At the end of a rainbow

Lucy found her diamond sky

Travel ke log

Part I: The arrival of the tempest

Sometimes, a situation is normalised to the extent that one’s unique perception simply doesn’t count. I felt this way regarding my maiden voyage to the U.S.A a couple of months back. It is so commonplace an event that even sounding out loud my reservations and fears seemed embarrassing; someone would invariably exclaim, “even 10-month-old babies and 80-year-old grandmas travel happily, you’ll be fine!” Well, for starters, that is my problem; Having the aforementioned group as travel companions. The best part is the ease with which co-passengers, especially females (all assumed to be bursting with indiscriminate motherhood), are expected to completely understand and give endearing looks to the irritated, seemingly possessed scream-bags because, well, babies. The situation seems only slightly better than a bus, where, at any moment unoccupied female laps like mine could be arbitrarily handed a child if the mother didn’t get a space to sit. But then again, bus rides are rarely 16 hours long, and I could get off anywhere in between!

Anyway, once I was aboard after what seemed like an endless immigration queue and multiple security checks, I slumped into my seat in sheer exhaustion. It seemed only minutes since I had closed my eyes when I heard an “excuse me” and a simultaneous poke near my shoulder. It was snack time at morning 3 a.m, duly served by the flight stewards. Before I could mumble a “no, thank you”, the snacks were shoved on my tray table, and the steward moved on. My co-passengers were expectedly an elderly Gujarati couple and seemed quite familiar with the routine of the in-flight services. They enthusiastically began watching the movies available on the screen, as I later realised, for almost the entire flight duration. I opted for a meta-experience by standing near the rear of the aircraft and watching multiple screens flashing at any given time of the journey. As luck would have it, my screen wasn’t functioning so I, alone, had a blank screen for entertainment. Thankfully, I had enough sleep to catch up with so didn’t mind napping whenever I could. However, as it happens on long journeys, especially with Indian co-passengers, a lone woman traveller of “marriageable age” will soon be asked to reveal her entire life history. I wasn’t going to be spared either. Sure enough, the next time food was served, I heard the dreaded opening question,

Aunty: “Aur beta, kahaan se ho?”

me (in my mind): Shit. (Aloud) Mumbai se, aunty.

Over time, I had learnt the trick was to keep answers as short as possible, and agree with whatever they said if one wished to have a relatively short conversation.

Uncle: “padne ja rahe ho, America”?

Me (in my mind): Damn. (Aloud) Haan uncle, ek conference hai.

Aunty: “Hamaari Beti New Jersey mein rehti hai. Hum jaathe rahte hain, har saal. Bahut acchi jageh hai.

Me (in my mind): Why the hell am I supposed to care about that? (aloud) Haan aunty.

Uncle: Aap akele travel kar rahe ho? Family hai aapki U.S mein?

At this point, somehow mentioning marriage and relatives seems to quell all curiosity and fake concern.

Me (in my mind): Damn. (aloud) Haan uncle, mere husband nahi aa paaye. Mein relatives ke saath rahungi U.S mein.

At this point, further interrogation was mercifully stalled with the arrival of the steward to offer tea, coffee, etc. I spent the rest of the journey with earphones plugging my ears irrespective of whether I listened to music or not. Finally, the claustrophobic nightmare came to an end, and the aircraft landed amidst the grey surroundings of Newark airport.

Like typical Indian passengers, most people were jostling into a queue even as the aeroplane was taxing on the runway. Habits die hard, even if in a foreign country. I eventually made my way to the baggage collection area and went to collect a trolley to stash my suitcases. However, I realised that I had to pay only 6 dollars to avail the trolley. Convinced that I had misunderstood him, I asked the guy if the money was refundable once I returned the trolley since I needed it for just 5 minutes till the car parkway.

Guy: “No, ma’am. It’s 6 dollars.”

Fresh off the Boat (FOB) is the term used to describe immigrants that have arrived from a foreign nation and have not yet embraced the host nation’s culture, behaviour etc. I, for one, had not, and would not for the rest of the journey assimilate even the currency value. So, an alarming Rs. 400 to avail a trolley (which costs nothing in my homeland) briefly knocked me off my senses. A false sense of self-esteem and embarrassment won that battle though, as I kept a straight face and paid up quietly, even managing a constipated smile later. So, this is how I was ripped off even before I got out of the airport.

Part II: Of action-scripts and bus journeys

Ever felt like the world is a great theatre? Turns out that it is a truer statement than mere expressions of romantic writers. We do ‘act’ all the time. In fact, action scripts is a cross-disciplinary theory which describes that “people organize their experiences in script like formations they can refer to in the future to understand the same, or similar new, situations. Scripts contain instructions for how to behave, what is expected, and what to expect. Scripts are acquired through experience, interaction, and observing.” As it happens, travelling in a foreign country is the best way to realise the embedded drama of interactions, especially when you haven’t mastered the role yet. My greatest fear for the first few days involved walking into a restaurant to buy food. What they call friendly customer service (“Hi there! How can I help you today”) sounded like an alarming, “Haven’t you decided your order yet?!” to me, and I would invariably stutter the first item I could lay my eyes on. Of course, that was not the end of the ordeal. Next, the person would rattle a range of options that I mostly had no clue of and would quickly nod my head, feeling all eyes rest on me (mostly my own imagination). The result? I ate some really weird sandwiches and burritos there. So, I decided to discreetly observe other people ordering, and gradually made sense of the intricate affair of placing orders in restaurants. The same story played out while commuting in the local metro trains of NY. However, I am not sure if my panic-stricken face at such times evoked extra pity, because people were rather helpful. Within a couple of weeks though, I knew I had become a pro when I started travelling without having to consciously think about where I was heading. My brain had already relegated most of the job to my legs, which did a pretty good job of it. I still avoided ordering food until the last day though.

When travelling on a shoe-string budget as a student, cheap accommodations are a high priority, and free ones are to be accepted with no questions asked. It also means opting for an affordable commute, which in the U.S is their notoriously inadequate bus service. The automobile sector here makes sure that individual cars remain the most viable option, so public transport in any place apart from NY, and few college towns is abysmal. It also means that only people who can’t afford a car would opt for the private bus services, thus earning the mode of transport an even more dubious reputation of being ‘unsafe’. It is ironic how the marginalised communities are associated with being dangerous just because they can’t afford the gentrifying commodities of middle classes. In so many ways, the expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I, however, managed to have completely uneventful long journeys, so much so that I was secretly hoping for some action to take place. The only disturbing thing that I could notice was the driver munching on an excessive amount of mints for the entire duration of the ride. I think she finished a big bag of those. Another leg of the journey involved someone taking off their shoes off to elicit a rather nauseous wave of odour, resulting in the driver bringing the bus to a screeching halt, cursing no one in particular, and spraying the entire coach with an equally horrendous air-freshener. I am guessing I blacked out for a while, because the next time I opened my eyes and unclasped my pinched nose, everything seemed normal. Life goes on.

Part III: Of beds and hosts

If someone were to ask me to summarise the hardest part of the trip in one sentence, I would do it in just a word – bed. I live in a tiny hostel room, but I love my bed, pillows and cover. My partner is a witness to the satisfaction I derive from making our bed every day, because I look forward to sinking into my earthly heaven every night. Small pleasures; and I sorely missed it. My partner was right in his suspicions that the “I love you” at the end of our phone call every night was meant mostly for my bed. My rather nomadic itinerary in the U.S meant that I had practically slept in a different bed every week, in rooms ranging from attics to places that looked like abandoned museums, with one similarity – an extra springy mattress that had me feeling like I slept on a trampoline.

In my defence, I would say that my sleep deprivation played a major role in my diminished capacity for friendly social interactions. My brother tends to disagree by saying that my social skills are abysmal, to begin with. Anyway, for the better or worse, I did try. One place I stayed for a couple of days was a nice suite with two rooms provided by the university. I was happy to have a room by myself. I was sharing the suite with a nice Finnish girl, who had arrived a few days before me. As soon as we exchanged pleasantries, she asked if I had any issues if she exchanged her room with a guy who wanted to stay there with her friend. The conversation went something like this:

FG (Finnish girl): So Deborah, are you okay sharing room with a boy?

Me: What?

FG: Oh! Is that a problem?

Me (head abuzz with random thoughts, including a discussion with my partner about polyamory): Well, I usually don’t share beds with strangers. If there is some issue, I’ll try an sleep in the living room.

FG: Oh no! Not your bed. Ah ok, I meant this apartment. He will sleep in my room. I will be sleeping with my friends somewhere else.

Me (relieved): Oh ok. Sure, please go ahead.

FG: Ok, great. My friend may join him.

Me: Cool.

We were soon joined by an American guy and her friend. I was too tired to hang around for dinner, so I bid them good night and said that I was going to have an early night. The next day, I was up pretty early and was almost finishing my breakfast, when the guy woke up and casually asked me if I slept well while making a cup of coffee for himself. I just jokingly remarked that I must have slept well because I didn’t hear him jumping on his bed. It was supposed to be a dig at the flimsy common walls in American housing and the springy beds. However, he then turned red and remarked there might have been a little jumping. I just laughed it off and didn’t get it till the girl came out and asked the same question. Stupid me. For the rest of the time we spent together, I steered clear of bedroom conversations and noises.

As days progressed, and I spent time in different places, I came to realise the stark loneliness of the typical American life. In India, ‘personal space’ ends about 25 inches from your body, and you can never be too far to ignore your mother shout for dinner. American suburbs, on the other hand, look like rows of abandoned, and eerie, doll-houses. I could literally hear some ghoulish version of Pete Seeger singing “ticky-tacky houses” somewhere around the corner. On the other hand, during this trip, I finally made sense of sitting in coffee shops. Till then, I always wondered about people sitting alone in cafés. However, one afternoon as I found myself sitting with an expensive cup of mocha, and wistfully looking outside the window, I knew. I couldn’t bear to sit alone in my room, and had braved the snow to sit alone in a café, surrounded by people doing their own stuff. And, it was much nicer. It seems, the warmth of human company, even if not directed at you is not a myth after all (But filter coffee is much better). I also realised that the ‘almost equal’ ratio of cats and dogs to human population has more to do with a desire for a company than anything else.

One AirBnB place I stayed at, was owned by an elderly lady, who lived alone with her three cats. Now, I don’t judge cats but I am pretty sure they have nothing but contempt for our species. I would often hear the long monologues she had with the cats, encountered only with baleful looks from their end. The numerous rooms in the house had quaint Victorian interiors, that I may have admired if I didn’t have to stay in them. The house itself was apparently almost 80 years old, and the boards creaked like rheumatic limbs, adding more suspense than I would have liked for the night. Mostly, it would be a pair of gleaming eyes and scary portraits of sadly over-dressed people that would freak me out. So, when a couple came to stay for a few days along with their dog, I was far happier than I usually am when it comes to sharing space with strangers. As it happened, one evening they asked me if I could babysit their dog, Cassie for a while. They had noticed that I was extremely warm towards her, mainly because I have a dog back home and was missing her notwithstanding zero resemblance physically or character wise (mine is a bitch, in the meanest sense possible; but the eyes!). Anyway, the weak moment of nostalgia and homesickness won as I said “sure” far too quickly. 10 minutes into the job, Cassie soon helped me remember details of doggie anxiety that I had chosen to gloss over when peering into those puddles of innocent eyes. Soon, her small whimpers turned into anguished howls that no amount of petting could lessen. My bribes of dog treats did little good; instead, she learnt to time me so that I was punctually handing her the treats every 10 minutes to stop her from dramatic doggie overtures. Her tiny size also made her the perfect target for the cats, who would smugly come just near enough to quickly slap her before hopping onto a comfortable high chair and purr in content. I spent the next two hours literally carrying her around in my lap, feeding her way too many treats than she was supposed to have (Yes, I know I won’t make a good mother; never added it to my resume). Her human parents finally came back and promptly handed me a gift as a token of appreciation. Now, that was unexpected and nice! “I did want some nice American souvenir”, I thought to myself and opened the box. The next moment though, I am not sure how twisted my smile seemed as I mumbled a “Thank you so much!”. It turned out to be a box of Assam Teabags. The guy said, “I knew you would like it! It’s Indian tea.” Yeah right; ‘Indian’ tea, as if it were a thing. I eventually bought myself some souvenirs; They had nothing to do with tea.

Part III: Food

Food is a touchy subject for me. The journey from being a ‘fussy eater’ to an ‘environmentally conscious fussy eater’ has involved many ideas, discoveries, farm visits, and recipes. Thus, the army of junk food flooding American markets in shiny, ‘easy-to-eat’ packets is a nightmare that I, unfortunately, see unfolding in many Indian cities as well. Such food items are also cheaply available thus making it the only option available to many marginalised communities in the U.S. The places inhabited by poorer classes may not have a single fresh vegetables and fruits market for miles around! In response, many such communities finally decided to take the matter into their own hand to grow their own edible gardens on empty lots. In the era of Monsanto and seed patents, growing one’s own food is a supreme act of rebellion, and it is one that I completely endorse. Of course, cooking the vegetables grown is another matter altogether. One of the things I noticed very early on was the lack of cooked food in a typical American meal. Copious amounts of salad with chunks of meat thrown into it form a major part of the cuisine (if there is any). Now, as a Bengali, the art of cooking is especially dear to me. So, seeing the entire spread of typical American food reduced to flavours of sweet/salty/pepper withered most of my taste buds. A few of my hosts kindy took me to different Asian restaurants but, the Americanised version of most cuisines just meant that an ‘extra spicy’ food item was sprinkled with a few red-chilli flakes (face-palm). So, while staying with some American hosts, I offered to cook some Indian food, much to their happiness and my relief. I made a decent four-course meal with whatever spices and vegetables I could find in a nearby Indian store. As it turns out, my hosts were most surprised by the ‘rotis’ (flatbread) I made using make-shift cooking vessels of pizza rolling pin, wok etc. Apparently, the dough ‘spinning’ under the influence of the rolling pin was pure magic. Looking at their excited faces, I came to think it is.

Anyway, in the end, I discovered that ‘Uncle Sam’ wasn’t that scary after all, African-American braided women look exquisite, sunsets and clear skies are indiscriminately beautiful, and Google maps are a unique combination of helpful and irritating. When it comes to people, differences are plenty, but similarities many more. I ended up sharing smiles, hugs, maybe a bottle of wine too many, and all to a good end. I’ll never get over the American fetish for sparkling water with generous amounts of ice though…Um, and the huge cups of black coffee, the creaking floors, and the horrible public transport, yeah, and add the excessive use of tissue paper to the list…!

P.S Some photos along the way:


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For the love of the earth

Though my ears were still ringing as I got off the patent rickety state transport bus of Maharashtra, it didn’t miss the crackle of dry leaves carpeting the dirt road. I have grown up amidst the crowded lanes of Delhi, and as a result was the typical urban millennial until a series of experiences convinced me that restoring our relationship with the land that sustains us lies at the foundation of healing our abused bodies, minds and the surrounding environment. Nowhere is the interdependency manifested as vividly as in the act of farming, where the reciprocity of food, nourishment, and care goes all the way down to the sweet-smelling soil teeming with micro-organisms. However, there is much that our generation has forgotten. As botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer explains, the restoration depends on re-story-ation. What are the narratives we can rewrite for ourselves and others? The stories we choose to believe and enact have adaptive consequences; perhaps now is the right time to change the dominant narrative. In some small part, I have tried to do so by exploring multiple alternative threads of city life in the form of urban farming. The past few years in Mumbai have been spent in learning the intricacies and miracles of soil, only to realise we don’t know much about it. We can, nevertheless, share an intimate relationship with it by growing plants and watch life take roots.

My journey has also connected me to kindred spirits who like me, share an abiding love and awe for the complex web of natural processes. One such person is the SundayFarmer (SF), whose endearing blog about his experiences at an acre of a farm owned by him caught my eye. Though he calls himself a weekend farmer and generously credits his Man-Friday, Mangal for a lot of the leg-work, it was easy to see that he would prefer to spend much more time ‘far from the madding crowd’ if circumstances allowed. We got in touch and decided that I could visit the farm whenever he went next, except that I didn’t know that my decision was jinxed. A series of unfortunate and unexpected events ensured that I had to wait for almost a year-and-half before I finally made the trip on Christmas Eve. My uncle, a retired forest officer decided to accompany me at the last minute, and as a result, had his first rendezvous with the crowd of Mumbai local trains. I must admit, he was pretty game about the experience though.

So, here I was, trudging on the dirt track after nearly 3 hours of travel, to finally set foot on the SF’s weekend farm. You don’t have to be a nature enthusiast to observe the stark difference between his patch of earth and the nearby plots; the latter forced into artificial rows of identical trees or crops, surrounded by trimmed grass. His one-acre patch on the other hand, blooms with diversity. What may seem like a disorienting sight for anyone accustomed to the uniformity and monotony of industrial culture, is actually a model for resilience. Diversity ensures that a single pest doesn’t damage the entire farm; it ensures that a ‘pest’ doesn’t become one in the first place because there would be a suitable habitat for its predator. ‘Weeds’ don’t become a nightmare because they have their own role to play in the ecosystem as live mulch or nitrogen-fixing properties and co-exist with desired plants. Termites scuttle around in hordes slowly decomposing the abundant leaf litter, creating conducive conditions for plants to grow. Everything thrives and dies, only to be born again. SF introduced us to each plant and tree on the farm as if introducing a relative, with a warmth independent of their ‘productivity’ in terms of bearing fruits. After all, they are family. Over the years, he has experimented with growing a variety of plants, and has had his share of failures. His recent attempt of bee-keeping also ran into a number of issues, though “each time there has been a different problem, so I learnt something new” he commented with a wry grin. Years of decomposed leaf-litter made the ground soft to walk on. So, it was difficult to imagine that the area is actually a very rocky terrain. “I bought this place because it near the river, then I realised that everywhere I dug there are stones to be unearthed!” he chuckled, pointing towards heaps of stones found on the farm. “But it is ok, the plants manage, and we are also learning how to grow different crops in such a terrain”, he continued. We walked through the banana grove, and were generously blessed by its giant leaves trickling cold morning dew on our heads. We stopped to admire the fragrant flowers of gandha-raj, the giant bamboo groves, the abundant papayas, the beautiful flowers of rose-apple tree, the bare branches of a tree that he has nick-named as silver oak, and a kaleidoscope of butterflies among the many others sensuous attributes of the farm. Be quiet enough and one can hear the flow of the stream and walk towards it. I was delighted to dip my finger and watch tiny fishes gathering around it like a curious bunch of school children.

As we parted, he gifted me some seeds, a raw papaya, and some banana stems. Kimmerer writes, “The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.” How rich would we be to enjoy more of such relationships rather than empty transactions of plastic money signifying nothing except the symbolic power of greed. My uncle, though appreciative of the place, later whispered into my ear, “Wouldn’t it be better to build a room in some corner and open this up for tourists to spend some time etc., they can see the farm, enjoy the river and he would earn a lot!” I whispered back, “Yes, but that’s not love.”

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Reanimating the world

“Ah! there you are!” I exclaimed to a flat bean and plucked it gently while looking for more. The colour of the beans blends ever so perfectly with the leaves, that they seem to be playing an eternal hide-and-seek with anyone interested in harvesting them. I often lose time when hanging around plants, and trees. In retrospect though, it seems I just temporarily refuse to chase those ticking hands, a mirage of desires that snatch the present reality. Or, more aptly, plants sometimes allow me a peek of their world, where time no longer calls the shots. When I read Sumana Roy’s lament about post-colonial civilization as robbing us of living in tree-time, I could instinctively feel what she meant. Growing up in a typical urban space where movement is the order of the day, a pause is just that – a break from the animation, not a legitimate space of its own. I stare at the earth I dug up to plant a sapling. A few months back, it was a mix of decomposing organic matter. Now, the sweet smell of black humus envelops my senses, and a few moments later I see the heap of soil literally crawl with life. Who said it was “dust to dust”? Seems to me, it is life to life. Perhaps, just not the kind we usually acknowledge. Tiny tendrils quiver in the wind, looking for support that would help the plant climb. Roots search for water beneath the surface. The plant grows, as does the life around it. So much happens, yet we make children classify plants as “non-moving”.

As I walk down a street lined with trees, I inevitably slow down to admire them. The act of slowing down allows me to see some tiny red insects. One, two, many, and then many more. I see their dead bodies strewn across the pavement and feel as if I am walking through some place that was bombarded by violence. That violence being that of indifferent walking. Today, we walk through dead insects, tomorrow it would be axed trees, and then perhaps other suffering beings, all reduced to a fuzzy background one couldn’t care more about. This “psychic numbing” as Arne Johan Vetlesen puts it, seems even more dangerous than active aggression, for the latter still indicates a frenzy of passion which could be rectified. How do you rectify something that isn’t there – the inert vacuum of empathy?

Animism – the idea of attributing life to all things in the environment has been conventionally viewed as backward or childish. Our neat categories and increasingly compartmentalised lives extend the Cartesian duality of mind and matter all the way into our being, till we literally become ‘the ghost in the shell’. But then, we are not. Observe any child’s innocent wonder at a frog hopping by, or their sorrow for having lost a feather ‘gifted’ by a bird, or delight in the wooden rhythm of bamboos knocking each other in the wind, and the world seems more alive again.

I dig the soil, the warmth of its life breathing heavily in my hands. KN, a 13-year-old boy, is digging along with me. A few months back, he didn’t want to touch anything ‘dirty’. Well, how can you admire the flowers without nourishing its roots? So, began his weekly stint at gardening, and when seeds sown by him began to sprout, there was no looking back, only looking in. A few moments later, he unearths a sweet potato, and his face lights up with joy. My thoughts light up with hope.

hands flowers


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A cycle of revolution

Since earliest recorded times, humans have been known to make tools to interact with the environment. Tools constitute technology, and today technology constitutes the society. Technical devices have come to engender ways of ‘knowing’ the world and play a key role in embedding cultural practices, as much as shaping them simultaneously. So, the instrumentality of a ‘tool’ has long extended itself into an extension of one’s ‘being’. Political theorist Langdon Winner offers a profound yet simple example by imagining a scene of two people traveling down a street in the same direction. One of them, however, is walking down the road, while the other is a car. The ‘world’ offered to both them radically changes by virtue of a technological device possessed by one of them. While the pedestrian is slower, s/he has the flexibility to gaze at windows of different shops, stop for a small chat and so on. On the other hand, the motorist is faster given that s/he can avoid ‘obstacles’ on the road and focus on the road ahead. Things that invite a pedestrian’s attention turn into distractions for the motorist.

In the words of Winner, “Individual habits, perceptions, concepts of self, ideas of space and time, social relationships, and moral and political boundaries have all been powerfully restructured in the course of modern technological development. What is fascinating about this process is that societies involved in it have quickly altered some of the fundamental terms of human life without appearing to do so. Vast transformations in the structure of our common world have been undertaken with little attention to what those alterations mean.”

As an enthusiastic cyclist, the clash of ‘worlds’ on the perennially busy roads of Mumbai take a very literal turn. The effort put in climbing an uphill contour can’t be felt by a motorist who are literally transported in vehicles rather than using it. They can also be blissfully unaware of most topographical nightmares provided by badly maintained roads, as well as other sights and smells that any urban place is endowed with (Mumbai is especially rich in the latter). As a technology, the automobile, and the velocipede perhaps occupies opposite ends of a spectrum in terms of involvement and agency. As poet Christopher Morley writes, “In a car, you are carried; on a bike you go.” Many car enthusiasts describe a feeling of exhilaration while driving at top speeds across highways, but it seems to me the feeling can hardly be embodied in the way a cyclist feels the wind resisting the raw force pedaled into action by every muscle in the body. The speed achieved on a cycle does not rob one of the time needed to immerse oneself in the changing landscape. A cycle rides only as fast as it is pedaled, barring the downward slopes for occasional fits of giddy excitement. Even then, a balance ensues when one has to wrestle the way up again. Indeed a cyclical harmony. How can any car provide a similar sense of agency, when it uses what never belonged to us in the form of fuel, gas or electricity? It is energy devoid of feeling, and can thus only perpetuate movement without purpose. This is not to insult motorists, but to invite imagining the structure of a society in physical, and cultural dimensions if cycling were the predominant means of transport. Sue Macy describes how cycles became tools for the emancipation of women in the 19th century. Perhaps, now we need to be freed from the Faustian bargain made with automobiles and reclaim our bodies once more.



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A World ‘Rat’tled

In the 1920s, there was war, hunger, a few rich people and poverty. Today the situation is the same, except that there are many more people at war, hungry, rich and poor; not to mention the gazillion animals and plants who have died while we figure out better ways of killing each other. Anyway, while our questionable path to the even more questionable progress requires urgent counter-measures, I am trying to figure out some personal mess. My analysis led me to trace the substantial source of my mental unhinging to the 1920s, in particular to a tribe of scientists called ‘Behaviourists’.

These misdirected, well-meaning group of people thought that mind was a useless thing to study since we can’t see it or measure it; instead, one should focus on how different prompts can result in desired behaviour and measure these quantities. Voila! The mind goes out of the window. Their experiments were lauded as a success as they could make pigeons play table-tennis, make rats walk a tight-rope and do many other circus tricks by giving rewards for the right move and punishments for the wrong one. Well, that’s okay, but the act remains a reaction to environmental stimulus as the pigeons weren’t thinking of winning the table-tennis grand slam or the rules of the game. Scientists eventually moved on, but the behaviorist story seemed too attractive to let go, after all, who doesn’t want to be a control-freak? So began the cultural appropriation of an idea, in the form of schooling and parenting through a series of rewards and punishments; from chocolates to slaps to obsession with degree certificates. Humans are predictably more complex than pigeons and rats, and this form of mind twisting only allowed kids to figure out the rules, instead of understanding why they were there in the first place. It also made ‘things’ synonymous with happiness, and so here we have a hyper-thingified world with everything up for grabs.

By the time I was born, it seemed too late to save the world, and instead I was already one of the rats scampering along with other rats to find that extra tidbit of good grades and nods of approval. Unfortunately, my parents weren’t too good at doing these reward/punishment schemes. Sometimes good marks meant a treat, and sometimes bad marks also meant a consolation treat where they would generally do a good cop interrogation. Well, that meant they were open to reason, and that meant I could talk my way out!

Well, not always, but the idea remained. Now, look at the trouble it got me into. Neither here nor there, the metaphorical chimera of romantic ideas and peer pressure. I am not looking for the cookie but apparently, those are the only things one is supposed to worry about. I got jostled into an engineering degree, finished it and left the field altogether; walked into a PhD degree, walked out of it, later walked into another one and now contemplate being a farmer. People confuse introspection for whimsicality, and the courage to risk a fall by stepping off the perpetual treadmill as laziness. I am only learning to shrug off the labels. Looking around, I see many other rebellious rats too. If culture is a form of collective imagination, maybe we could bring to life a new culture of freedom; and we need be rats no more.

(Image credits: 1996 edition of The Wizard of Oz, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. Sourced from

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I’m wheel, thank you

The first time I saw a bicycle, I was simply amazed to see the grace and speed a person could acquire by mastering the art of maneuvering a pair of wheels. Naturally, I wanted to own one badly. However, like most Indian parents with limited financial means back in the 1990s, they had to be convinced that I was going to use to for eternity carefully . After all, they had to consider scrimping enough to buy a hyperactive seven-year-old what they considered a perennial accident voucher on wheels.

Always the smart one (according to himself), my dad struck a deal with me with the twin aims of weaning me out of my new-found love and teaching me how negotiations work (none succeeded). He suggested that I borrow cycles from neighbouring kids for two months, and, if I still felt like I really wanted one, we could buy it. Else I could just continue borrowing a cycle occasionally when mood beckoned. Sounds fair, right? Well, kids don’t exactly belong in the ‘saint’ category to lend their toys to others, especially when they can’t get anything in return. They are also as xenophobic as their parents. So, as a Bengali girl in an orthodox Punjabi colony, my chances of getting a cycle to practice where as much as someone making billions selling imaginary cow fodder(Oops, it happened). The girls wouldn’t allow me to touch their ‘ladybird’, an apology of a cycle just lacking a Barbie head for a bell, and I treated the cycle with equal contempt. One snotty-nosed boy, however, agreed to lend me his bike in exchange for a few cartoon stickers I had been hoarding.

Obviously, my first attempts were a far-cry from my imagination of sailing through the streets and whizzing past the crowd. I bruised myself enough to contemplate if the bike was possessed by the evil spirit of some grumpy old aunt. Never underestimate the ego and stubbornness of a 7-year-old though. I could have rivalled the pride of Edmund Hillary the day I managed a complete ride without falling off the bike. From then, I only wanted more; ride while standing on the pedals, ride without holding the handlebars, race against the wind; basically, I convinced dad that my existence would be useless without possessing a cycle. And, that is how I got my first bike.

Fast forward two decades later,  the mere sight of a cycle would still make my hands itch to ride one but a spate of unending, seemingly rational,  reasons kept me from buying one. I hadn’t ridden one in years. Then one fine day, my partner bought one for himself because, it seems for the IT guys, their increasing skills in coding is only matched by the girth of their belly. A sudden pain of adulthood on reaching the threshold of thirty convinced him that he had to get back in shape. Before his limbs turned into flabby pillows that is. So, began his furious morning peddling while a familiar longing grew in my heart. I still had plenty reasons to pass the idea of riding along, one of them being the onset of the infamous Mumbai monsoons. I convinced myself it would be wise to think about it after the rains. Then, the next day I found myself with a beautiful bike because I couldn’t ‘refuse’ my partner’s insistence on buying me one. Good one, you lying heart, good one.

The memory of our body is magical, for it remembers things we are hardly conscious about. The moment I climbed the bike, my limbs just knew what to do. Only, my nose didn’t. It turns out early morning rides in Mumbai don’t make for a gust of sea breeze caressing your face. For all the speed possible, I was stuck behind a garbage truck, finally overtaking the nostril-torturing machine only to realise that I was cruising past a giant landfill. There is no escaping the all-pervading stench. So much for riding your dream.

But again, a city is only what we make of it. We are forever making choices through our actions or lack of it. In Italy, bicycles outsold automobiles for the first time since WW II. The trend is catching up throughout Europe. Elsewhere, there are drives for local waste management. It seems the metaphorical wheel is turning anyway, and we can always alter the path it takes. As a growing number of cyclists inhabit the city, maybe wheels of change will follow too.

Image: (c) Hulton Archive/Getty Images | via Sarah Goodyear /

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Gaps, holes and windows

“So, there seems to be a gap from the year 2005 to 2006?” The interviewer looked at him reproachfully; a look he was rather tired of getting every time he applied for a job. He cleared his throat and said, “Yes, but I did not have any arrears, I just took a drop to prepare for engineering entrance exams.” “Ah okay” replied the interviewer satisfied with the explanation, as if preparing for engineering entrance exams is the only honorable rites of passage for any Indian teenager, and sacrificing a year in that pursuit could be forgiven. The conversation carried on, but for the umpteenth time he wished that he could just sit back and say, “Well, I initially wanted to prepare for exams just like all my peers but I found many other interesting things to do, and so spent a year learning tabla, reading classic novels, and heck! even tried penning a small novel about my insipid life. Honestly, it was quite enjoyable till I had to get back on track and enroll for an engineering degree…”

This is an all too familiar story, but it is incomplete and deserves a better ending. The word “curriculum” is derived from the Latin word curricle which refers to carriage horses on a race course. No surprises that only being on “track” is seen as a virtue, and stepping off it as useless or even dangerous meandering. For the growing Indian middle class, formal education is seen as the authorization for a monthly pay-check, and duh, isn’t that supposed to be the “good life”? However, that certainly doesn’t seem the case when you work to pay bills to stay in a place from where you can work. Roundabout, right? Not just that, it is a downright vicious cycle, and yet we cling onto its empty promises of freedom dutifully shackled by expectations of the society.

By the time one realizes this quagmire of a dream, inertia of a certain lifestyle keeps dragging on. So, there is really no other way to reflect unless one consciously steps off this conveyor belt of an education system and tries to figure alternative directions for oneself. Interestingly, in the west, this is termed as a “gap-year”, and is meant to give an individual time to think, travel, learn or earn according to one’s agency rather than follow dictates of any institution. It is widely accepted as a logical space and time required to get a grasp of the direction one would like to take in life. However, in the Indian context, it is seen as some inconceivable wastage of time that would lead one to start work later than others and they would supposedly always lag “behind”. I have met many people proud of the fact that they finished college a year or two earlier than they are supposed to, and got placed in the usual monotone jobs immediately. I have also met people defying this push into glorified labor and instead choose to travel, write, dream, draw, paint and work freely towards a world they imagine to be better than one they live in right now.

Education, for what its worth should open these windows of possibilities, and gaps need to be seen as crucial to one’s development as a person capable of reflection. Then maybe, instead of being the rabbit from Alice in Wonderland, who keeps singing I’m late / I’m late / For a very important date. / No time to say “Hello, Goodbye”. / I’m late, I’m late, I’m late, We can be real protagonists of wonderland waiting to be created.







I speak fluent Emoji?

Call it the priggishness of convent education or more sympathetically, some love for words that have always left me uncomfortable around the SMS lingua franca. They say language is as much a living organism like anything else; growing, evolving, aging and dying. However, I mostly imagine natural deaths unlike the violent strangulation that words undergo when people find most vowels unnecessary and random exclamation marks sufficient to communicate entire sentences. No wonder divorce is so common nowadays, or more simply I am just growing old and grumpy (Both are true). I am not sure about you, but when kids write, “2b or nt 2b…”, I can only imagine the ghosts of Victorian poets tearing their ghostly white wigs in alarm and despair.

True, this is not the Victorian era, but why should writing increasingly resemble the transcript of a kid trying to talk with its mouth full of bananas? We may be getting smarter, but we seemed to have kicked eloquence right outside the window. Of course, eloquence never helped save any time; time is money; money is a way to buy more time? Things are complicated around that corner. Coming back to violent deaths of language, there is another trend that makes even the scarce typing of words unnecessary. Welcome to the age of Emoji, now so essential that messages sent without one is considered impolite or downright hostile. Indeed, some of you may even find it odd to imagine phone conversations without the range of Emoji available today, but this epiphany is as recent as 1998, and was first developed in Japan (trust the weirdest fads to come from there). It soon became so popular, that serious research went into documenting and drawing expressions that could be culturally universal. That’s perhaps the simple yet profound realization; a smile is same in any language.

As usual, I hadn’t really gotten used to the Emoji affair till my messages were construed as unhappy/curt/unclear unless there was an appropriate cartoon face appended to it. It is interesting to note the widespread use even in official mails, the apparent stronghold of formal language. It has seemingly functioned to ease the tone of official conversations, though left to me “Please report to my desk tomorrow at 9:00 am :)” looks plain creepy with that face in the end. Well, that’s just me of course.

Studies show that emoticons such as smiley and sad faces are changing the way our brain works by triggering parts of the brain usually reserved for looking at real faces. i.e we have different areas in brain to process words and faces. Before the advent of emoticons there was no reason to process a colon followed by closing parenthesis 🙂 as a facial expression but now it does because we have learnt to represent this as a face. So, while the heydays of literature had words evoking a variety of emotions, now we have Emojis standing in for a number of words. The Oxford Dictionary named 😂 (Face With Tears of Joy) its 2015 Word of the year. Welcome to the era of Emoji Dick (yes it exists; the emoji version of Moby Dick). Now, is that good, bad, ugly? Well, in all truthfulness and brevity, it just is. Love it or hate it, it will be around till the Japanese come up with the next global fad. 😉

Emoticons have become massively popular, being used in text message and online conversations, along with art projects such as this Banksy Exhibit

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Of jelly legs and dry mouths

As a species, ‘we’ are usually outright embarrassed or mildly mortified at the sight or mention of behaviours which remind us our bestial origins and primary identity. Of course, a vast majority take genuine pleasure in toilet jokes and intercourse but would rather not declare the same while introducing themselves. Such are the complexities of human interactions. However, there is yet another phenomena reminding most of us that our brains haven’t come a long way from our savannah foraging ancestors. This happens to constitute sweaty palms, clenched fists, temporary lack of control over limbs and other not-so-comfortable visceral experiences. Yes, it is the all too familiar stage-fright. The range of bodily reactions occur due to the brain’s interpretation of the scenario parallel to a bunch of hyenas cornering the poor little rabbit ‘you’. After all, wired as we are to be concerned about our reputation in the society, the idea that our little performance might damage our mostly imagined stature in the society triggers an evolutionarily robust stress system– adequately prepared to escape the hyenas, except there aren’t any here! So, while your legs wobble in anticipation of a sprint, you have to manage that confident stride up to the dais and while your pupils dilate to cover long range action, you squint at your notes as the last resort of inconsequential help.

Back in college, my now-partner-then-classmate trudged up the stage clutching a few pieces of paper only to realize that the lights were dimmed to project the powerpoint slides (another bane of our society). Unable to bear the torture, he fumbled with the flashlight in his phone and read the text verbatim, making it look more like a ghost drama rather than academic presentations. In my case, despite all possible preparations, the day I am supposed to give a public talk begins with me vomiting empty stomach. So much for gut instincts. Our physiology reveals our closeness to animal brethren to a degree we rarely admit but can’t control anyway. So, what we really manage to do is adapt to the situation through practice, situation and relaxation tactics to avoid a full-scale stress trigger. Heart beats fast, but heck that means you are alive, and probably mean what you say! As aptly put by Mark Twain, “There are only two types of speakers in the world. 1. The nervous and 2. Liars.” For the all upsides of being capable for anticipating the future, perhaps it is best to make peace with the occasions when the unwanted clairvoyance backfires (literally), for we are a bunch of nervous idealists aren’t we?

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Compassion management

In a world ridden with apathy and general callousness, this title would rightly seem bizarre. After all, has anyone ever had a fatal dose of compassionate acts? Well, I would hunt for the origin of the phrase “being smothered by love” for that. It turns out that there are indeed people whose concern often oversteps the bounds of societal etiquette, turning it into a case of disaster management for the rest of the family, in order to avoid subsequent glares (and occasional avoidance for a lifetime). Not that family members are immune to such extremist versions of compassion, it is just that they learnt to deal with it by returning the acts of kindness. In my family, our father has bagged the “deadliest kindness of the year” award for quite sometime now. Once, we were visited by family friends, whose young brat of a son was creating a ruckus like most brats do. This was perhaps a novel phenomenon for dad, whose children (i.e. me and my brother) had grown up being showered with a healthy dose of shouts and slaps, such that our ‘brat-iness’ never got a chance to show itself in its full glory (until much later, when it is nicely dubbed existential angst). Now, taking his own adequately weird children as representative of the entire spectrum of child behaviour, he instantly asked the parents, “Have you shown him to a psychiatrist? He may need serious help and medication.” To be fair, he was genuinely concerned; but this was a proclamation about a 3-year-old healthy Punjabi boy. I mention Punjabi, because you might want to take a minute to imagine his father’s nostrils flare and his fists tighten as my father (the puny Bengali guy) carried on breezily about his self-acclaimed experience in handling children and so forth. When my mother’s eyebrows (raised high enough to hit the ceiling) also didn’t work as a signal to stop, she hurriedly offered some chocolates to the boy and lavishly praised his talent for breaking things, before bidding them an abrupt farewell.

Visits to doctors are generally memorable for the fact that one has to cough up money and phlegm at the same time, with nothing but trust that the former will take care of the latter. In our case, along with the sick kid to be diagnosed, came a concerned father who would want to make sure that nothing but the right medicine would be ingested by his child. Fair enough. But for our doctor, it meant defending every punctuation of his diagnosis, along with justification for not considering the other trillion possibilities that father would have read on the internet (or homoeopathy leaflets). I think only the Hippocratic oath kept this doctor from getting violent, though he did ask us to only come with our mother in the future. As a family, we have tried our best to indulge in ‘compassion management’ and compensate for his concern, and over time he does realise that seeing flushed cheeks combined with a puckered face together is a pretty good indication to stop talking, though often it does end with, “have you had your blood pressure checked? You don’t look quite normal.” Well, someone once said, “compassion brings us to a stop, and for a moment we rise above ourselves.” I completely agree, except that the nature of those stops and rises can be quite different.

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