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Showing posts from March, 2019

Reading Tagore

I read this Tagore short "Shasti" recently and recalled hearing my mother reading it out loud to me in Bengali when I was a kid. On the surface, it is a simple narrative even a child can follow. At my age, the experience of reading the story is very different. The character of Chandara comes across way more complex. She is hobbled by her circumstances but not defined by it. She reminds me of Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. All these women choose to die in the end. In this commentary on how Tolstoy ends Anna Karenina, the author writes

On the basis of this novel, it could be argued that Tolstoy rejects female experience as domestic, limited, even lacking in spiritual insight, because the one woman who attempts to transgress these boundaries ends up committing suicide.

Tagore seems to give Chandara the center stage in his story. She drives the narrative and controls her destiny. In a sense, she epitomizes the inner strength of the Indian woman who historically did not have the sa…

Made in Heaven

I started watching Made in Heaven out of curiosity and found it quite enjoyable. The story is about mega rich desis getting married along with the pomp and circumstance that goes with the territory. The production is slick and the women parade spectacular wardrobes. The vast majority of the men are portrayed as gay, this is interesting until the gratuitous sex scenes detract from the goal of depicting societal hostility towards the community.
No significant character is entirely black or white and that is perhaps what holds the series together. They all have secrets, back-stories and do morally dubious things. Yet they have redeeming qualities. Each of them has a story with enough heft to stand alone. When their complex interactions comes together it produces rich narrative schema. 
Is this "real" India? Most desis would agree that it is not. Real is a very relative term in the Indian context. What this series depicts might be close to reality for a very tiny sliver of the pop…

Ruined Memories

J will be headed to college in a few months and my thoughts have turned to her childhood many times recently. Usually, it is about memories I deliberately did not capture on in pictures and video so I would have them perfectly preserved in my mind. When every other parent was video recording the piano recital, swim meet and school play, I often just watched and try to be present in that time as completely as I could. This blog which has been around since she was a little kid has no images of anything from her life - I wrote about events that meant something to me but worried that images would alter the way I remembered things

Reminiscing over the digital footage of their childhood is usually not something the kid does - it is more a parent and family thing. To that end, not having an exhaustive digital archive of her childhood does not appear to be a big deal for J but I could be proven wrong yet. Maybe there will come a time when she wishes there was more for her to see and hear bey…

Hallway and Home

In describing what comedian Sarah Silverman called homesickness, Johann Hari in his book Lost Connections writes

When we talk about home today, we mean just our four walls and (if we’re lucky) our nuclear family.
But that’s never been what home has meant to any humans before us. To them, it meant a community—a dense web of people all around us, a tribe. But that is largely gone. Our sense of home has shriveled so far and so fast it no longer meets our need for a sense of belonging. So we are homesick even when we are at home.

Reading this made me think of the ways I have experienced homesickness and none of it was while being away from the physical place I called home - at any point in my life. I used to attribute that feeling of rootless and unbelonging to the fact that we are a refugee family. Perhaps the answer is a bit different. What we are conditioned to think of as "home" does not meet our emotional definition of "home".

I have spent some of the coziest and at-…

Pie Baking

I think I might benefit from reading this book about baking that does not invoke the feelings this author describes

If you’ve ever followed a recipe for pie, you know that the instructions for making pie crust often read more like you’re casting a spell than baking a dessert.Add water until the dough “just comes together.” Drip ice water over flour and butter at the same pace as a late summer rain, until they resolve into shaggy clumps. Picture your grandma while adding water to the flour and butter mixture; stop when you think she would.

It is actually worse when the ebullient baker explains it all in her nice YT video - step by step and you still miss the mark by a mile. You think you were following along just fine until the dough starts to act weird and does none of the wonderful things it is supposed to do. In addition, your oven may have an uncomfortable relationship with the truth. The reported temperature may be off by 15-25 degrees (I have read that somewhere) so you need to get…

Long Walks

I have been a fan of long walks for as long as I can remember. Was good to read this article about why walking helps us think. It is full of interesting nuggets like this one

Thomas DeQuincey has calculated that William Wordsworth—whose poetry is filled with tramps up mountains, through forests, and along public roads—walked as many as a hundred and eighty thousand miles in his lifetime, which comes to an average of six and a half miles a day starting from age five.

That is truly impressive. For the last few years, I have been doing about ten miles a week which is a silly number compared to what Wordsworth clocked in. The grandfather of a childhood friend I had, was regarded as an eccentric by everyone who knew him because he went out for a walk after breakfast, returned for a small lunch and resumed walking after that to return only at dusk. They had a small dog who was excited to head out with him in the morning but refused to return after lunch. 

There were sightings of the grandpa ar…

Food and Mood

Interesting article about a mother's desire and even the ability to cook driven by depression. As a child, I gravitated towards food that was cooked by a person in good spirits. This was not something I knew or understood back then, but when I think back, it seems that the most memorable meals I had were cooked by a person who was in a good place mentally at the time of preparing it. When it was my turn to cook for a family, those who sat at the table to eat what I had made, could tell my state of mind from the taste of it. J is very sensitive to this and will tell me later she knew I must have had a bad day. When the meal was made in a happy frame of mind, she enjoys it a lot better and there is an overall sense of peace and harmony. It would be great to know what smells and tastes can trigger positive feelings for a person. That would be a great way to lift the spirits

Music for Memory

Reading this article about how the memory of music is not lost to dementia and Alzheimer's made me wonder if it was possible to use music to encode and store all those other memories that could be lost. If we could create associations between memories in a systematic way, maybe we can preserve all that we value. Most of my favorite music always takes me back to the first time I heard it. While listening I could relive that moment all over again. Not all of these memories are happy or positive though many are. 

Then there is music you were introduced to by someone you love. They turn up the car radio when the song plays and tell you their story - why they love the song, what it means to them and what memories they associate with it. Or sometimes they skip the details and just insist that you hear and make your own connection with it. I love the backstories around people's favorite music -especially the odd and out of place stuff that you would never associate with them. 

My mothe…

Not My Idli

Nice illustrative example of cultural appropriation by way of the humble idli. Being Bengali and thinking of idli as my favorite comfort food is perhaps an act of cultural appropriation too. I have learned to make them through trial and error over the years but have yet to achieve the sublime perfection that was served by Mrs S, my childhood bestie's mother. That is the gold standard of idli to me. My gravitation towards food quite a bit distant from my cultural roots was likely the first of many steps in growing apart from them; until coming to the point of feeling unmoored and lost. 

My efforts to regain connection has led through hilsa cooked in fiery mustard paste or mishti doi. But it feels like infatuation not love. At the height of allergy season, when I am sneezing fifty times a day and curled up in a ball on my couch, nothing will pick me up like a steaming bowl of rasam. If I was lucky enough to come by some idli and chutney a la Mrs. S,  I might make a full recovery on t…

Lime Juicers

Until a few days ago, I had no idea that a Lime Juicer was infact person with a specific kind of job. It is a very strange side hustle. 

"..charging scooters involves capturing the scooter, bringing it home with you, and charging it to full battery. To do this, find a scooter that’s available for capture using your Bird or Lime app, go up to the scooter, then scan it using your app. This will unlock the scooter. At this point, you can ride the scooter or just wheel it along with you"

Every turn of phrase in this line of work is gaming oriented. Instead of playing games online, this allows a person to have the gaming experience out in the real world and also make a few bucks along the way. Makes you wonder, if this might be the beginning of the end for jobs that have no gaming quotient at all. More to point, if such jobs will completely fail to attract the talent that is attracted to gigs such as Lime Juicing and Bird Catching.

A related topic is work-life integration and extend…

Recycling Deadend

Interesting read about the current state of waste recycling in America. Each time I am in the grocery check-out line and the cashier asks "Paper or Plastic?" - I cringe inside as knowing that both choices are bad and one needs to be made. For many years, I lugged around my cloth bags to grocery stores and found it impractical for the way I tend to shop - a couple of big trips a month and then only quick stops for a few things. The most environmental harm comes from those two big trips that end up needing a lot of bags. 

A greener way would be to walk to the nearest store and bring back what I can carry in my cloth bag - it is how my father still does it. He combines walking and grocery shopping every morning; something he can afford to do at this stage of his life. It seems like once a person grows older and the pace of their life slows down, being green becomes way more possible. Conversely, the more we automate our lives, and create more productive hours, the worse off thin…

Money and Love

A longish read but a very useful one about the role of money and discussions about how to spend it impacts relationships. Very commonsense advise comes somewhere towards the end of the article

We realized that it suits our style to have a loose structure, something that provides a framework—but not so much that we rage against the rules. We decided that we’ll each take money out of our individual accounts and combine it for big projects, like home renovations and furniture and vacations; we’ll Venmo each other when necessary to even things out; we’ll alternate organically when buying dinners and other day-to-day things.

The author quotes a woman as saying“I think that being financially transparent in a relationship is more intimate than sex.” I could not agree more and will add that the lack of synch in the one area can quickly bleed into the other. People come to a relationship with very different attitudes towards earning and spending money. While not always a deal-breaker to have dif…

The Moonstone

My quest for fiction that I could enjoy reading lead me to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. A familiar title by name but one I had never read before. There is a certain quality to the storytelling that appeals to me - and it may have everything to do with the kind of fiction I read when I was first able to choose my own books. Those were not times of choice or abundance. The local library was stocked with books that were donated by people who longer had any use for them. Frequently, the belonged to the older generations. When the person had passed on, their family needed to clear the space for the burgeoning ranks of the living. It was good that the books found a home in the library. Thanks so such provenance, I grew up reading literature that was popular and fashionable a few generations ago. 

That seemed to have set my tastes in literature in a certain almost inflexible way. There must be some intangible qualities that are shared between these books I encountered in my early reading …

Club of Privilege

People are struggling to make sense of the college admissions scandal and this author attempts to provide perspective on the recipients of the unfair advantage who remained blissfully ignorant of the many intercessions on their behalf. Stancil ridiculously conflates the situation at hand with kids who get a chance to attend the best schools because their parents paid a premium on home prices. 

He claims they too are privileged and ignorant of it and therefore no different than the kids whose parents got their kids into college with million dollar bribes and other chicanery. I am sure a big tent approach to ignorance about privilege expiates guilt here but at some point commonsense needs to prevail.

I was one of those parents who strove for their kid to have access to the best public schools and yet never owned a home in the most expensive neighborhood in town. We lived in a modest apartment for the longest time and still made it work. I know many kids from similar backgrounds who have a…

The Viceroy's House

Watched The Viceroy's House and left confused thanks to my glaring lack of knowledge of Indian history. Gurinder Chadha tells the story of partition from one perspective, supported by a set of facts that pundits may or may not agree with. But it makes for great story-telling and the premise sounds entirely plausible. As someone who comes from a refugee family, I felt woefully uninformed about the facts of history that had such a great impact on my own family and fourteen million others. Growing up in India, the stories of partition formed a backdrop against which the present unfolded. The stories were often told by older family members who had direct experience and memories of that time. Then there was a huge volume of literature centered on the topic many of these books were made into movies. 

So there was no lack of clarity on what partition meant at the human level to the people who had suffered through it. Yet I know very little about the reasons and drivers of this event that …

Love of Persimmon

I first ran into persimmons when J was about four years old. We were in an Asian grocery store stocking up on greens and seafood when the bright orange fruit caught my eye. They were incredibly cheap considering how wonderfully tempting they looked. So I bought a big box and that it was love at first bite. There is no other fruit that I am familiar with that triggers such happy feelings each time I see them. It's like all that perfection was meant to be in a fruit came together in this one. 

I am not counting ripe mangoes here - because there is so much nostalgia associated with it, that I don't think I could be objective about my love for them. Semi-ripe guavas with a bright pink core plucked fresh off the branch, is another fruit of the same ilk. Childhood memories could easily cloud my judgment. But the persimmon came to me way later in life and that is a more mature, unclouded love. It is a love that has remained strong and steady since though I never could get J to appreci…

Malgudi Days

Like many desis of my generation, I am a big fan of Malgudi Days so I could not be more excited to see it on Amazon subtitled and all. Waiting all week for the next episode to air had pleasures that simply cannot be recreated in this format but I am very much looking forward to watching the series with J. It will be interesting to see what if anything resonates with her from these wonderful vignettes. There is a lot of time, distance and cultural separation that separate her from characters from R.K Narayan's stories. It may not be like us back in the day, rooting for Swami because he was such a relate-able kid. I hope the idyllic pace of his life will give J a feel for this long forgotten world of pre-independence rural India. 

The title track of the show is music etched in memory for those of us who watched it as kids. It was the siren song that rustled us out of whatever activity we were engaged in, to gather in front of the TV. It was also the time, when the neighborhood was qu…

Victory or Defeat

Reading this light-hearted essay about the art of always being right, prompted me to check out the source of its inspiration - The Art of Being Right by Arthur Schopenhauer.

I cannot recall how many times, I have witnessed versions of this trick - Claim Victory Despite Defeat - played with various degrees of success. My response when I have been the receiving end of it has been to make a mental note of what just happened but not give the other side the satisfaction of knowing that I was able to see through it. That involves letting them claim victory and act quietly defeated. Often it triggers even more blatant efforts at claims. Comes a point when it is no longer interesting for the "winner" and it makes them wonder if they are wasting time with me. There is no glory in prevailing over a dimwit who does not even try to put up a fight.

This, which is an impudent trick, is played as follows: When your opponent has answered several of your questions without the answers turning o…

Sharenting

This Washpost essay by a mother who has used content from her daughter's life and despite protests will likely continue doing so makes for an interesting read. This blog has been about many things but my kid J has been written about regularly since I started blogging in 2005. I hit a huge writer's block when she transitioned to a young person from being a child. Any confidences she shared with me I treated as off-limits for my blog. The same was true for all significant highs and lows of her life. I did not think I had the right to talk about any of that. But like this author, I experienced the feeling of being stifled. Being J's mother is a very significant part of my life and who I am as a person. When I amputated that from my writing, I was hit was an all-consuming emptiness bordering on identity crisis. The intent of sharing anecdotes about J had always been for me a way to create memories I might otherwise forget in the shuffle of the daily grind. Through the process …

Cult of Ignorance

Asimov wrote this wonderful essay in 1980 and it is still completely relevant. 

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way throughout political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."

In the present day context, not only is "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge." but also if I am more popular as evidenced by my social media following, then my ignorance entirely supersedes your real knowledge rendering it irrelevant. If I have mastered the fine art of click-baiting and can get a large number of people to read (or pretend to have read) what I have to say, irrespective of my credentials, I could earn the badge of an "influencer". You on the other hand with your years of education and research experience may not have the coveted "influencer" status…

Woebot

I read about Woebot and decided to try it out for myself.  Without a specific use case, I just decided to just engage with the chatbot to see what that felt like. The whole interaction is tightly scripted, so your responses back to the bot can only be one of the available options that it has been coded for. The moment I entered free form text, its ability to converse "intelligently" plummeted. It tried to get me back on track by prompting me to choose a word that best described what I was feeling. It took less than two minutes to throw it off its game and turn the interaction from mildly interesting to just pointless. The Wired story about Woebot had this to say about it:

In some ways, a CBT chatbot is the ultimate manifestation of that philosophy. “Woebot is a robot you can tell anything to,” says Darcy. “It’s not an AI that’s going to tell you stuff you don’t know about yourself by detecting some magic you’re not even aware of.” Woebot only knows as much as you reveal to it…

A Chair in Snow

It rains so often where I live that my deck furniture never gets a chance to fully dry up and is beginning to fall apart. What used to once be a place to sit and enjoy warm days is now mostly an eyesore now. I need to get rid of the crumbling furniture and the moldy seat covers. 

I probably don't because the presence of these decrepit chairs an implied option of enjoying the sun when it comes out. If I turn the place bare then that illusion disappears as well. It is an acknowledgment of what cannot be. 

After a snowfall, the chairs look particularly sad - it's like their last vestige of usefulness was taken away by becoming a receptacle for several inches of snow. 

Jane Hirshfield conveys this feeling perfectly in her poem A Chair in Snow

A chair in snow  should be like any other object whited & rounded
and yet a chair in snow is always sad


Still Relevant

I read Rajinder Singh Bedi's short story Lajwanti recently and was struck by how the more things change, the more they stay the same. The character of Lajwanti's husband encapsulates many of the conflicts that continue to plague the modern day sub-continental man. They really desire to accept the women in their lives "blemishes" and all because they realize it is the decent, progressive and humane thing to do. Yet often there is an insurmountable gap between what they wish to do and what they have the ability for. They are victims themselves as they have not been raised to fully accept and indeed celebrate a woman's personhood. So they end up being lesser versions of themselves, unable to live up to their own aspirations, making others miserable along the way.

My dear friend S, is single and without kids at my age. She tells me about her life experiences that have left her convinced that there is no place for a woman like herself in an Indian marriage and the expe…

Women's Day

My early contact with feminist literature were the writings of Erica Jong and Simone de Beauvoir. I was much too young and naive to fully grasp the significance of what I read. The value of their ideas came to me much later. The modern feminist agenda is a lot more confusing. This excerpt a blog post by Erin McKean is very typical of the female empowerment messaging that is currently in vogue 

You Don’t Have to Be Pretty. You don’t owe prettiness to anyone. Not to your boyfriend/spouse/partner, not to your co-workers, especially not to random men on the street. You don’t owe it to your mother, you don’t owe it to your children, you don’t owe it to civilization in general. Prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked “female”.

On the surface, this seems to be exactly right. Why would a woman need to botox-up to remain employable in her late 50s while a man can get away with quadruple chins? That is exactly the issue McKean is pointing out -  Prettiness is not a rent you …

The Age of Kali

The recent events in India finally got me around to reading William Dalrymple for the first time - an omission that I sorely needed to correct. I cannot count the number of times people I respect have recommended reading Dalrymple. The book I started with is The Age of Kali. His opening chapter is about his time in the bowels of Bihar - a state where I have spent a lot of years of my life. The PTSD inducing qualities for his prose for one such as myself cannot be overstated. 

I was fortunate enough not to live in places like Gomoh during my time there, but the level of fear and anxiety that formed the background noise of my life back then is incomparable to anything I have experienced since then. Having spent my formative years in Bihar created a baseline for what I was able and willing to tolerate in life -  a level not everyone can measure up to. I have friends from my childhood scattered around the world now, who like me are the product of their time in Bihar. We are fundamentally d…

Tidying Up Mantra

I received a copy of Marie Kondo's book as a gift and enjoyed reading it as a matter of curiosity. I live very sparsely and habitually organize things as a means of stress relief. After I am done, I often misremember what was bothering me in the first place - which is very therapeutic. So, I am not really in need of intervention to tidy up. Nevertheless, it was interesting to read Kondo's perspective on the topic. It did inspire me to clean up my closet in a big way. 

Being forced to think about why I am hanging on to clothes that are decades old, no longer wear and do not bring me any "joy" was instructive. It forced me to think about the real reasons for not letting go. In my case, a key driver was effort spent into finding the outfit. Clothes shopping does not come easily to me so everything I own took time to find. Tossing it into a discard pile made me think about the wasted hours that could have gone something more useful and permanent. 

There is some sense of fa…

Making Math Fun

The idea of gamifying the teaching of math in school is not such a bad one but pushing in-app purchases in that process is a big problem. I introduced J to Free Rice when she was a kid and I played along with her sometimes. We both loved the premise of this vocabulary game. Over the years, I have met other kids who have enjoyed playing it because they like the idea of learning combined with doing good. This is gamification of education done right. 

Similar ideas could be brought into teaching math. For every sixty math problems solved a kid may generate a volunteer hour that they can assign to a cause of their choice. If they work as a team they can raise more hours towards more challenging projects. A variety of different partnerships are possible and none of them would involve in-app purchases or pushing advertisements on kids who don't need their learning to be completely taken over by the online retail complex.

Recently, J introduced me the search engine Ecosia - a clever idea c…

Safer Cars

J drives a small, inexpensive car with a lot of miles on it. We bought it because the safety features were good and it still has three or four years of useful life left in it. The idea of exterior safety bags on cars - especially the smaller ones is very appealing. Every little bit helps with novice drivers. It would also be great if there was a distraction sensor in the car that would call on them to be attentive. 

The idea of cameras watching the driver is certainly intrusive especially with insurance industry trends moving towards collecting driving behavior data directly from the car onboard computer and using it to adjust premiums. Elsewhere in the world, dashcam footage can be publicly shared and used by law enforcement. All of these ideas come from a place of good intention but as adoption grows so does the opportunity for abuse.

The period of time between first teaching J to drive in empty parking lots and the day she got her driving license was difficult for me as it must be fo…

Expiration Dates

In our home, J is vigilant about expiration dates on food. She takes them too seriously and I not at all. Reading this story about a year-long experiment eating expired food lends support to my theory that expiration dates are just a way for retailers to move their products along faster. It seems like we could use our best judgment about these things - some foods just keep much better than others. You need to have a feel for when its too far gone and when it may not quite kill you yet. 

Sad looking fruit may not be appetizing but they can be easily converted into something that hides their blemishes. I look at slightly older and misshapen produce as an opportunity to be creative while reducing waste. Sourcing the finest ingredients to create a world-class meal is laudable of course but most of us are not delivering a farm to table experience on the regular. Watching a documentary on how Noma first set up shop in Japan was a worthwhile lesson on the pursuit of perfection to the point of…

Original by Adam Grant

In his book Originals: How Non-Conformist Move the World, Adam Grant says: As double minorities, black women defy categories. Because people don’t know which stereotypes to apply to them, they have greater flexibility to act “black” or “female” without violating stereotypes.

I found this to be an interesting insight from my own experience of being brown and female in the American workplace. Some racial stereotypes do apply but in a limited way. There are way too many smart, articulate, independent, confident sisters out there for the archetype of the docile push-over doing a man's bidding to last. 

Though truth be told, those docile looking ones often have a ton of hidden strength and can easily come out ahead in the end. Notwithstanding, people are able to classify a brown woman one way or the other and they make peace with it. At that point, rules no longer apply and indeed a brown female may fare better than a white one in many situations. 

The book overall is a bit of a yawn cons…

Work is Worship

Listening to this short interview about work being the new American religion brought back childhood memories for me. My father was a great proponent of "Work is Worship" and repeated this mantra often for my edification. He was never a particularly religious man until he retired. It was understood that I would grow up and work - more importantly, I would worship at the altar of that work. 

In real terms that meant, doing the best I could every day and giving it all I had. That would be proof I was living an honorable life. While I was free from the pressures of achieving any specific career goals to prove I was a worthy daughter, it would be a betrayal to my father not to workship my work - whatever that may be.

He never found the capacity to worship family, friends and the other blessings he had received in his life. His work demanded all of his available resources. Since he retired, he has an abundance of time and no idea what to do with it. He struggled to settle into this …