A day of deep breaths and blinking away tears

I woke up with a soft kiss on my cheeks as Sean said goodbye before he headed to the airport. I tried my best to fall asleep but sleep eluded me. I was dreading the day. It is ironical that I dread March 2nd since it was a day of excitement and happiness in my life for many years. It is baba’s birthday.

Today was a day of deep breaths and a lot of blinking. As I drove to the gym, I felt my chest constrict with pain. I tried to breathe in, hold it and exhale slowly. No matter how much I tried to focus on the happy memories, all I could think about was the last few days of his struggle and my utter helplessness.

A few friends still remembered him. They wrote on his Facebook page. Khushi wrote too. She said she missed him so much. She hopes both of them are blessing her from heaven. I also read a passage from A.A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh where Pooh is having a very Difficult day and Piglet asks him if he wants to talk about it. Pooh doesn’t want to talk. So Piglet just sits with him. When someone is having a very Difficult day, it is wonderful to just sit with them. Perhaps that is what friendship is all about. I needed a Piglet.

I had a very Difficult day but I went about my life – gym, work, dinner, without Piglet. I got through it. Today brought back glimpses of the very painful place I was in. I am certainly getting out of it and I am sure tomorrow will be better and as years go by birthdays will hurt less. Grief is like the waves – it ebbs and flows.


Hindsight is 20/20

I realize now, at my ripe old age of 52, that I have been such a fool. I did not appreciate all the wonderful things that I took for granted in the past.

I still remember grumbling and pouting as I was forced to take a nap in the afternoon next to my mother in the blistering heat of Kolkata as a child. I wanted to listen to stories (or read when I was able) from my mother but she needed a break from me, I am sure. So she mandated that I close my eyes and fall asleep in the afternoon. I would open one eye to see if she was sleeping so I could quietly sneak away from her and have a few hours of freedom. Some days I could, most days, I got caught. It seemed like a punishment in those days and now afternoon naps, when I can get one, are such decadent luxuries that happen once in a blue moon.

Every morning, before I left for college, the woman who cooked for our family prepared pomfret fish in mustard gravy and hot, steaming rice for me. I barely touched it. I was so eager to leave home and eat junk food from Milanda’s canteen at Jadavpur University that I turned up my nose at the lovingly prepared meal at home. I picked at the rice and fish and Jhumadi (the chef extraordinaire) yelled at me, “Didi ar ektu bhat khao. Oi jonye tumi oto roga.” (Eat a little more rice. You are so thin because you don’t eat.) I grabbed my bag and shut the door behind me. I would kill for someone to prepare that exact same food for me. Especially when I come back home from work and have to prepare dinner.

Last night, I was massaging argan oil in my hair. It was a chore when I was little. Not that I had to do anything myself. Someone sat me in front of them, massaged coconut oil in my long hair, braided them tightly before I could go to bed. The belief was, if you tied your hair very tightly in plaits before going to bed, your hair grew faster. And hair oil was necessary for a full head of hair, of course. I dreaded this ritual. I hated anyone touching my hair. And the tight braids before bed time hurt my head. I was a demure child but I did rebel against hair tying before bed time. My mother, who cut her hair short, relented and let me go to bed with my hair open. That was such a win! But hair oil was a must. As I massaged hair oil last night, I longed for those loving massages again. I could go to a salon, of course. But it was not simply the massage though, it was the entire ambiance. Me sitting on the floor with my long hair down my back in our one room flat. The TV blaring in front. Ma sitting on the bed chatting with the household help and Jhumadi telling us her life story while putting oil in my hair. I can almost see the scene in front of my eyes.

So, the moral of this blog is soak up any nurturing that you are getting at his point in your life. If someone is doing something for you, enjoy every minute, don’t take any of it for granted. When you are adulting real hard and there is no one massaging oil in your hair or making you pomfret fish in mustard gravy or forcing you to slow down and take a nap, you will look back and sigh. Hindsight is always 20/20.

A moment with Durga

This year I went to Boston to celebrate Durga puja with my cousin sister. Boston Durga bari’s Durga Puja is a beautiful four day affair that brings back memories of Durga puja of home. The ambiance, the joy, the rustle of new clothes, the trendy blouses, the designer kurta pajamas, the elegant sarees, the intricate jewelry, the smoke of dhunuchi and the crowd – all of these evoked the quintessential pujo feelings. If it wasn’t so cold as soon as one stepped outside the mandap (the tent in the parking lot of Braj Mandir Temple) in Holbrook, MA, one could totally feel like one was in a ghoroya puja of Kolkata.

I have my own unique relationship with the goddess. I don’t feel the need to participate in pushpanjali, or boron or any kind of ritual. My relationship with Durga is not one of a devotee and a deity. It is much more personal. To me, she is an embodiment of my memories of special four days every year. She is a feeling in my heart that is precious and invaluable. It is hard to explain. She is also a symbol of everything that I consider good. She is the divinity that, I hope, resides within me and within others. Every year, her celebration, reminds me to nurture this divinity within me and slay my inner demons so I am kinder, more considerate, less judgmental. Durga is also shakti – power. Those who wrote the Vedas knew the inherent power that women possess so they made a woman the symbol of power. Durga is all powerful yet when she comes to us she comes as the daughter of the house coming to her ‘baaper bari’ (her parents’ house). She is our beloved girl as well as the epitome of ‘mighty girl’. We do not worship her because we fear her. We worship her and love her because she is our very own, our dearest girl who assures us, inspires us, loves us and also blesses us. At least, this is how I relate to her.

During the four days of Durga puja, I sat far away from the idol while devotees stood in line to see a glimpse of Durga’s face. I admired the fashion, the jewelry, the little children instead of focusing on the mantras and the aarti. When everyone had left late at night and my sister was busy arranging the kitchen for next day’s massive preparation of food, I walked over to the front of the tent where the idol of Durga was placed decked with weapons in her ten arms and adorned with jewelry. The repentant ashura sat at her feet looking up, seeking forgiveness. And Durga had forgiven him. Her eyes, in this particular idol, radiated kindness, assurance. I bowed my head in front of the idol made of clay. But in reality, I bowed my head in gratitude for all the memories that her advent to the world has gifted me. She is my ‘shorot kal er neel akash’ (the blue sky of autumn), she is my ‘kashphul’ (according to Google, wild sugarcane that grows in Bengal during autumn), she is my smell of new clothes, my puja vacation from school, she is my mother’s laughter and my father’s relaxation, she is my memories of first crush and beating heart, she is my intolerable crowd, my pandal hopping, my Kolkata lights. She is the blisters on my feet due to new shoes, the rustle of my new clothes. She is my delicious street food and outing with friends. She is my counting pocket money to see how far that will take us. She is the crowded traffic on the streets, the red ribbon on the hair of the little girl who lives on the streets with her homeless family. She is the ‘bonedi barir pujo’. She is house full of relatives. Mostly, she is my feeling of joy and love and family.

She is all these memories that I keep in my heart all year and take out to savor during these four days every year. I will never get them back but I am so blessed that I have them forever.

Thank you, 90’s Bollywood hits

No, really! Thank you to the toe tapping numbers of the 90’s Bollywood hits, the item numbers as we used to call them. I have loved listening to them in my 20’s on my cassette tapes, hated them being blared out of big speakers from puja pandals during Durga Puja, loved them again when I set up my new life here in United States and brought my cassette tapes with me. Then the songs got transferred to music cds which my baba bought for me and I packed them in my suitcase when I came back after a visit home. Now I listen to them on Spotify. They are a connection to my wild and crazy (not) teens and twenties. The lyrics don’t touch one’s soul or evoke any deep feelings, at least in my opinion. You don’t drown in the soul stirring music – at least the songs I listen to. Tagore’s songs are like a gentle salve for my soul, I listen to them when I want peace. The dhamakedar (upbeat) Bollywood songs that I like to listen to are energetic, often meaningless, and most importantly, catchy. They make your feet tap and even me, someone born with two left feet, wants to sway my hips to the beat.

I wrote in a previous blog that I have started going to the gym for mental health (and also since 4 people asked me if I was pregnant). The 90’s Bollywood hits are the reason I look forward to sweating it out on the elliptical – sometimes for an hour. I lovingly pack my headphones and phone as I get ready for gym. If I ever forgot either of those, I will truly turn around and come back home. Bottom line – I go to gym to listen to music uninterrupted for an hour and a half. The work out, my friends, is secondary.

And when songs from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge come on, or those from Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, I pump the pedals to the beat. My pace goes up and boy, am I in the zone!

I wiped sweat from my eyes today, huffing and puffing at the elliptical and wondered why I enjoy this mindless music so much when I work out. I have tried music of Kabir Suman or Rabindrasangeet but they don’t quite get me through the pain. Hindi music, that too peppy numbers of the 90’s and early 2000’s, get the job done. As I listen to the same songs everyday and sing along quietly, I remember the memories associated with them. The memories of sitting with my mother or friends in the dark cinema hall, the thin, elderly ushers showing us our seat, the musty smell of the carpet in cinema halls like Priya or Ujjala or Nabina or Aleya.

In fact, the excitement of going to the movie theater started with the mini bus ride to the cinema hall when I was younger. Ma held my hand tightly as we got off the bus and stood in line to get tickets. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that ma, sometimes, even bought tickets from blackers (folks who sold tickets of a sold out show in black market for an elevated price) and I asked her hopefully “Did you get it?” We made the trip from home to the cinema hall in the blistering heat of Kolkata and we were determined not to go home without seeing the show. After the movie, there was always some lip smacking treats like the famous Ujjala’s chanachur, or phuchka or vegetable chop before the bus ride home. The music of those movies stayed on in my memory even if the stories didn’t. And today, many decades later, they still make me groove. Who remembers the huge posters of the actors and actresses that were actually drawn and painted by artists and posted up on the cinema halls and bill boards? Do they have those anymore?

I must have been a teenager when I saw an actress wearing a certain design of a salwar kameez and fell in love with it. I wanted to wear a kameez of the same design! So I cut out the photo of the heroine, Rati Agnihotri (if any of you remember her), from a film magazine and took it to our local tailor.

“Dada, I want my kameez made in this style.”

He took the cut out from my hand and looked at it intensely. He then looked up at me and slowly let his gaze slide down my skinny body. It sounds sexual but it was not. In fact it was the complete opposite. His glance was clinical and devoid of any emotions, He was appraising a body and wondering if his artwork will be worthwhile. Can the skinny frame of a young girl do his masterpiece justice? He then pointed to the voluptuous curves of the actress and looked at my figure that was pretty much a straight line. That glance was enough to convey his message – the cut is not going to look good on me as it looked on Rati Agnihotri. I had him make the kameez anyway. And he was right. The design was completely wasted on me. 🙂

Anyway, back to the songs. They bring back a lot of memories. And here is the thing though. I only remember the happy memories. I don’t remember the unbearable heat, the sweat, the smell, the mosquito bites, the scolding that I received for misbehaving. I remember when I hear these songs – ma, friends, friendships, Kolkata evenings, delicious street food, romance, beating heart as I thought of my boyfriend as I listened to Shahrukh Khan romancing Kajol via songs. And now those same songs are seeing me through pain. So thank you, 90’s Bollywood hits. You rock!

Sunshiny today

Every morning after I wake up I sit in my reading chair and take a few moments to look at the smiling pictures of both my parents on our coffee table. When they were alive I reached for my phone as soon as my eyes opened. There would be a message from ma in whatsapp. Most of the days the message asked “ki korchish?” (What are you doing?) The woman never really got the time difference right 😀. I would obviously be sleeping during her waking hours. My response would be “ei uthlam.” (just woke up). Most days I would call later to have a longer conversation but some days, that was our only exchange. But we connected everyday. I snooped on baba’s activity on Facebook and when I saw he was active and posting something funny every hour, I would breathe easy – he was well.

These days my whatsapp messenger remains silent. So I commune for a few minutes everyday with them in the morning. At a certain time, the sun hits their smiling faces just right and both of them light up in front of my eyes. I watch the transformation happen. In a strange way, it makes me happy. I took a picture of sunlit ma today. Sometimes this feeling is all I need to carry in my heart to get me through the day.

Connecting with strangers.

Poet unknown to me

This came up in my Facebook memory feed today. A friend, who is an ardent Kolkata lover like me had shared this a while back. My world in Kolkata was whole then. Kolkata was home. It still is, in a way, but not in the same way it used to be. The city knows my every ‘first’, so it will always be my love but it is also smeared with sadness and tainted, somewhat, with my anger.

Anyway, I digress. What I wanted to write was this. I took some of ma’s sarees in a tiny tailoring shop near Maddox Square. There was hardly enough space for 6 people to stand comfortably within the store. My cousin, Sahana and I along with the wonderful woman who was taking our measurements, had taken up most of the room in the store. It was hot in there, a standing fan was whirring tiredly, circulating hot air within the store. The pleasing smell of new garments permeated the space reminding me of Durga puja when this smell of new garments surrounded us along with unmitigated joy. For the rest of the year, we could not afford to buy anything new. I digress, again. As we were giving measurements and my cousin was explaining the design to the tailor, a woman walked in with fabric that she wanted to be made into blouses. We Bengalis don’t say hi/hello to each other, I noticed. Is there a Bengali equivalent of greeting other than nomoshkar? And nomoshkar sounds too strange to begin a conversation with a stranger. It seems like we just jump in. And we did – this woman and I. I don’t remember who initiated the conversation or how it started but by the end of it I knew so much about her. Then our work was done, we bade each other farewell. We, most likely, will never meet again but a connection was made, life stories were exchanged.

During my previous trips, I have made similar connections with complete strangers in Ananda Publications book store in Gariahat. That was easy though. Bibliophiles simply start talking about books and suggest books to each other. “Have you read…..?” “NO, did you like it? Maybe I should buy it.” Kind of like dog owners here, one does not need any introduction to exclaim about dogs on walks with their pets.

Strangers become friends in that city in the East, for sure. At least friends for a few moments, an hour, a few hours. Some friendships continue perhaps, and some don’t. But the connection that was made kind of lingers in the heart and perhaps one remembers that I met someone, a stranger, who lend me an ear, and who shared snippets of their lives.

Lost in my own city

I went for my usual walk this morning but Dhakuria lake was closed for Holi so I took a detour, got lost somewhat in my own city, asked for direction, was told by the caring man that my destination was too far and ‘sister, take an auto, you can not walk that far’. I thanked him and turned around as I was walking in the wrong direction. The man continued to give me directions and to warn me of the distance. I smiled at him but did not tell him that taking an auto was not an option as I carried no money. So I walked and it felt good. I walked through my very familiar and now somewhat unknown city. Some of the old, now decrepit, houses in my path have been there for years. They were part of my landscape all my life. They evoked so many memories. The new buildings were remote and unknown and if you ask me, they don’t belong to the Kolkata I know – my Kolkata.

‘My’ Kolkata is getting smaller with every visit. Old, familiar houses are being demolished and new apartments are being built. The city is sprawling out in every direction. But those houses along Southern Avenue or the unchanged make shift stores on the sides of Rashbehari Avenue, or the hawkers calling out ‘didi ki lagbe’ (sister what do you want), assure me that ‘my Kolkata’ still exists in some small way.

And I remembered walking the same streets with baba when he walked miles and miles to stay in shape. He talked to, petted and fed every stray dog that crossed his path on these walks. They knew him and crowded around him for the biscuits that he carried in his pocket. As I walked today in the early morning hours, I felt him by my side – youthful, happy, fast and chatty. It was a good morning.

Birthday well spent

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

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

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

Don’t do it..

I spoke sternly to my hand as it slowly reached for the bottled mango Lassi on the refrigerated shelf in the new Indian grocery store that I went to explore.

“Don’t do it. Don’t you do it. Think of the added sugar. Think of your ever expanding mid section!”

My head reprimanded my hand. But guiltily, almost unwillingly, and in slow motion, my hand did grab the plastic bottle of Lassi and put it in the shopping cart. My face almost had a sad expression as I looked at what my hand had done. Right next to them were Indian sweets, among which were silvery Kaku katlis which I adore. I touched a box and moved my hand away. Next to them were Motichur laddus. As a little boy, Ryan used to love those. We called him our little Ganesh for his love of laddus were similar to the elephant headed God whose supposed love for those laddus is legendary. Ryan, however, has betrayed me and grown conscious of his sweet intake. However, I use him as an excuse in my mind when I pick up a box of laddus. “Ryan likes them” I say to myself. Ryan declines to eat a single one and so I eat them all. Can not waste them!

I exerted extreme self restraint and did not pick up either the Kaju katlis or the laddus. I felt Sean’s silent criticism of my choice of picking up sweet mango Lassi as we walked the aisles filled with ingredients, spices, snacks, soaps, oils, body lotions from my home. I picked up some green chillis, some turmeric and masoor dal. Looked for samosas and failed to find them. The new grocery store lost some points right there. Why won’t they have fresh samosas when I wanted them? Anyway, as we walked towards the check out counter, I slowly reached into the shopping cart, picked up the lone bottle of Lassi and put it back on the shelf.

“You don’t want it?” My surprised husband asked.

“Let’s get out quickly before I change my mind.” I walked faster, putting distance between myself and the shelf that held the goodies.

As we got in the car, Sean said it is fun to see me in an Indian store. I am, supposedly, like a kid in a candy store. The analogy is apt, but it is more like an immigrant in a store full of things whose sight, smell and taste bring back very fond memories of home. It is a wistfulness of what we left behind. It is also a joy to hold a tiny part of familiarity in our hands.

Little things

Once the all encompassing sorrow recedes after a major loss, the wave of grief leaves behind little memories, which, like little pebbles, scratch open the scabs of the wound for some slow seepage of intense pain.

Little things like the absence of a daily wsapp message to ma “ki korcho?” (What are you doing?) And her unchanging response “TV dekhchi.” (Watching tv).

Little things like the urge to tell them about moments I loved or moments that made me sad.

Little things like something I read or a piece of music that all three of us listened to when I was young.

Little things about Sahana or Ryan. Things that only they would care about other than us.

Little things like opening up Facebook and checking if baba was active. If he was active, I knew he was well. The day after he contacted Covid, he went active on Facebook for a while. I turned to Sean and said, “He must be feeling better, he is posting on Facebook.”

Little things like checking when wsapp was last seen by ma.

Little things like teasing ma about timing my phone calls according to Rani Rashmoni’s show times on television.

Little things like planning our Kolkata trip.

Little things like connecting to the hotel wifi wherever we traveled and letting them know we have arrived wherever we were supposed to arrive. “Pouche gechi.” (We have arrived). And their response, “khub enjoy korish. Chobi tulish dekhbo.” (Enjoy a lot. Take a lot of pictures for us to see).

I realized these little things even more on our recent trip where the two anxious people thousands of miles away who waited for that message of arrival are waiting no more. My cousin sister, however, said, “I will be waiting. Write to me when you arrive.” So I wrote to her.

Little things like the constant realization that neither of them are physically there any more – living their life, showering me and mine with love.

Little things (not a little thing, this keeps me up at night) like I could not say goodbye when they left.