Observations from the elliptical… and beyond


I chose the worst possible playlist from Spotify before getting on the elliptical machine today. I generally listen to 90’s Bollywood hits or a mix of Bengali songs about social change but today I chose the Bollywood Workout Beats (or something like that). Big mistake! The first song was almost ten minutes long Sanskrit prayer to Lord Shiva. Now, I have nothing against Shiva. I always thought he is a pretty cool deity although I find his wife (Durga) much cooler, but I don’t need to listen to someone singing paean to him for 10 minutes when my thighs are burning. I need songs that will make me forget the thigh burn. I don’t keep the phone available near me to discourage my inclination to check messages while I exercise, so changing playlist was out of question without interrupting the work out. Anyway, the songs that followed after that interminably long prayer song were not up to snuff either. So instead of focusing on the music in my head, I looked around and surveyed my fellow gym users.

  1. First, I love to see diversity in race, age, body types doing something for themselves. Older men, in their seventies, walking slowly or running, on the treadmill. Older women, doing the same and also stretching, practicing their balance.
  2. Young men and women focused on their phones, grim expression on faces doing feats, either freehand or on the machines, that I can only dream of and never achieve. I saw a young woman pull herself up a pull up bar and hold it for, what it seemed like, eternity. I marveled at her ability and strength. You go girl!
  3. Another young man held a plank forever. The core strength was incredible. My muscles quiver like jelly after 30 seconds.
  4. After a weight round, young men surreptitiously checked themselves out in the mirror, gently touching their biceps and strutting a little. It made me smile.
  5. One woman, a regular, gets on a elliptical, and has so much inner joy as she goes hard on the pedals. She raises her hand sometimes, moves her head, her hair flips all around, smiles. It seems her whole body is in tune with the work out. I would like to know what music she is listening to. She seems so very joyful. She was flipping her hair around today, moving to a tune that she could only hear.
  6. A very friendly trainer went around high fiving regulars, primarily older men and women. It is lovely to watch the camaraderie. Some regulars, after work out, meet at the lobby and chat over cups of free coffee.
  7. I observe the forms of some serious gym rats and make a mental note to emulate their form when I use that particular machine.

After my hour on the elliptical ended, I got off the machine, drank some water and changed playlist. With Arijit Singh crooning in my ears, I stretched and continued observing humanity around me. After a good hour and a half at the gym, I went into the locker room and got the shock of my life as I happened to glance at the mirror. Pagla Dashu stared back at me. A female version of him, of course. The top of my hair was completely frizzy thanks to the head phones, my face drenched in sweat, eyes puffy from lack of sleep and basic age related wrinkles. Pagla Dashu, my beloved fictional character is young, crazy and charming, if a little insane, but his name popped up in my head as I looked at myself in the mirror. If you are not familiar with him, click on the link – I already wikied him for you. I am considerate like that.

Before heading out, I put an online order for chicken biriyani from a local Indian restaurant. I justified eating biriyani right after a good workout by thinking, I am exercising for mental health and today, biriyani is essential for my mental health. I went to the Indian grocery store, right next to the restaurant, and picked up boring things like cilantro and spices. I also picked up a big bar of Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate but I put it back on the shelf again. I did work hard to burn some calories, I was about to put all those back in my body in the form of biriyani. Chocolate bar had to wait for another day. I did pick up a bar of Mysore Sandal soap. I have been missing ma and baba terribly these past days. That soap was their favorite. I wanted the smell of that soap. It is incredible how deep associations that mere smell can bring up.

I see no change in my weight so far. However, random folks have not come up to me and asked me if I was pregnant. So there’s that. And I feel a change in my mental health. I am more peaceful for longer stretches of time than before.

New year, new me, and anticipation


Hello, all you beautiful people. May your new year bring hope and resilience. That is my wish for myself and for everyone. Did you all make any new resolutions? Mine is to lower expectation from others. Bhagavat Gita tells me that is a path to being happy. I have started reading the holy book in the new year – one page a day.

This blog is to wish you all a happy new year, of course and also to tell you about my story of anticipation. A few weeks ago I was given a gift card to a book store. Whenever I think of the gift card, I get this surge of happy anticipation in my heart. Oh the possibilities!! Which book am I going to buy? Which book is a keeper? I drive by the book store almost every other day and each time my face breaks into a big smile.

I work at a library so I have books at my fingertips – literally. When I was a child, my mother bought me books, many, many books. I used to be sick almost all the time. To cheer me up, she brought home books that she picked up on her way back from work. As a teen, I spent my hard earned money buying used books from the very fine make-shift books stores on the sidewalks of Kolkata. Nestled among tattered Mills and Boons and Sidney Sheldons would lie books by Graham Greene, Gerald Durrell. Sometimes Dickens, Hardy, Austen, Jules Verne, Dostoyevski, Hugo….. We were encouraged to read good literature to broaden our horizons and to balance the trashy Harlequin romances which were instrumental in my education about ‘birds and bees’ since my mother never talked to me about any of that 🙂 ! My first date with my now husband was at Kolkata Book Fair. The fact that I did not like him too much that day is a story for another day.

In my before-library days, I used to buy books. So much so that my tiny house is full. I have both Bengali collection and English collection. However, after I started working at the library, I rather like the idea of borrowing and returning unless I find a book that I want to keep. The old habit of buying books and the joy it generated in me, holding a brand new book in my hands, sniffing the pages to inhale the new book smell, hearing the sharp crack as I turn the page – that feeling is intoxicating. The gift card can give me that hit. Yet, I don’t go in to the book store. I hold on to the anticipation of going in, browsing, touching, reading jackets, spending time. I spend time with books at my library so I am not sure why I am looking forward to my time in the book store, but I am. And that is strange yet wonderful. I want to stretch out this feeling of anticipation, my simple pleasure, for as long as I can. When the day is gray and I have plummeted down low, I will make the trip.

I am vacillating between two titles – Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama.

Solitude


I shared this pond with no one this morning. The resident ducks and Canada geese were nowhere to be seen. The sun was not strong enough for the little turtles to climb up on logs and sun themselves. I stood by the edge of the pond to look for them. They were perhaps snoozing in their nests.

It felt strange and beautiful all at once to find myself alone in this tiny bit of universe. The cerulean sky was sparkling with golden rays of the sun. That color, I have realized, makes me immensely happy. The trees and bushes stood quietly, their reflection in the water somehow doubling their silent presence.

No matter how much I sparkle outside, I struggle most days to get off the couch and put my game face on. However, on days when I feel the gentle sun caressing my face and the splendid blue of the sky penetrating my soul, I feel I will be okay. I get up to face another day. I love, I am loved. I will live today and remain hopeful for tomorrow.

Stat line is flat


Well, hello world! I peeked in to my oft neglected blog after a long time and saw to no one’s surprise that the statistics line of my blog site is flat. For all these days, no one has peeked in to see if mama is thinking. Mama has been thinking but she has been too lazy to put those thoughts down on her blog site.

It is summer in the library baby!! After spending just 2 hours in the children’s section, helping young readers find books (but lets face it, none of the books I suggest are on the shelves), toys, handing them and their parents reading lists, giving them hints as to where the scavenger hunt clues are, giving out tickets for children’s classes, listening to little ones scream because it is their naptime and their care giver refuses to take them home, I fall flat on my face and do not feel like writing. After a day at the library, I come home and surf Instagram to watch food vlogs and animal videos.

I have had some fun times with both my kids. Sahana took me out to celebrate my 10 year work anniversary. I still have to wrap my head around the fact that I have an adult child. I had made it clear to her when she was an angry teen and I had to lay down ground rules that I am not here to be her friend, I am and always will be her parent. But I feel the line is getting a bit blurry from time to time. She asked me what I would have changed, if I could, in these 10 years of working at the library. I did not have an answer right then. But after giving it some hard thought, I realized, there were times I put my responsibility towards work over my children’s activities. It is too late now but I wish I had done things differently.

Ryan at age 17 is a much nicer young man than he was a couple of years ago. He is really fun to talk to and as he grows up, I find his wicked sense of humor very similar to my father’s. He resembles his grandfather as well and sometimes, when he talks I lose my focus as I see baba peeking through his eyes, his smile. He will assume some leadership roles in his senior year at his high school and I think he will lead with maturity, empathy and grace. Very surprisingly, he does not fight me like he used to when I ask to do chores for me. If I ask him to do something, he says ‘sure’ and does it (except for making his bed or keeping his room clean, and that drives me crazy). I am a very involved parent and like to know everything that is going on in my children’s lives but I am learning to stay silent but present so they come to me with questions/thoughts/ideas. I fail often, but I try again.

Sean and I have not had much time to relax together. We both have been working hard. I miss him and often feel lonely. I guess such is middle age. I realized that now that my parents are gone and children are growing up to have their own lives, the person whose companionship I crave and when he is not around, miss is my husband’s. We vex each other often and I realize we squabble more as we get older and crankier but we laugh too, despite and still.

This blog is really not substantial. I am just showing some love to this online journal of mine. Not sure why you would be interested in reading about my children, but some of you do read so thank you. I have some ideas to write more substantial (may be not, but it is my blog so I can write whatever feels substantial to moi) in upcoming weeks.

I want the stat line not to stay flat – it is an ego boost to see the line go up, so please click 🙂 !

Memorial


I have had this feeling of not doing enough for my parents. For the longest time after their death, I suffered from self doubts, from what-ifs. It is a terrible way to live. At long last I have realized how hard I tried with all that was within my power. The Covid outbreak in India in the months of May, June of 2021, the political leaders, the complete breakdown of infrastructure are all the reasons ma and baba died. Along with tens of thousands of families, we lost our dearest ones.

After they died, I felt I did not do anything to honor their memories. Guilt, self doubt, feeling of inadequacy kept me miserable for many, many months compounded by the grief of losing them.

I hoped to gather people together to hold a memorial service of some kind to remember the two people who were such huge part of my life who suddenly ceased to exist physically when I finally went back to Kolkata. Due to the shortness of my visit and the labyrinthine process of settling affairs, I ran out of time. There was no formal memorial service for them. Yet, as I look back on my short stay, I realize I had the best form of ‘remembrance’ with the people who knew them the best. Each morning as I sat on a dining room chair sipping my first cup of coffee, Gouri and Breshpati joined me with their steaming cups of tea. The first day they talked about the trauma of dealing with their deaths. I asked them to narrate happy memories instead since I have lived their last days many, many times in my head. And so they did. After the first day, we sat together each morning laughing hysterically as we talked about the happy memories of their everyday lives caring for my parents. We talked about how baba tricked ma, or how ma yelled at baba for being a glutton or their interaction with Khushi, or the fun memories they created with other members of our extended family. We talked about their work to help the vulnerable in their community.

I went to visit my uncle and cousins. In each visit we laughed till we had tears in our eyes at the life time of happy memories of ma and baba. It was not all joyful, of course. We veered dangerously close to sad memories of helplessness during the Covid days but we quickly detoured back to happier times.

I realized this kind of organic retelling of memories and laughing (and crying) was so much better than organizing a formal get together to force everyone to talk about them. In this way, in installments perhaps, I celebrated the lives of ma and baba instead of mourning their deaths. I mourned them for all this time. Back in their city and my city where they gave me life and opportunities, where they made and nurtured relationships, loved and cared for others, I celebrated their lives with people who celebrated them with me. I came back with a sense of fulfillment. Grief still orbits my heart, but it has given me space to live, laugh, dance, feel joy.

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.

Searching for benevolence


I cannot wax poetic of my beloved city after being back in it for the first time after my parents’ death. The lights of Kolkata, when I first saw it from the plane, brought such joy in my mind in the past. This year, as the plane prepared to land, I looked away. The touch down was rough just like the raw emotions in my heart. The two human beings who came to receive me at the airport for the last 25 years were glaringly absent.

The first step in the apartment was perhaps the hardest. I spent some time splashing water on my face to disguise the tears that would not stop flowing. Later, Sahana and I went for a walk around the Dhakuria lake. There, we found benevolence. In the sweet cooing of the cuckoo bird heralding spring, in the rising of the orange sun over the calm waters of the lake breaking through the haze of Kolkata air, in the squabbling of the huge fish in the lake trying to fight for bread that a woman threw in for them, in the pace of the morning walkers, amidst the banyan trees and mango trees, the polash and krishnachura trees, I found the essence of ma and baba’s love. Kolkata was the city of their hearts (mine too, at one point). No matter where they went, they found the most peace when they returned to this chaotic city.

I also found benevolence in the love of the women who cared for ma and baba, in the love of my cousin brother who stayed up at night to bring me home from the airport at an ungodly hour, in my cousin sister’s question – “what can I do? How can I help?”, in my mashi’s show of love by sending me my favorite food, in Khushi’s gentle words and lovely drawing.

Most of all I found benevolence in my daughter’s quiet presence by my side throughout the long, anguishing journey ‘home’. A rub on the back, holding hands, carrying luggage, through a myriad of ways she took care of her grieving mother, while dealing with her own emotions of losing ‘her people’ as she called her dadai and didiya.

This trip is a whirlwind, overwhelming at best. This morning, I sat at my favorite spot at dawn, watching the sun rise and listening to the sounds of Kolkata waking up. I thought of ma, baba and our lifetime of shared love at this quiet time. I thanked them for giving me life, caring for me to the very best of their ability and also asked for forgiveness for failing to take care of them when they needed me. Their benevolence is present in this house though. I feel it as I touch their things, sleep in their bed, look at the shrine of my husband and children in every nook and cranny of this house. For my lifetime, that has to be enough.

Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bar.


Last night I discovered that I threw away baba’s last gift to me. Everytime I left Kolkata, baba bought me a bar of Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bar. In 2019, when Ryan and I left Kolkata with the hope of returning in May of 2020 to celebrate my 50th birthday with them, baba bought 2 chocolate bars for each of us.

After a laborious process of checking in, clearing immigration, getting my act together at Kolkata airport, we sat down near our gate and pulled out our chocolates. I opened mine first, unwrapped it and saw that the chocolate was covered in a white, powdery film. It was bought from a local, small grocery store in front of our apartment and I thought they must have kept this lot of bars beyond their expiry date. “Oh, my chocolate bar is bad. Ryan throw yours out. I am throwing mine out.” I threw the chocolate in the nearest trashcan. And as the chocolate swooshed inside the trashcan, Ryan exclaimed, “Mom!! NO!” He looked at me,incredulous that I would throw out a whole chocolate bar, “Why did you throw that out? Look it says it is normal to have the white film on the chocolate. It says it right on the cover.” And so it did.

Seeing the regret on my face at my hasty action, Ryan shared part of his chocolate bar with me before we boarded the flight for US. And he teased me mercilessly.

Yesterday, the four of us went to dinner when this topic came up. I said if you think about it, I threw away dadai’s last gift to me. Ryan said, “But I shared with you my gift from him.” And Sahana said, “Right there is a circle of love.”

Memories, anecdotes, stories circle in my head constantly. What the two kids says last night stayed with me as I tried falling asleep.

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.

Yes, that is my mom.


“That is your mom!! What? How?” – this question has been posed to my white passing biracial son since he was in preschool. I sometimes wonder how it made him feel. By kindergarten, he was so used to this question that as soon as I showed up to volunteer at kindergarten luncheon, he would preempt the question from his peers by announcing “That is my mom. Yes, she is brown. She is from India.”

Once I was waiting in the hallway of a high school to pick up Ryan after a middle school concert. He came out with a few other kids. One girl, upon seeing Ryan greet me and come towards me, exclaimed, “Ryan, IS THAT YOUR MOM?????” And then, with the insensitivity of a 13 year old, she followed up that exclamation with, “No way! But you are white!”

Ryan and I will continue to baffle this easily confused world but I hope one day, the world will integrate colors enough to exclaim less when it sees us together.

Last night, as Sahana, Sean and I tackled the New York Times spelling bee, we got talking about how perception of parents follow us in our lives. Sahana said, “Tell me about it. My friends have told me all my life your mom is so pretty. OMG! Who wants to hear that all the time? Leave my mom alone!” She laughed. I have heard her say that before and we have laughed together about it.

Here is the thing that amuses me – different standards of beauty in the two countries that I belong to. In India nobody would give me a second look. I am old now but even when I was young nobody looked twice. My experience was very different in USA, at least in the part where I live.

I read a few books about biracial individuals who try to find where they belong. Good Talk by Mira Jacobs is a great book to read on this issue.