Sunday, December 13, 2015

Holidays

A mad sparkle in your eyes for some unknown reason,
Lights up the cockles of my heart, with the spirit of the season.
You are a stranger; And yet, this moment is like a reunion..
When friends that parted long ago, suddenly meet,
And realize that something precious has remained!
I savor my mouthful of wine, relishing the taste of it
I draw a deep breath to catch the scent of spice in the air
The buzz in my ears grows sweeter
Children laugh, bells jingle away
I can smell a rum fruitcake from a long lost winter holiday
You make me me mad and mushy, glad and gushy!
Outside, the cold rains and furious winds continue to howl
And a roaring fire begins to crackle in my soul
One fueled by the love in my life, and my capacity for imagination
I am overcome with emotion
With gratitude, for this place to stand.
This holiday season, I wish you a moment of introspection
A quiet moment, away from the noise and distraction
To find in your heart, that, which makes it worth continuing.

Monday, October 19, 2015

My Durga Pujo memoirs


Azure blue skies. White fluffy clouds afloat. A handful of fragrant white Siuli blossoms on the nightstand. These are things sure to stir the Bengali heart. For they are linked to something every Bengali holds very dear: Durga pujo! We had a Siuli tree in our backyard where I grew up. It was a nuisance the entire year with its infestation of centipedes. But during this time of fall, the tree floor would be strewn with fresh batches of blooms, every morning. They were gorgeous!

Durga pujo is to honor Durga, a gold bedecked, heavily armed female goddess, with no less than ten hands. Clearly we were into heavy duty multitasking! Durga is always depicted as shown here, victorious, in the moment of her conquest of the evil Asura. But I am not quite sure why she is accompanied by her four children at the same time. A second storyline has that Durga is visiting her people (us), away from her husband's house (and hence accompanied by her four kids). For some weird reason, a popular activity of our elders was to quiz us on who the bahon (animal ride) was for a given god or goddess. I was very up to date with those info back then. A banana tree with its long lanky leaf was supposed to be the wife of Ganesh, the elephant god, I remember that one.

The build up to the pujo was dramatic. Ever since Mohaloya (the first of the ten day festivity), I couldn't concentrate on anything much. We had to go to school till the 5th day as it were, and it was a torture! I'd keep a close watch on the progress of the pandal construction in our community.

Thousands of these pandals mushroom all over my home state this time of the year. Shown to the right is one such construction in progress, built with excruciating care, just to house the deities during the few days of the festival. A world of local art, craftsmanship, and story-telling is showcased in these temporary monuments. Groups compete for recognition for being the grandest or the most thought-provoking in their conception of the pandal and the deities, all of it providing opportunity for artistic expression and interpretation.

Doing the rounds of the pandals is a must do as people pick their own favorites. A bunch of us used to rent a bus and do this activity into the wee hours of the night on Shasti without a wink of sleep for distraction. Shasti is the 6th day, but really the 1st day the festivities start in full swing and of course we wanted to be all caught up already. Stalls of delicious street food did booming business all night as the crowds flowed in and out of the pandals endlessly! We would always stop at Deshopriyo Park for a midnight snack and I would invariably pick Chole Bhature, fish fry and hot fuluri (shown in picture).


My mother would put red color on her feet (alta) and wear red bordered white garod sarees during the actual puja. I wanted to as well and was grudgingly allowed only some of the times. Later I learnt this is reserved for married women which made no sense to me, even then. She would make a plate of naibidya with softened rice and lentils, fruits and sweets to be offered to the goddess (see to the right). I was encouraged to help prepare this plate. But I would typically have only half a heart on the task. I would hear mantras being chanted into the microphone as the puja progressed and it made me want to run out and actually be there, instead of missing out on the action, in our puja room, cooped up with my mum. It was always anticlimactic to finally arrive at the mandap (same as pandal), suddenly self-conscious! Then, we had anjali, which is an offering of flowers you make to the god after repeating yet another set of mantras. We were supposed to not eat prior to doing this. I cant remember a single time I have been able to engage in this guilt free. It was always some slip up or the other, which I would simply ignore with a fast beating heart, because I did not want to admit to it and did not want to miss anjali!

Another memorable part of the pujas used to be the aarti which is a special ritual dance for the gods made with fire-lit diyas, dhunochi and incense, to the jingle of loud bells and the beats of gorgeous drums from the local dhakis. The air would thicken with smoke and the fragrance of burning incense and menthol. My eyes would burn but I could not tear myself away from the pure spectacle of those moments. Kalidada, an old man that had been in the service of our family forever, was a pretty good drummer himself. I would watch him bedazzled as he made magic with the drums.

Our community organized a feast of khichuri bhog for everyone for one of the afternoons. I remember the long tables lined with rickety chairs. The tables would have green banana leaves cut up and laid out to be used as plates paired with earthen containers to hold water. I participated in the serving of the food, typically the eggplant fry or lemon pieces. The adults would serve the real food, out of steel buckets purchased freshly for the occasion. It was nice to be part of that gathering set to the backdrop of everyone looking happy and relaxed in their new clothes with their families and spending their time off in this friendly setting.

Bodhon and sindur khala (play with vermillion) marked the last day of the puja (Dashami). The play with the vermillion is strictly for the married females. Even at that age, I never liked it that a widowed aunt, some unmarried aunts and kids would be asked to sort of stay away. Interestingly, I haven't attended a sindur khala ever since I became eligible some 13 years ago. Anyways, that minor irritation was soon gone in the pleasant activity of gorging oneself on LOTS of home-made and store brought sweet stuff as we celebrated Bijoya (when everyone exchanged good wishes and sweets). I can still taste the hot pantua and jeebe gaja sticky from the syrup in which it had just been dipped! My aunt would be making them and I would be her devoted helper consuming as much of the kheer and malformed units as I could, along the way! :)

1999 was my last Durga Puja in Kolkata. It was an amazing one, having just recently fallen in love with my current husband. Remember snuggling to the gorgeous (if inappropriate) tunes of George Michael's Last Christmas in a darkened room with multi-colored light bulbs streaming outside our verandah (this is credit to the puja lighting efforts by our community puja team that would steal electricity from home owners shamelessly). Everyone pitches in for the pujas, willing or not!! I have faltered into some community pujas abroad since, but it has never been the same. Certainly my religious engagement has severely dwindled. Here I am then, thinking back, to re-live some of the excitement from those many years ago.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

I cry, often, very much, helplessly, but I wont let it define who I am

A few days ago, I read about depression on a friend's blog and wondered at the courage it took her to write about it. I did not think that my personal struggle with depression can interest anyone. But reading about her changed my mind. If you wish to know more, read on.

A lump in your throat is not just a figure of speech. Emotional pain is real. Hopefully it does not happen to you too often. And hopefully, when it happens, the causes are well understood.

Depression is different. For me, it is a sad side of me that manifests from time to time. I do not understand the reasons for the onset of my depression. Ever so often, there are days when I feel uncontrollably, unreasonably down, weepy, dejected. It comes and goes. The only certainty is that it will come again. At one point I thought if problems A, B and C were solved in my life, I'd be cured. But that did not happen. I now have accepted that no turn of circumstance can really change it. It is not externally instigated. I have lived with it for over 20 years of my life, without major intervention. Perhaps because, I never lost control. I was somehow able to maintain my tenuous grip on sanity even at these times when I was feeling really insane. Perhaps also because where I am from, there is a huge lack of awareness of emotional excesses as being of clinical consequence.

So exactly how does it feel? When its here, it eclipses all good feelings and leaves me wondering listlessly about where I am headed. I have no will to fight. I have impotent suicidal thoughts. There's no where in particular that I want to go and no action I can get myself up to take. I just want to cease to exist. Dark and vile thoughts about myself flood my mind. The pain it evokes is soothing in the same way we feel comforted by pushing against a tooth that is already loose and aching. After a while I go numb, watching myself from some distant corner. The love that surrounds me recedes to a distance I cannot bridge. I watch it helplessly from a desolate corner of my mind. It is like light at the end of a deep well I've fallen into, with no clear path or will to return.

I have struggled hard to make my loved ones understand, they are not to blame in any way. I am beyond their help when I am suspended into this state of mind. The good thing is, of late, I am increasingly secure in the realization that this is just a phase of being, like being hungry, that happens to me. It will pass. It always passes.

And did I try meditation? Practitioners say if you can make yourself consistently watch your thoughts as they arise in your consciousness, then ugly thoughts can be chased away. I have indeed tried it and I think there is something to this idea. It could work better for me if I was more disciplined. But I am not. Often I wont have the patience and I will allow myself to be seduced into tears. And then, I just have to wait my monster out.

As I write this, the one thing I also know about my depression is that I will not let it define who I am. I will not let it kill my hope, my love of beauty, my energy and appreciation for life. Because despite this aspect of me, I also have an irrepressible enthusiasm for life. And I am aways resurrected from the ashes of my despair with renewed hope, like the freshened earth after the rains. I hope to spend the most real, intense lifetime possible, thoroughly engaged and passionately loving!

If you can relate to these feelings because of personal experience or your relationship with someone that has depression, I hope it makes a little more sense now with one more testimonial to the very real existence of depression, even in people that seem otherwise perfectly normal, successful, healthy, loving, and happy.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Translating possibly my favorite rabindra sangeet তুমি সন্ধ্যার মেঘ মালা

   
তুমি সন্ধ্যার মেঘ মালা, তুমি আমার সাধের সাধনা মম শুন্য গগন বিহারী 
আমি আপন মনের মাধুরী মিশায়ে তোমারে করেছি রচনা 
তুমি আমারি, তুমি আমারি, মম অসীম গগন বিহারী
You are the many hued clouds from my sunset skies
Borne of my precious yearnings and sighs
You are the constant companion to my emptiness
You were conceived with loving tenderness
Spiced with the sweetest of my imagination
You are mine, yes mine
You pervade all corners of my mind
মম হৃদয় রক্ত রাগে তব চরণ দিয়েছি রাঙিয়া ওই সন্ধ্যা স্বপন বিহারী 
তব অধর এঁকেছি সুধা বিশে মিশে মম সুখ দুখ ভাঙ্গিয়া 
তুমি আমারি, তুমি আমারি, মম বিজন জীবন বিহারী 
As I adorn you, o beloved darling
With infinite warmth and inconsolable longing
You who are part of every dream
The bitter sweet taste of your lips seem
My very agony and ecstasy of being
You are mine, yes mine
My only lifelong friend divine
মম মোহের স্বপন অঞ্জন তব নয়ানে দিয়েছি পরায়ে ওই মুগ্ধ নয়ন বিহারী 
মম সঙ্গীত তব অঙ্গে অঙ্গে দিয়েছি জড়ায়ে জড়ায়ে 
তুমি আমারি, তুমি আমারি, মম জীবন মরণ বিহারী 
I've bewitched you with magic kohl
You are hitched forever to my soul
You hold me captive with your gaze
You are the poetry of my days
You're weaved of the music of my heart
You are mine, yes mine
In all realms for all time


Saturday, August 15, 2015

My 15th August musings...

On this Independence Day, I want to think about those examples that I have seen in my own life that have taught me to celebrate independent behaviors and independent thinking. Remember those people I have known that went out of their ways to act on something they believed in. I think, all too often, we celebrate 15th August by what is taught by an obviously biased discourse of history and forget to look closer to home.

My first example is of my history teacher who would take us out to the garden and give us history lessons under a tree (a totally uncharacteristic practice in our school). She would bring reference material and read them to us to add color to the one or two lines of details that was included in our actual history text. You may say this is insignificant, but then, it is not. I have cherished that memory and that spirit of owning a task and doing things in a manner that feels right to me, infinitely! Mrs Neogi, if this reaches you, please accept my greetings of this happy occasion. I am thinking of you!

My next example is from my family. Despite open disapproval from some, my father insisted I go to a bank, pick up my money and pay the fees at my school by myself from since when I was in the 5th grade. To ready my school bag, clothes and do my homework was my exclusive responsibility as far back as I can remember. My aunt did not let me take our car to a summer job I had taken up (which I was very mad about at the time), insisting that I use public transport by myself. This is when I was no more than fourteen or fifteen and was going everyday to places I hadn’t been to before (it was a sales job). Figure it out, she said. Taking my own responsibility was never an option. It was the only way to live. I am grateful thats who they taught me to be.

Recently, I saw a short film doing the rounds on fb, about how the British mistreated us and that we should be celebrating the freedom fighters for having rescued us from such fates. I saw Shashi Tharur’s British bashing lapped up with great enthusiasm. I am not denying there’s some truth in that. But why can’t we move on? Perhaps this 15th we should instead focus on what has been India’s accomplishments in the last 70 years of freedom compared to how far we came in the 200 years of British rule. Have we collectively achieved the promise of the 15th of August, personally and as a nation?

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Insidious

Her golden, sleepy head on my arms makes me sore
But I bear it happily and I would for ever more
Lush furls of willow-o-wisps dance over our head
I watch it contentedly from our grass bed
Thankful for the quiet moments
After seemingly relentless run of games
The dog curled in the shade has dozed off too
Neither are mine
I'm sitting my friend's charges for a while
Just the afternoon
Their mother will be back soon.
I sit up to spread a light blanket over us..
Lest she catch a chill from the breeze
Then answer an anxious text
No, no bother, don't worry
We had some rice with chicken curry
(From the same plate)
I wish this last bit would be our secret
But it wont be
Quite the chatterbox, is she
An emptiness brews idly in my heart
Clouding the uncomplicated mojo
That had me high just a bit ago
Her father's lips pucker familiarly on her dear face
Reminders of what I must not chase


Saturday, July 04, 2015

Translating কতবার ভেবেছিনু

     Often I've wanted to drown my doubts, my foolish pride and fear
     And pour out my heart at your feet in sweet surrender dear
     And when with you, worthy friend, I'd tell you plain and clear
     I've loved you so, secretly, year after year!
     And then, I get cold feet, feeling hopelessly out of depth
     How could I profess my love! Am woefully inept.
     So I'd stay away; just be with you in my heart.
     And continue to worship you in my lonely life apart.
     No one need ever know, how deeply I adore you dear.
     No one need ever see, my lovelorn tears.
     And when today, you ask me for my heart to reveal!
     How hard it is to find my love, the words for what I feel!

"কতবার ভেবেছিনু আপনা ভুলিয়া
তোমারি চরণে দেব হৃদয় খুলিয়া
চরণ ধরিয়া তব কহিব প্রকাশি
গোপনে তোমারে সখা কত ভালবাসি
ভেবেছিনু কোথা তুমি স্বর্গের দেবতা
কেমনে তোমারে কব প্রণয়ের কথা
ভেবেছিনু মনে মনে দুরে দুরে থাকি
চির জন্ম সংগোপনে পুজিব একাকী
কেহ জানিবে না, মোর গভীর প্রণয়
কেহ দেখিবে না, মোর অশ্রু বারিচয়
আপনি আজিকে যবে শুধাইছ আসি
কেমনে তোমারে কব কত ভালবাসি"
- Rabindranath Tagore

Sunday, May 10, 2015

If it wasn't for you

If it wasn't for you, I'd be impervious to joy or sorrow
Impervious to colors, to music, to beauty, to cheer, to the hopes for tomorrow
If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't care if the sun shone or if it rained,
There'd be no warm or cold or wet or pure or stained.
If it wasn't for you, there would be no need for poetry or art
No company, or conversation could ever touch my heart
If it wasn't for you, everything would taste all the same
Wine, coffee, chocolates, flowers, kisses, all terribly lame
If it wasn't for you, my heart wouldn't ever quicken or break
Everyday would be the same, all of it, fake!
And so, I am grateful for the sweet torture of your being
Because of you, I am, and continuing...

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Stay-at-home parenting

I am not a parent, so should I bother to write about this issue? Well, I'd like to, at least in defense of my parents who worked all the while I was doing my growing up.

Dear mothers who choose to stay home with your kids, when I ask if you have started working again, I am neither acting smug, nor belittling the value of your labor. When I say you must be enjoying yourself, I am not saying I don't think this requires any effort at all. Motherhood is one aspect of womanhood, but I fully expect an educated woman to make strides in multiple facets of their lives, so that they may explore the full intellectual and emotional spectrum of their humanity. So this question comes naturally to me. Also, I fully expect people to enjoy what they choose to apply their efforts to. So, please don't jump to those ridiculous conclusions.

And if you cant help yourself, can I ask you to please introspect around why are you so sensitive to this question? If you are truly convinced you have made the right choice for yourself, why bristle, rather than calmly helping me understand your choice? I ask because I am interested in you and you are typically happy to indulge me with your perspective on other things. So, why is this one hard? Unless, you are loathe to admit that you are using your children as an excuse to not take responsibility for yourself or to not push your limits. Unless you are loathe to admit that you are using your children as an excuse to clip the wings of your partner.

In my experience, a lot in life is shaped by circumstances instead of being a conscious choice. And we try to convince ourselves to come to terms with it. If someone prods you occasionally, reminds you to evaluate whether you are doing what you really wanted to do, reminds you to think about whether or not it is time in your life to make a constructive change, why is that unreasonable, insensitive or disrespectful?

My biggest objection is that a mother's labor, however sincere, back-breaking, nerve-wracking it may be, is unpaid. There is something to be said for being paid for your services. Why? Because it buys you independence. It liberates you from the shackles of expectation. I've been told not to denigrate the lofty nature of a mother's work with the banality of a day job. Yes, you are just a paid employee in the case of the later and you may be fired. But you can find another job and continue to live a life of relative freedom. You may not mean the world to your employer as you probably do mean (at least for a while) to your child. But why does that matter? The dependence of your offspring on you is temporary and to wish to either cling to it, or to prolong it, is unhealthy for both the mother and the child, and selfish too, wouldn't you agree? If you care so much about your child, should you be squandering away your means to pursue your convictions regarding your child's future?

Now your high-minded partner supports you and I am told I have no right to question that dynamic. To that, I say, I hope you have the guts to question that dynamic yourself. I hope folks at least recognize that by removing themselves from the work that fully exploits their potential, they do waste the funding that was invested in educating them. It is the parents' job to give society good citizens. But by constraining a mother's exposure to only certain types of experiences in life, we diminish their abilities to provide quality mentor-ship to the next generation.

I also get told, we are a culture where moms stay home. Think about A) the sexism and B) the presumption buried in that statement. Do dads love their kids less? Is it right to assume their parental needs or capabilities are lesser than yours? A self-reliant, self-sufficient, self-supported mother creates a strong example for the child. I pray you find the emotional and intellectual strength to embrace it.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Being a girl

Today is designated as the international women’s day. Just wanted to take a moment to feel in my heart what it has meant to be a woman in this life. Yes, there were downsides. Even though I grew up in a household where I had the same opportunities as my male sibling to prosper. But I’ll focus on the positive. On why it has also been a priviledge. No, it wasn’t motherhood, wifedom or daughtership that made it special for me. Those relationships allow others in your life to relate to you as a woman, and for you to relate to them. They are not about who you are in your own head.

I loved being a woman because of the depth of emotion I was allowed to feel freely and express vociferously. I could cry, laugh, sing as I wanted and no one expected a stiff upper lip out of me. She’s just being a girl, they would say! I loved being a woman because I could celebrate being spontaneous without self-consciousness! Change hairstyles, clothes, make-up, my mind - its called being flighty as a feather, being irresponsible. Its called, not being a man. I’m none the worse for it. I did not have to act tough, unless I wanted to show off. The men in my life were unfailingly chivalrous, opening my doors, carrying my luggages and happy to defend my honor with all the necessary flourish. Now, isn’t that lovely!?

It wasn’t until a bit late in life that I begun to realize, feeling loved and cherished as something delicate wasn’t all I wanted. I am educated, I can support myself, my shoulders are strong enough to support another physically, socio-economically, emotionally. Over the last few years, I have finally realized what a privilege it has been in this life to have earned this independence, particularly as a girl. I hold it quintessential to experience any other emotion with any degree of genuinity. That I can afford to be kind, that I can afford to follow the principles that inspire me, that I can love unconditionally without expectations is something dearer to me than life, because I am a woman and it could just as well have not been.

If you're a girl like me, reading this, I'd like to leave you with this thought: Next time they give up the seat for you, don’t accept it. Think about what you have within your grasp, not as the fairer sex who demand to be treated with honor, but as a towering strength that commands it.


Monday, January 19, 2015

Pithe

Coconut cooked in condensed milk
Wrapped in rice-y crepes divine
Pati-shapta awakens my bong soul
Sweetened more and more with time
Just warm yumminess on your tongue
As you work your way through creamy kheer
Remembering those gnarled hands, kind eyes,
That served these up with unfailing cheer

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