A Bangalee’s Durga Puja

There are two kinds of Bengalis. I know, I am generalizing and dividing the entire community based on this one thing, but essentially for all Bengalis across the board it primarily comes down to this. Those who live their lives waiting and anticipating the arrival of Durga Puja, and those like me who are indifferent. In a recent conversation with my dad, I think he realized for the first time that his children, don’t really share the pujo excitement like he used to as a child. Visibly disturbed, he went onto rationalize why we grew up so different from him and his siblings. The truth is, I have never really understood what the hype was all about, probably because I grew up in this city and took it for granted? But, so did so many others, yet, they wait for these four days with baited breath.

I have never really been the kind to voluntarily wake up at 4 am on Mahalaya to listen to the story of the Goddess destroying the evil Mahisasur. It’s always been played at home, and yet I don’t connect to it. As I sat there amidst my parents and aunts discussing how terrible the new age singers are, trying to replicate the good old version, I tried to reason with myself as to why I don’t have FOMO. I counted several reasons; first being, that my parents are anglicized, I grew up exposed to a lot of different cultures, music and was taught to embrace all other festivals. Secondly, I blame the neighborhood I grew up in, mostly a retirement community, with literally no para friends. Those of you who are not from Calcutta, para friends are basically, like your school friends but better, cause you can see them anytime! And also, I didn’t live in a building complex, so no close knit community pujo to go to either. I, now realize that I grew up, with a very different version of pujo around me.

Parents often have a hard time accepting that their children have evolved into a fully grown, opinionated version of them. For example, me not being super into the said festival doesn’t make me wrong, them being over enthusiastic doesn’t make it the right way to celebrate either. The celebration can be personal for some of us. Drifting in and out of more Mahalaya conversations at home, I tried to remember how we used to spend those sacred four days of pujo as children. I remember trying to block out the sound of the blaring radio at home on Mahalaya, getting a new ten-rupee bill from my grandmother on Soshti (6th day). Eating luchi, bondey and sita bhog (Bengali sweetmeat) on Ashtomi (8th day). On the 9th day of Durga Puja we went to my grandfather’s sister’s house. This day was the highlight of our holidays. On this day we’d wear our finest outfit and head over to my grand aunt’s home. My dad and his siblings would huddle in a room with their cousins and make numerous promises to meet more often. They narrated anecdotes from their shared childhood. Stories of bygone summer holidays and not so secret crushes. Of the silly games and family tales. I remember coming home and having to give a detailed verbal report to my grandfather. Of the lights on the street, the traffic, what we ate and how his baby sister was doing.

Our adult pujo celebrations are a version of what we grew up with. Now, my brother, cousins and I enjoy Durga Puja from the comfort of our family room, sitting around with our aunts and uncles, sharing stories of our travels, colleagues, over drinks and my kaki’s world famous fish chop!


Happy 70th birthday, girls!

When you have friends from across the Indian border in Pakistan, you’re in a state of constant vacation planning. WhatsApp conversations and Facetime calls are spent in discussing; let’s meet in Dubai. Or, we should just go to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore maybe even Thailand and have our reunion. All this, so that we can just see each other once again and hangout like we used to back in the states. Among many things that an international education exposes you to and gives you, having friends in Pakistan has to top the list. I have been privileged to have had an international education and very fortunate to have met some of my closest friends, who also happen to be Pakistani. So, when our Independence Day is around the corner, I tend to go over several conversations that I have had in the past with my Pakistani friends about our shared cultural experiences of growing up in the sub-continent. Our, anglicized upbringing laced with a tinge of postcolonial hangover! We shared our love for the Sound of Music, Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady that our parents made us watch in an attempt to pass on whatever they knew of our English speaking colonizers.

I often tell people who are about to head aboard for college, that they shouldn’t stick to just the Indian group, that they should go out, make friends and expand their horizon. Oh the irony! More often than not, Indian and Pakistani students become the best of friends. Friendships that are based on their mutual love for Cricket, Katrina Kaif and Coke Studio.

The odd familiarity that one experiences when you meet a Pakistani is comforting. My Pakistani friends are warm, and loving. They have been a tremendous support system and proved to be fantastic cooks, thanks to Shaan Masala of course! As we sat there in our cold East Coast apartments watching Andaaz Apna Apna for the hundredth time, we forgot that back home our nations were still at loggerheads. I embraced their mango drink Shezan, it’s actually better than Frooti, and they went gaga over pav bhaji. Oh, how great it would be if we could go back to those college days. Days when, if I wanted to see my Pakistani friends, I would just have to walk down the hallway to her room, or even walk over to their apartment, simply a block away from mine. And now, if I have to see either of them, we will have to meet in a country that’s at least a 4-hour flight for either of us. How unfair!

I remember seeing a post on Facebook, about these two girls with a cross border friendship. The one where a girl is desperately trying to get a visa to come to her best friends wedding in India. They even made appeals to our Ministry of External Affairs; I’m not sure what happened in the end. But, it definitely made me sad. I know that, when my friends decide to get married, I too will be faced with the same exact issue. We often joke, that we should just meet at the Wagah Border and do a very Bollywood-esque reunion. As a matter of fact, I do have friends who did just that. They sat on opposite sides of the border and waved at each other. The things people do for their friends! 🙂

Independence Day for me unfortunately, has less to do with the freedom struggle and more with the highly politicized publicity event. Blaring patriotic music from the local municipality office and loud Bollywood movies masquerading a false sense of patriotism means very little to me. Freedom from prejudice, freedom from hateful behavior patterns and freedom from the us vs. them mindset is what we should strive for. The world is burning, so instead of finding new ways to set ourselves apart from others, we should try to enjoy the similarity.

Happy 70th birthday, girls!

Oh Calcutta! My Calcutta!

A lot has been said and written about Calcutta. Well, not as much as say a Bombay or Delhi, but enough to make any Bengali smile and nod in agreement. Most people writing about Calcutta have either been born and raised in the city, however, due to the boom in the Bangalore IT industry have been forced to live away. Or, are people who moved here for work (I know, I am pretty surprised as well that people actually move here, voluntarily) and fell in love with the city. Nonetheless, Calcutta is a city that evokes a sense of familiarity and almost always is spoken about with a tad bit of nostalgia.

I can’t really pinpoint one particular feeling when it comes to what Calcutta means to me. Perhaps, I take this city for granted. I often joke, that the reason I don’t really know what I feel about Cal (it’s always been Cal, for us. “Calcutta” sounds like something that should be kept in a bell jar on a high shelf, away from the reach of naughty children) is because, I was born in Delhi. Growing up here, amidst the privileged circles of Cal, we were made to believe that the city was dying. Anyone who could afford to do so left the city. Some went in pursuit of knowledge, some to find those six figure salaries and some looking for their identity. I would probably fit into all those three categories. Having lived a life of anonymity while in college, it was a pleasant surprise how comfortable I was coming back to the familiar. Being part of the ‘us’ instead of the ‘them’ was indeed a wonderful change.

Cal, is one of the bigger cities in India, but there is a distinctive humane touch of a small town prevalent in it’s alleyways. The city is usually defined by its love for culture, theater, music and fish curry. To me, it’s a kaleidoscope of emotions. Calcutta can be frustrating, giving, agonizing, stubborn, liberating, festive, understanding, spirited, whimsical, calm, considerate and forgiving. My city, is all of those emotions rolled into one. For example, I get frustrated with the innumerable festival marquee’s that dot the city for five days. But, I love the considerate and giving nature of the people of Calcutta during a crisis. Bengali’s seldom can stay calm. However, they do so in an odd, almost whimsical way- while keeping the festive spirit high and waiting in line to eat Biryani. Awadhi of course, with a special piece of potato! It’s this gigantic clash of conflicting emotions that make Calcutta, Cal for me.

I do take this city for granted. I take its people, their concern, and the need to be the flag bearers of culture for granted. The seriousness and dedication with which people plan their Durga puja itinerary, rehearse for street theater, stand in line to buy tickets for the Foreign Film Festival, for that matter to attend the Book Fair religiously each year to get a signed copy from the author. This, is what gives Calcutta its character. Much like a Shakespearean play, Calcutta too is a tragicomedy. Amidst the rapid disappearance of its youth and stalwarts, Calcutta continues to grow, and blossom. The city feeds off people’s emotional memories to sustain it’s self.

Calcutta has shaped a lot of my opinions. It’s given me a chip on my shoulder. I do feel culturally superior to the rest of India. There’s an inherent sense of pride that pops its head out every time I leave the city. Unfortunately, it takes for me to leave the city to defend its identity and existence against the good folks from the Island Republic of Mumbai.

After all this is the city of Tagore, Teresa and Ray. It’s our City of (utmost) Joy.

Oh Calcutta! My Calcutta!

P.S. Somewhere in the early 2000’s Calcutta was renamed Kolkata. I however, can’t relate to Kolkata. For me, the city shall forever remain ‘Cal’.


Birthdays are special. Whether we admit it or not, we eagerly look forward to our birthday each year. It’s the one-day we are made to feel special and not guilty about the fawning and fussing our mothers subject us to. But, somewhere between the “I can’t wait to turn thirteen” and “oh good lord, I’m almost thirty!” we have started to dread birthdays. At least, I have. I am not exactly sure when I stopped caring about birthdays. Maybe it’s a result of prolonged bouts of living away from home; maybe I just missed home and mom’s special rice pudding that I learnt to suppress my excitement for my birthday. It’s hard to tell when exactly apathy took over.

As I grew older, I began to set goals for myself based on how old I was turning. With each milestone unchecked, a little part of me was being chipped away. Turning 29 was a bit rough, as I sat there in my room that night; I was overcome with a sense of disappointment and unhappiness. Some of the items on my ‘to accomplish’ list were clearly not going to materialize. My pragmatic self reasoned with my emotions, that those items were clearly juvenile and unoriginal to say the least. Yet, like all human beings, there I was sobbing uncontrollably at my failure to accomplish most of my goals. This is probably how it feels like to be a grown up, a series of unaccomplished goals coupled with mini triumphs.

But, birthdays are special. It reminds us and brings together people whom we love and care for deeply. I feel it’s important to remember and appreciate those who take the time out to be part of the festivities. These are your people; the one’s who will bail on you, listen to you rant and hate on your boss and coworkers with you. Value these people. They are the ones who shall wish you at midnight, order your favorite cake and throw you yet another surprise birthday party. Birthdays are days to be thankful. Thankful for friends who are now family. The ones who never bring you a present but stay for the cake.

Birthdays have always been special at our household. My mom and I are two days apart and my dad and brother are only a day apart. The months of January and May signifies cake-a-palooza at home. My fondest memory as a child was to wake up on the morning of my birthday to find our family room decorated with balloons and streamers and my presents laid out on the center table. It felt a bit like Christmas, but just for me! Even though my parents would go all out to plan a picnic birthday for me, I really missed having my school friends over on my birthday. Since we were always on winter break, I never got to stand up in front on my class and have everyone sing Happy Birthday to me. Clearly, I am still upset about it. This feeling of isolation on my birthday disappeared when I went to college and subsequently started working. Birthdays were no longer special. I was an adult, I had to go to class, take the pop quiz, submit a proposal, and sit through conference calls, all on my special day. The grass truly isn’t greener on the other side. I did get cake though. So I guess it wasn’t so bad after all.

Being the youngest at home, I got to celebrate my birthday all over again on my father’s birthday. Given that his birthday was a day before my brother’s they celebrated them together. And as my brother readied himself for the big moment, I stood right next to him, often on a chair to reach the dining table, ready to cut my dad’s birthday cake as if it were my own. I did steal his thunder, even on his birthday. Older siblings need an award for putting up with younger siblings like me. Those birthdays were the best of birthdays that I can remember. It’s been thirteen years since I got to be a part of my brother’s birthday. I see pictures of him celebrating with his family like friends and I do feel jealous. I wish we could go back to 1995 and have one of those simple special birthdays. Surrounded by friends and family, cake, chips, coke-a-cola and a piñata full of candy.

Little Women

Earlier this week I happened to watch Little Women on TV; it took me back to fifth grade when we read the book together as a class. Albeit we didn’t finish the entire novel, but it had a deep impact on most of us. Having studied at an all girls school, this book came to us at a pivotal stage in our lives. It taught us the value of strong female friendships, and gave us an everlasting bond of sisterhood. Some of my earliest memories, of my closest friends are from the fifth grade. In school we were assigned seats based on our last names. The girl sitting next to me in class, had to suddenly move cities, which left me without a bench buddy for a few days. And, when I had just about got used to sitting alone, a new girl arrived. Like any nine year old, I was quick to judge and decided that I didn’t like her. She was the exact opposite of me, always asked questions, and completed her mental math assignments before me, vegetarian and rambunctious! Little did I know, that someone who was so different from me would, turn out to be such an integral part of my life. Dear best friend, I am so glad your last name began with an ‘S’.

As Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March grew up, so did we. While the girls learnt how to survive during the Civil War, we learnt to fight our own. I still remember the day, a close friend of mine, who had recently learnt a new cuss word from her older brother, decided to yell it out from our classroom window. Obviously, we all got into trouble! No one wanted to rat her out. This was our Civil War against the teachers. But, this incident brought us closer, like a secret mafia of sorts; I learnt the importance of loyalty, and building each other up instead of tearing one another down.

I didn’t realize the value and importance of a single sex school till much later in life. Like any teenager, we wished our parents put us into co-educational schools. But, I am glad they didn’t. When I look back at my time in school, I understand why I have the kind of bond I do with my closest friends. We were there for each other, learning, growing and discovering the world together. Witnessed and tolerated the boy drama and how can I forget, the awkward teenage fashion years. They’re probably the only people who still have evidence of my crazy curly hair days. These are the Little Women I have shared my childhood with. I feel that I carry a little bit of each one of them in me. They have helped develop my personality, told me that it’s okay to be opinionated and embraced each flaw of mine, as I have of theirs. In some ways, we’re all Jo. Stubborn, headstrong, career oriented and a rebel at heart. Our school, gave us that, it gave us each other.

As I sit at the brink of turning thirty, I realize how important old friendships are. People, who have been a part of my journey, people, with whom I would have a fight with every month without fail. People who brought extra tiffin (lunch) just to feed the rest of us, people who I skipped classes with, failed tests, bruised knees and got thrown out of the class with for not doing our math homework. Thank you! I feel we don’t say this enough to one another, maybe it’s a cultural thing, maybe this is how old friendships are. We come to a stage where we no longer need to say how important you are to me. Perhaps, that’s why America decided that the world needed a Best Friends Day aka June 8th to celebrate and cherish our closest.

One cannot talk about friendships without mentioning those friends who we were close to at one point of time. I do think about them and at times miss what I had with them. Sometimes, I can’t remember why we no longer talk; so I just want you to know that I do value your contribution to my life and my story.

Emotion of lines

The first time I heard the phrase, “emotion of lines” was while I was working at my grad school library, and a student came to borrow an Art History book. He was an Electrical Engineering major and I was quite amused at his misery. This phrase came back to me a few weeks ago, and got me thinking about, how the abstract runs parallel to our tangible understanding of things. As I began to explore what the phrase meant it dawned on me, that we as humans tend to draw lines for ourselves. We take a stance and forbid ourselves to no longer invest emotionally. The logic being, that we’re protecting ourselves, heart mainly. These lines that we draw for our emotions is a defense mechanism that is based on past experiences and a promise that we have made to our inner most selves.

In art, the brush stokes depict the emotion that the painter is trying to express. These lines, bridge the gap of communication, they tell us how to feel and react to the image. The artist provides us with answers. This, unfortunately, doesn’t happen to us in the tangible life. We are handicapped in that sense. What we do have though, is a set of complex emotions. Those then, become the lens with which we view everything through. These emotions become our tools. Tools, that we should use to draw our emotional lines with. Therefore, unlike the swift brush strokes of an artist, in our lives we have to determine our individual emotional limitation. We then depict these limitations through our actions. Be it in friendships, in romantic relationships, towards our family, the government even the world at large, how we respond to the emotional heuristic sets the tone for where we want to draw the line.

Drawing a line for our emotional wellbeing is not necessarily a bad thing. As a matter of fact, I believe it’s necessary to do so, especially for individuals like me. I feel deeply. I have strong emotional opinions about a lot of things, human beings and causes alike. If I didn’t set the line for my emotional involvement, I would probably not be able to be a productive member of society.

However, this raises the question, that at what point do we decide that this is my limit? When does it become, okay to draw my line of emotion in a given situation? One might argue, it all depends on the cause at hand; there is no cookie cutter answer. But, shouldn’t my instinct be to stop myself before the lines start to disappear, how else does one protect them self.

I, as an individual, don’t believe in the standoffish approach, I am either all in or out. So, for me to draw the line, within the framework of the complex emotions gets a little hard. This is something I struggle with. It has taken a massive amount of retrospection for me to realize, that while giving wholeheartedly isn’t wrong, withholding some parts of your emotional being is required, at least for my sanity.

Withholding a part of ones self from their near and dear may sound selfish and unfair, but, its not. It’s okay to do so. It’s okay to preserve a part of your emotional self just for you. And you must do so, fiercely. Protect that aspect of your individuality. So, go on, draw those lines, build your fortress protect the emotion that matters to you the most. After all, “ A line is dot out for a walk.” – Paul Klee

Helplessness of death

Death makes us helpless. No matter how many times we experience it, it never gets easy. Much like the heartbreaks we experience. Over the last three weeks, I have heard of and lost several people in my life. Mostly unexpected, and that left me feeling helpless. I am a fixer; at least I would like to think of myself as one. So when these things happen, I immediately start thinking of what I can do to help the situation. Unfortunately in such events, there is very little one can do. Empathy and kind words are all that we have to offer.

I was never good at math. I don’t get math. It leaves me befuddled. And for as long as I can remember, I have tried to avoid it. Middle school math was a nightmare, and when that traumatic time began in my life a gentleman called “Master jee” appeared. Like all real life hero’s he had no cape, or mask nor did he have any special powers. What he did have, was the ability to make his students believe that anything is possible. In school, if you aren’t the sharpest crayon teachers don’t take too kindly to you. But, for my tutor, Master jee, it didn’t matter that I got eight points out of a total of thirty on a test. All he cared about was abhyas, which in Hindi means practice. I fondly remember my last class with him, it was right before my last math test in tenth grade. He rode his bicycle to my house early morning that day and stayed till I left to go take my test. That was Master jee. It makes me sad that I won’t get to see him ever again. He was one of those people you never imagine your life without, yet it happened. Late April this year, Master jee passed away. I felt helpless.

I was just recovering from this news when I found out a girl whom I went to high school with was in a car crash. All our collective worlds came crashing down that Saturday morning. Sonika was no more. My mind drifted to 2003, that’s when I got to know her personally. I became a prefect and was allotted the notorious class 9C. To be honest, it was one of my most fun experiences while in high school. I mean which thirteen year old isn’t naughty? She was naughty, vivacious, witty and above all a wonderful human being. Losing Sonika left me feeling helpless.

Then in quick succession, I lost a distant uncle and grandmother. I didn’t know what to do for it to hurt a little less. How does one give strength to an aunt who suddenly lost her husband, without any closure? How does one tell their cousin who’s in a different country that they just lost their grandparent? It never gets easy, no matter how many times we go through it.

The last couple of weeks have been tumultuous. These deaths have left me feeling numb and helpless. Helpless ‘cause I couldn’t do anything. I keep telling myself, maybe it was their time, and they had to go. But, Lt. Ummer Fayaz’s family could have been spared of this pain. He didn’t deserve to die in the hands of coward terrorists. The level of complacency is appalling. When the new popular government came into power, we thought he was the leader India needed to get rid of these non-state actors in the valley. How wrong were we. If anything, there seems to be an increase in the number of army personnel deaths in the last two years. There’s a popular saying in American politics, that essentially says, that you might have set ideologies and lofty liberal ideas before taking the oath of office, but once in it, Presidents often find them shifting towards political realism. That is exactly what has happened with our Prime Minister. He might want to carpet bomb, but, can’t. Because, we’re a liberal state, with the values of democracy that we must uphold. Plus, there’s always the fear of being hauled up by the ICJ. Therefore, we hide behind the politics of policy and condemn the killing of a solider, who did not deserve to be killed mercilessly. The nation watched helplessly from the comfort of their couch in an air-conditioned living room, while nodding their head in condemnation. We’ve become complacent in our helplessness and that worries me.