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Bye, 2015. And Season’s Greetings!

31 Dec

I’m glad to have made your acquaintance. In many ways you were like 2013: you walked me through quite a journey. In no specific order, some of my favourite things from this year:

*The share autos at Noida City Centre metro station. Because:

1)UPiites (Uttar Pradesh iites) really are polite, even if they burn their women and mutton eaters occasionally. And,

2) In order to extract the crazily parked and inevitably hemmed-in auto you are sitting in (or sitting behind) (filled with a minimum of 10 passengers) the driver will move backwards and forwards, going thud-thud into the autos in front and behind, like dodge’em cars, until there is space to manoeuvre out onto the main road.

*That twice daily meditations did not happen, but routinely longer ones did.

* The Cafe Coffee Day on Barakhamba road. After many misses, I’ve found ‘my’ coffee shop in the city.

* Days that begin at 5.30AM on winter mornings, finish by 3, leaving me the rest of the afternoon and evening for Noida visits and meditation.

* Who’d a thought I’d enjoy being out of the house by 5.30 AM? That I LIKE less sleep when forced into it?

* Goettingen. Lucking out on wonderful people there, both friends and strangers. Especially strangers.

* Uncle Chips. Many, many packets of it.

* Beginning, meaningfully, on field research for the second part of my PhD. I don’t care whether I actually finish or not: the journey thus far has far exceeded my expectations of learning when I began. But I will finish, because the ICSSR has kindly paid me a fellowship thus far.

* Noida, Nurnberg, Dakshineshwar.

Happy New Year, all. Because whyever not?


15 Feb

There is something immensely endearing about the Bihari (Bhojpuri?) accent on Hindi. One of my favourite things to do on public transport-especially on trams and buses (although I no longer take tram rides as frequently as I once used to)- is to overhear conversations. My eavesdropping ear stays peaked and travels from one conversation to another, and homes in on one that suits.

Today morning on the 1.5 hour ride to Dakshineshwar, I overheard a mother and daughter have a brief not-quite-a-quibble about who will pay the bus fare (the daughter was quite business-like about how much her mother owed her for the preceding auto-ride-Rs.11!- and would not shell out for the bus fare, even though the mother promised to pay her back later. The mother was apprehensive about whether the bus-conductor would willingly accept the hundred rupee note she had for a fare that would be under twenty rupees). The mother wondered whether the conductor had over-charged them (I think he did, for he took one rupee more from me than is the usual fare). They also spoke about how the daughter’s new workplace would be quite far from home. Rather mundane, and all in Bengali. My ear did not happen upon anything interesting.

On the return journey, there were two voices behind me. I’ve never aged people by their voice before and it was interesting to recognise an ‘older’ voice and a ‘younger’ voice. In Bihari (Bhojpuri?) accented Hindi the older one one was recounting how during the 1992 World Cup* (cricket, ofcourse; I never did football B-)) he and his friends used to rent a television to watch the matches. And how he bought celebratory fire-crackers in anticipation of India’s win against Pakistan, way before the match day. And how the true joy of watching the matches, especially after wins, was switching between the various news channels to hear what the experts had to say accompanied by the many replays of particular moments. They were wondering whether to go to Mani Square (a biggish mall with, I assume, large screens airing the match for free) or Tiljala (a neighbourhood known for its notoriety in the 60s and 70s, according to my mother) for today’s match. The older man was trying to convince the younger man, boy, really, to come to Tiljala. But what is there in Tiljala, the boy kept asking. Oh, you come, and I’ll show you something wonderful, the older man would laughingly say. The second time he conceded there was an ashram there which he was keen to take that young boy to. I’m not exactly sure how an ashram is related to cricket,lol!

All this to say that the Bihari/Bhojpuri accent, coupled with their way of delivering speech, makes language sound warm, endearing, and straight from the heart. Every word sounds like a verbal hug. You’ll have to imagine what that sounds like 🙂


*Certain liberties have been taken with the dates. It could also have been the 1996 World Cup, or some cricket series in 1994. All three years made an appearance during the conversation but my memory chose to be all Oral History** about recollecting the sequence of their appearance.

** Oral history, with its privileging of narratives recounted from memory which often contradict officially recorded ‘facts’ and timelines, and their own facts and timelines with every re-telling, used to frustrate me when I first encountered it as an undergraduate student of literature taking a compulsory concurrent course in history.  Later, as an MPhil student, it began to really teach me about how we think about ‘what was/is’ and how much of our history gets written by privileging a few versions of the ‘truth’ as opposed the many that exist. I now find its premise to be a very valuable tool in knowing how to listen to other people before making sense of a problem, a situation or a picture.


21 Jan

I cannot write about my Grandmother’s death as yet, it is too soon and more painful that I imagined it would be. It is still hard to believe she’s gone. My mother forgets sometimes and thinks to call her about something before remembering. Every other thing reminds me of her, and suddenly, of my grandfather, who passed away in 2008.

Chowmein, for instance. My mother brought some back from her office canteen today. She sat wrapped up in a quilt and I at the foot of the bed, eating, and Didu popped into our minds at the same time. My mother’s because she had one of those moments when she was thinking to call and ask how Didu was doing with Calcutta’s cold (like most old people, my grandmum hated the winter and wore several layers at home) and I because of ‘chow’.

My grandmum was an awesome cook. Most summer vacations, when we visited or they did, we had a ritual where she’d weigh me before and after the visit. Her feeding up would inevitably add about five pounds to my skinny frame by the time it was time to go back. She’d be planning meals all the time and talking about how I was too thin, and at times I’d get irritated and make fun of her one-track mind. One of my demands of her used to be her chowmein. This was in the days before it was available commonly and cheaply on the streets (and anyway my grandmum was so good at replicating restaurant delicacies at home that the question of ordering in rarely arose). She would call it chow and it was a staple whenever we visited. My brother loved it as well, if I remember correctly.

When I was even younger, it wasn’t enough that she prepared delicacies for every meal; I used to demand she feed me and tell me stories. Both grandparents were awesome storytellers and I grew up associating grandparents with the function of storytelling. Even when I’d snuggle in for a nap with either Didu or Dadu I’d demand endless stories. Golpo bolo.

Their old house had a kitchen on the first floor. It was huuuge, had a separate storeroom, and contained a dining table as well. I’d hang out there with her as she cleaned and cut fish (this she did till she was 80; she’d never trust the fishmonger to do it for her) on the bonthi, demanding, what else? stories. And the occassional piece of tamarind. I first tasted tamarind in her kitchen. She’d make a rad shingi magur’er saloon. Ilish maach, kosha maangsho, chicken’er jhol, kaakra’r jhal, chingri…I’ve never eaten better.

Just a couple of weekends before she died, she came over and brought us Dhakai porotta. And she ate a slice of pizza I’d sent to her through my mom the day she had her stroke. Whilst she was in hospital, in a coma, I told her I’d be baking a cake and saving a slice for her. I did; but in the end, like always, she ensured I ate it.


23 Oct

In nursery, they taught us to sing ‘Diwali, Diwali, festival of lights’. Candles burn, crackers burst…and after that I cannot remember. Never mind, it’s the light I’m interested in.

There is something so cleansing about fire. Cleansing, energizing, life-giving. Or perhaps, I’m just a closet pyromaniac! 😛

It is Diwali today, and I realise that I suck at secular festivity. As a kid- it was the crackers which made Diwali an occasion for me (we’d burst them as a family, mostly low-power stuff except that one time when my mom got us those string crackers that look like crayons in a box and OHBOYWHATFUN our hearts thudded with the noise after my mom the brave one lit it and that is one memory I will always cherish-that one daring Diwali-but we stopped bursting crackers when I was in Class V because my brother, who is four years younger, was brainwashed at school into giving them up child labour, pollution and Diwali, Diwali is a festival of lights I was pissed at first, I remember standing at one end of the primary school corridor at Carmel overlooking the basketball court? complaining to friends about the injustice of it they’re just crackers) but after that I’d only get mildy interested in putting up the diyas with my mother (who has always been the most enthusiastic about it) who eventually found a kindred spirit in the neighbour kid and they would do rangolis together. Once or twice, I’d summon up interest because Kali Puja, which falls on the same day for us Bengalis (although some apparently do Lakshmi Puja on this day), provides mutton curry as prasad.

So yes, I suck at secular festivity. This time, the secular beat a retreat on its own, and in the days leading up to Diwali, I transitioned in my head to thinking of it as Kali Puja. I love Kali. So I did some enthusiastic cleaning around the house (and discovered the joys of wipe-downs with lemongrass oil-don’t get any on your hands though it’s an essential oil and it will burn undiluted) and went out today to replenish the stock of tea-lights that were to go into diyas today because yesterday we used up fourteen-the day before Diwali ‘we’ (meaning what? Bengalis? Our kind of Bengalis? Or just our family line? Who knows? We’re autonomous migratory Bongs with limited time for rituals) and along the way I saw this young man setting up with the largest, brightest genda phools I’ve seen, on two tables, by the little road leading to the market I was walking to. I saw him, thought about buying some, but because I never do, I walked on. Genda phool also goes by marigold and when I was a child, when we had flower pots in our balcony, we had two of marigold, one used to be on the left-most corner and I would stand by that one oftenest as I would look between the railings and get my view of the world outside my building. I kind of remember it being in perpetual bloom, but I’m sure that is just my memory kidding me.

On my way back, though, I bought it. They were the biggest, brightest, yellow and orangest and fragrantest of the lot I’d seen while walking-and there were many marigold sellers out and about on occassion of Diwali. The young man selling it called me Madam and the lady beside me Madam. We both examined the length of the string, and both asked the price and he used the same tone of voice, the same language for both replies. He treated us the same. He gave us the same soft, polite respect. What a nice guy!  What a beautiful soul! That is what happens when the secular transitions to non (I notice things).

The strand of all that is good and God wove its way from his big, lovely flowers to a new urge to place a blossom each before our Guru in every room.When I go back to Calcutta end of this month I’m getting myself a pot of marigold so I can take a daily flower or two and with my hands place them before Lahiri Mahasaya and Gyanamata and Babaji and God and Guru in every room. The genda phool found its way home and took me along for the ride.

The thing about marigolds? Apparently they bloom best in poor soil.

Ah the sun!

30 Jul

There is nothing like beginning your day with a mug of green tea with lemon and honey.

I’m in Delhi for a week. The primary purpose was a close friend’s wedding, but I had also made plans of yoga, meeting friends and generally just going around Delhi for a bit. I already know that yoga is all that will happen, hehe. I’m just too reluctant to make long journeys right now, I’d rather vegetate a bit.

I did apply for the PhD. And now there is a month to read up on and defend the proposal- somewhat sketchy at the moment- for the interview. I’m at peace with the decision. While working on my dissertation, I saw that my brain really likes to be challenged, it thrives on being forced to think. However, there is also a part of me that resists attempts at hard work, that tries to tell my body that happiness lies in taking it easy. If I do get into the PhD programme, life will be harder. But I’m no longer as scared of my ability to negotiate a difficult path as I was till even a year ago.

Back in Calcutta, a batchmate has been in an accident under unfortunate circumstances, which involved my entire batch, minus three of us. Drunk driving. She was the passenger. It was the night of the farewell that our faculty gave us. She and her friend (not our batchmate) got into an ugly exchange of words with everybody else, apparently (I wasn’t there since I had a flight to catch to Delhi the next morning), and took off with her friend driving. The car flipped. All considered, she had a miraculous escape. I feel for her. She has been making bad choices for so long. The inside of her head is not a happy place. She needs someone to be firm but loving with her. I’m not sure there is anybody playing such a role in her life, not even her parents. I’ll be going to visit her once I’m back.

A rather long ramble

4 Jul

I had a short conversation with my Guide today morning. We were talking (and laughing!) about how my first drafts have looked SO different from my final drafts. He made the observation that my first drafts are intensely personal and that I achieve the level of detachment and distance that is required in academic writing in consequent drafts. Don’t ever turn in first drafts! said he. Lol.

It was a very profound observation, not just on my writing, but also on myself. (Ofcourse, as I have discovered during the dissertation process, I cannot draw neat lines between where my self ends and where my ability to write begins. When I struggle mentally with something, my writing is impacted.) My mind, in its natural state, is an unrestful place. It is extra-responsive to my environment, to my past, and it simply HAS to work through every thought that comes to mind. Put another way, there are endless triggers that I encounter in day-to-day living, which, if not managed, can send me into a spiral of unhealthy responses like worry, anxiety, anger, grief. My mind in its ‘natural’ state teaches me to identify with my lower self and take it too seriously. And I am very glad for this, because I have often wondered if I was easily satisfied with my life, would I have sought God? Would I have realised that there is no lasting peace and joy in anything but God? Would I have made loving and realising God my goal and sole ambition? Somehow I don’t think so. Had I not been made the way I have been made, my journey in God would have looked very different.

Managing my triggers has been a big part of the journey I have made in the past two years. Around November 2012, I had written:

So when I think of work, I think I need to re-orient my conception of it. Working on MYSELF is my primary job for now, because as they say on airplanes: put the mask on yourself before you help children and the elderly. I’m no good at giving myself, till this myself learns to behave and be in God at all times.  

I am learning to become aware of and distance and detach myself from my lower self. I am learning to observe inharmonious movements of thoughts and feelings inside me and realise that these do not have to keep me from practicing the presence of God. There is a very definite parallel between the journey I have made during my MPhil programme and the jouney I have made in God. I believe very strongly that the only reason the Lord blessed me with these two years of MPhil in Calcutta is so I could learn to move further in my spiritual practice. There was no reason for me to have been admitted to this institution; the application procedure required a research proposal. EVERYBODY had a research proposal…except me. All I gave them were a few paragraphs of what I was interested in. As far as I am concerned, the MPhil wasn’t my move, it was God’s 🙂

I have not made the journey on my own; nothing is my own, not even my effort. It’s all God. And oh yes, moving my self from the first draft version of myself to my second, third, fourth versions of myself have only been possible through meditation. I have gone from ‘freestyle’ meditation to a specific technique. This is in preparation of my mind and body to receive Kriya Yoga initiation some day, if it is so willed. Nothing has taught me to activily still the mind like meditation, and without stillness one can’t receive God.

There is another long post that I will need to get out some day soon. Thoughts about the terrible tragedy in Uttarakhand. We will never know how many are dead. They are saying it might be 100,000-300,000. Most of us have never seen or heard anything like it. It’s like the doomsday movies. Assam has floods now. Canada has floods. Parts of Europe had (has) floods. Kids are dying in Kerala. A bigoted man might be the prime ministerial canditate for one of the main political parties in 2014’s elections. There is a lot of unprecedented crazy in the world right now. It is hard to feel secure in the midst of all this, but maybe this worldy insecurity will lead more and more of us to search for a more permanent, inviolate security. But, all that for another post. Back to work now.


It has been a while since I have

14 Jun

It has been a while since I have flipped through pages so old that I breathe in their vanilla mustiness from several inches above. The library copy of Sukanta Chaudhuri’s now out of print two-volume story of Calcutta (OUP) is probably 23 years old. The binding is coming apart, and the thick pages are already yellowing. Twenty Three in Calcutta’s humid weather is probably an older twenty three than, say, in Delhi.

The smell brings back memories of early childhood reading. The book magic happened to me at the age of five, with Enid Blyton’s Bimbo and Topsy, followed by Secret Seven Have an Adventure. Before that, I remember not caring much for bed time stories. My parents would read to me and I would interrupt every few sentences with annoying (I’m sure!) but-why questions. The but-why habit pursued me through life and I’ve held up quite a few science classes in high school trying to understand the correlation between formula and manifestation. In Class XI, physics, I annoyed the hell out of my teacher and at least one classmate wanting to know why the physical structure of surface tension (the scientific explanation of which, as explained, I understood) produced that curved shape. She couldn’t explain enough, and I couldn’t understand enough (I gave her a thank-you card at the end of the year for bearing with my questions). It is only relatively recently, in the past two years or so, that I have learnt to deal with my pressing but-whys: put them aside, meditate, and eventually you get the answer. If you don’t, well, you will some day. If you still don’t, you don’t need the answer right now.

Look at me, getting all off-track! So yes, books. While I had read the Noddy books and fairy tales before that, it was only when 5 year old me got a-hold of Bimbo and Topsy (birthday presents! The best way to build book collections in middle class homes, pre-liberalisation) that I really started to read. I was hooked; I read everywhere, and every waking non-school moment (faked sick a few times to read) and not having too many books of my own, I would re-read the ones I had, endlessly. Some time before I turned ten, I acquired several old books: my father’s childhood collection from my grandparents house across the country and my grandmother’s collections from her childhood. My mother read Bengali, so not much loot was to be had from that end (I can read Bangla, but it’s a slow, painful process involving the sticking out of my tongue and much concentration). These books included Just William (still cannot get enough of William!), Treasure Island, Coral Island etc etc and a complete set of silver-fish infested Sherlock Holmes. This was my real love (and Sherlock Holmes, my first crush). The pages were so brittle that the slightest pressure in the wrong direction would lead to a part of it breaking off. The typeface was old and proper and there were these little holes-created no doubt by creatures that feast on cellulose-dotting every page. And oh, the smell! Such a comforting smell.

I’m glad to relive this at the fag-end of my dissertation, reading a book about a city I’ve grown to love.