Saturday, October 06, 2018

No Dissent

Like many, I believed a relationship was shallow or even fake without a fair amount of healthy argument. There simply could not be continual blissful accord - if there was, the dreaded rot was setting in. Maybe one person has an outside interest and no longer cares enough to fight, maybe there is mutual apathy as both have given up. There is this notion that debate in a relationship is like a potter's wheel, which shapes things to make a more perfect union. In my own life, I have learned this is not true. I have found that discord arises from desire to change the other or have them accept a version of yourself they did not sign up to live with. 

Either way, both sides believe there is more the other could do to meet them half-way, accommodate, adjust or otherwise demonstrate willingness to compromise. However, there comes a time in a person's life when they have already argued everything out of their system, every dissent has been aired and heard and there is no desire left for more of what is unpleasant and unlikely to produce a resolution. They no longer desire to change or expect another to do so either. It is okay by then to indulge a point of view that is impossible to agree with and love the person holding that view all the same. It is perhaps okay to periodically catalog all the points of disagreement but not have discord. Being able to laugh at each other without being disrespectful goes a very long way as does empathy. There is always a reason a person holds a strong conviction even it is one that you totally disagree with. 

Watching the documentary RBG, brought these thoughts to mind when the discussion turned to Ginsburg's friendship with Scalia. What is possible and clearly rewarding in professional life is also true in personal life in my experience. If the friendship is real, the "arguments" can elevate to something that improves each person without in anyway impairing their love for each other.

Thursday, October 04, 2018

Ghachar Ghochar

I am much too late to the Ghachar Ghochar party but I am so very glad I made it. Bangalore is a place of many memories for me. Some from early childhood and other from the time I first became an independent working woman. There is nostalgia from the later period is tinged with some unpleasant memories but the childhood stint is almost perfectly blissful. Such is the nature of very early life perhaps, a lot of aggravation is simply not felt. There is a bubble of happiness inside which a child can live largely untouched. In that sense I was very fortunate - I did have such a bubble for a few years of my life.

Shanbhag took me back to a long ago place and time. For the duration of my reading, I was in the narrator's house, a fly on the wall watching the family members deal with their assortment of issues fueled by the uneven balance of power in the household. The scenes from their lives painted with such realism that a reader can almost feel the ants crawling on the floor or hear the feuding between the ladies of the house. Each character is lovingly detailed to the point there is no single protagonist in the reader's mind. The story bears telling from each one's perspective. We hear from the narrator but we could also have heard from Vincent or Malati or Chitra.

The story is like a perfectly made cup of chai, served on a winter's day. It brings a hint of spice along with much-needed warmth and comfort. The ending which I won't reveal here left me craving for my next cup. I used to be fluent in Kanada once so I can tell that Srinath Perur did justice with the translation. The feeling of the language was largely preserved which is not an easy thing to pull off while rendering flowing English prose. I can't wait to read the next thing that this duo will send the way for their readership.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Potato Peeler

Many winters ago I received a holiday gift of an OXO vegetable peeler shaped like a Y from a vendor we worked with at the time. While I never owned a lot of kitchen doodads, this peeler was love at first sight and a love that has never dimmed. It changed the whole nature of potato peeling for me. 

Focus moved from the act of peeling to what might follow from there. What would be created and what level of perfection may the potato achieve. These were never the concerns at potato peeling in the past. It was necessary to focus on safety, reducing discomfort and successful completion of the job. 

About a year ago I accidentally left the peeler on a hot stove top and a part of the handle melted. The peeler became a less perfect to hold, the ding made it rough to touch. It was harder now to focus on the perfection after instead of the mundane act of peeling the potato. 

The arc of the OXO peeler’s life in my kitchen drawer is not that different from that of my own. I have brought joy to some in the past but after being dinged over the years the joy I might bring is subsumed by dealing with my imperfections. For some the peeler would have fallen to disuse by now or replaced even but I still hold it very dear; some in my life continue to cherish me dings and all. 

Interesting what thoughts might come to mind reading about the OXO peeler.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Imaginary Silver Ride

I imagine the scudding silver
of the rental car, zip across
the Golden Gate Bridge.
Had I been there tonight,
we would have held hands.
Stopped to look down
Into the starlit Bay.
The place we wanted to be
in youths that have long passed
The dreams that were meant 
not to be. Yet I caught glimpses
now and again, through eyes
of love and loss, in morning fog
and the against cloudless cerulean.
I imagine you past the other end
bridge of gold behind you, the 
silver dart of what remains ahead
of our lives in the last half.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Feeling Love

Recently while discussing her boyfriends and heartbreak with by young friend L, I found myself thinking about the nature of love and how the moments when I have most intensely experienced it bordered on pain. The birth of J was one of them. Holding her in my arms was a life changing experience. From being frail, vulnerable and unsure about what next in crumbling marriage, I went to feeling like I had some super-power that could not be contained. Yet there was no euphoria. A mundane analogy to describe it would be a dry faucet on a hot summer's day that suddenly starts to gush water furiously and will not stop. There comes a point after which thirst and need is satiated but the flood continues unabated. 

Thinking back that was my first contact with true love. It is hard to know what exactly to do with it. The second experience came much later in life and it was borne out of sharing the deepest pain, willingly letting myself experience another person's darkest days as if they were my own. Not knowing where exactly my life separated from theirs. There was a consuming sense of One much like the time I held the new born J to my heart. There was the same sense of invincible though the circumstances were very different. 

I was trying to explain to twenty year old L that it is not real love until you have experienced such connection with another person that it is no longer possible to separate part from whole; have no words to describe that limitless, unbounded feeling you experience because that person exists in your life.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Beyond Fine

This article showed up on my Quora feed as a sponsored post and I was almost going to skip it as I usually do with things sponsored. But kids being skimpy with words when describing their day was too close to home and so I had to read. The advice is good and I believe it will work - specially with little ones. Once a habit of sharing and talking about their day sets it is likely to persist even through the difficult teen years. 

J goes through phases - there are times when she has a lot to say about her day and then dry spells follow in which there is almost nothing at all. Irrespective of what she chooses to tell me or not, I always tell her about my day with no expectation of reciprocation. There have been days when I felt silly talking so much and not having a real conversation. When she was younger I was worried about pushing my worldview on her. That led to insistence that she argue anything she did not agree with - not to accept what I say without resistance. While that forced her to participate in the conversation, it also built the defiance muscle almost too well. Careful what you wish for as they say. 

Over the years, she got used to the idea that I share things with her and have no desire to keep any secrets. As her mother, I want to be uncomplicated to J so she can find an easy comfort in my company. What we missed in our own lives we try to give our kids only to discover they longed for things we did not know they did. I will learn where I fell short only when J becomes a mother herself.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Remembrance of Kolkata Past

Growing up. I knew Kolkata was "home" though we did not live there. Coming to Howrah Station by train from far flung parts of India is how we got to Kolkata once every couple of years. My Bangla was not upto snuff, my mannerisms were unlike the locals and finally I did not look Bengali. With that trifecta of circumstances, Kolkata was far from a comfort fit as a "home". Yet, I tried hard to make it work. Work on my accent, work on loving what the locals did and work on finding some redeeming quality about this city has a cripplingly depressing affect on me. I saw sad parallels to my own life - much potential but no real achievements to show for. 

In that sense the city is my soul sister. I like to think of Kolkata as a woman - verdant, endlessly forgiving and vilely abused. Each time I returned, I would hope her fate had improved since we last met but the downward spiral continued unabated. My last contact was over fifteen years ago. In the interim, I worked on rehabilitating my life the best I could and rearrange the cards I had been dealt. I learned for instance to become accountable for my circumstances and not ascribe them to "wrongs" done to me. The process is not linear as I found out because identifying a cause (other than myself ) of my problems is like a gateway drug. It leads to feelings of temporary empowerment fueled by misdirected anger. It seems to diminish the pain. But after the "high" wears off the sense of defeat is crushing. From that bad habit stems many others - lack of real introspection, lack of focus in achieving goals for the future and so on. Far too easy to be angry at someone else who supposedly was the cause of my woes.

While I have made somewhat of a recovery, Kolkata has sadly not as I discovered this past summer. The attitudes of people have evolved to where they are all hustling and minding their own business and have little time to meddle in those of others. Privacy and personal space are not real concepts but synthetic byproducts of such hustle driven apathy. The family wedding is not nearly how it used to be. It is hard to tell the guests and the hosts apart as their level of engagement in the event is about same. Everyone is participating but no one owns anything. The generational fractures seem to be have widened since my day. Fluid relationship statuses are becoming acceptable not due to any heightened awareness of the self but  because it allows for complete lack of personal accountability. The state of the city is an overall reflection of the times as it must be. No one appears to be in charge and there is no plan. The city along with its populace hurtles towards an unknown destination that is loosely called the future.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik

I was looking for a book to bring for a kid who is not familiar with the Hindu epics but has some curiosity about the subject. A nice young lady at the Oxford Bookstore recommended Jaya by Devdutt Pattanaik. This was my first visit to Kolkata after fifteen years and a trip I had dreaded for months. For a large part of my life I had remained in self-imposed exile but each year made it harder to return. The connections to friends and family frayed more as did my understanding of the place I once called home. Reading this wonderful retelling of Mahabharat by Dr Pattanaik, upon my return to America was possibly the best and most comforting part of my overdue "homecoming". 

Used to be that there were two paths for the would-be reader of a "serious" English translation of Mahabharat. You could pick up something extremely erudite that was focused on staying true to the original Sanskrit and ended up being very laborious to read. As a reader, you understood you were getting the real deal but chances were you would would not last to the end and even if you did, the experience was not particularly enjoyable.If your first contact with Mahabharat was like mine - hearing the stories told in your native language by family elders, that very scholarly translation left you unsatisfied at an emotional level. 

On the other end of the English translation spectrum, were foreign authors who translated the Mahabharat as a labor of love. While their passion for the subject was easy to appreciate but the lack of roots in Indian culture resulted in a production that lacked life-spark leaving the reader wanting something more. 

To that end most of us grew up hearing the stories told to us by relatives and reading Amar Chitra Katha in our childhood. When we could read more grown up material, the Hindu epics went out of bounds and we wandered away in different directions as readers unmoored from our cultural roots.

Dr Pattanaik has stepped into this void and given the average desi reader like myself something they can actually love and identify with. We don't know any Sanskrit, often lack fluency in our native language to read worthy translations that do exist in those languages and yet we are from the culture and have heard most of the stories growing up.  Readers like me have been craving to create a personal bond with these epics and understand them in ways we did not as children listening to tales of gods and demons told to us by our mothers.

Dr Pattanaik has minimal, uncluttered prose and he tells the stories in English much in the manner I had heard them told my by favorite granduncle in Bengali. It made for an effortless shift from one language to another with nothing lost in translation. The line drawings throughout the book are very charming and only add to the quality of storytelling. The intricate plots, sub-plots and the dense mesh of relationships and loyalties that tie the myriad of characters are parsed out very effectively for a lay reader. We are able to follow the main story-line while having points of reference to keep us tied to the overall context of Mahabharat. The lessons that we can still learn from these stories are wonderful asides included at the end of every chapter.

Reading Jaya reminded me of the time I had opportunity to interview Dr Pattanaik for this blog and recalled how impressed I had been back then. So this quality of Jaya comes as no surprise. I very much look forward to reading many more of his books.

Monday, August 06, 2018

Old Self

My friend S who I reconnected with after a hiatus as long as J's age, is that childhood friend who is our personal wayback machine. Each time we talk, I return to a different time and the person she once knew me to be. Those conversations make me think if the long pause in our connection contributed to this timeless feeling of our friendship.

If we grew old together without the benefit of time and space to allow us each room of our own, would it still feel this way ? It so happened, that just three months after reconnecting with her online, I had opportunity to meet her in person. The weekend together was like being in college once again. There was no political correctness or trying to play any roles. We were as natural and unadorned as we had been then in the narrow confines of our college campus and the small town adjoining it.

The realities of our life were stark then - where would we find work after college if at all, would we graduate on time, would it be best to inform the parents of our depressed friend that she needed help or should we let her ride it out, should we borrow money from the nasty rich kid next door or wait for next month's allowance to show up, would we fail the Chem finals, would our psychotic roommate spiral out of control if she failed the Chem finals, would we get a chance to go abroad for graduate studies, would the professor whose recommendation was most valuable remember we slept though his entire first semester class,  did he know his nickname was Ms Toad and would that impact his desire to endorse us for grad school, would our parents lean on us to get married, would the boy we secretly liked ever like us back, did the said boy prefer our psychotic roommate to us

All of those questions have been answered a long time ago and we are where we are with less than half of our lives left to live. We talked of legacy beyond living for oneself or a select few others. S gave me gifts of costume jewelry and when I wore them I felt like a different person - one that I have not been in touch with in decades. It was strangely energizing to return briefly to my old self, connect with associations from the time of youth and naivety. 

Sunday, July 15, 2018


Of the Florida Keys, Hemingway said ""It's as if an imagination is intermingling salt water with desert, sea with plain, creatures of the deep with creatures of the bush." My first visit here was in late '99 if memory serves. The conditions of my life were very different than from today. I recall vividly that feeling of exuberance driving into the ocean through a corridor of tropical green some blooming with bright flowers. The sand and the water always with reach. If we had to stop at every spot that looked inviting we would be on the road for weeks. 

Yet, we did make many stops and I collected shells and pieces of driftwood as I always do when by the ocean. I loved that trip and have the fondest recollections of it but it was as if I had been there alone. The years that followed blotted out all memories of my traveling companion - the man who would be the father of J. Life partnership I would discover can be a mirage. You chase what you believe may be perfect only to end up in an aching void. 

This summer I was at the Keys once again. The place has changed beyond belief. There is hardly anywhere along the stretch from Miami to Key West where the road tempted me to stop; enjoy nature in solitude. Commercialization has turned the endless miles of green on US-1 into a patchwork of beach residences interrupted by nature. Fortunately the ocean is still the emerald green as I remembered and magic of the Keys remains intact inside the beautiful national parks in the area where we spent a lot of time. This trip was about nostalgia for the Keys that I once saw close to twenty years ago. The one that flashes back in vivid color every time I hear The Beach Boys sing Kokomo

That magic is mostly lost but this is a place so overabundant in natural beauty that it is impossible not to love even what remains today. This summer I saw the Keys through new eyes - mine and those with whom I traveled. I will remember this trip very differently than the first one. Instead of gaps in memory where loved ones should have been, this time reminiscences will remain whole.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Fox And Rabbit

For the first time ever, I saw a small fox in my back yard one night last week. My yard has been home to rabbits for years. At first they were skittish around me but not anymore. The unexpected fox sighting made me wonder if any of the rabbits had been made a meal of. It was a sad thought. For several days since, I did not see any rabbits in the yard and that only confirmed my fears. Maybe they no longer felt safe here and had moved elsewhere. This afternoon one of the rabbits was back in the yard and from what I could tell it was business as usual. There was no signs of distress or discomfort. This probable and imagined encounter between a fox and the rabbit brought to mind the Longfellow quote "Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence." We fear unpleasant encounters with what takes up disproportionate space in our lives but brings little reward or value. Yet the dreaded moment passes, the stressor and the stressed return to their original positions, life goes on. Such may have been the case with the rabbit who likely lives in mortal fear of the fox. The two may or may not have met each other that night. I was there to see them both, the hunter and the hunted - just as those who stand witness to the real and imagined calamities of our lives.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Vignettes Of Change

Recently, I have been reading some reminiscent books written by former Obama staffers. Those years were fascinating for me given where I come from. From the outside looking it, it appeared like change that come about before its time. There were consequences as the years following showed. In a way the experience paralleled India coming into independence in 1947 a secular country with its constitution written under the leadership of a Dalit Buddhist, Dr. Ambedkar. The out-sized dreams for India ended up being very far from attainable. In a sense the overzealous push to get India caught up to the rest of the free world after hundreds of years of foreign servitude, set us back a hundred years more. There is a time and pace for change and neither can be forced upon a people or a country.

2008 was the beginning of J's interest in American politics which runs strong to this day. I was sucked into the excitement of the times by my then seven year old. She was a believer back then as it seems some of these authors were. David Litt in his book My Hopey Changey White House Years was hard to like. The author seemed to be processing internal conflict by writing this book. As of its writing, he had not determined what those years meant for him. While being part of the creative process is interesting sometimes, such was not the case here. Litt sought to view things as a net positive but there was some strange mix of hero worship, self-deprecation, confusion about life overall that made it a hard sell to the reader. It was difficult to stay with the book and see it through even though Litt is a very talented writer.

The next one of this genre I tried to read was Who Thought This Was a Good Idea by Alyssa Mastromonaco. A very different tone and style from a mid-career professional not swooning over hope and dream. Mastromonaco does not come across a fan-girl but more a woman with big career goals and the grit required to achieve them. However, the long form description of her tampon travails in the opening chapter set the tone for her book. It was imagery that stuck and not in the most helpful way for her cause whatever that may have been. She did clarify that being known as the one who brought tampon dispensers to the woman's restroom in her place of work is not how she wanted to remembered by posterity. So a reader may assume her book was meant to serve some other cause.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Orchids and Hydrangeas

Two of my closest friends go back to high school and college. Over the years, there were pauses in our communication that ran months and years. Yet every time we reconnected it was like picking up where we left off without missing a beat. No matter what happened in our lives during the hiatus, nothing changed our friendship. We each live in a different country and have not met in decades. The unconditional and unchanging friendship of these two wonderful people I have been so fortunate to know is unlike the rest of the "friendships" in my life. 

There were ebbs and tides, people were in frequent touch at times and then not at all, I made efforts to revive near-dead relationships that seem to run out of air the moment I stopped trying. Life frequently gets in the way - marriage, divorce, kids, death, employment and illness take their toll. Many have dropped off completely and I have to struggle to remember names that were once important to me. I have wondered if people stop being able to forge friendships of a lifetime after college and if my experience is not so unique after all. Maybe there is something to be said for the cauldron that forms the dorm experience - living in tight quarters, over-sharing, new freedom, youth, naivete, dreams yet unbroken that allows abiding friendships to form. High school was similar in most ways minus the 24/7 collocation. 

Not since those times does one have the luxury of waiting several months to initiate conversation with a person that seemed interesting. Six months later, you are still in the same classes and have the same routine - it is not too late. This slow and gentle process of getting to know another person seems to impact the long term outcomes. There is no rush to do things, deliver on expectations or otherwise step out of your comfort zone. The friendship grows organically, feeding off of what is naturally available in the environment. If you then part ways and still want to stay in touch, chances are that the relationship will continue to thrive even as people and conditions evolve. There seems to be a natural adaptation in the friendship of youth to allow this. Those of independent and adult life  have never had any of these resilient qualities in my experience.

It is the difference between nurturing a hydrangea (which blooms each summer in my yard with no effort on my part) and trying to keep an orchid alive in its pot (I managed to keep one around for close to two years and that was as much work as it was a miracle). The more I have run into the fancy orchids in my later years, the more I value my never failing to bloom hydrangea of early youth.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Why Alexa

I have tried long and hard to understand what human need Alexa fills other than our right to be stupid and lazy. To the vast majority of us Alexa is not making the difference between life and death every day - that is the only scenario in which the value proposition makes sense. Alexa Fails are routinely treated as funny even though the implications are anything but. 

I am a Mary Meeker groupie and wait all year like the rest of them to hear her Internet Trends Report. This year, I paid close attention to her take on Voice which culminates in this gem of a slide headlined: Product Finding (Amazon) = Started @ Search...Fulfilled by Amazon. Alexa exists because the human desire for lazy and stupid is so boundless. 

Nirvana will be delivered unto us when I can bark at Alexa in my native language to have that box of Tide be dropped off by drone on my front porch. I am such a hot mess Monday morning because I previously binge watched Netflix all weekend, forgot all my chores and am now out of time to make a grocery run. In the afternoon, while at work I may recall being out of cleaning supplies and the need to tidy up the house before guests come to dinner. So I have Amazon deliver what I need right to the trunk of my car and even have them walk groceries into my house while I am out. If Alexa is any good, she needs to start calling out the time if she knows Netflix has been playing 24 hours straight, check what is in my fridge and order refills. She should have known I am out of Tide - needs to interface better with my smart and connected devices all around my home. I can't be held responsible for taking charge of my life, just need to wait on Amazon's feature release schedule for Alexa.

While Amazon tries to solve these self inflicted problems of my lazy, disorganized and stupid self, those who have the ability to plan ahead don't fare so well. Prime is not nearly what it used to be. Almost everything takes much longer than a couple of days to be delivered and schedule slippage is rife. The seller market place is completely chaotic with each making their own rules of engagement. Since my first purchase from Amazon back when it was still a bookstore until a few years ago, I never had need to call customer service. I assumed their operation was so flawless they never had the need for customer service staff. That has all changed now. 

In the future there may not be room in a society that goes out of its way to cater to the lazy and stupid, for those of us who want to exercise common sense now and then.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Driving Blues

Seven-seater minivans exist for a reason. And not because people who buy them are in love with their aesthetics. Kids need to be ferried between school and activities; parents must pool their collective resources of available time so they can also work. So there is kiddie car-pool and the ugly van that makes it possible. I have never owned one of these myself but they speak to me in a visceral way. Many things exist in life because they serve a need and not because they are glorious and wonderful.

The idea of this van can be extended to every part of life. Half way through, you are forced to think if you will spend the rest of it allowing function win over form. I am in that place lately and not a day passes when don’t ask myself what happens in the next phase. There is no marker of half-life more brutal than seeing your kid get drive off in their car for the first time.  It rips the figurative umbilical chord with great finality. This was my experience as a mother and from speaking with others not uncommon at all.
At first, I tried to delay my kid’s driver’s education program even as I struggled every day to manage her crazy schedule alongside mine. I told myself she was too young and it was not quite safe yet. She had to lean on me pretty hard to get her learner’s permit. We started her first driving lessons in empty parking lots and quiet suburban neighborhoods. Memories of her baby life came flooding back. She was one of those toddlers that skip the crawling phase and try to stand up. While still wobbly on her feet, she wanted to walk and run. Despite the many tumbles she took, she would not quit trying to run without having learned to walk. We got her a walker and she was spinning like a top in any open space she could find. There was no way to keep her in one place once she had discovered the joys of mobility.
It was not long before she grew tired of the parking lots and neighborhoods and wanted to be out on the open road. Our first long drive was down a long and windy country road and her exhilaration took me back to those long ago walker days. In time she came free of that walker and so also she came free of a learner’s permit. A month ago she became a licensed driver. This is where the parallels ended abruptly. My one year old baby was mine to hold, care, love and play with. She was not her own person, she needed me all the time. I got a hero’s welcome when I returned from work every day. She followed me around the house as I did my chores – I was the center of her universe. The transition from those days into her teen-age years was a gradual process with both of us adjusting to change every day. She gained confidence and freedom to be her own person and I experienced the relief of not having to mind a baby all the time.
And then there was that evening when she drove out with the car alone for the first time. This event seemed to mark the start of the second half of my life – maybe so acutely because she is my only child. I experienced physical pain and could not quite celebrate that big moment with her. I did not sleep that night thinking about her driving to school ten miles away next morning. In the days that followed, I overcame irrational anxiety but it was replaced by a void where my purpose as a mother used to be. She is sixteen now and for years she has been a fairly independent kid. Driving her around as hard as it had been on my work schedule, was also the last vestige of “tangible” purpose I had left. I know that is not true even as I write this; that my real purpose as mother has and will be to be solidly on her side in good times and bad. Being master of her own destiny as driving allows her to be, has triggered a tremendous mental growth spurt. Overnight, my kid went from being a child to an aspiring adult.There could be no better preparation for my impending empty-nest than watching her evolve every day at a pace I have never seen before.
The seven-seater minivans are a monstrosity in shape and size. They are that way because they represent the oversize and often irksome nature of tangible purpose in a parent’s life. Kids don’t think back fondly of all those times their parents juggled twenty balls in the air to make sure they made it to their activities, play-dates and birthday parties on time. Instead they may recall the mundane afternoon you had a meaningful conversation while they helped you clean dishes or the night before their big exam when they came to your room well past midnight for a hug and reassurance. Once the ugly car-pool van becomes redundant in a mother’s life, the challenge is to recount all of those moments you were there for your kid; make sure the tally is high enough serve as a purpose you could be proud of. It is a work in progress for me.