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Saturday, June 18, 2016

Loss (flash fiction)

The kid would have been three years this August.

I still remember the day when my Obstetrician/Gynecologist examined me with great patience and explained what I saw on the screen: 'There’s no heartbeat. It is not alive.'

It took a while to sink in. 'Are you sure?' My husband asked.

The doctor appeared slightly offended,' I have never given a wrong diagnosis in 25 years of my career.'

He had a right to feel hurt. He was the Chief Ob/Gyn in a reputed hospital and a philanthropist.

I was eight weeks pregnant and had known of its existence since the sixth week. The pregnancy test showed a 'plus' on the strip and at once fear, incredulity, and anticipation paralyzed me. I showed it to my husband, aware that we were not ready for a kid. We hadn't talked about it. He jumped with joy, hugged me, and started kissing me like I had given the best news of his life. I sighed with relief. He seemed happier than I was.

But soon, I started feeling strange. I didn't 'feel' pregnant, even though the hormone levels in my urine did. I started dreaming of dead relatives and grew increasingly superstitious about it. My late grandma asked to see my baby in my dreams. Was she preparing me to let go?

The doctor gave us some time to mourn and left the room. My husband remained stoic, hugging me while I wept. Then he took me to my salon appointment. I had a long-due haircut and a pedicure. I let those people work on me without really enjoying it. They knew something was wrong when they saw dry tears on my face. I didn’t want to explain. I painted my nails blue.

Later in the evening, he took me out to a concert we had been looking forward to for months. I wanted to skip it, but he insisted that we should go. I slept through the first half of the show when the supporting band performed the opening act.

Soon Muse took over and started singing ‘Unsustainable’. When they sang ‘Hysteria’ I wanted to scream too. It wasn’t sadness anymore; it was rage. The splendid lasers and visual aesthetics evolved with every song, sometimes into a stock market ticker, at others a roulette wheel that selected ‘New Born.'

He reminded me that it was my one of my favorite songs from the movie Haute Tension. I couldn’t remember it. I felt tired and wanted to leave for home. The smell of beer and the sweat of the crowd- everything got mixed into an overpowering odor that choked me. There were still a couple of songs left when I urged to leave before the crowd broke out of Oracle Arena.

We drove back home, and I called my mother, talking only about the concert until she asked ‘What did the doctor say?’ I was hoping to stall the news till she reached home from work – it was just past noon in India. But I told her anyway. I can’t lie to her. She kept quiet. Maybe it was better that she was busy when she got the news.

At night, before going to sleep, I talked to 'it' out of habit. I knew it couldn’t listen then; it couldn’t listen now. But I had to tell it I loved it through the two weeks I knew it. However, I had to let it go.

Friday, June 10, 2016

বিশ্বাস

বাবা খ্রীষ্টান, মা হিন্দু। তাই বড় হওয়ার সময় কোন নির্দিষ্ট ধর্মের প্রভাব সে অনুভব করে নি।  স্কুলে ভর্তির সময় এডমিশন ফর্মে লেখা হয়েছিল, 'No religion'  বয়স যখন পনেরো, তখন প্রতিবেশীর ছেলেকে বিনা চিকিৎসায় মৃত্যুর মুখে ঢলে পড়তে দেখে। পরিবারের লোকজন 'Faith healing '- এ বিশ্বাসী, তাই অসুস্থ ছেলেকে ডাক্তারের কাছে নিয়ে যায় নি তারা। কিন্তু বিশ্বাসে রোগ নিরাময় হয় না। সেদিন থেকে নিজেকে নাস্তিক বলে ঘোষণা করে নিজের কাছে।

ইউনিভার্সিটিতে মাস্টার ডিগ্রী করা কালীন অনুরূপ সংস্কারমুক্ত সহপাঠীদের সঙ্গে পরিচয় হয়।  Indian Rationalist Association (IRA)'র সক্রিয় সদস্য তো ছিলই , তার সাথে Modern Freethinker পত্রিকার সম্পাদনাও শুরু করে। তার লেখা প্রবন্ধ অনুবাদ হয় ইংরেজি, ফরাসি, জার্মান, স্প্যানিশ ও ফিনিশে। 

বন্ধুদের সঙ্গে মিলে অনেক ভন্ড সাধুদের বুজরুকি ফাঁস করে দেয় তাদের ভক্তদের সামনে। 

ইউরোপে লেকচার দিতে ফিনল্যাণ্ড থেকে নিমন্ত্রণ আসে।  যখন বিদেশ যাবার জন্যে গোছগাছ করছে তখন খবর পায় যে মুম্বাই-এর এক অজ্ঞাতনামা চার্চে যিশুর মূর্তির পা চুইয়ে জল পরছে।  দল বল নিয়ে উপস্তিত হয় সেখানে। অনুসন্ধান করে জানতে পারে যে পাশের টয়লেট খারাপ হয়ে গিয়েছে। জল জমছে আর capillary action-এ জলের ধারার সৃষ্টি হচ্ছে।  আর সেই নোংরা জলকে অলৌকিক ভেবে অনেক ভক্তরা বাড়ি নিয়ে যাছে, বউ বাচ্চাকে খাওয়াচ্ছে। 

এই রহস্য ফাঁসের ব্যাপারে একটা স্থানীয় চ্যানেল সাক্ষাৎকার নিতে চায়।  এক বাবাজি তাকে কোপে ভস্ম করে দেওয়ার প্রতিজ্ঞা করেছিলেন । সাক্ষাৎকার চলাকালীন অনেক মন্ত্র পড়েও যখন বাবাজির কার্যসিদ্ধি হয় না তখন বিফল হয়ে বাবাজি দাবি করেন- এই ব্যাটা শয়তানের দূত। এবং শীঘ্রই নিপাত যাবে। এর বিনাশ সুনিশ্চিত।

কিছু ভাড়া করা গুন্ডা ষ্টুডিওর বাইরে অপেক্ষা করছিল। তারই মধ্যে একজন তার বন্ধু ও সহযোদ্ধাকে ছুরি মেরে জখম করে।

অন্য দিকে Catholic Secular Forum (CSF) তখন Section 295(A) of Indian Penal Code এর অজুহাতে নানা পুলিশ থানায় তার সংস্থার বিরুদ্ধে FIR করছে।  295(A)-এর উৎপত্তি হয়েছিল ১৯২৭ সালে পরাধীন ভারতে। তখন সাম্প্রদায়িক উত্তেজনা খর্ব করার জন্যে এই নিয়মের সৃষ্টি। যার দরুন যে কোন ব্যক্তিকে পুলিশ বিনা তদন্ত, বিনা প্রমাণে  গ্রেপ্তার করে অনির্দিষ্ট কালের জন্যে হেপাজতে রেখে দিতে পারে।

যুদ্ধের প্রস্তুতি নেবে সেই মানসিকতা তখন তার নেই। সহকর্মীর রক্তাক্ত দেহ আর ষ্টুডিওর বাইরে সেই গুন্ডাগুলোর মুখ মনে পরে যায় বার বার। এরা এত অন্ধ কেন?

বন্ধুদের অনুরোধে সে ফিনল্যাণ্ড একটু আগেই পৌঁছে যায়।  সেখানে কিছু পরিচিত মানবতাবাদীদের আনুকূল্যে ভিসা ও একটা ভাড়া বাড়ি পেতে অসুবিধে হয় না। ভাবে হয়ত ঝামেলা কমলে দেশে ফিরে যাবে।

কিন্তু CSF ভোলার পাত্র নয়।  তারা প্রিতিজ্ঞা করেছে যে প্রসিকিউশন হবেই।  সে যখনি দেশে ফিরুক।

অনেক বছর হয়ে গেছে। মা গত হয়েছেন।  এখনো সে রোজ Skype-এ  IRA'র মিটিং করে।  কোথায় কোন ভন্ড সাধু কিভাবে লোকদের ঠকাচ্ছে তার খবরাখবর নেই।  তাদের জব্দ করার পরিকল্পনা করে। এ রুটিনটা তার জন্যে খুব জরুরি।  যুদ্ধ চালিয়ে যেতে হবে।

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Kinship

I think of her often. A petite woman in her forties, with bright vermillion on her forehead. I knew she was a Bengali from the shankha and pola she was wearing. Along with her husband and three daughters aged 16, 12, and 6, she had migrated from Bangladesh to NCR for better prospects. I heard her say once that her husband's brothers had cheated him off their paternal property.

She looked like she had seen better days. But in a new country and with language barriers, she wasn't left with many options. She didn't speak any Hindi, and she needed the money to help raise her kids. Someone from her neighborhood cleaned my house every day. She asked me if she needed someone to cook for her. I ate most of my meals outside or at the office canteen, and didn't need any more domestic help, but she looked like she could use some help, at least, until she found some footing. Reluctantly, I asked her to start the next day.

What she lacked in culinary skills, she made up in enthusiasm. She made sure that she came early at the break of dawn and cooked whatever she could before I went to work. Once I was late, and she insisted I don't skip breakfast. I asked her to feed me while I got dressed, She started to weep.

I asked her what was the matter, and she said: আমারে ঘিন্না করে না ? (Don't I disgust you?)

The question took me by surprise. Why would I be disgusted? She was tidier than some of my co-workers. Her saree might not have been expensive, but it was always clean. If anything, I feared that she might think I am a spoilt brat, too lazy to grab a bite before I started the day.

Soon, she picked a few words in Hindi, enough to have a functional conversation. That got her more work. But she always found time for me. I often got late at work, so I gave her a spare key to my house. She was trustworthy. The only thing she ever misplaced was my passport before my TOEFL exams. I had to reschedule. Otherwise, she had been most helpful during my last few months in India.

During my long hours of Full Length Test (FLT) practice, she slinked in and out of the house, reminding her daughters who sometimes accompanied her: দিদি পড়াশুনা করে, ডিসটার্ব করবা না।  (Didi is studying. Don't disturb.)

I was practicing to sit for 4 hours more than anything else. GMAT, like any other professional exam, was an endurance test.

One day, she told me,' দিদি আমি একটা বাড়িতে কাজ করি। অনেক গুলা  ছেলে এক সঙ্গে থাকে। এর মধ্যে একজন  কইসে আমার বড় মেয়েরে বিয়া করব। ওরে সিনেমা দেখাইতে চায়।  (Didi, I work in a house where a lot of young guys live together. One of them said that he wants to marry my eldest. He even wants to take her out to the movies.)

I stopped breathing for a second. What if a scoundrel was trying to exploit these good people? Then I admonished myself. Maybe someone had good intentions. Her eldest daughter was exceptionally beautiful.  Maybe someone had fallen in love with her. I expressed my pleasure and smiled benignly. Hoping to God that her dreams came true.

A few weeks later, I came home to see her daughter sitting in the dark. I switched on the lights and asked where her mother was. She said that her mother was running a fever, and so she was doing the rounds instead. Her eyes were red and swollen from crying.

I asked her what happened, but she kept crying on. I held her to my bosom. I think I knew why.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Treasure

It was a small headline that read,' Cult film sparks hunt for a fortune.' The newspaper tabloids reported the death of a Japanese woman in a field outside Detroit Lakes in Minnesota. She had reportedly been looking for a hidden treasure, depicted in the movie Fargo. I felt I needed to get inside her head and know what was driving her to search for something that did not exist. What were the last moments of her life like?

Armed with morbid curiosity and my camera, I set out to search the breadcrumb trail she had left behind during the last few days of her life. The first place I went to was the police station where a long-haul truck driver had brought her after she was found wandering alone by the highway. Barely clothed to ward off the cold of a Minnesota winter, he thought she’d freeze to death until she got some help. AT first, the police officer on duty thought that she was a prostitute. ‘No one dresses like that in that weather. No one sane.’ He said to me.

He had tried to talk to her, but she barely spoke English. The only word he understood, which she kept saying over and over again was –Fargo, Fargo, Fargo.

She had shown him a map with an X. He could identify some marks that looked like roads, trees, and a lake. Could she have been looking for the money mentioned in the movie Fargo? He tried to explain that it wasn’t real. That it was just a movie. But she kept insisting on being there- almost pleading in a language he did not understand.

He decided to take her to the bus station. On her way, she kept clutching at her stomach and said something. He suspected that she might be pregnant. Did she want the money for her unborn child?

It was important for her to be with her family in this condition. Why was this woman wandering in the streets instead? He told her to reach out to him if needed and asked her to go home. She walked away.

‘I shouldn’t have let her go on her own. Why didn’t I do more for her?’, he lamented.

Upon further investigations, I found that she had checked into a cheap motel nearby. I asked to be let into the room she was in. I lay in the bed she had laid and looked out of the window that opened to a parking lot and a neon sign. It was depressing. I gathered my things and went out.

I asked the bellboy if she had gone anywhere. He said that she had taken a taxi. I found the cab driver who drove her there and asked him to drop me where he had dropped her.

It was the middle of nowhere.

I walked in the cold air with the sound of silence. Soon, I reached the place she had been found dead. She had died of exposure. They had found her with her face was buried in the snow. A cold, lonely death.

The last person I wanted to speak with was the lead investigator of her death. He told me that she had made a long phone call before her death. He also gave me her last known address in Tokyo.

After a long flight, I knocked on the door of a two-storied house. An old lady opened the door. She was the landlady of the Japanese woman. I had a translator with me who eased me into the conversation. I grabbed at the bits as she spoke swiftly.  The dead woman was a country girl who had found a job in the city in a travel agency. Through her work, she had met an American gentleman who was in Tokyo for business.

The landlady believed that they were engaged to be married when her tenant lost her job. The fiancé left for his country too. After months of waiting and no contact from his side, the girl decided to go to America on her own where she thought he lived. In a town called Fargo.

Based on true events.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The paradox of success

Sometimes, our success can make us impatient with the failures of others. Maybe we can empathize more with the struggles of the multitude when we are struggling ourselves. But with every ascent, as the height increases, we look down upon those we started with;  not acknowledging that they might have problems that we are not aware of.

We begin to attribute their issues to attitude problem. We might even try to fix it. Try to make them more like us. But success or failure is not the result of just attitude. Twenty other things are as influential. All the maxims oversimplify the truth.

Not everyone has to finish the race at the same time to win. In fact, there is no race at all. If someone asks for your advice, be generous with it. But don't waste time and energy in sheer pedagogy. It is insulting to the receiver.

The paradox of success is this: you have to separate yourself from what you have achieved. What you have might be delightful, but it might not be what someone else wants. Let them find their way to success and happiness.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The burden of expectations

One of my juniors from B-school had her wedding scheduled at the end of this month. The venue was booked, invitations had been sent out, and I had already decided what I’d be giving her as a wedding gift.

Yesterday, she messaged me that the nuptials had been called off. I called her immediately to make sure she was okay and that it wasn’t just a lovers’ tiff. She seemed sure of her decision. I asked her to meet because this is not a conversation you can have over the phone.

I had some inkling about what the issue could have been and I was right. Family. She said that her fiancé expected her to live with his parents six months every year after marriage. It was not that she was not ready for that, but he never thought of asking her first. Not having a choice is what ticked her off.

I see it as a symptom of a bigger problem. If a well-educated, financially independent girl like her is not allowed to have a choice, who else possibly could? She regrets not having handled the situation the best way she could have, but I had to ask her what the alternative was. She would have given in to his wish and accepted the terms. But what if she felt that it was not working out for her after six months of marriage ?

I always believe that whatever happens is for the best. She should, at least, have had the option to say no. Imposing decisions like these is just the beginning. No matter how much time and energy she has invested in this relation, it is nothing compared to the rest of her life. Eight months is nothing compared to the remaining 50-60 years of her life. In the long-run, it won't even matter.

I hope her family understands that she needs their support now more than ever. She shouldn’t be demonized to wanting to live life a certain way. At another time, he might have been the right guy for her. But right now their priorities are different. She wants to spend time with him alone and get to know him. He wants his house full of people with zero privacy.

Privacy. The concept is so alien to some people. It is spoken in whispers like it is criminal to want it. Not everyone wants to get married by 22, have a kid by 23, and call it life. She wants to travel the world with her husband. Build memories that last a lifetime. What is wrong in wanting that? Not everyone is the same. How can you expect someone else to give up their dreams because they don’t fit in with yours?

I think that people who agree with everything someone asks them to do, have some deep-rooted issues. They probably assume they are not good enough or are dependent in some way. Too scared to antagonize their ‘savior’.  Or some ulterior motive. Like her not-to-be-future-sister-in-law who lives with her in-laws, wakes up at 5 in the morning, goes to work, and then comes home to daily chores. She thought that the SIL was some superwoman, so she asked her the secret of her success. The SIL replied- ‘Look at the brighter side, I don’t need a nanny for my kids. They are not going to live more than ten years anyways.’

You need to have an icy, calculating heart to think of the death of a person as your only relief. If I had issues with someone, I’d want to work it out – not pray for their death. My friend is a genuine person to have refused what she thinks she can not handle rather than pretend to be okay with it or try to manipulate the situation to her advantage.

 I hope she finds her happiness with or without him.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

My impressions about Vienna

I believe that when we visit a place, we bring a unique perspective with us. And no matter how many people have been there before us, how many travel logs we read or shows we watch - when we experience something with our senses first-hand, we form impressions that are truly ours.

Most of us are no different from Columbus or Neil Armstrong- the first stranger in an alien land. The small town girl who marvels at the city lights for the first time, pilgrims who make arduous journeys overseas, the foodie who seeks to taste exotic flavors in foreign lands, even the mother who finds the courage to visit her children settled abroad after having spent her whole life in the same neighborhood. We are all explorers. Maybe not celebrated or renowned, but in no small measure either.

One of my favorite ways to explore a new city is to walk in it. I use Google Maps on my phone to get a general direction of my destination, then grab my camera and some comfortable shoes and set out. It is best if the weather is sunny and breezy, but a light drizzle never mars my spirits. You can take some amazing pictures of an overcast sky, which you would miss on a sunny day.



Pictures on an overcast/rainy day 

Inside St. Peter's Church

Architecture
During the cab ride from the airport to our hotel, I had glimpses of the monumental buildings in the city. Some of the most noteworthy buildings include the Parliament, City Hall (built in Flemish Gothic style ), the Burgtheater (New Baroque) the State Opera, the University, and the Museum of Natural History(Neo-Renaissance). Dramatic figures in marble abound.

 Statue of Hercules bashing Antaeus

You will also find Athena, the Goddess of Wisdom, in a gilded helmet and armor, standing on a pillar, guarding the parliament.

Food
The first thing I tasted upon arrival was Weiner Schnitzel (Weiner=Viennese, Wein=Vienna, German). Traditionally, it is thin, breaded and pan-fried veal, often served with parsley potatoes. Another favorite I discovered was an apricot filled ice cream with hazelnut crust (Eis Marille Knödel) from Tichy Saloneis. Don’t try it from anywhere else. They make them fresh that don’t freeze your teeth like the knockoffs.


City folks in traditional Austrian clothes

We chanced upon a weekend market at Rathaus Platz and tasted some local Austrian beer, ripe cheese, and wine. The people were enjoying their weekend. Kids played in areas inside straw bales while the parents chatted away. Some of them wore traditional Austrian clothes: Girls in Dirndl and guys in Lederhosen. It is the clothing of Alps country folks/peasants and often seen in Austria, Germany, and some parts of Italy.

Art
I had a chance to visit the History of Art Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum), Leopold Museum, and Belvedere Gallery.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is a palatial building on Ringstraße and is the current domicile of several art collections & antiquities. Tablets with information on the artifacts are available on benches on one side of the room. The museum is huge and anything less than 3 hours would be criminal. I hope to go back again someday. I have missed the Natural History Museum, Albertina, and the Sigmund Freud Museum.

Men dressed in Mozart tout tickets to tourists for concerts at Museumplatz. A friend said that they sold bogus tickets meaning to rip off the uninformed. What surprised me was that they were doing it right in front of uniformed police officers. Maybe some of their business is legit.

Leopold Museum houses modern Austrian art, featuring artists such as Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, and Richard Gerstl. Though I find the work and life of modern and contemporary artists fascinating, I am slightly partial to classical art.

The Belvedere was the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy. Cameras are not allowed inside the exhibits except for a dedicated selfie point and the marble work on the ceilings. However, you can take as many shots of the spectacular view of the city from the entrance.

One of the most interesting things we did was take a horse-drawn carriage ride around the city from Michaelplatz. You may make a special request for a ‘porcelain ride’ that was used to transfer porcelain in earlier days. The slow tread of the horses is so relaxing you will want to do it all day.

We spent some good days in the city. Dinner with friends, walks after dinner, coffee shops that are open past midnight. A special shout to Gautam Mama and Gopa Mami for all their love and attention. They took us to Schönbrunn Palace gardens and Donau Tower that offers a 360 degrees view of the city.

I fell in love with you Vienna. Can’t wait till we meet again.