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Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Living in the moment, creative visualization, and some Jedi advice

Problems
One of the biggest challenges I face every day is over thinking. This uses up my mental energy and leaves very little to pursue creative channels that should otherwise be my primary focus. I am working for two anchor clients presently, and I need considerable time just to think about design elements that can make my final product better. When stray thoughts break out into a flash mob, I have to hold the reins of my thoughts and guide myself towards the task at hand.

It helps to have a job that you love. But for people like me, who like to indulge in daydreams, the Jedi have a word of advice: Live in the present moment.

Recurrent challenges of everyday life
Usually, I take advantage of my focus in the morning, when the mind is relatively clear. As soon as I wake up, I make myself a cup of coffee and get to work. This is the most productive part of my day. As the day progresses, the distractions begin to appear- making a phone call, checking my email, stealing a peep into my FB, maybe even replying to Whatsapp messages. I have it under control now because I don't allow myself to pick up my phone that often. All notifications are silent, and my phone is set not to ring.

Lunch time is always a challenge because I end up taking the longest break during that time. I work from home mostly, so I have to cook too. Though there are no elaborate feasts, I need a couple of hours to prepare lunch and dinner for the day. That means my work day extends well beyond regular 9-5 routine. I find myself working until before dinner time, especially if the challenge is particularly interesting.

Suggested solutions
A few hours outdoors is essential for the mind to reanimate itself, enabling you to think of an alternative and often a more creative solution.

Let's be realistic. We will never stop day-dreaming. But we can guide our unstructured daydreaming into structured creative visualizations and build new neural pathways. In essence, we will be reprogramming our brains.

Another way to conserve mental energy is to minimize negative thoughts about yourself and others. You may not realize this, but when you think or speak negatively about someone, it sends negative messages to your unconscious.  In the long run, it makes you feel a lot worse than the dark, fleeting joy of gossiping. We have a rule in our house- we do not discuss people until necessary.

In times of self-doubt, list your accomplishments. I am sure that every one of us has done something we can be proud of. In your darkest despair, borrow the light from your most glorious moments.

And lastly, a word from Jedi Master Yoda: “Always pass on what you have learned.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Positive Body Image


"For the first time ever, a Victoria’s Secret model walked the runway with natural hair. Rather than bending to VS’s traditional beauty standards, 23-year-old Angolan model Maria Borges rocked the runway sans wig, weave or even extensions. For Borges, it was a history-making in a personal way."

Monday, November 09, 2015

Yellow Journalism

In a Whatsapp group, one of my batch mates reported how some newspapers printed photos from a raid on three restaraunts by the police in Agartala. One of the couples were legitimate, engaged and to be married soon. Some were obviously not working girls, but seeking to have private time with their lovers.  Is that so bad? Where in an otherwise repressed society would you be able to do that? Do you seek blessings from your parents to gain carnal knowledge of your partner? That would be wonderful, to be able to communicate and learn about safe sex from your family. But we’d rather you had half-baked ideas and set to explore on your own, and ended up in the lock-up for the night.

Though we all agreed about the need to shut down shady businesses in our hometown, we debated the necessity to publish those pictures for public consumption.  Scandal-mongering is an old tactic used by media houses when there is no substantial news to report. But there is another reason too- sensationalism sells. Period.

For instance, The Statesman (headquartered in Kolkata) was considered a good, clean English daily newspaper while we were growing up in Agartala. The Telegraph, on the other hand, had supplements every Thursday called Telekids which had cartoons and articles for kids, a Friday spread of movie celebrities, and a Sunday magazine, Graphiti, with articles on food, art, and lifestyle. Since the later was more entertaining to my elder brother and me for different reasons, we tried to convince our parents to start subscribing to The Telegraph instead of The Statesman. Though the editorial section of The Statesman was one of the best in the country, we pleaded to stop our substantial diet and feed on junk. I don’t remember reading one single news article in The Telegraph after the subscription changed. All I read was Telekids and Graphiti.

I am not saying that one is better than the other, but every time we pick up entertainment instead of news, we are breaking the pen of another honest reporter. The scare headlines with no substantial news live on.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Witch hunting

Salem in colonial Massachusetts was well-known for its witch 'trials'. From June to September of 1692, nineteen men and women were accused of possessing 'supernatural' powers in return for their loyalty to the Devil. The convicted were carted to a barren slope called Gallows Hill and hanged till death. A powerful reminder of the consequences of irrational fear and mass hysteria.

We may look at this part of history with contempt, but we still need a scapegoat to cast our sins upon. It is not uncommon to take out our pitchforks and look for a 'witch' when things go wrong. Some people have trouble accepting that the unhappiness stirring in their lives is not owing to the influence of an extraneous factor, but the repercussions of their fallacies.

As long as they keep looking outward, they can never address the source of their unhappiness. And more is the need to find someone else responsible for it- a horrible boss, an inconsiderate spouse, a conniving in-law, a despicable neighbor, even God or Fate.

This evasion of moral and personal responsibility leads only to one path- towards Gallows Hill of the strength of our character.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Norway trip 2015

We flew to Longyearbyen from Oslo via the international terminal, even though Svalbard, an archipelago of islands north of the mainland,  is Norwegian territory. In fact, we had to make sure that we had at least 2 or multiple entry Schengen visa for re-entering Schengen zone from Svalbard. There is a passport check inside the airport. Norwegian Air took about 2 hours 40 minutes to reach the northernmost commercial airport. As we descended, the view of the Arctic landscape promised an adventure of a lifetime.

An American named John Munro Longyear started the Arctic Coal Company in 1906 in Spitsbergen (German: Spitz= Peak, Bergen= Mountain), now Svalbard. The settlement of 500 people, formerly known as Longyear City, is now called Longyearbyen (Norwegian, byen= city).

There are no indigenous people in Svalbard. Everyone is a migrant from another part of the world. Established as a mining town, now most of the mining facilities are closed, except for Mine 7, which takes care of the local needs.

At 78-degree north parallel, the sun sets at 3:20 pm and rises at 10:13 am in October. The sun stays below the horizon for four months after October 25. Common sense is to hire guns to protect against polar bears if you travel outside the fortified settlement. Warning signs are all over Svalbard, including on paved roads, asking people to watch out for polar bears. An adult male can weigh up to 800 kgs.

We heard stories of polar bear fatalities and attacks on tourists. The most recent one was in May when a British tourist was dragged from his camp. One of our guides also narrated how a polar bear, who he named Genghis Khan, ate so much dog food that he could barely move. It had to be airlifted and translocated to another part of Svalbard, miles away from the city.

Some Facts

Since snow boots can be messy, most establishments (like hotels and church) ask you to leave your shoes outside. The permafrost melts and uncovers graves, pushing the dead bodies to the surface. Also, the cold prevents the bodies from decomposing. Hence, it is forbidden to die in this Arctic town. The dead are transported to other parts of Norway or their home country to be buried.

During our hour-long day trip around the island, we also learned that pregnant ladies are sent to Tromsø three weeks before delivery.  The local hospital deals only with emergencies and the doctors from the mainland are usually tele-connected during the procedure.

330 ft above sea level and 550 ft inside a permafrost mountain is the global seed vault - an insurance against doomsday for humanity. All nations have their own seed repository, but this is the safest given the location and low-temperature conditions which make it a natural freezer. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million types of seeds.

We were also told that all the buildings came pre-constructed to Svalbard from the mainland and are a stacked reconstruction of the modules. It takes maximum 5-6 months to reconstruct an average building. Piping is insulated and above the ground.

Camp Barentz

Camp Barentz in Advent Valley is about 10km from Longyearbyen. A bus took us to the camp site, away from the city lights and into the Arctic wilderness. The hosts served a rustic reindeer stew cooked over a camp fire in a pot, coffee brewed over the open fire, Akvavit (typically ~40% alcohol by volume) shots to keep us warm, and brownies named 'polar cakes'. The evening concluded with a presentation on the northern lights.


Red and green auroras by Frank Olsen, Norway 

Northern Lights

The expression norõrljós (northern lights) first appeared in Kongespeilet (King's Mirror), a guidebook on how to be a king. It described the phenomenon of northern lights so the king could explain it to his subjects. The Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei named it after Aurora (Roman goddess of Dawn) and Boreas (Greek name for northern wind).

The Inuits of Greenland believed that the lights were the spirits of their children, playing in their afterlife. The Saamis of Lapland believe that they were the energy from the souls departed. The Japanese consider it is extremely auspicious to see the lights and a baby conceived under a sky with northern lights is truly blessed.

The tale of Aurora starts in solar storms when plasma from the Sun blows into space. After 18 hours, they reach Earth. The Earth's magnetic field deflects the storm and funnels it into the daylight side called the daylight aurora. The southern hemisphere experiences the Aurora Australis.

  

At higher altitudes, red light is visible, followed by green. The ionized nitrogen produces the visible blue. There are also infra-red and X-ray northern lights that are not perceptible to the human eye.


Dog Sledding with Green Dogs

When we went to the dog yard, most of the dogs were yelping, 'Pick me! Pick me'. The handlers said that they are elated to see tourists because they know it is their time for a run. There were 150 dogs total. Half of them run for a week and are then allowed to rest in a yard in the mountains. A sled team can be of 5-8 dogs.


Heading towards the mountains, the leader awaits our command to start running after a small break
 
First, we picked the leader of the pack, who was a quiet, blue-eyed male. Soon, the rest of the team joined in. They love to run. The moment the handler says, 'Aha' signaling them to start, they start running with all their might. Initially, the dogs are full of energy, and they want to run fast, but the handlers don't let them do so to conserve their energy for the way back when they have to run against the wind. In summer, the handlers stop occasionally to give water to the dogs. In winter, the dogs eat ice when they are thirsty.

Our team was a group of seven Alaskan Huskies, which is not a pure breed but a mix of Siberian huskies and Alaskan malamutes. They are very efficient sled dogs, and even the breeders can not predict what kind of puppy will be born. A second-generation trait might resurface in the fifth generation.



On our way back, we were caught in a snowstorm. The dogs were running against the wind, so they became slow. I lost sensation in my limbs and was feeling tired. If I thought I knew what 'cold' meant until that moment of my life, I was grossly mistaken. Soon, we were back in our hotel and were having hot chocolate, warm waffles and a conversation with our Polish handler/guide. 

He said there are dog races that span across 2000 km of Arctic snow, desolate of any standard rescue facilities. Many get lost during inclement weather. He was a handler for a team and carries the dog tag of his favorite dog.



Later in the evening, we attended the Dark Season Blues Festival at a local pub where people were dancing to the tunes of live bands who come from all corners of the world for the festival.

It is surprising how warm these people are in spite of the cold weather. Most of them choose to live their entire lives in Svalbard. The hotels usually give perks to those who work in tourism- like a hot shower or discounts for the breakfast buffet. How little you really need to be happy!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Old and new


The first coat of paint on an old patio chair. SG advised me to throw them away and get new furniture. I tried finding something I like online, but I didn't get exactly what I was looking for. Also, there is a joy in reclaiming old things that everyone thinks is past its prime.

The man at Home Depot suggested spray paint for beginners, but I wanted to feel a brush in my hand. It was therapeutic, though it  took several coats for the color to show. Of course, first, I used a fine grit sandpaper to make the surface even and then wiped the dust with a cloth. On a sunny day, it takes about 15-20 mins for the paint to dry to the touch. Make sure you do it in a well-ventilated area.


I spray-painted a table top just to see the finish. Prefer a brush. The flowers are acrylic paint. As you can see, I spilled water on the middle flower. Tried to fix it before I sprayed  the varnish. Maybe it is not a good idea to leave it in the rain, in spite of the top coat. We will see.

P.S. The varnish protected the acrylic flowers through El Niño.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

What is success?

I see talented people systematically exhausting themselves every day. They spend hours at work and come home too tired to engage in anything else. Sure, the pay (or the promise of it) is good, but is it worth giving up everything else for it?

The definition of success changes with age. It meant getting an 'A' in school. There was an examiner who assigned those grades. In life, who does the scoring? How do we know if we are doing things right? I think the greatest mark of success is your happiness. If you are prone to irritation, anxiety, losing focus and are constantly overwhelmed by deadlines, you are not in a good place.

You should enjoy your work. Spend time with your loved ones. Take occasional breaks. Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep every day.Have a balanced diet. Get some exercise regularly. And engross yourself in some creative pursuit that rejuvenates you- at least once a week. An extremely linear lifestyle is heading towards a breakdown you can not foresee.Life is a marathon, not a sprint.

It is especially true in start-up cultures where the first few years are crucial. If you are a small business owner, it is a lot like raising a child. Everything else becomes secondary- your health, your friends and family, your sense of balance.

Take a step back, reduce distractions, strive for efficiency. Don't be Sisyphus condemned to roll a stone up a hill in Hades- only to have to start all over again.

Ask yourself- how well are you meeting the four energy needs:
  1. Physical (sustainability),
  2. Emotional (security),
  3. Mental (self-expression), and 
  4. Spiritual (significance).

Visualize a typical day at work. What are the non-essential tactical duties that you need to minimize? Do you start you day by replying to emails or on phone calls and consequently waste the most efficient part of the day in housekeeping tasks that can be done even when you are tired?

When you don't feel appreciated at work, is it because you are NOT an asset to the organization, in spite of the long hours you pull? Self-awareness is the first step to transformation. Don't keep habits that don't serve you well. Have a plan and work on it. This requires a certain degree of openness to yourself and humility. Not the humility that is covertly aimed at winning praise, but the humility that frees you from the need to project an image that makes you stand above others. After all, the greatest freedom we need is the freedom from ourselves.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Awakening (flash fiction)

I found myself walking on an avenue. There were flaming Gulmohar trees in full bloom. It must be spring. Strangely, I couldn’t remember waking up in the morning. It felt like I had been walking forever. I was going somewhere, but I couldn’t remember where. The street seemed familiar. I had walked here before.

I crossed a soccer field and a school. Then it dawned on me that it was my school! Years ago, I had moved out of my hometown for a job. My parents still lived here. I hadn’t seen them in a while. My father did not talk to me. He wanted me to join the family business, but I wanted a life of my own. There would always be my younger, much wiser brother to carry on the legacy. Now, walking through those old, familiar places I was reminded of it.

Working for someone else wasn’t considered the epitome of success in my family. The radio silence from my father was just his way of negotiation. Sometimes, I talked to my mother. At the end of our conversations, she always begged me to come back. She would say, ’You know your father. He will welcome you with open arms. Visit us just once.’ I always pretended not to hear her.

Today felt different. I don’t know how but I was home. And I was going to meet them. I crossed the bridge over the little river that was a torrent in monsoon. Everything about this place was like that- unassuming until the right time. Then you’d be surprised by the sheer strength of it. I was bidding my time too. I was due for a promotion at work that would be a big break. There was an opportunity for getting a professional degree sponsored by my firm. I could be someone they’d be proud of.

Lost in my thoughts, I must have walked miles. I saw the white metal gate of the home I hadn’t seen in years. It looked a bit rusty now. It creaked always. That is how we knew that father was home. We would rush to our study tables. He would look at us contently. Then he would have a bath and his evening tea. Sometimes, I wished he would come to us and talk. Ask us how our day was. But communication was not his strong suit. Once in a while, when he got high on a good scotch, he told us how much he loved us. I wished he’d drink more so that we could talk more often.

I walked on the asphalt pavement and through the rose garden.There were several varieties: Bordeaux, Autumn Damask, Bella Donna, Sofie. Red, pink, yellow, white, and bi-colored. There were some award winning bonsais. I hated them. I felt that it was cruel to prune, graft, and reduce trees to miniatures. Why shunt the natural growth of a living thing just to appeal to visual aesthetics? Why should something that could grow to be magnificent, be content to grow in a pot? If they could speak, they would protest vehemently.

I walked through the front porch. A money plant grew next to his rocking chair. No one else had the courage to sit on it. I tried sitting on it once when I was a kid. It rocked so fast, I was almost thrown out of it. It was like a throne that would accept only the worthy king.

I could hear a whimper, like some ancient pain, afraid to cry loudly. It was as cold as a tomb inside. I saw my mother weeping. My younger brother was crying too. I had a sense of unease.I touched my mother lightly, but she seemed unaware of my presence, engrossed in her grief. For once, my father did not look away. He kept staring at emptiness like he had sensed an invisible presence. I sat down on an empty chair and waited for someone to speak up.

My maternal aunt and her husband rushed into the room from outside. She hugged my mother and broke down too. Then she took my mother away to her bedroom, and the men were left in silence. Uncle always had a way with words, but not today. The anguish seemed sacred and necessary.

After what seemed like hours, he asked my brother: When did it happen?
My brother replied: In the morning, on Mumbai-Pune expressway. A truck container fell over; he died on his way to the hospital.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Briddhasya taruni bharja (বৃদ্ধস্য তরুণী ভার্যা)

Yesterday, a 50-year old Tunisian man drove our cab from San Francisco airport to home. Among other things, he told us that he married a 28-year old girl in his native country in May. I congratulated him a bit too soon. He lamented how ungrateful the new generation is. He sends $1,000 each month to his new bride (which is almost 2000 in Tunisian Dinar, more than a PhD earns in his home country), but she never thanks him. If he sends her an iPhone 3, she asks for an iPhone 6. Last time, she wanted a $250 jeans from True Religion. Her extravagance has led him to have second thoughts about bringing her to the US. He opined: 'Now she spends $1000 a month. Who knows, once she is here, she might end up expending $10,000. I bought her a $10,000 Renault. Next thing I know- she might want a Ferrari!'

The first thought that came to my mind was- does she know that he is just a cab driver and not a Bay Area billionaire? The demands seemed excessive for a 28-year old. You'd expect more maturity. Then I considered what could be the possible incentive for a young girl to marry someone almost twice her age when it is not love. She probably expected to be taken care of like a queen. What followed was rude awakening. I have seen separations that stem from unfulfilled financial expectations. It is especially sad when it happens in a love marriage where you ought to know what to expect. Nothing should come as a complete surprise.

Even a generation ago, some parents obsessed over an NRI groom, with no particular concern for a background check. Whether he is an alcoholic, a gambler, a womanizer, or plain old wife-beater- who could tell? We had a joke in the family that a suitable groom for some parents is an 'onion cutter' in America. But parents ought to make more informed decisions in today's connected world.

My father told me a story that was published in The New York Times some years ago. For fourteen years, a man worked hard to save enough to bring his four sons from Ghana to the US. When he became a US citizen, officials suggested that he took a DNA test to establish the relationship with the boys. But results showed that only the eldest of the four boys was his biological son. Now besides struggling to accept that his wife had been unfaithful and the children he loved as his own aren't his, and he might have to give up on the dream he had been working on for years- he had the added onus to prove that the boys are of his deceased wife. He didn't  want to abandon the kids that weren't his. My father wondered if our friendly Tunisian cabbie might suffer the same fate. I hope not.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

A suitable girl (flash fiction)

The mirth of Fate is strange-
She smiles upon you and makes you suffer.
Sometimes, She makes you suffer to see you smile.


My mother wanted to get me married ever since I completed my undergraduate degree. I think she wanted to get me married ever since I started ovulating at the age of thirteen. Freshly graduated, I started a job as an Associate in an e-publishing house. She thought it was of dire necessity that I followed the Laws of Nature, took a husband and bore a child as any proper Bengali girl should do at the ripe age of 22. Sometimes, I wondered how she managed to wait for so many years. Maybe because my father was sensible enough to prevent her from performing her maternal duties. He insisted: Let her finish her education first!

My education was far from complete. But I had a break-up with my long-distance boyfriend. It had meant nothing more than late night phone calls and an elephantine bill at the end of every month. Nevertheless, it gave my mother an excuse to pursue her sole purpose of existence: to get me married to an agreeable Bengali boy.

Surely enough, she used all her social contacts-  the woman who picked trash, our amused neighbors, her concerned colleagues. One of the interested parties was her junior at work. She had a nephew on the side of her in-laws, who was about four years senior to me in school. I knew him by name and vaguely remembered his face. My mother knew that I had only one demand- my husband should be socially presentable. He need not be handsome if he knew how to groom himself and how not to spit when he spoke. Fresh out of heartbreak, your expectations from yourself and your life is lowered dramatically.

My mother judiciously conveyed my secret desire to her colleague who promised to take it up with her in-laws. The guy was a Software Engineer, working in Bangalore, like most other good boys from our town. It was nothing exceptional, which was good. I wanted a man in my life whose goodness moved me. Not the size of the bacon he brought home. Plus, I always knew I’d be a working woman. Together we could always have enough. I found myself wondering- what if he were the one for me? Wouldn't it be a riot if it was someone I knew but had never thought of that way? I let myself dream a little. The kind of romantic thoughts only a girl in her early twenties can imagine: We would travel the world together. Have a charming little house. Maybe a dog- a Labrador preferably, chocolate-colored probably. We would call him Mr. Brown.

It was the little details that gave me joy. My chain of thoughts halted when I learned that they wanted an ‘Engineer girl.’ I wanted to ask why they hadn’t mentioned it before. Of course, it was a sham. I realized it when I heard he was getting married to a woman he was working with.

Fair enough, if it was what they wanted. It wasn’t a rejection in the real sense, but I felt it was a bit too much for me to handle in one year. I snubbed all my mother’s future efforts and started preparing to take GMAT for an MBA degree in the US. In the meantime, I started talking to someone who lived in the same city in East Coast where I applied for B-school in the fall semester of the following year.

My scores were decent, and I had a good feeling about my admission. For a while, at least, my mother was more excited about my prospect of going to the US than about my prospects of marriage. I always said to her, 'Let me get established, have a robust career. I will find someone to get married.'

This time she only said, 'Do not wait too long.' Then she lectured me about the various benefits of using contraception, the relative advantages and disadvantages of using the pill or prophylactics if I decided I couldn’t wait till marriage. I wanted to tell her they taught this stuff in Biology class in school. But her energy was so vigorous that I thought it was better to let her spend it talking than let her try something even more dangerous for my well-being.

I graduated a valedictorian. I have a job that pays me more than a lot of guys earn back home or even in this country. Though I never mention it, I am secretly proud of the fact. I feel I have done something I can be happy about, even though, by no means have I arrived.

The boy from my B-school town finished his doctorate. We dated for a few years before we decided to get married. My mother was beaming with joy on the day of our reception. Her fear that I was a lesbian bowed to celibacy or secretly married to my butch proved unfounded.

Before I suffered the horror of hearing about the birds and the bees and circle of life, my husband stole me away after the reception for our Subho Ratri. Our bed was a sculpture of flowers. God! Some people sure know how to make a big deal out of a wedding! All I wanted was a quiet ceremony with close friends and family. But thousands of invitations were sent out and accepted.  My jaw hurt from smiling at strangers I didn't know from Adam and would probably never see again in my life. After my mother-in-law had chased everyone out of our bedroom and my husband had bribed every distant cousin to stay away for the rest of the night, we retired to bed. We concurred, 'Thank God it is over!'

In a few days’ time, we were back in the US and had resumed work. We were happy together, and marriage didn't seem like such a bad idea after all. In fact, I would now recommend it to others. Fast forward a few years, someone messaged me on Facebook,"Humans of New York is a good page. I started following it from your likes." It was him! The-senior-I-was-supposed-to-marry-whom-I-didn't and was better off for it because I probably wouldn't have considered getting a professional degree if I had married too early.

I was not even sure if he knew about me.

P.S. A word of advice to all the Mrs. Bennet version of Bengali mothers: মেয়েকে ভাল পাত্রী নয়, ভাল ছাত্রী করুন।

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Reservation

Caste-based reservation is outdated. Only merit-based scholarships to impoverished students make sense to me. An SC/ST born into an economic middle-class or upper-class has all the resources in the world and can fail to achieve good scores only if he does not apply himself. On the other hand, a general candidate (or even a SC candidate) whose father is a daily laborer, but is sincere in his efforts, may think higher education is not achievable because of the expenses. I have heard such stories from my mother's 35 years of teaching in low-income families, where, often, a child who is meritorious has to give up education because of family pressure.


Lastly, think of the bigger picture- who do you want should run the country? Hard-working meritorious kids who had humble beginnings or people who progressed based on reservation alone!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Forward for luck

This is a rat's ass- believed to be extremely lucky by ancient Egyptians because it signified abundance of grains. Forward it to 10 people in the next 5 mins and you will be blessed with a bag full of money, an extremely gorgeous spouse and full paid vacation - all in the next 24 hours.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Dr. Kalam

Dr. Kalam was the chief guest of Tripura University convocation in 2001. Boro pishi (my eldest paternal aunt) had completed her Ph.D in Zoology. My paternal grandfather had passed away in January that year. Though we missed Grandpa on the occasion, I was elated to accompany her when the degree was conferred. It felt like an honor. We met some of her colleagues-professors of the university- one of whom exclaimed upon the similarities in our facial features. It runs in the family; we laughed.

But most of all, I remember seeing Dr. Kalam in person before he became the 11th President of India in 2002. What a humble man! You want to touch the sleeve of his coat just to know what greatness feels like. Not all politicians or leaders can command respect and admiration so effortlessly. What makes a man great? I am still trying to figure.

Boro pishi wanted me to get a doctorate when I grew up. I thought so too. Even after my MBA, I wanted to be a Doctor in Business Administration. But other things happened. I don't know if I will get a doctorate, but we share respect for a man. An educated but self-effacing man, who worked as a scientist in DRDO and ISRO. But most importantly - someone who was a genuine human being.


Friday, July 24, 2015

5 positive traits you could develop

Motivation: Most self-help books you read will start with a chapter on motivation and goals. And this is not just a vague idea about your destination. You need to visualize what you want. For example, when I was applying to a B-School I wanted to get into, I put an aerial view of the University as my laptop background. Each day I would see the image and say to myself, 'I will be there soon'. And I did. The trick is to get so engrossed in what you are doing that nothing should distract you. It also works for a relation you want to forge or improve. Your purpose or meaning in life might change with age, but what matters is that you are willing to offer yourself entirely to the cause.

Emotional stability :You have the image in mind; now you have to materialize it. And to do this you need hard work. You also need to have a calm approach to yourself and to others. You acknowledge that there are negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety, but you have to work with them rather than letting them overcome you. Indulgence is easy. There is a certain amount of gratification, but being able to control your extremes is a trait you certainly will find great use for in both your personal and professional lives.

Positive mindset: It is not easy to see the brighter side of everything, especially when nothing seems to go right. But you have to find a way- just one silver lining- in situations and in people. Include yourself in that list.

Self-Awareness: It takes a sagacious person to know his most authentic self. Your capability, who you are to others, who you can become- are all important aspects of your personality. You are not perfect, but as long as you enjoy learning from new experiences, you will become better. However, the learning is not a passive act; it is an active effort to progress, and it works wonder for even the most mediocre person. Politicians learn to speak publicly, arts students learn to code. You analyze your strengths and weakness and work accordingly.

Flexibility in behavior: Adaptation is critical to biological evolution because it provides improved function. Color change to camouflage from predators, a protein that works better with the change of environmental temperature, an anatomical modification that helps forage for resources- these are not very different from the psychological perspective of adaptation. You have a different persona for different people. You will not engage your 5-year old nephew in the same way you'd deliberate with a professional relation. There is no con in it; just an improved function to converse more efficaciously.

Here is a worksheet pdf to reflect on some of the points we discussed in this post:

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Makeup or no makeup

My father did not allow me to use makeup as a kid. Our Catholic school checked our nails to see if we wore polish; those who did were punished with a cane (happened once). Any sign of vanity was reproachable, including single ponies. Someone came up with a rule of two braids for a while (for medium to long hair).

I learned to use an eyeliner when I was in Standard VIII. Mostly because I got my glasses then, and an unfeeling uncle said, ' Poor thing, your pretty eyes will be hidden now.' (Thank you for boosting my self-esteem! )

Dad got me contact lenses in college. But gloss and liners were the only things I owned. Now I wear makeup when I want to. I go bare skin when I want to. I wear glasses with my makeup and like it. It is never the occasion. It is only an expression of how I am feeling.

It was surprising when a highly-educated male friend said one day: 'Why are you so decked up?', in a tone that implied I had murdered a particularly cute kitten. I wanted to say, 'Dude, it is not for you!'

Some women consider other women who wear makeup with suspicion. We are just artists who enjoy the process of enhancing our features. It has nothing to do with being interested in your men. There is no need to disparage the other coterie just because it is not your thing.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

একটি অকালের মৃত্যু

বন্ধুরা সব তাকে সুন্দরী বলত। 'তুই বলিউড যাস না কেন?' তাই অস্ট্রেলিয়া ছেড়ে চলে এসেছিল একদিন একরোখা মন নিয়ে। তন্বী শরীর, প্রাণবন্ত মেয়ে। ব্রেক পেয়েছিল এক বিখ্যাত তারকার ললিতা হিসেবে।

রূপালী পর্দায় দেখে সবার তাক লেগে গিয়েছিল- কে এই মেয়েটি? উচ্ছ্বসিত যৌবন, অলংকারহীন সৌন্দর্য। চোখ ফিরানো যায় না। বয়োবৃদ্ধ তারকার অভিজ্ঞ মাধুর্যও আজ তার কাছে ম্লান। সে সদ্যযৌবনপ্রাপ্তা, তার অহংকার হবারই কথা।

কিন্তু অহংকারে পেট ভরে না। সেক্স সাইরেন হিসেবে পরিচিত হলেও তাকে কেউ মুখ্য ভূমিকা দেবে সেই আশা বৃথা । কিন্তু সে তো 'অসম্ভব' মানে জানে না। তাই চেষ্টা চালিয়ে যায়। কখনো কখনো ক্লাবে গিয়ে পান করা অভ্যাসের মত দাড়িয়েছে। ভালো লাগে বুক-গলা জ্বালিয়ে সুরা পান করতে। জীবনের সব তিক্ততা যেন ফিকে পরে যায়, নরকবাসের যাতনাও হয়ে ওঠে সহ্যকর ।

সেই ফাঁকে একদিন, কে একটু ভালবাসার আশা দেখিয়েছিল। স্বপ্ন দেখেছিল সেও একটা ঘর বাঁধবে। একা একা  জীবন কাটতে চায় না। শুধুই  নিজেকে ভালবাসতে বাসতে  হাঁপিয়ে যায় প্রাণ। তাই একদিন সমস্ত সতর্কবার্তা উপেক্ষা করে তার সর্বস্য সমর্পণ করেছিল তার প্রণয়ীর কাছে। এ নেশা যেন আরও মারাত্মক। নিজেকে ভুলে থাকার এর চেয়ে সহজ উপায় আছে কি?

গর্ভবতী হয় সে।  ফিল্মের জন্যে এদিক ওদিক ছুটো ছুটি তখনো চলছে। কাস্টিং ডিরেক্টর বলে, 'ওজন কম করো, নাহলে সাইড রলেও কেউ নেবে না।' রেগে গিয়ে চর মেরে বসে। এত বড় আস্পর্ধা লোকটার! ফিরে এসে প্রণয়ীকে বলে- আর নয়, এবার বিয়ে করি চল।

প্রণয়ী বলে- বিয়ে? জীবনে তো কিছুই করি নি। এখনি বিয়ে কি করে করব? আর এই সন্তান যে আমার, তার প্রমাণ কি? শুনেছি তুমি নাকি অনেকের সঙ্গেই 'পার্টি' কর।

রাগে দুঃখে কাঁপতে থাকে শরীর। দৌড়ে বেরিয়ে আসে। ছুটতে ছুটতে ভাবে- আর তো যাবার জায়গা নেই। মা বাবার সঙ্গে ঝগড়া করে এসেছিল। এই শহরে তার কোন প্রকৃত বন্ধু নেই।

একবার সাহস করে বাবাকে ফোন করলে? ছোটবেলায় বাবাকে সব বলতে পারত। কিন্তু আজ কি করে বলবে যে তার মেয়ে হেরে গেছে? অন্য প্রান্তে বাজতে থাকে ফোনের হতাশ আর্তনাদ। এখন অস্ট্রেলিয়ায় কি সময় হবে? ঘুমোচ্ছে কি ওরা?

ঘুম। কি ঘুম পাছে তার ! মায়ের কোলে মাথা রেখে শুতে খুব ইচ্ছে করছে। মা রাগ করলেও বাকি দুনিয়ার প্রেমের ছলনার চেয়ে কম নিষ্ঠুর। একবার যদি মাকে দেখতে পেত! চোখের জলে দৃষ্টি ঘোলা হয়ে ওঠে, হেঁটে হেঁটে ফিরে যায় বাড়ি। তার অজান্তেই যেন তার শেষ আশ্রয়টুকু তাকে কাছে টেনে নিতে চায়।

জল, দড়ি, বিষ - কি দিয়ে শেষ করবে এই অভাগা জীবন? কি এসে যায় তাতে?

হাসপাতেলের শবঘরে রতিক্রিয়ারত পিয়ন ভাবে- ইস! সৌন্দর্যের কি অপচয়!

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Travelogue: Olympic National Park

Lake Crescent and Marymere Falls

It was the middle of April, rain fell as we made our way to Marymere Falls. Fir, cedar and hemlock trees greeted us by the side of the dirt trail, a roundtrip of about 1.5 miles. Raindrops beaded on our foreheads and spray-painted a grin on my face.

First, we thought of taking shelter in the tunnel, but the winds gave us chills.  We decided to keep moving to stay warm. Puddles gathered on the path and we navigated those after performing a series of complex mathematical calculations. We were going to finish walking the trail even if it meant getting wet to the bone. But I also worried about the cameras. They might not have the constitution or the will.


Soon, the rain stopped but the sky was still cloudy. One might wonder if there is ever a sunny weekend in this place. I didn't mind really. I felt the need to experience the rainforests in their elements. 140-170 inches of precipitation annually, we were bound to chance upon a few inches. 

The last leg of the trail had a short, steep ascent before we were rewarded a full view of the falls. We kissed to congratulate ourselves. The little celebrations of life.




Mount Storm King

There is a Native American legend about the creation of Lake Crescent: Upset with the fights between the Klallam and the Quileute tribes, the mountain spirit hurled a gigantic boulder killing all the warriors. It was so huge that it dammed the river and the water backed up, forming the lake. Many geologists believe that there was a landslide that could account for the myth.




Domain Madeline

The host at our Bed and Breakfast in Port Angeles was gracious, and the suite exceeded all expectations. All our needs were anticipated and taken care of in advance; years of experience and thoughtfulness makes it possible. The blow dryer blew the bathroom fuse, but it was promptly attended to by the staff. In fact, we think we found ourselves a new haunt. The guest book had thank you notes from people who had been visiting for years. It was easy to understand why. A restful place where you can spend your days reading books from the private library or in the bedroom overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

We even caught a rainbow after a short shower on our first day. On a clear day, the coast of Canada was visible across the water. The proximity posed a new challenge - our cell phones caught signal from Canada and went on roaming mode. We soon discovered that we rather liked being inaccessible to the world. Just the two of us.

After the first day of hike, a hot shower, and some warm food later, we lit up the fireplace and fell asleep as soon as we slid under the comforter.

Hoh National Forest

On our second day of stay, we had the most delicious crab cakes for breakfast. The four-course breakfast was spoiling me. The new aquaponics greenhouse in the premises was opening for public the following weekend. The host talked passionately about micro-farming using a sustainable combination of fish cultivation and hydroponic gardening, the misuse of GMO and climate change.

We had planned to go to Hoh National Forest, a two hours drive from Port Angeles. We crossed Forks on our way. The town serves as a backdrop for the Twilight series and celebrates the birth week of Bella on the weekend closest to September 13 each year. There was no Edward or Jacob spotting, but I noticed a movie poster on a shop. 



There are the three trails near the visitor centre- Hall of Mosses, Spruce Nature Trail and the Hoh River Trail. Tapestries of moss drape the forest cathedrals. Lichens, sword ferns, shrubs and trees all grow in the primitive ocean forest in a cohesive community. The crickets and birds add to the symphony of the woods. If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear the trees talk. Everywhere you look, Mother Nature has carefully placed an artifact. You could lose yourself in the sights and sounds. Some primeval spirit took over my existence, and I walked through the forest led by it.

Hurricane Ridge was closed due to snow, and we lost track of time on our hikes, so we missed out on the beaches where starfish, sea urchins and anemones are plenty. But a beautiful place like this deserves more than a mere acquaintance. It deserves dedicated affection. We promised to be back soon.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

On Mother's Day

I am not a humbug. I can be easily read. And I have a hard time telling lies. My mom appreciates these the most in me. And though we have arguments because we both want to change the other, I can not bear the thought of one unhappy tear in her eyes. I love to make her laugh. Her laughter has a cleansing effect on my soul. It makes me think all is right with the world.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Night

The first time I read about the Holocaust, I was in school. An excerpt from 'The Diary of a Young Girl' by Anne Frank was prescribed for school text. By the time I was  15, I had read the book and was fascinated by how a girl about my age had been so hopeful in the hiding, even under the threat of obliteration. There are those who believe that the Holocaust did not happen; that it is a propaganda against the Nazis. Denial is killing them twice.

The more I read about the persecution of the Jews, the more I revere a race for having survived all odds. Their faith and their sense of community. When today becomes yesterday, and history is written, the survivors become the hero, and the persecutors are put to shame in a civilized world. Nothing can justify genocide- in Rwanda, in Bosnia or within the confines of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Humanity should never have to witness those chains of events again.

The book by Elie Wiesel has a body of about 112 pages. Written in Yiddish as 'And the World Remained Silent', it was translated into French first, then into English. I read the version that was translated by his wife, Marion Wiesel.

He begins with his childhood in Sighet, Transylvania and his inclination for religious studies- Talmud in the day and Kabbalah by the night, until the Spring of 1944. German soldiers with their steel helmets and their death head emblem marched on to Sighet- to confine the Jews to a sixteen square blocks of ghetto, and then to transport them in cattle cars to labor camps and concentration camps. On the day of the 'transport':
'The street resembled fairgrounds deserted in haste. There was a little of everything: suitcases, briefcases, bags, knives, dishes, banknotes, papers, faded portraits. All the things one planned to take along and finally left behind. They had ceased to matter.'

They were greeted by the smell of burning flesh when they arrived in Birkenau. All illusions left behind in the wagons they arrived in. The world  'chimney' was not an abstraction there. It floated in the air, mingled with the smoke.

'Men to the left! Women to the right!'
Eight words, spoken without emotion by a Schutzstaffel (SS) man, and it was the last time he saw his mother and youngest sister. Another of those countless separations that happened on a single night. A night so long that the survivors had forgotten whether it was one night or several such nights.

Every day was a struggle between faith and agony. Overcome by fatigue and hunger, even his dreams were reduced to that of an extra ration of bread. He felt different. He ceased to be human and became A-7713.
' My soul had been invaded- and devoured- by a black flame.'
There are several passages that I wish to read to you, share what I felt as I read them, but there is one, in particular, towards the end that appealed to me:

'Pressed tightly against one another, in an effort to resist the cold, our heads empty and heavy, our brains a whirlwind of decaying memories. Our minds numb with indifference. Here or elsewhere, what did it matter? Die today or tomorrow, or later? The night was growing longer, never-ending.
When at last a grayish light appeared on the horizon, it revealed a tangle of human shapes, heads sunk deeply between the shoulders, crouching, piled one on top of the other, like a cemetery covered with snow. In the early dawn light, I tried to distinguish between the living and those who were no more. But there was barely a difference. My gaze remained fixed on someone who, eyes wide open, stared into space. His colorless face was covered with a layer of frost and snow.'

Imagine being so exhausted that you want death just to be able to rest. The author survived and chose to be the voice of those who had been quietened. His survival meant something. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Tulips in the snow


Sometimes, a picture is a thousand words. It gave me great hopes see the bright red and yellow flowers blossom from the frozen earth. Made me think- if you have the potential, you will fight even the most unlikely and harshest conditions to grow. 

Human interest stories inspire me. It needn't be the biography of a President or a Nobel prize winner, but stories of regular folks who rise above the occasion and emerge as heroes. A situational hero is as good as any other.

The archetypes usually have inherent goodness; I don't believe that you need even that. You are what you do- and if you go beyond your self-imposed limitations or the benchmarks set by your immediate environment, you are a hero.

(I am looking for such stories; if you have one, email me at thevariegatedsky@gmail.com )

Sunday, March 15, 2015

An awkward age

My best friend from school shared some pictures she had from our school days, circa 2000, before our ICSE exams. It was an awkward age. I didn't know what to do with my eyebrows, tied my hair like a nun, and wore glasses that were most unflattering.

But I had good friends and hopes for a better tomorrow. I believed in myself.  I knew that life's battles are not always won by the prettiest or the smartest, but by those who never give up. NEVER GIVE UP.


Of people you miss, you miss their smiles the most. And the way they made you laugh...

Friday, March 13, 2015

আমার নি:সঙ্গ নীল রুকস্যাক

This is one of my favorite poems by my father. It is about a blue rucksack that travels the world. But then there is more- in the end it says how humans are crueler than animals.

I traveled the world with those words, I imagined the red, blue, yellow, green prayer flags of Tawang monastery. I saw the eyes of a mother zebra, caught by a predator, imploring its child with silent screams to run away to safety. I see the room transform into a Sun temple of Peru with the narrative. It shall remain one of my favorite poems ever. Apologies to those who do not understand Bengali.

আমার নি:সঙ্গ নীল বাউন্ডুলে রুকস্যাক 
ভ্রমনে নিবেদিত প্রাণ। এই বুঝি লাফাবে পিঠে, 
মনে হয়, ঠেলা দিয়ে বাসাড়ে আমাকে
নিয়ে যাবে ভূপযর্টনে। বস্তুত প্রায়শই হাওয়া 
হয় সে, ইচ্ছেমত, ফিরেও আসে
অদ্ভুত সফর শেষে, ধূলোবালি মেখে। 
রুকস্যাককে ঝেড়েপুঁছে সাফসুতরো বানালে,
শোনায় সে শীঘ্রগামী বিবাগী কাহিনী
ভালোবাসে সে যেতে এমন মুলুকে
যেখানে যায় শুধু স্থিরমতি যাযাবর অপ্রচুর। 
কখনো সে চলে যায় মাছুপিছু , ইনকা সভ্যতার
হারানো শহর, ধ্বংস করেছিল যাকে লুটেরা
স্প্যানিশ। নীল রুকস্যাক কখনো যায় নাতিদূরে
তাওয়াং গূম্ফায় বা দেখে কঙ্গোর রক্তাত নদীতে,
কুমিরের গ্রাসে, মা জেব্রা পালাতে বলে স্তম্ভিত 
শিশুকে, চোখের ইশারায়, বোবা আর্তনাদে। 
মেকং নদীতে মাছেরা কেন পরিযায়ী হয়,
হরিণেরা নিশ্চিন্তে বেড়ায় তৃপ্ত সিংহিনীর পাশে,
প্রণয়াধিকার নিয়ে পশুর লড়াই - সবই দেখে
আমার নীল রুকস্যাক। তার কাহিনীর সাথে 
আমার ঘর বদলে যায় সবুজ বৃক্ষময় চাতালে,
ঝিঁঝিঁ ডাকে, বৃষ্টির মত বজ্র  ঝরে অবিরাম;
কখনো প্রাচীন মমি বা দিব্যমূর্তি নেমে আসে
প্রখর উজ্বল পাহাড়ী আলোতে, এই দীনহীন ঘরে। 
গভীর সবুজ উপত্যকা, পাহাড়, গ্লেসিয়ার ও নদী
জেগে উঠে ঘরে, কোকো পাতা ও পেরুর ডুমুরে
সূর্য মন্দিরে পরিবর্তিত  এ ঘর যায় ভরে। 
কখনো হাওয়ায় দোলে লাল, নীল, সবুজ, হলুদ
শান্তিকেতন; সোনালী, লাল ও সাদা গুম্ফার পথে
বুদ্ধ অভয় মুদ্রায় তাপিতকে বিলান শান্তিবারি। 
রুকস্যাকের গল্প শেষ হলে ঘর ফেরে স্বস্থানে। 
অলৌকিক নীল রুকস্যাক বলে, 'পশুরা প্রায়শই
মানুষ তবে নরপুঙ্গবের চেয়ে নিয়তই ভালো;
হত্যা অকারণে বা ধষর্ণ নেই তাদের শব্দকোষে,
মাদি ঝিঁঝিঁ বা সিংহিনী প্রণয়াধিকার ঠিক করে, 
সুভোজ্যেও খায় না ভরপেট শিকারী শ্বাপদ।'

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Dear Me,


Transcript

If I had to advice my younger self I would say:
Don’t seek approval from anyone- you don’t need validation for your actions.
Be kind to yourself, it is okay to make mistakes.
Love your parents and keep them happy. They sacrificed a lot to raise you right.
There is no need to blend in.
People who bully or make fun of others are deeply insecure about themselves.
 Pity them.

In a few years’ time, love will come to you, so stop looking in the wrong places.
Don’t be afraid to be alone. You can create beautiful things in solitude.
Write another book.
Make plans to travel.
You will learn to cook, eventually. So, you won’t starve to death.
Most sincerely,
Your future self.

Friday, January 02, 2015

A few good men

My bet is that you will not read about this in the newspapers tomorrow because the pages will be filled with more important news about the cleavage of actresses and the lavish wedding of corrupt politicians’ spawns.

A friend from school is a Flight Lieutenant in Indian Air Force (IAF). He is based in Rajasthan currently, but his previous unit was in Kashmir. He volunteered for his previous unit for an Area Domination Patrol (ADP) at Mendhar, Kashmir, based on the input of IB, RAW and local intelligence.  They were a group of 7 on a joint counter-insurgency operation, with men from both the Indian Army and the IAF.  Terrorists (he estimates about 200 men) were trying to infiltrate from three sides at around 4 in the morning. The terrorists opened fire, and the unit changed positions for a counter-attack making them believe they were greater in number.  They killed five terrorists and lost one Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO), who was due for promotion. The terrorists raised a white flag, which our men respected and ceased fire. My friend was shot in the shoulder when he was trying to retrieve the dead body of the JCO.

The unit returned to base with their wounded and the fallen by walking back 8 km. A little dizzy from the loss of blood, my friend had a surgery around 5 pm that lasted for an hour. Media called during his surgery to ask about the nature of the ops and the infiltration. They asked how many terrorists were killed. Not a single question about how many were martyred.

The widow of the martyr talked to my friend and said, ‘Sab aap samhal lena’ (Please take care of us). My friends doesn’t believe that she will get a government job reserved for the family of  martyrs anytime soon because the officials in her resident state have already started demanding bribe in lakhs. Nevertheless, he promised that he will make sure she gets her dues.

I called up my friend when I received the news, concerned for his health. He was still cracking jokes, claiming it was normal in the line of duty and that duty came first.  And if anything happened ever to him, I should take care of his family.

What does our system give back to our heroes who risk their lives to protect us? They have to fight the enemy from outside as well from inside. The outside enemy is still better. At least they are known.