Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Trick or Treat? Chill or Thrill?

I was fortunate enough to grow up on a healthy dose of Thakumar Jhuli (a collection of Bengali folk and fairy tales for kids, whose title translates to “Grandma’s Bag of Stories”). But my favourite happened to be Jethimar Jhuli (“Aunt’s Bag of Stories”). The latter was by no means a published book. Its fascination lay in the fact that only we, the kids of the Sengupta family, had access to this collection of stories. The Jethima (aunt) in question is whom we call Soma.

It took strangers by surprise that we called our aunt, who was so much older than we were, by her first name. But “Soma”, despite being a popular Bengali name, wasn’t our Jethima’s name at all. “Soma” was a contraction for “Shejo Ma” (coined by my sister, who couldn’t really pronounce “Shejo Ma” when young). So that’s how our Jethima came to be known as Soma.

Soma was the kids’ favourite, not just because she was well-read and charming, but because she actually took the time to know each one of us individually. She even made us feel that she really did enjoy our company. Most of her generation dismissed us as a “collective noun” – “the kids are up to mischief again”, “the kids need to be fed”, “the kids need to be in bed now” etc. Soma made everything fun – right from pujo rituals to current affairs. But she was the best at storytelling. In fact, I haven’t met anyone who can make the ordinary sound so extraordinary, purely by the power of narration.

One of my favourite childhood memories (and I am sure many of my cousins will agree) is huddling up under a blanket, on a crisp, winter afternoon in Soma’s bedroom, while she told us ghost stories. I never questioned (and still not sure) whether these were stories she had read somewhere, or whether they were products of her own imagination. But the goose bumps were real, as we held hands and squealed in the kind of thrill only the horror genre is known to bring. The pleasurable fear going down our spine… that bone-chilling sensation of a hand reaching out to grab us from the back…that eerie feeling of someone watching us from outside the window… that constant anticipation that the person sitting next to us may suddenly turn into that we most fear…the cold hands and feet that gave us no respite, despite being under the thickest blanket….

Soma’s stories evoked all of that. It transported us to a place we all feared but loved at the same time. One such story was about a girl called Ila, who rose from her coffin. “Coffin thekey uthey elo…..Ilaaaaaaa”, Soma would say, dragging out the name in her spookiest voice. And we would scream and beg her to stop….and the very next moment, we would ask her to say that line again (as if she was a rock star performing her greatest hits). I am sure we all had our own mental picture of Ila. Mine was that of a face-less girl with the darkest of hair, white as a sheet of paper.

Another favourite story was the one in which a mother ate the flesh of her own child! Gory, I know (and in today’s context, possibly very inappropriate for being a kids’ story). But we turned out fine (mostly). The saving grace was that (as was later revealed in the story) she bit off the flesh because that was the only way to save her child, who was poisoned. But she stuck in our heads as a monster, who liked human flesh over ordinary food.

When Miss 6 came back from school chatting about her Halloween plans for tomorrow, strangely, these childhood memories came flooding back. I have never really cared much that Halloween is an “American thing” and the theories around why it “should not be celebrated”. All I know is that Miss 6 looks forward to it for most of the year. And although she may not have a cool Jethima as Soma who can take her on a thrill ride, I have decided to start our own Halloween tradition of spooky stories to celebrate the day. And while I’m no expert myself, I am going to trust these guys, and these, (and read a few more) who say that “scary stories are good for kids”. If you have any recommendations, please do share, as Soma’s Ila will have to wait a few more years.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Gratitude, thy colour is pink!

While Steve Jobs’ Stanford speech is inspiring in every way, I have often wondered about the pragmatism of this particular part of his speech:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Is it that easy to live every day as if it is the last day of our lives? Not for me. I’ll be honest; on cold winter mornings like today, the answer to the above question would most definitely be a No. I wouldn’t want to come to work, especially if it was the last day of my life. I am no Steve Jobs, who can dare to dream big and make it their reality. I am your average mortgage-paying, nine-to-five working, workout-hating person….with a child to raise and ageing parent to support. And remote support (from another part of the world), as you can guess, can become an emotional roller-coaster. You end up living two lives; often feeling like you’re not doing justice to either.

Today, was one such day. A day when I wished I was in India, by my Ma’s side. Today, she is to see a new doctor, who would hopefully show us some light at the end of the tunnel. But I was here….oceans away….living the other half of my life. While I struggled out of bed, I kissed my sleeping, almost-six year old, goodbye for the day. She went to bed with a wobbly tooth. I, for one, am not ready for her to lose her first milk tooth just yet. When I pick her up from school today, maybe that tooth will be gone. My baby would have grown just a little bit. Not sure if it was the hormones or the winter chill, but I walked to the driveway, teary-eyed.

Just then, I looked up at the sky. And there it was! The amazing pink hues of dawn (pic above), which leaves one awestruck. There it was…a moment in time…that will stay with me forever. I was overwhelmed with gratitude. For my life, my work and mostly, my people. The magical skies reminded me of everything I was so thankful for. For the friend who made this doctor’s appointment possible…For the niece and cousin who are taking a day off today to take Ma to her appointment….For Borda and Boudi, my second set of parents…For the friends who have stood by me through the toughest times….For the neighbours in India who have been helpful in more ways than I can list….For the family members who have been kind, patient and generous….For my friends in Australia who have put up with my highs and lows…For my work, which allowed me the flexibility, the financial freedom and the friendships needed to make a first-generation migrant’s life less challenging than it sometimes can be. For my daughter and husband, who fill my life with joy (when they are not driving me crazy!).

Tomorrow, I may crib, cry and complain again. But today, I choose gratitude. I may not be living today as if it was the last day of my life. But I am choosing to dwell on the pink sky...not the dark clouds. Apparently, the colour pink represents caring, compassion and love. It stands for unconditional love and understanding, and is associated with giving and receiving care. And today’s morning sky makes me convinced that whoever came up with that meaning, wasn’t far from the truth. I would only add “gratitude” to it.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

World's a stage

Dear Shanaya,

I am not entirely sure how you have internalised “all the world’s a stage” without having read Shakespeare. But you like to behave that you are forever performing in front of packed audiences. Be it an impromptu song that you break into (with very original lyrics), or practising your kathak or other dance routines (for a real show you may be preparing for), or helping Daddy cook, or dancing in your car-seat to a song on the car radio…you give it your best! You want me to make little videos of your performance and put it on YouTube (which, I have not, of course). I did upload your cooking video (making scones) on social media, which received a flood of love and praise (obviously, from biased friends and relatives who love you blindly).

The other day, you danced to a Rabindra Sangeet (Madhibi Hotath Kotha Hotey Elo) on the occasion of Rabindra Nazrul Sandhya organised by BAWA. You were the little Madhobi, dressed in a pretty orange saree and a lavish flower crown (which was handmade with love). How well you danced is not for me to say….but how much you enjoyed it, was evident. The energy, smile and eye contact with the audience and other dancers, told me, once again, what I already knew. My little girl loves to perform!

You enjoyed every hug and praise you received after the show. But what I will never forget (or let you forget) is how you asked me if anybody would “take your autograph”! There was more innocence than pride in your question, which made it hilarious and adorable at the same time. Nobody took your autograph that day. But I hope, as you grow older and navigate through the by-lanes of life, you are able to hold on to that confidence and innocence. For they are amazing qualities, my dear girl – performing on stage or not.


Wednesday, March 6, 2019

For goodness' sake

For goodness' sake
Stop asking a woman when she plans to have her first child.
Or second.
Stop telling her that time is ticking.
She knows.
She may have tried to, many times...
From tears and prayers
To pills and being under the knife.
She may have tried it all.
Or maybe she didn't try anything.
She just knows she can't or shouldn't.
Perhaps she doesn't want one.
Don't ask her why.
She must have her reasons.
And she doesn't have to justify them.

For goodness' sake
Stop telling her that a sibling is the best gift she could give her first-born.
Maybe, just maybe, the first born itself was a miracle.
Or a result of much pain, needles and loss.
Perhaps she cannot go through it again.
Perhaps she can, but decided not to.
Perhaps, one is all she always wanted.
Or one is more than she ever hoped for.

For goodness' sake
Stop judging a woman who doesn't want a child at all.
She doesn't need to follow a template.
She isn't selfish, strange or anything else you may think her to be.
She is just her.
So let her be.

For goodness' sake
Stop telling a woman that she shouldn't have any more children.
Three or four or five or seven...may be enough.
For you.
But not her.

For goodness' sake
Stop the casual small talk about a woman's childbearing plan over dinner or someone else's baby shower.
It's personal. It's intimate. And it often hurts.
If she wants your advice,
She will ask for it.
Trust me.

For goodness' sake
Stop asking a woman when she plans to have a child.
"Plans" don't work for many.
And no two "plans" look the same anyway.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

When the Goddess meets Ganges

When the Goddess meets Ganges…
The trance is over.
And all that is left of the splendour,
Are the bare bamboo structures,
Un-assembled in silence.

The silks and taants and embroidered kurtas,
Find their way back to the hard-to-reach closets.
The striped ties take centre-stage again,
Like noose tightening around our nine-to-five lives.

As the dhaakis pack up and go home to their villages,
The street dogs claim back their spot as the noise-makers of night.
With the communal loudspeakers gone,
We resort to our self-centred headphones.

The warm embrace during sindoor-khela and bijoya,
Are forgotten overnight.
The lukewarm “hellos”, or worse still,
The conscious avoidance of eye contact during rush hour,
Become the norm once again.

When the Goddess meets Ganges…
The trance is over.
We have nowhere to hide,
From the bare-chested, dirt-clad children on the street,
To whom, the promise of “asche bochor abar hobe”,
Mean nothing at all.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The artificial preservatives for our egos

Language brings people closer. But only if they speak the same one. I could hit it off with a stranger at a train station, just by asking “Which train should I take to go to the city?”. But if I was in Germany, and asked the same question to a non-English speaking person, I may not get an inch closer to the city or to the person.

Although verbal language is not the only kind of language, it is the most commonly-used tool to communicate. Then why do we complicate it? Why do we introduce new words every day, and expect the world to keep up? Why do we make it more difficult for people to learn it? Advances in all fields (arts, science, technology, sociology, psychology and everything in between) have introduced new concepts, which require new words. Fair enough. If a new planet is discovered…or a new disease is found, of course they will need new names.

But often, it’s an age-old concept that’s re-packaged, actively promoted (in academia, media and big corporations), and brings with it the immensely annoying (and completely avoidable) "corporate jargon". Right from jobs to job titles, things have evolved over the years. The fundamentals though, often remain the same. Let's consider "Marketing". The ultimate goal of all marketing initiatives (directly or indirectly) is to sell or teach people how to sell. But just think of the plethora of words that have crept into our lives from this fundamental concept of “selling”.  There is an article on a whopping 159 types of marketing. And that’s just one perspective…the tip of the iceberg. The same goes for "Management". In simple terms, it is to do with managing something or someone. Essentially, it’s what generations have done intuitively/organically, before “management” gained its current-day status of a highly-regarded “skill” that can be taught and practised in a conscious/sophisticated way, with its many nuances. As with any sophistication, it injected our vocabulary with yet another high dose of jargon.

 The advances may be necessary but the side-effect of corporate jargon is not. It contaminates and challenges the very essence of language i.e. to understand and be understood. And when jargon sneaks out of boardrooms and offices into our dinner tables and casual conversations, nobody wins. It creates barriers, pushes people away and affects our credibility. Nobody likes a Mrs Names-Dropper or a Mr Know-It-All whose primary aim is not to communicate, but to intimidate or impress. These are people who are usually trying to cover-up for fluff (overcompensate because they are insecure about what they are saying) or they want to sound smarter than they actually are.

Jargon can make complex concepts simple (in medicine, for example, it serves as shorthand) or simple concepts sound complex. It's the latter we should be wary of.  That kind of jargon is a threat to language, just as processed food it a threat to our health. There is a huge focus worldwide to steer people back to wholefoods –meat, veg, fruits and nuts, which are as close to their natural form as possible. A can of tuna swimming in preservatives is no match for a fresh piece of fish lightly grilled on the pan. Similarly, “brainstorming”, “strategic thinking”, “ideation” is no match for the simple (yet honest) “thinking”. A “thought leader” is ultimately still a “leader”, “collaborate” is still “work together” and “benchmarking” is essentially still “comparing”. "Leverage" and "impact", on the other hand, should have never been used as verbs.

Our ancestors lived in far more challenging conditions than we do today - battling with harsh weathers, hunting for food, suffering diseases that didn’t have a cure back then, fighting for their lives/principles in war. Yet, their language was simple and honest. And we, the suit-wearing generation of modern times, who invent videos games to simulate challenging environments, have adopted corporate jargon to feel superior. After all, “Content Marketing Specialist” sounds far more important than “Writer”, and “Customer Financial Analyst” sounds meatier than “Accountant”.

Corporate jargon surrounds us. From big corporations to small not-for-profit-organisations, from media and sports to home-based businesses, this annoying gobbledygook has crept into most environments. It’s up to us whether we embrace it or resist it. It’s up to us whether we use the “artificial preservatives” for our egos or preserve the simplicity of language – the most powerful and unique asset of our species.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

What would you do?

Imagine a school. A huge campus…a magnificent building with great facilities. You agree to its policies and like the sound of its ideologies (from the little you have read). You have even met a few members of the faculty, who look respectable and knowledgeable. You decide that it will be the right one to guide and educate your children through their formative years.

As the years go by, you realise that the teachers are incompetent and careless. They do not care about your child at all. They are un-inspiring, lazy and selfish. They blindly read from textbooks in class, without bothering to explain contexts or provide meaningful examples. In fact, they favour students based on the gifts they bring in, and penalise those that do not satisfy their greed.

You speak to the Principal, who assures you that it is all going as per plan (and there is nothing to worry). He even puts your child in a different class, with a more “popular” teacher. But you soon realise that it’s not much better, as the curriculum itself is theoretical and archaic.

To make matters worse, your child has witnessed bullying. Apparently, there are kids in the school who beat up and verbally abuse students from another school, at the bus stop. Occasionally, they even bully kids from their own school. On repeated complaints, they are neither punished nor expelled (as some of them are the children of senior faculty or board of directors).

Your child is clearly upset and does not look forward to going to school at all. You have given it sufficient number of years to know that things won’t change on their own. You have spoken to several frustrated parents, who feel the same way….but continue to send their children to this school because it is closer home and still has a reputation. “It’s all more or less the same…others, often worse”, they said.  

Surely, not all schools can be this bad. You personally know teachers from other schools who seem to genuinely enjoy teaching. You also know several students who have turned out just fine….fighting and surviving in the system, without being scarred. You yourself are a product of the very system, often facing similar problems when growing up. But your parents did nothing drastic (like changing schools or suburbs).

As an educated, independent, responsible parent, would you continue your/your child’s journey with this school (or any school where you have a similar experience)?
If your answer is "No"...

Replace the word "school" with "religion" in the earlier paragraphs (and teachers/faculty/principal with whatever you call your religious heads). Now answer that question again. Is your answer still No?

The concept of religion is not much different to the concept of a school you are affiliated with. If you are not getting much out of it, you have a choice. If you have lost faith in the system altogether, you don’t need a religion at all! For religion may be born out of the best intentions (just like the magnificent building of the school that impressed you on the first day), but if the popular “practice” of it is corrupt, illogical or un-inspiring, you cannot truly justify being a part of it.

Of course, the analogy is not meant to be taken literally. In modern society, we can live without religion…but it’s not as easy to do away with schools. Also, school as an institution is not synonymous with education. Just like faith/spirituality is not synonymous with religion. ­One can be educated without ever stepping into a school (and be essentially un-educated despite have degrees from prestigious schools/colleges). Similarly, one can have faith and even believe in a superpower of some sort, without being part of any religion.

The point is, has religion really given us a lot? Has it not, over the years, caused more pain/inequality/unrest than provided the peace and freedom it was supposed to offer? When I read about the atrocities in the name of religion, I become more convinced that I do not want to be affiliated to any. When I hear about the hatred and terror spread by the so-called custodians of religion, I feel like my child doesn’t need the tag of religion either. Sure, we enjoy the festivities, celebrations and even certain religious rituals. But we celebrate Christmas with as much zeal as Diwali and Eid. And these celebrations (to us) have very little to do with religion. They are all just opportunities to celebrate the joys of life, with our family and friends.

I am possibly not a true atheist just yet…but I choose joy over religion. I choose peace.
I found this interesting piece on the difference between God and religion:
In it, Reb Jeff says:
It is my belief that many people who call themselves atheists are really just anti-religion. Maybe that's true for you, too. I think there is a difference between faith and religion.

A true atheist would be someone who believes that our existence is a complete accident of chance, that our lives serve no purpose and have no meaning, apart from what human beings ascribe to their own existence. A true atheist would believe that there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about any human action wrong. I don't believe that and I don't think that there are many people who do if you really push them on it. To me, faith is just the gut feeling that our lives continue to matter even after we have died, and that the way we choose to live matters, too—not just because of our biologically programmed preferences, but because there really is such a thing as right and wrong.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Oh Perth!

When people ask me why we chose Perth as our home, I tell them that we didn’t. Perth chose us. Not once. But twice.

Like many immigrants, we aspired (and even tried) to move to the eastern states, in our early years here. After all, Australia is known for the Opera House (not the Bell Tower). But every time we tried, a better opportunity came up from Perth. It’s as if the city didn’t want us to leave. So, we stayed back. And slowly, it cast its spell on us.

That spell is by no means the hustle-bustle, glitz, glamour, illuminated billboards, corporate hubs, busy skyline, power-packed morning commute or late-night eateries that most big cities boast of.  Take all of that and play it in slow motion….and cast a sepia tone on it. Perth emits that laid-back vibe. Friends and family from the eastern states call it the retirement city….the pensioner’s paradise (euphemisms for “boring” or “slow”). But if you ask me, I think Perth is way ahead of its times. Don’t people take years to realise that it’s the small things that are actually the big things in life? That this rat race ultimately takes us nowhere? That nothing is more important than time with your family…of watching your kids grow and your garden bloom? That when the time really comes, one doesn’t remember the projects they have completed or the contracts they have signed? What is left is the fuzzy, warm blend of memories – a random school assembly… or the time your child was able to cycle without the training wheels…or how they collected shells from their favourite beach. Well, Perth gets that.

One can do a hard day’s work and still get back home by 5.30pm to take the kid for soccer or piano. One can get to work, beach or a friend’s house in around 30 minutes (and still stop for coffee at the local cafĂ©, whose owners one has known for years). One can live the Aussie dream of a BBQ in the backyard, while the kids splash in the pool. None of this is easy or cheap. Nor is it the same for everyone. Perth isn't even as small a city as I am probably making it sound (it is still a capital city with a population of about 2.14 million). And of course we still complain about the traffic, the roads, the rising expenses and the stagnant wages. But Perth has space. And it gives space…for dreams to be born and achieved.  

One of the most remote cities of the world has surprisingly got the concept of “closeness” rather well. Yes, Perth is a small city with a big heart. Wise and mellow, it gets life’s priorities.

And here are some surprising facts about this city, as per (I am not sure if they are correct):
  •          Perth is not just one the most isolated capital cities in the globe but also the sunniest. The city enjoys around 8 hours of sunshine on an average per day.
  •          Medium age of Perth is 32, compared to the nation’s medium of 37.
  •         It boasts over 12,500 km of coastline, which means, you’re never going to be stepping on anyone’s towel at the beach.
  •         The jetty at Busselton is the longest wooden jetty in the southern hemisphere.
  •         Perth is the only city in the world where you could fly your own airplane and land it smack dab in the middle of the central business district.
  •         King’s Park is the biggest city park in the world.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Spelling Bee

It was back in those days when I could not go to the bathroom alone. Not because I was scared or injured, but because I had a toddler in tow 24x7. She followed me around like a shadow – but only if we were at home. Anywhere else, especially outdoors, she would do just the opposite. That is, not follow me around (which would be safe and reassuring) but run in every possible direction away from me. Towards oncoming traffic or water bodies, into shops and elevators, or in short, in any general direction of danger.

The said toddler had sharp ears and an even sharper capability to pick up words we didn’t want it to hear. But what it was sharpest at was to blurt those words out at the most inappropriate situations (like most toddlers do). After all, what was the purpose of spending nine months in the womb if it wasn’t utilised in studying the womb-owner in great detail and knowing exactly which nerves would be particularly fun to get on?

Anyway, that was the time when we started to spell out words at home, so that we could have conversations without the constant fear of “Watch-Out-The-Toddler-Understands”. It was as if we were both preparing for some Spelling Bee competition, which did not have particularly high standards (as we would occasionally spell out even the articles and prepositions, out of habit). We would say, “Let’s not give her M-I-L-K at bedtime today. It’s not good for her teeth”. Or, “Do not eat the C-H-I-P-S in front of her. She won’t have dinner then.”

The arrangement was working well for a while. Until we realised that it was affecting our peace of mind (and the general peace at home). For the toddler’s dad could not use the spell-checker while talking, which meant, I could not resist correcting him. You can imagine what would follow!

During this time, I planned to go out for dinner with a girlfriend one night. Just the two of us (after our respective toddlers were in bed). Months of planning, near-misses and actual misses later, we made it. It was a well-deserved and much-needed break, we told ourselves. So, we dressed up for the occasion….and even managed to brush our hair and leave the house without a food stain on our clothes.

We chose fine dining, of course (given, our usual dinners involved eating leftover baby food). Venting over glasses of wine, we were having a good time. You know what they say about “shared pain is half the pain”. And when the pain involves being regularly stabbed on our arms with “fairy wands” or tripping over scattered Lego blocks around the house, there is indeed a lot of solace in sharing.  So, we chatted the night away, sipping our wines and sharing our war stories.

But when the waitress refilled our water and asked whether we needed anything else, every five minutes, we knew we had to leave. For everyone else had. When we asked for the check, it was brought to us in less than two seconds. (They really wanted us to leave by then.) I placed my credit card on the tray, picked up a mouth-freshener, and almost involuntarily asked my friend “Should we T-I-P?” My friend turned a shade of red.  It nicely complimented her dress, I thought (slightly tipsy, by then). And then I turned to the waitress, who instantly got busy refilling our water jug (yet again).

Just in case you don’t get it (and I don’t mean to sound condescending), let me “spell” it out for you.  I had spelled out T-I-P in the presence of the waitress, who, I’m pretty sure, knew how to spell too (unlike my toddler). So, without any further eye contact with the said waitress or my friend, I did T-I-P. And we ran out of the place….promising never to come back.

P.S. To this day, I have involuntary twitching when I hear the word “tip”. 

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Daaler Bora

Before the ghee-bhaat induced high could die down, I indulged in yet another childhood favourite – the daaler bora (crunchy lentil balls). At home, this was typically made when there was no fish or chicken on the menu (which was a rare occurrence in a Bengali household). 

The first few batches had all the recommended ingredients, including the onion and chilli. But we devoured them at such speed that Ma and her help couldn’t keep pace with their frying. So, the last few batches had pretty much only the daal and the kalo jeerey (black nigella seeds). It was too much effort to keep chopping onions and chillies, when you’re feeding (what must have felt like) a hungry village. However, the missing ingredients made no difference to us. We wiped clean the plates, as soon as they were served….until Ma would say “Daal shesh” (meaning, “We have run out of daal”).

Ma would always make a special, gigantic one for me. I’d relish it at the end of the meal, in no rush to finish it. Baba would say that the small ones actually tasted better, as they were cooked through and crunchier. But I always loved my special, gigantic one the most.

I made these yesterday, after getting back from work. Those of you who know my relationship with the kitchen, know why this is a big deal (I avoid that space as much as I can). My 4-yr old pulled up a little stool next to me, while I fried these little parcels of joy. Reliving those days, when I would have been slightly older than her, the two of us giggled like school girls.

And then, we sat in our backyard and devoured them with a cup of tea (no, she didn’t have the tea, in case you’re wondering). We kept aside a few for Daddy. But he would never know of the gigantic one, which now rests in peace in a little tummy. Shh.