtual classes. And he was, as usual, loud.

This morning was beautiful and Sean was talking to his colleagues over phone on our back deck. I saw that he finally met his match. A blue jay flew close by, settled on a branch near him and proceeded to tell Sean, in no uncertain terms, that s/he can beat him hands down in volume any day. Its on! Sean became louder by the minute and the blue jay kept pace. As I heard the competition between bird and human, I smiled. Situation is less than perfect in so many homes. We need to find whatever humor there is, we need to laugh, we need to give, we need to share, sometimes office space even. We need humor to get by.

Show grace, let us all show grace.

“Take care of your husband.”


My extended family, neighbors and some friends did not quite see what Sean saw in me. Many wondered, and not in their heads mind you, “What did this handsome man see in her?” when we started dating. Don’t get me wrong. I thought I was adorable. I was a late bloomer, yes, but when I finally bloomed, I was cute. However, I did not measure up to Bengali standard of beauty so although my extended family loved me dearly, they were surprised that Sean was taken by this tall, dark and very slender girl. One person, however, wondered whether Sean was good enough for ME! And that was my momma. She was independent, smart, sassy and a trend setter. When the norm among Bengali housewives of her time was to cook and clean for her families, she loudly declared she did not enjoy cooking and cleaning and would rather read a book. When the other women extolled the virtues of long, black tresses as a sign of beauty, she went and got a page cut. She was one of the first among her female cousins to wear sleeveless blouses and then later salwar kameez and even jeans and top when wearing anything other than saree was frowned upon. While other middle class Bengali moms told their daughters to learn to cook so they could satisfy their husbands and in-laws, my mom pooh poohed the idea saying my future husband should be learning to cook as well to satisfy me. And as far as I can remember, her skin care and beauty regime was more for her own satisfaction than to impress anyone. She taught me men and women should share equal responsibility when they run a household. She insisted that I always claim my half of the sky because that is my right.

Anyway, the point of the story is how this fashionista and trendsetter has changed since Sean came into our lives. It so happens that often when I talk to my parents, Sean is doing the dishes. He comes to the phone, holds up his sudsy hands and complains loudly, “Ma, look your daughter is making me wash the dishes again.” And she mock scolds me for making the poor ‘chele’ (boy) work so hard. I loudly protest that I cooked so he is cleaning. Neither acknowledges my protest. Over the years, Sean has continued to complain to her and she has continued to take his side. 🙂

I must have looked especially unkempt during one of our video conferences a few weeks ago. She gently chastised me for not making an effort to look more ‘put together’. Especially now that Sean is home. Shouldn’t I make myself more appealing?

I, of course, protested loudly. Talked about feminism. Did she realize we are in quarantine? I only dress for myself. I fought the good fight.

She said, “Be quiet. Take care of yourself. Sean is home.” Then she laughed. She knows how to push my buttons. Is it payback for my teenage years?

This morning we were talking about how we both are working from home. I was complaining how loud my office mate was and how I have to retreat to the bedroom from our shared office space to listen to zoom meetings. I also mentioned Sean is so busy that he missed lunch yesterday.

This is what she said to me, “What? He needs to eat to get energy. Why can’t you make sure that he is eating lunch? You can make something for him.”

“But I am working too, Ma.”

“No, still. You need to make sure he eats.”

Seriously? As I am about to start my tirade, she laughs again.

Thousands of miles away, not in the best of health, she still puts a smile on my face as I start my day and her’s ends.

Difference


I was often asked in the early years of my marriage to a man of different ethnicity, how do I deal with the cultural difference. I scratched my head and pondered. Was there much of a difference? Sean and I were different culturally but the core values were (and still are) very similar. We both firmly believe in honesty, integrity, transparency, we are both stubborn, control freaks, we both love being parents. We have similar views on world peace, gun control, liberalism so on and so forth.

There were some cultural differences though. And the differences came to mind as I slit two green chilies and threw them in the egg curry I was making for supper a little while ago. When we were newly married, he called me a hot chick and I took extreme umbrage at the endearment. I lashed out at him for not respecting me as a woman. He was flabbergasted at my reaction to his effort at being romantic and quickly mollified me by saying, ‘Must be a cultural difference, I meant you are attractive!’ After asking around and being laughed at by our mutual friends I accepted the fact that he was genuinely trying to be cool and romantic.

He called my purse ‘pocket book’, I never figured out why.

“Why do you call this a pocket book? It is neither a book nor is it a pocket!” I exclaimed.

“Well that is what it is called. Not purse. Purses are small!” He countered.

Then we would get into a major argument over it till we decided to let it go by terming it as a cultural difference.

He laughed hard when I swatted at him and said, “Don’t give me that cock and bull story!”

“What is cock and bull?” He laughed.

“What!!!! Don’t tell me you don’t know what that means! You are a native English speaker! Hello!! Do I need to teach you English now? I laughed back at him.

“We call that bull shit!”

“Well, I am classier than that, I guess!” I came right back.

One time we fought over the meaning of ‘karma’ all morning. We both got dressed in a huff and ran over to Enoch Pratt library to look at dictionaries and encyclopedias. This happened at a historic time, pre Google. Can you believe time existed, life existed before smart phones and Google? There you go, I went ahead and dated myself.

And we joked constantly over British English and American English. It took me a while to drop the ‘u’,s in favor, color. But eventually I did. I conformed. I gave in. Although I am still an anglophile at heart.

After 20 years of knowing him we don’t think of cultural difference any more. Now the difference of opinion is in our choices of football teams and baseball teams. So why did I think of the cultural difference as I evilly threw in the green chilies? Because Sean, despite his fondness for Indian food, can not tolerate the smell and spice of green chilies. And I can not ever become American enough to forego my love for it. I put green chilies in dal, vegetable, paneer either as a garnish or I make a puree of it by processing it in the food processor. I assure you, I go easy on the number of chilies I put, but if Sean happens to chew on one, he yelps and hiccups. I feel slightly guilty and decide not to add them next time. But when I see the golden daal simmering beautifully in the pot, the Bangali in me reaches for a lovely, lush green chili (errr…maybe more). It looks so beautiful and familiar, it smells so fragrant and yes, familiar. How can I resist it? Similar with achaar (Indian pickle). I have indoctrinated my two children into loving achaar – lime pickle. Their meal is not complete without it. While Sean can not stand the smell of it.

“You are not a true Indian!” I say to him. “I have failed to Indianize you!!”

“Uff, I don’t know how you can stand that stuff!” He replies.

And then, when he discovers a green chili in his daal, he says to the kids, “Your mom is trying to trick me again. She is trying to kill me! Help!”

You will think of me as very mean, but I will go ahead and confess that I laugh hysterically (although soundlessly) after he bites into a green chili by mistake. What? It has some vitamin or other. It is good for him. As they say in India, you don’t really grow up unless you learn to eat green chillies. I am just helping my husband grow – culturally.

🙂

I love it now!


Two American men took their newly wed brides to a baseball game for the first time. The brides belonged to two different countries, one came from India and the other from Peru. The game was a hotly contested one between two rivals. Both the American men were fans of a team from Boston. The women went to experience the all-American game of baseball, and perhaps to get an inkling of why this game appeals to so many in their newly adopted country. They failed to understand though. But not due to the lack of efforts of their very attentive spouses. The husbands bought yummy ball-park food, put their arms around their respective wives and whispered sweet nothings in their ears when they were not screaming at their team’s success, explained the rules and the reasons whenever they got the chance, yet the women found it hard to keep their focus on the game. They looked everywhere, sighed, stretched, looked at their watches and asked how long the game will last. The Indian one, a big fan of cricket, found this game terribly slow, which surprised her husband. Once the game was over and the ball-park spewed out thousands and thousands of excited fans onto the streets of the city, the Peruvian woman said to her husband in her endearing accent:

‘You like this game? But this is SO BORING!’

She spoke loudly enough to attract some looks. Her husband grinned, looked around and said, ‘Shhhhh…..!’

The Indian woman promised never to see another baseball game ever again. What a waste of time, she said. She could have read books in that time, she scoffed at her husband. And then her sly husband did something to make sure that she would start taking interest in the game. After 6 weeks of giving birth to their first child, when she was desperate to lose the baby weight, her husband urged her to join a women’s softball team. As I said, she was desperate to get rid of the extra pounds so she agreed. Being somewhat athletic, she caught on quickly and played in a local team. She had fun. But still she did not watch baseball. Once was enough.

Then she gave birth to a boy who lived, dreamed, breathed baseball. She made an effort then, to learn the game. She started watching it with the husband and the son. She learnt what tagging meant, she caught on to infield fly rule, she learnt about curve balls, sliders, knuckle ball, stealing home, double play, grand slam.

Now she loves it! She is almost as big a fan of the local team as her son. Almost, not quite. She discusses baseball with friends, neighbors, coworkers. She wears the jersey of her favorite player when she goes to watch a game and wonders how did she ever think the game was boring. Each wind up of her team’s pitcher is full of anticipation, each strike by the favored pitcher promising, each ball disappointing.

She went to a ball game recently with the husband and the son (the daughter refused to sit through it). And she thought back to her first baseball game at the ball park as a young bride, as she jumped up and high-fived the man next to her as a player hit a home run. She screamed with thirty thousand other spectators CHARGE, she clapped with them, she danced with her arms high and did the Mexican wave.

As she entered the ball park with thousands of other people wearing the same colored jersey as her, she felt a certain sense of belonging to the city which brought a smile to her face. She took off her sunhat and touched her chest as the national anthem was sung, and sang along.  She noticed a dad with two little girls watching the game with their grandfather. The littlest one, maybe 3 years old, took care of the granddaddy by offering him drinks and putting her little head on his shoulder. She saw on the big screen,  little babies whose parents held them in one hand and held a poster in the other, saying ‘Baby’s first ball game’. She noticed a son and probably daughter in law holding the hands of a very elderly lady as she navigated the steps to reach her seat with a wide smile on her face. She noticed the play of clouds up above and urged the husband to take a picture with his phone. She got teased for that, but the husband took the picture, anyway.

She smiled as she thought of her first game in the same ballpark all those years ago. She has adapted, adopted and grown indeed. She has come a long way.

I am going to go ahead and say it ‘I lucked out!’


My husband and I had to cross several cultural barriers to start understanding each other. I may have mentioned in my earlier blogs, we had several disagreements at the initial stages of our relationship. It was mainly due to our cultural differences. One big divide was how we expressed our feelings for each other.

I grew up in a semi conservative, protected environment where voicing your feelings was frowned upon. In romantic movies, two flowers coming close together was symbolic of the intimacy shared by the protagonists. A lot of silent, amorous  messages were passed through eyes. I grew up with the romantic notion that if my partner really loved me, there would be no need for words to communicate, he should be able to read my mind through my looks, decipher my expressions and know what I mean. This notion, in my particular case, flopped. My husband, I am sure, wanted to bang his head in frustration, because he didn’t understand why I was mad at him…again. ‘Tell me, please, what did I do wrong this time?’ Finally, I realized the power of words! Now I let him have it (exaggerating a bit) , he probably wants those days of silent treatment back.

He, on the other hand, embarrassed me numerous times in front of my immediate and extended family by professing his love for me openly. My parents and my uncles and aunts were uncomfortable at this display of verbal affection. My cousins and friends loved this novelty, they were amused and somewhat perplexed at the same time. I reminded him often not to verbalize in front of people how much he is in love with me, it was simply not done in India (this was almost 16 years ago)! The poor man, a white guy from a different culture and country, was desperate to reassure my family that his intentions about me were honest. He was also trying to fit in but in the wrong way.

Although, I pleaded with him not to make comments like ”Oh she is beautiful’ when one of my cousins said ‘she is too thin’ I liked
them. I felt cherished when he told my family and his family how much I mean to him, while I still cringed outwardly. Slowly, I changed too. After being married to him, I realized it is actually a wonderful and honest feeling when I acknowledged that I love my husband. India, has opened up a lot more when it comes to the matter of heart, but when I go back I still notice some reticence in admitting ‘Yes, I am in love with my spouse. Yes, I am lucky. Yes, s/he is handsome or beautiful!’

On Facebook, some dear friends (all Indian) were discussing what qualities they love in a man. Sense of humor, sensitivity, intellect, charm et all. After going through the posts, I realized, these were
the qualities, I, too, looked for in a man when I was a young woman. And I found them all in my husband. I mentioned that in the chat. I said, ‘I looked for all that in a man too, I got lucky!’ I was subjected to some good-natured ridicule for that. I was amused at the reaction, it seemed appreciating one’s spouse was still not a ‘done’ thing amongst many.

A couple of days later, I saw a post of one of my American friends where she said how lucky she was to have a wonderful husband and how much she appreciates what he does for her and how special he makes her feel. I know the couple very well, one can see the love and friendship they share. She was not ashamed or embarrassed to let the world know that she loves and appreciates her spouse. Her post made me smile.

I come from a country which has many things to offer to the world. My country is rich in heritage which I am proud to carry and hopefully pass on to my children. I have also had the good fortune to adopt a country which has a lot to offer and teach the world. Here, I have learnt, amongst other things, to appreciate another human, my spouse in this case, and not be ashamed to admit that I lucked out the day we chose each other and decided to spend our lives together. Life is a journey, people say. On this journey we can leave that we don’t need, and pick up new lessons that will make this journey, if not smoother, at least more beautiful and joyful. What is more joyful than to admit that the one who is walking by my side on this journey is the most special person to me? Why on earth should I not say it?