Ignorance, insensitivity or microaggression?

At the call center of our library, the conversation went like this:

Customer: You have a sweet accent. Where are you from?

Me: Thanks. I am from India.

Customer: Which part, North or South?

Me: I am from the east, Calcutta.

Customer: Ah, you mean Kolkata. It is called Kolkata, right?

Me (a little excited): Yes, Kolkata. Have you ever been?

Customer: No. Now, do you still throw your dead bodies in the water?

Since I have been in this country, I have been asked if I went to school on an elephant or if tigers roamed in our streets, but this was new.

Me: That is not the norm, sir. The dead bodies are either cremated or buried depending on the beliefs of the dead person. However, India is a huge complex country. There may be bodies that are put in the water but those cases are exceptions.

At this point, the conversation shifted to pre independent India and for some strange reason, my father. The next question was:

Customer: So did your father know Gandhi?

Me: My father was a little child when India got its independence.

He asked where my father was. I told him he died of Covid this year.

Customer: So did you take his body to Varanasi? Don’t you go to heaven if you are cremated in Varanasi?

At this point, I asked if there was anything else I could help him with since I had other calls coming in. I had helped him already with research questions before the topic of my ‘sweet accent’ came up which was followed by deluge of questions about India.

Later, I thought about the conversation and his questions. There was no intention to hurt me or malice behind those queries. He was an older man who wanted to exhibit his book read knowledge about India. Yet the questions reeked of microaggression. So what was it? Ignorance, insensitivity or microaggression?



According to Covid19 healthdata.org, the projection of death and devastation in India is dire. It is heartbreaking, scary, nightmarish. A friend wrote on Facebook that the sirens of ambulance have become part of normal routine in life. The New Delhi bureau chief of New York times wrote south Delhi, where his residence is, has an eerie hush. The silence of the bustling capital of India is broken by sirens of ambulance. And birdsong. My father refuses to watch news anymore, focusing on cricket, movies and music instead to preserve his sanity. My mother is glued to television that is churning out grim projections of the mayhem to come. I can not focus on anything else in my life here in United States – not work, not books, not my family. Of course, life goes on and I have to continue to do my part to live through this but my heart is with the people of my country. Almost every day I get news of friends and acquaintances getting infected. Today a relative died of Covid. My parents have had their first vaccine and are waiting for the election to end so they can get their second shot. Fingers crossed. Temporary crematorium grounds are being created to burn the bodies that are piling up. The fires are constantly burning as bodies pile up.

We saw similar situation in United States just a few months ago. However, my adopted country is slowly recovering. Seeing friends and acquaintances getting their vaccines and gradually venturing out is heartening. For people who do not have family overseas, this is close to the end of a hellish nightmare. For us, Indian Americans, it is a conflicted emotion. We are relieved at our personal safety and that of our friends and family here, yet we are losing sleep over our birth country feeling utterly helpless.

Apart from donating money to organizations that are on the ground helping the sick in India, I am trying to keep despair at bay and sending positive energy that this deadly virus abates, people recover, the exhausted medical professionals get rest and pace of vaccination increases.

Having said that, hearing my friends and family getting infected is difficult. Folks tell me to stay positive and focus on the good. I can not freaking find the good right now!!

If you can, please donate to an organization of your choice who is helping in Covid relief in our devastated country. Of course, do your research on the organization first. 🙏🏽

Masala kaju (cashew)

Although I met this young man at work, he quickly became more than a coworker, he became family – my adopted brother in my adopted land. What does that have to do with the photo above? I will get there. But first I must ramble, as is my habit.

One day, my friend who I mentioned above brought me a Tupperware full of roasted cashews. I ate a few and the tastebuds in my mouth did a happy dance. The nuts were so flavorful. He had fried the nuts and mixed them with Thai red chilies, lime kefir leaves, salt and the flavor was divine.

Cashews (kaju) were, and still are, expensive in India. We could afford them once in a while in small quantities and only at the beginning of the months when we were flush with new paychecks. Cashews were for rich people, peanuts belonged to us.

One of my most popular gifts that I take back home are big jars of cashew nuts from Costco. They bring smiles of joy in people’s faces. The weight of carrying a heavy jar of cashew nuts is totally worth all those smiles.

If you want to spice up your cashews, and if you have some Indian spices lying around, you can have jar full of spicy, savory cashews to snack on when hunger strikes.

Heat a tbs of vegetable oil in a large skillet.

Fry whole Kirkland jar of unsalted cashews on low heat till they attain a golden color.

Keep the fried cashews in a bowl.

In a separate bowl, mix 2 tsp of chaat masala, 2tsp (or less) of Kashmiri chilli powder, a tsp of garam masala, a pinch of Himalayan salt or rock salt, a pinch of citric acid.

In the same skillet where you fried the cashews, throw in a handful of dried red chilis, and once they give out a spicy smell (10 seconds) add the spice mix. Keep the heat to medium low. Mix the spices for about 15 seconds and add to the fried cashews.

Coat them well. Cool completely and store them in a jar.

Lastly, chomp away.

Sometimes I add a few raisins to a handful of spicy cashews when I snack on them.


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!

The messenger ladybug.

Host of memories came crashing down by an inconsequential ladybug. As I turned on the ignition of my car, harried and stressed and late for work, a lady bug landed on the windshield with a light plop. And it brought back memories of a curly haired little five year old girl squatting on the driveway, brows furrowed in fierce concentration, counting the dots on a ladybug.

My daughter was born in India and was raised by not only her parents, but by a village. Her universe consisted of parents, grandparents, a plethora of uncles and aunts, little friends who grew up with her, adopted grandparents (our landlords), adopted uncles and aunts (our friends in the Indian city where we lived), domestic help, who was an integral part of the family. Her life was enriched by the love and nurturing of all – family by blood and family by association and friendship. For the first five years of her life, it was a party every day. Playdates, frolic in the parks with little friends, visits to Kolkata whenever opportunity arose, travels to exotic places with mom and dad. And peacocks and lady bugs. We had three resident peacocks in the neighborhood, who sometimes came to visit us in our balcony. When Sahana, Sean and I went for our walks in the neighborhood, Sean made horrible peacock noises, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of his wife and amusement of his toddler. He expected to get a response back from the peacocks, but his peacock call wasn’t authentic enough and he never heard back from them. The aunties and uncles who walked around our neighborhood always chuckled at the white man’s perseverance.

And there were lady bugs galore. Ladybugs or ladybirds, was a huge topic of debate between me, the native of a former British colony and my husband, an American, the pollutant of Queen’s English. The ladybugs/birds featured a lot in the children’s play. They counted them, counted the dots on them, let them crawl on their hands and laughed at the sensation. Despite the usual sicknesses, Sahana had a fulfilling and happy time. She thrived in the love.

Then we moved. We came to a new country, a new state, a new home and to loneliness. Before we built a new circle of family and friends around us, that is exactly what we came to – loneliness. From the constant buzz of family, we moved to the thrum of crickets outside our suburban home. During this time, one day, I saw little Sahana crouching down and looking at a solitary lady bug in the driveway of our new house.

‘What are you doing, baby?’ I asked as I lowered my heavily pregnant body next to my little girl.

‘Mama, look!!! A ladybug!!! Mama, do you think this lady bug has come all the way from our neighborhood in India to see how I am doing? Do you think it missed me? Now that it has seen me, will it fly back to Anushree and Rohan and tell them about me!’

As I write this today, eight years later, my eyes tear up at the intensity of her homesickness she must have felt then. That was the magical age of unending possibilities and ‘anything can happen’s! I kept the magic alive and said,

‘That is exactly what the ladybug will do, honey! It will take your news back to your friends!’

She turned her attention back to the ladybug and said,

‘Ok, go tell Anu and Rohan, I miss them. And tell the other ladybugs, I miss them too!’

With that she walked away with a stick in her hand to explore other treasures.

She doesn’t look for ladybugs anymore. She deals with the complicated world of high school, she reads “To kill a Mocking bird” and writes papers on “Female infanticide in developing nations”. She is slowly becoming a thoughtful, mature woman. Dreams have changed, magic is dealt with skepticism. But since I am the treasurer of HER childhood memories, I chronicle this faithfully, in my heart and in this post. I do this for her, and perhaps, more for me. Who knows one day, when she turns back, she will look for this little nugget of gold. A forgotten moment, yet etched forever in her mother’s memory.

Thankful for….

“Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I became aware of this festival of giving thanks after I came to the United Sates of America. In India, we didn’t say thanks, our looks and smiles said it all. Even today, when I thank my parents for a kind act, they get embarrassed and somewhat offended, ‘You don’t thank your own, thanking is too formal!’ I respect that and say how much I love the particular dress/book/babysitting, I don’t utter the word thanks. I show my gratitude instead, with a beaming smile or an extra hug. I have, however, grown to love saying thanks. That, I think, is the beauty of belonging to two countries. I can constantly pick and choose all that I like from both the cultures and discard the ones that don’t make much sense to me.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday simply because it transcends the boundaries of structured religions and all Americans and residents of America come together this day to show their gratitude and break bread with friends and family. There is,indeed, something uniquely beautiful in offering thanks. Is there any other holiday that is just dedicated to giving thanks? Being grateful for all the bounty that we have received? There are no gifts to be bought, nothing to wrap and put under the tree, no tree to trim and decorate.

I started a project of writing down one fact each day for this entire month, for which I am thankful. Good friends, understandably, groaned at my sudden spurt of gratefulness, and I predictably, ignored their good-natured ribbing and marched right ahead with my sparkling positivism. I seriously believe it is important to count our blessings. Not only does that keep those dark, gloomy thoughts at bay which loom large on the horizon when the sun doesn’t shine upon me, but also makes me much more sensitive and compassionate towards others who don’t have much – both in materialistic and non materialistic sense.

But being the impatient person that I am, how could I contain myself to mere one thought a day? How about all those other ones that are constantly bubbling within me as I try to arrange them in sequence and spread them evenly throughout this month of Thanksgiving? I abandoned the project and decided to put my thoughts in a blog post instead. Most days, I try to be grateful for the life I lead, some days………well, I am only human.

The month started with an occasion which was something to be greatly thankful for, my mother’s birthday. How can I even begin to thank two individuals, my mother and father, who gave it their all to love, cherish and nurture their only child, to the best of their ability.

Oh, my list of blessings is endless. It is impossible to enumerate them all, so I will just name a few.

I am thankful for the community where I live that not merely tolerates diversity but accepts it, respects it, promotes it and celebrates it.

My little, cozy house with heat on this cold, cold day, which seems to shrink every year as the children grow up and spread out, and yet, this lack of space brings us closer. Not much space to hide in our remote corners.

I love to be the cynosure of two big brown eyes, and the silent companionship he provides.

The job that I got after fourteen years of staying at home. The children were ready and so was I.

The two little humans that are responsible for my gray hair as well as the deepening laugh lines on my face. Oh alright, go ahead, call them wrinkles, if you must!

The wonderful educators and coaches that have touched the lives of my children, instilling in them the enthusiasm to learn and play. So very grateful to those special people.

My mother-in-law, who treated me as one of her own, since the day I landed at her doorstep with her son, apprehensive and nervous. I willingly left my country and culture to follow my heart. But really, I never truly left. I simply broadened my horizon.

My brothers and sisters in law, who became the siblings that I never had and showered me with love.

So, so thankful for the feeling that I am surrounded by love and good will from friends here and all over the world. Grateful for the friends in my life who held my hand through difficult times and didn’t let go. You know who you are.

And the moments, those little moments when I live a thousand lives.

The moment when my 13-year-old daughter puts her arms around my neck and says, “I am so happy I can talk to you about anything and the relationship we share. Many of my friends don’t feel like they can talk to their mothers!”

The moments when I get a glimpse of her beautiful heart full of compassion through the facade of teenage nonchalance.

When a warm, cuddly, tousled haired, freshly woken up seven-year old boy scrambles up on my lap to be held and snuggled as he rubs the sleepies off his eyes, before he gets ready for school.

The moment when he sheds tears at the prospect of baby birds dying and shows immense faith in my ability to save them and make his world right. It is an overwhelmingly beautiful moment and scary at the same time.

The sight of the dog, the boy and the girl gamboling on green grass.

When Ryan reminds Sahana as she pins him down in a wrestling match, that he is not her punching bag, but that she should get one for Christmas instead, or yells out his new-found wisdom from school, “Sahana, be a buddy, not a bully!” between giggles.

The moments when one of the computer generated noises (Sahana calls them songs) comes on and I am pulled to dance along with them in our tiny living room.

I give a silent thanks every time Sean’s plane does a successful landing in whatever part of the world he goes to.

The remaining tenacious green leaves hanging on to the trees for dear life as the fall wind blows through them, trying to shake them off.

The slices of the dazzling blue sky through the filigree of bright orange, red and yellow leaves of the fall.

The moment when I look outside my kitchen window and get rewarded with the most spectacular sunset, right in my backyard.

For living in an area where I get to see the amazing change of seasons which reminds me of the cycle of life – birth, life, death and resurrection.

And for the man in my life, who doesn’t miss a beat, looks me in the eye and answers my question, “what are you thankful for?” with

“You! I am thankful for you!”

If any of you cynics out there tell me he said that to shut me up once and for all, I am not listening. Tralalalalalala! 🙂

Happy Thanksgiving, friends!

The gift she gave me.

I was in seventh grade when I met her for the first time. The doorbell rang, I raced to open the door and there she was, looking back at me with a toothless grin. Not a single tooth to be seen in that wide smile she gave me. She was hungry and was wondering if I could give her any food to eat. The request for food was made in an empty stomach, but the smile that accompanied the request was one of pure joy. The smile reached her eyes.

She was an old woman, probably early to mid seventies, short, very thin, and as I said earlier, toothless. She had an old saree draped around her thin frame. The saree must have been white at some point but had turned gray with wash and use. I had watched Satyajit Ray’s movie ‘Panther Panchali’ recently and there was Indir Thakrun (a tragic character from the movie) right there in front of me. Her story wasn’t unusual. A childless widow with no money, no support, all alone in old age. She didn’t beg on the streets, but got by somehow with the help of her neighbors. She woke up that morning to find there was nothing to eat so she went from house to house to see if someone could give her food.

The connection was instant. She must have touched some chord in my young heart. I ran in to get her some provisions. Our relationship started that day. She didn’t come everyday, maybe once or twice a week. She wiped her forehead with her gray saree and rested her bony legs as she told me stories of her life. What I found wondrous about her was despite being in terrible poverty where she had to depend on neighbors to survive, she had an inner light, an inexplicable joy surrounding her. She laughed while telling her woeful tales and never forgot to thank the lord for letting her witness yet another day. And she had the most beautiful smile that I ever saw. She blessed me – every time we met. Instead of saying goodbye, she said, ‘May you be a queen one day, my girl! May you get a lot of love in your life!’ Being a queen was not on the top of my list those days, so I simply said, ‘Mashi, (aunty) come again!’

I tried to be sneaky while getting rice, dal, vegetables for my adopted aunt, but it was more of a game between my mother and I. She knew how much I was giving, yet she was indulgent and looked on quietly while I hid cups of rice from her. I still remember how the old woman’s eyes lit up in anticipation of a good meal if I could produce an unexpected vegetable or a seasonal fruit once in a while. One time, my mother bought a saree for her during Durga Puja, the biggest festival of the Bengalis. I remember, she cried.

She came to us regularly for almost three years, and then suddenly, didn’t. I thought about her sometimes, my family asked me where my adopted aunt was but I am ashamed to admit, I didn’t go looking for her. I didn’t have a clear idea where she lived. Also, youth is probably a bit self oriented. I was heady with the feeling of being young, growing up and just life. Priorities changed. I can’t say I forgot her, but she definitely slipped way down the totem pole as I moved on.

The elderly woman in my past embodied the spirit of old India, in its best and its worst. She represented the widows of India, uncared for, cast aside. Yet she remained accepting, joyful, thankful. In those days, she could ring people’s doorbell and ask for help. She wasn’t kept out by the security guards of modern-day gated communities. In those days the neighbors actually took care of her in the way they knew best. I seek for this warmth among the glittery malls and glass and concrete corporate houses in the big metros when I go back. Sometimes I get a whiff of the India I left behind, but often times, I don’t.

I think of her often now. I wonder how her end was. If death was kind to her, or she died alone. I think she came in my life at that particular time for a reason. She came to teach me empathy. She taught my tender, young heart to feel the sorrows of another and to try to help in whatever capacity. I also question who was truly helped in that situation. I gave her some food for sustenance, but what she gave me in return is invaluable. The lesson of kindness.

I later read Mother Teresa’s quote ‘If you can’t feed a hundred, then just feed one’, and I thought of my adopted aunt. As Albert Einstein said ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted’. My cups of rice were indeed countable, her blessings and lessons to me, were not.

It could have been my story…..

It could have been my story but it isn’t because of an accident – the accident of birth. I am going to write a story today. A true story that shook me to the core. This story didn’t make the newspaper but it didn’t stay within the neighborhood where it took place either, it spread word to mouth and it reached me here, in America.

Not too long ago, a young woman, who we shall call Reena, was dreaming of a happy home with a loving husband. She didn’t belong to the emergent middle class in India, she was from the lowest strata, living in a simple home in a slum in Kolkata and dreaming of a simple, but content life with the man she was about to marry. It didn’t work out as she had planned, like it often doesn’t! Her husband didn’t share her dreams and didn’t want to share his life with her either. He drove her away after a few years of marriage. The reason? Who cares about it? She is just a woman and she is absolutely replaceable.

Reena came back home broken, abused. Her family did not welcome her with open arms. Why would they? She was just another mouth to feed and their resources were meagre. She had taken her share of the family inheritance in her dowry. When she returned empty-handed, she found she had no support in anyone or in any form. She was stigmatized since she was returned by her husband. It was her shame, she must have been at fault, of course! One day, during a quarrel, her brother said her life was not worth living. She was a burden to them, she was a burden to the world. The woman was emotionally vulnerable to begin with, she broke down completely and set herself on fire to end it, once and for all.

She couldn’t finish the job that she started though. Neighbors rescued her and took her to the hospital. Instead of succumbing to her injuries, she hung on to life. Reena survived. She walked out of that hospital with a misshapen face, disfigured with horrendous scars. She withdrew within herself, hid in the house for a while, covered her face with the pallu of her sari. But for some strange reason, she rediscovered her will to live again. This experience transformed her…gave her a will to try one more time, to take a shot at life. She didn’t talk to a therapist about it, she barely had two square meals but she must have figured out what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, for she came out of her house swinging, determined to make it!

She was always a hard worker, she started looking for a job as a domestic help. But faced rejection, yet again. People didn’t want to look at a scarred face in their house doing their chores. A retired couple were divided on this issue of hiring Reena. Mrs. Basu wanted to give Reena a job on humanitarian grounds, to give her a chance at life again, while Mr. Basu feared the grandchildren, when they came to visit, will be scared by her. He was sympathetic to what life had dealt her but wasn’t ready to employ her for her deformity.

My India is shining brightly for many. We are hosting the Commonwealth games, beauty pageants, the Formula 1 car racing! It is an exciting time to be in Inda with its trendsetting fashion, booming IT industry, entertainment industry, the telecom industry. The glittering, sparkly malls, the retail therapy that my friends do to pick themselves up when they’ve had a rough day, the big decisions they make whether to buy the Prada handbag, the Jimmy Choo slippers, the latest iPhone or Mac Air. By saying this, I am not passing any judgements on anybody or trying to act holier than thou. If I didn’t dislike shopping with a passion and I had the money, who knows, I would probably do the same! We have been free from the British rule for only 65 years and look where we have come! I applaud the efforts of my country women and men. Hard work, perseverance, grit, determination, talent – a combination of all these have propelled the country forward despite the snail paced bureaucracy and corruption. But there are these pockets of darkness that we need to, yet, illuminate. Many, many good men and women are working hard to make a difference. I have had the good fortune of meeting some of them and seeing the fruits of their effort. While it is certainly encouraging, we still have a long, long way to go. So many women, urban and rural alike are underprivileged, uneducated, and are still at the mercy of societal indifference, neglect and discrimination.

I was discussing the state of women with some Indian friends, while sitting in a beautiful home, eating delicious food, when one of my friends commented that we are not in a position to criticize India. We left the country a while ago and what exactly are we doing to change the situation? We have lost the right to criticize the day we boarded the plane to leave for good. That brought me down from my lofty, all-knowing state and dashed me to harsh reality! My friend was right! It was so easy for me to criticize and point out the problems at a social gathering and then do nothing about it but just return to my comfortable home, to get a good night’s sleep. What a hypocrite!

I couldn’t do a thing to change Reena’s situation but I wanted to try. I spoke to Mr. Basu pleading with him to employ Reena for her skills and not reject her, yet again, this time for the deformity of her face. Children are sensitive, and by giving Reena a job, he can actually set a great example for his grandchildren. This is a perfect opportunity to teach his grandchildren the important lessons of giving a fellow human a chance, to teach them everybody deserves a chance, the lesson of looking deeper for beauty than what is visible to the eye, the lesson of compassion and empathy, the lesson of acceptance of others who may be different! His grandchildren will be enriched by this experience. They will learn from her that if life gives you lemon, make some lemonade. I do believe I have convinced him. I just may have a good night’s sleep tonight.