The Big Blue Sky

   I grew up in the city of Calcutta in the 90s and have spun many wonderful memories of that time. In our little neighborhood, everyone was part of a great big family who laughed out loud, celebrated the ups and faced the downs of life together. I loved that feeling of closeness and imagined life everywhere to be like that. And since I came from a big family, we had relatives spread all over the city and visited each other all the time. These visits were surprise visits as most of us did not have the telephone in our homes and that doubled the fun!

   While I really loved growing up in a city where life was easy and fun, I missed the vast expanse of the sky that fascinated me when I would visit the country side or go to our ancestral house in  Jamshedpur, a beautiful town about 170 miles from Calcutta. Going up to the terrace in our house in Calcutta did not allow for a lot of the big blue sky to be seen as skyscrapers, the heralds of development, seemed to be always under construction all around. Neighborhoods like ours with small houses were getting squished amidst the glitz that had slowly started engulfing the unembellished.

   And so on visits to the vast open country side or during our train rides to Jamshedpur, I remember just gazing at the sky, mesmerized. For a child my age, the sky held endless possibilities and dreams and I would sometimes imagine how it would be to live in a place which had unobstructed views of the big blue blanket above us. Life in my adopted country for the past ten years has allowed for that to happen and I am still as fascinated  today as I used to be when I was just a kid.  I take endless pictures of the sky whenever I can and looking at the big blue expanse, that at times lights up in dazzling colors, fills my heart with happiness and calms my distraught soul.

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My Recent Reads

    I have always loved reading books. Growing up, I would look forward to ‘library time’ at school, a designated 40 minutes in a week when we could go to the library and spend time there and at the end could also bring one (or may be two…my memory betrays me) home for about 15 days. I remember exchanging books with a couple of my really close friends after we had finished reading ours. During senior years, when there was no more library ‘class’ or even the time to read much outside what was in the syllabus, I would still sometimes go to the library and pick up books other than ‘study stuff’, that I would later sneak in to the bed at night, even when I could barely keep my eyes open.  Books have always been my go-to when it comes to reading material of my choice. Our four year old too loves reading and story reading at bedtime is one of our favorite things to do as family! At times, the little guy takes over and reads his Ma-Baba his favorite story.

    It has been a very long time since, and while a lot has changed in terms of reading material and medium, my love for books remains unchanged. As a student of English Literature many moons ago, I came across the works of Camus, Kafka, Beckett, Naipaul, Virginia Woolf to name a few, that cast a spell on me. While the cacophony of every day life does not let me spend a sunday morning lazying in bed, sipping on copious cups of coffee and some chocolate chip muffins and read as much as I would like to, I still try to catch up on some reading at any chance I get. Bookstores are my favorite store to visit and the sight and smell of books enthralls me today just as much as it did when I had first walked into a library at my school decades ago. Nothing probably beats experience of physical browsing at a real store and it saddens me to see local book stores and even big ones close due to the craze of on-line buying.

    An absolute necessity is our pursuit of happiness and in helping us dream, the pivotal role of books in undeniable. Today, I am sharing with you books that I read and re-read over the period of last two years (a couple from here I am yet to finish) and can read over and over again!

  1. The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy)
  2. Beloved (Toni Morrison)
  3. Snow (Orhan Pamuk)
  4. Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
  5. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
  6. Sea of Poppies (Amitava Ghosh)
  7. Clear Light of Day (Anita Desai)
  8. Selected Stories by O. Henry
  9. Train To Pakistan (Khushwant Singh)
  10. The Namesake (Jhumpa Lahiri)
  11. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Arundhati Roy)
  12. Dreams from My Father (Barack Obama)

 

What are some of your favorite reads?

Date

   Neel and I have never been on a date…a real date, since during the ‘dating’ period, we were living in separate countries, pursuing career goals. We had known each other for a long time before that (since we went to the same high school) and though we had gone our separate ways for a brief period in time after that, reconnecting was simple and felt like the most natural thing in the whole world. Also, neither of us is a very ‘date’ kind of a person! So, to sum it up…we have never been on a real date.

   We recently celebrated our 10th wedding anniversary and reflecting back, it has surely been an interesting journey so far, albeit with the usual bumps and bruises. Life has been hectic and at the same time a wonderful adventure as we learn and re -learn things in the process of raising our son and now that we have added another bundle to the family, life continues to unfold its glory in its craziness and beauty!

   A few days ago, when Neel and I were ‘sleep talking’ (talking while having fallen half asleep!), we wondered how it would be to go on a date. While life has been much easier with our daughter than it was when our son was an infant, it still does get overwhelming at times. And so, we wanted to get some alone time and have an adult conversation without gasping at an overactive four year old making french fries out of play dough and in the process, cutting up the dough into a zillion pieces most of which would end up getting stuck on the carpet or drooling over the babbles of a two month old and getting swept away by all the baby love.

   And we acted on our sleep talk idea! A date and time was decided for a ‘coffee date’ as that was the most that our schedules would permit and on the day, I even put on a bit of make up (for those who know me, can figure out how serious and excited I must have been about this date, given my dislike for make up!) but right before leaving, the four year old decided to do something quite uncharacteristic…he went all emotional and pleaded with me to not go. Even the lure of getting his favorite brownie seemed to not work as he made clear that he did not want any of that. And as much as I was looking forward to spending some alone time with Neel, the big watery eyes tugged at my heartstrings with the strongest of pulls and I melted. I scooped up my boy in my arms and smothered his face with the squishiest kisses and dropped the idea of going out in an instant. But as I was about to change back into my sweat pants, he broke into the biggest smile, hugged me and said it was okay to go as long as he could watch a bit of iPad. Now, normally I do not succumb to such things but I guess I really needed to get that coffee and so 10 minutes later Neel and I were at the coffee place for that date! Though I checked my phone at least a dozen times to see if it was on in case I got a call from home about the kids, it was a 30 minutes well spent…refreshing and relaxing! Pumped up from the success of this we decided to watch a movie in bed once the kids had settled in for the night. We chose The Incredibles2 on Netflix, watched it on the iPad with earphones on (one earplug in each of our ears!) and 20 minutes into the movie, I slid down on the bed, tucked myself into the blanket and shut my eyes, happy and content! So much for our movie night!

   However, I will gladly take such dates till my kids are older and I am probably no longer allowed to smother their faces with my sloppy kisses and hug them in front of their friends (though it does not mean I won’t do that!)

Happy Dating Folks!

A Winter Here, A Winter There…

   Growing up in Calcutta (now Kolkata), winter used to be my favorite season. The hot and humid summers that become unbearable at times last for a long time in the city followed by the rains that while being quite welcome also add to the humidity and mood swings of the Calcuttan-s! And so, come November when the mercury dips a point, there is an excitement in the air and everyone looks forward to an inviting winter. Since the temperature does not drop as low as in northern parts of India, winter in Calcutta is truly enjoyable, giving people some respite from the scorching sun and the incessant rains. The glowing winter sun and the chill in the air makes one want to stay for a tad bit longer under the ‘lep’(the traditional Bengali quilt) and sip on copious cups of tea, make plans for picnics and indulge in the quintessential Bangali adda (long chat sessions) for extra long hours with mufflers dutifully wrapped around the heads.

   For me, it was about the ‘lep’, about extra cups of steaming tea made with milk and a generous serving of sugar, about the Calcutta Book Fair which occupies a special place in the heart of all Calcuttan-s and is a matter of utmost pride, about all the scrumptious winter food Ma made, about attending family weddings if there happened to be one, about getting into a never ending argument with Ma about wearing a scarf or muffler around the head when going out in the evening that often ended in tears or at times canceling plans as I refused to be seen in public with the embarrassment called muffler! It was also a lot about Christmas and my hidden desire to get presents from Santa (this was of course when I was much younger and ended when I was around 7-8 years old). For the non Christian, Christmas at that time meant having a cake, wishing each other Merry Christmas and for the over enthusiastic bunch, a trip to the zoo or museum or some overly crowded park for the customary picnic. A trip to Park Street, that used to get all glittery and sparkly with light, was also on the list for many.

   One year when I was around 5 or 6, I don’t remember correctly, Baba had bought a plastic Santa Claus about 6inches tall with a very pink face. I used to take it out from its hiding every Christmas Eve and put it on the window sill, next to a very shiny and tiny ‘Christmas Tree’ and that was all the Christmas I needed. The almost 40 year old me is finding it difficult to recollect what Christmas that tiny six inch plastic Santa and tree could have brought to the six year old me but I guess that is the joy of innocence. I was happy and content with that. And once the day was over, I would again dutifully keep those two back in some plastic bag, to be taken out the following year. Oh and on Christmas Eve, I had once hung two school socks (one each of different pairs)- one for me and one for my younger brother- hoping Santa would bring us some candies. I guess that had put my parents in a spot since hanging of the socks was a last minute idea, right before going to bed, and I am not sure they were expecting to have candies ready for my very fake stockings! But we did find some ‘5 star’ chocolate bars in each sock and spent Christmas morning as happy as clams. That feeling of happiness has stayed with me till date and when I look back on that day, I long for that rustic joy, for the simplicity that has long gone.

   So much has changed…it is a different time. Christmas was a couple of days ago and we took out our smaller (the bigger one had to stay put this year because of lack of space) fake tree and decorated it with trinkets, with our elder one having a ball the whole time. He believes in Santa and kept some Oreo cookies, a glass of milk and a couple of carrots for the tired Man and his reindeer. I kept wrapped up presents under the tree once the little guy went to bed and as I hung proper Christmas stockings, I thought about my white school socks that I had hung outside the ‘moshari’ (mosquito net) many moons ago.

   We no longer look forward to winter here in the east coast because of the bitter cold, there is no book fair to go to nor are steaming cups of tea a staple of the household . Instead, we look forward to the first snow of the season and make snow footprints; we take pictures with Santa at the mall and when venturing outdoors we bundle up in as many layers as possible, where the good old muffler is no longer considered an embarrassment.

Teacher-Teacher

   My preschooler has now reached the stage where he looks forward to going to his school. Most days he wakes up before I do and encourages me to laze around in the bed a little less, which is good on weekdays but not a whole lot of fun on the weekends! And with his growing interest in school, I have noticed major developmental changes too in him within a very short period…in terms of language skill, picking up on the tone of the teachers, using specific words to convey certain things and his body language. It makes me happy and proud and reassured to see my little boy taking these strides and becoming his own little person slowly. We all know that kids imitate adults and how it is important to model the behavior we want to see in children. Kids are excellent observers and pick up things in no time. These new skills they practice and master over time and the new experiences that they gain through interaction with important people in their lives are crucial to their cognitive and social development. We have all gone through these stages but I wonder if our parents were as focused on noticing and chronicling behavioral developments, and doing things by the book like we do today.

   While parental behavior and teaching has evolved over time and there is probably a palpable inter-generational tension when it comes to the do-s and don’t-s of parenting, it is quite comforting to see that kids’ behavior has not changed significantly, at least in the early stages of development. While they are much more adept at handling gadgets and have a lot more ‘developmental toys’ at their disposal than us, things like hop scotch, jumping ropes, silliness at monkey bars, the good old see saw, board games likes the snake and ladder are still a major hit with them. And when it comes to pretend play, the imagination knows no bounds!

    Growing up, my favorite thing on the weekends was ‘playing school’ or as we used to say ‘teacher-teacher’ and I am pretty sure I was not an exception. I remember being in awe of all my teachers, especially class teachers (home room teachers) from grade one through six or seven and imitating them at home while ‘teaching’ imaginary kids, was what kept me engaged. I had my own ‘roll-call’ register which Baba had very lovingly bought for me where I had written the names of most of my classmates and neighborhood friends, and before ‘class started’ I would call out the names and mark ‘present or absent’ with blue and red pens respectively against each. I also had a set of chalks to write on the big wooden door of our living room and an eraser. My parents never objected to this action of mine and while at the end of my ‘teaching period’, that lasted a good six to seven years, I had almost destroyed one side of the deep brown door, they never got mad. As you can see, I had all the props needed for teaching and as if to make it official, I would also wear Ma’s saree every time I went to ‘class’. It also helped me learn on my own things that were taught at school, and that was something I enjoyed much more than the routine ‘porte bosha’ (study time) every evening.

   My little guy is in his own world of playing ‘teacher-teacher’ at the moment and this is his current favorite thing after playing guitar with his Baba, being silly with his Dada (grandfather) and being busy with his cars. He imitates his teacher almost immaculately and keeps himself busy ‘teaching’ his friends and at times ‘coaches’ them on school rules! He also goes over the things he learns at school and it makes me smile thinking about the fascinating parallel. He ‘practices’ his rhymes, his Spanish, concert songs (with December just a month away!) while being totally immersed in his world of pretend play and I listen with a happy heart.

 

   It gives me hope that all has not changed yet and when we play snakes and ladders and he does all the things that we used to do when we were his age, it reassures us of the wonders of childhood that our little guy seems to be living and enjoying. When he hides during ‘hide and seek’, he makes sure you know where he is hiding before you even begin to find him and at times when he manages to keep that a secret, the giggles from behind the curtains or from under the table are priceless and timeless. In this ever changing world around us, I sometimes question my ‘parenting approach’ that creates some needless confusion and clutter. But my little guy steps in unequivocally, albeit unknowingly and relieves me of my futile perturbation. I quiver a little at times when I think if he is growing up too fast and whether we are letting him enjoy his childhood to the fullest and at moments like these too, my little guy comes up with goofiness that makes me toss away my silly thoughts without any hesitation.

 

(The picture on the left is what he said at school when asked how he thinks he is a good friend and the one on the right is where he was being a tortoise hiding in his shell, giggling away the whole time!)

 

Another Anxious Parent

   My not-so-little-boy started preschool last month.

   As someone who has always been quite social and likes to strike up a conversation with people he meets, we have always kind of harbored the notion that he would adjust to school fairly easily…but that was not to be. Like all or most kids going to school for the first time, he has had meltdowns and separation anxiety but things have gotten better since the first week and he is gradually adjusting to the new place and routine. Comforting, right?

   Actually not so much! A parent going through new phases of growing up, I have found it very difficult to adjust to this new stage as well, something I had not quite anticipated. As someone who has stayed home with him at all times, it has been sort of a challenge letting him go to a place where I won’t be around to watch his every step and make sure of his needs and well being. Too much coddling one might say and I will not disagree.

   This emotional roller coaster of sorts has been a bit overwhelming to deal with. And I have ugly cried it out too. I wonder if other parents in a similar situation have done so or should I be embarrassed! When he first started school, I missed seeing him around. Initially I found myself literally staring at the clock almost every other minute to see how long till my little boy came home and so in spite of having a lot of ‘free time’ on my hands, I found myself doing nothing and instead sitting crippled with an uneasiness I could not explain. And checking every ten minutes his class’s web cam to find out how he was doing was NOT helping in any way. To see him cry his eyes out was almost tore my heart apart and I had to fight hard the urge to just go and pick him up from school, never to send him back again!

  While my little guy is steadying his small steps slowly, I am afraid I haven’t progressed much. While I no longer sit staring at the clock and do not check the web cam as often, I still have that tightening feeling in my throat and I still cannot do much. I have this ‘free time’ on my hands which I can use to catch up on things I did not have time for before and I can be more than ‘just-a-mom’ and yet I do nothing! While my child is away exploring new things, expanding his mind and making new friends I am still stuck. I wonder again if this happens or has happened to others in my situation.

   This little person that I am so proud of has taken his very tiny first steps towards independence and begun his adventures away from home. His mom, however, has to learn to start all over again to spend time doing things that she likes, things that she has thought about so much when trying to put him to bed for a grueling 45 mins! And now that another little member is about to join the family soon, she better utilize this time getting a gazillion things ready before it is time again to be up every two hours at night, channeling all the energy and love towards that tiny bundle while also finding time to go on silly adventures with the elder one, and making sure he does not feel left out.

  While my job now is to show my little man all the love, support and encouragement for this new phase in his life, it is he who is teaching me more. He puts up a brave face in the morning and holds back his tears as long as he possibly can before letting go momentarily and then tries to smile through the tears. I could not be more proud of him. I come back home with a heavy yet content heart and have started, slowly doing things I can do while he is away. It’s taking time but I am getting there! And when it’s time to pick him up from school, it is the best feeling of the day as he rushes to me beaming and we come back home where sanity is restored once again as the music from his guitar, his conversations during his pretend plays and the sound of footsteps running up and down the stairs fill the till-then eerily quiet house. 

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Durga Pujo

   It’s that time of the year, almost. Not here in my adopted country but in my hometown of Kolkata. It is the time when the city dazzles and the people are flushed with inimitable passion and joy. It is the time when people embrace and celebrate their cultural heritage, their love for food, music, the famous Bengali “adda” (the never ending conversation usually over endless cups of tea and snacks!), become tighter as a community, strengthen old bonds while initiating new ones.  It is the time when the city lights up to welcome one and all and artistic grandeur is on display all around. Is the time when the “kashful”  (the kans grass ) adorns the muddy roads of our “grambangla” (Countryside), the intoxicating smell of the “shiuli” (the night flowering jasmine) and the “dhunuchi” (burning of coconut husk along with camphor or some other incense in an earthen pot) along with the deep thud of the “dhaak” (a drum like Bengali instrument played primarily during the Durga Pujo) fill the souls. It is all-the best-things-in-life-rolled-into-one kind of a thing!

   As someone who has not spent a single Durga Pujo in Kolkata (don’t roll your eyes!), I have not experienced much of this first hand, but am very well aware of all this. I have seen the excitement leading up to the five days of the Pujo and can easily comprehend the fervor that the actual days bring about. I have had friends tell me in detail everything that I miss during the biggest celebration that the city holds and I have seen simple bamboo structures, the “pandals” getting converted into brilliant pieces of art through the exquisite craftsmanship of a handful of people. And I have also seen the dazzling elegance of the idols of Goddess Durga and Her Children as they adorn those “pandals” for the most gratifying five days in a Bengali’s calendar. For most, not being in Kolkata during Pujo is unthinkable and not an option. For some, it is a time to escape to a different city and seek some tranquility among the hill stations or soak up the sun at the many beautiful beaches or visit historical places that have shaped our country, our people. And for some who have chosen to live in their adopted countries many miles away from the streets they could once walk blindfolded on, it is a time to draw upon cherished memories from the yesteryear and make the best of the “Weekend Pujo” that is permitted by time and space there.

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   So, what does Durga Pujo mean to me who has never been part of the electrifying milieu of Kolkata and who now lives in a land thousands of miles away? When I try to think of what is it that tugs at my heart strings at this time, I find myself overwhelmed with memories of one particular city, one white house (that later got painted to a not-so-good shade of brown/yellow-I never could tell!) and a bunch of faces many of whom are not around anymore. It is where I spent a good twenty five Durga Pujos and of which I have nothing but the fondest memories and utmost respect. The city of Jamshedpur, in the eastern part of India, is where my father grew up and where our ancestral home had been (till this year before being torn down for a hundred reasons) and it is at this place where I spent my most revered days during Pujo.

   For me, Pujo was always about finding out from Baba when our tickets to Jamshedpur were and by which train, when were all the others (the very large extended family) arriving and for how long would we be staying. It was also a bit about the mandatory Pujo shopping for new clothes and shoes:) And the day we would reach that big white house where  a bunch of smiling crazy faces would be waiting eagerly on the porch to give the loudest welcome to all those who came, it would be the beginning of the best fifteen days of that year for me. Everything that followed was blissful. From cuddles and huddles to ten people checking their hairdos and make up in front of a single mirror before “pandal hopping” ; from eating our meals at the large table where chaos ensued almost every other minute to making beds all over the house wherever a square inch of floor space was free; from being dragged out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to smell the shiuli- a smell so fragrant that it was almost intoxicating-and then pick up some for garlands that would later be strewn by the elders of the family for the purposes of worship; from frivolous squabbles to bursting out into peels of laughter over the silliest of jokes; from sitting on the front porch with people closest to my heart and sipping on the tea that was an occasional allowance during this time while our “thakur” (the cook) would fire up the “unoon”  (earthen clay stove, fired up usually by wood or coal) whose heady smell mixed with the sweet autumn breeze would fill the air; from the most ardent feeling of comfort and contentment that cannot be put into words to a serenity that the rolling hills in the distance brought-was what Durga Pujo meant to me. And though it is a very different story now many years later and thousands of miles away, in my mind Durga Pujo is still that and it has been very difficult to find an alternative that comes close.

(This is the house that holds my most precious moments…this picture was taken a few months before being torn down)

   In today’s fast paced life where we are probably connected more digitally than ever before, one can’t always head home for the Pujo. We adapt and we learn how to celebrate wherever we are. In this land far far away from the maddening crowd, Pujo is generally confined to whichever weekend (around the real Pujo dates) a particular school auditorium is available and five days of religious and social celebrations are packed into a rushed 48 hours. There is the actual ‘pujo’ (worshiping the Goddess), ‘pushpanjali’ (offering of prayer and flowers to the Goddess), ‘bhog’ (the typical Pujo lunch and dinner), cultural ‘anusthan’ (program), ‘sindoor khela’ (married women smearing vermilion on each other at the end of the celebration) and men, women and children decked in the best of clothes and jewelry gleefully soaking in every moment. We create memories that might not be able to match up to the ones we still fondly talk about in our “addas” but nonetheless they get stored in our pocketbook of memories.

   I have spent nine Pujo-s in this far away land and each has had its own flavor. the first two have been the most special where everything was more homely and the Bengali Students’ Society of Minnesota made everyone feel involved and we all lent our two cents! From the Protima (the idol) to the Pujo, it was all a labor of love and hard work  and the fun was  “nirbhejal” (unadulterated). The other Pujos have been different. They have been somewhat like showing up at the venue all dressed up, doing the customary chitchat, enjoying the ‘cultural’ part of the Pujo-listening to ‘artists from Kolkata or Mumbai’ entertaining the audience with popular songs-and reliving a slice of Pujo back home when rickety loudspeakers (before they were banned) would be blaring those out at every “pandal” and a group of children would be dancing to those while some elders would indefinitely frown at the loss of “sanskriti”.

 

     (These two pictures were not taken by me but by a dear friend from Minneapolis)

   Pujo has been different since I no longer could go to Jamshedpur (work and then marriage took me away eventually!) and I no longer try to fight the emptiness that still lingers somewhere deep down inside of me. It has now become a part of the Pujo feeling that I cherish as I proudly reminisce the moments that have shaped the person I am today. Now I dress my little one in “Punjabi’s” (traditional Indian attire for boys and men) while the good man also does his best to dust off his and off we go “Thakur dekhte” (visit the Pujos). Our boy, a little music enthusiast that he is, gets excited beyond words at the “dhaak” and even tried his hand at playing one in his own way and that has become one of my most treasured moments from Pujo here, one of those moments that assure you that celebrations can be different across continents but bits and pieces remain the same and it is up to us to be part of the merriment and keep adding pages to our personal stories:)