Rainy Neon Dreams

I have a memory of the rain. On every day that we moved from one city to another, it would rain. I remember staring at the blurry streets that I was leaving behind knowing that I was perhaps feeling emotions too deep to put into words.  Often, I have caught my reflection weeping in the glass windows as the raindrops slide down the translucent cheeks effortlessly and I have scoffed because I have always been too optimistic about leaving my past behind.

Mumbai, Bangalore, New York. The offspring of an urban jungle, I have seen rich, poor, metal, grass and people alike and I know that I have yet seen nothing at all because I do not know where this life will take me. I take comfort in the sound and bustle and noise of the city because I know that it is a tangible evidence of the world’s ruthless progression.

I used to partition my life into small objectives: complete Grade 6, complete High-school, get into college, graduate from college and so on. Yet the more I grow up, the more it appears there is to do. Be a good person, be a good daughter, be a good student, be a good engineer, be a good friend, be happy, be kind, be compassionate, be less abusive towards yourself and so on and so forth. These are the fluid goals. The ones that have no deadlines, the ones that will inevitably come to pass, the ones in which I can’t seek a solution manual because there is no right way to do these things.

I have memories of the quiet mango tree alcoves of Kolkata suburbia, the asphalt-melting heat and the unbearable humidity. Even in that heat, we seek to ruin mangoes and interrupt afternoon siestas because we are too young to feel languor. Yes, grandma, I really would like to have cool coconut water. The protests that we had against the second evening shower because we were in denial of the sweat-clinging clothes. The ground burns as the sun sets and people gather around with hand-made bamboo fans and sigh, my goodness, wasn’t it a hot day?

I have memories of the lovely cloudy days of Bangalore, days which were so beautiful that I wish I could capture the rain forever, memories of playing in the rain and watching the paint run from new walls, muddy school uniforms, puddle-jumping conquests, mud and piping hot coffee huddled inside. Cloudy days that were so dark that the lights had to be put on in the afternoon. Cloudy days where the fog protected the nest of pigeons nearby from the dripping water.

Days when the sky was so picturesque that it seemed unreal, and the times in the café I have spent trying to become one of the many typical tomboy nerds, trying to make myself matter, trying to belong and eager to cast aside my stark differences. I have tried too hard and yet, I am grateful for the shelter and comfort of the all-girls’ school environment because it appears that things look a lot easier in the past.

It is raining again today, and the faint memory of a Bengali song makes me weep in the corner of the library, because indeed it had been so long since I have been home. I’m waiting for the future. I, who has constantly been pushed forward in my life, is waiting to come back to the past, to wrap it up in some dripping neon-colored memory that will smell of nostalgia, childhood, adolescent melancholy and the burning need to feel like I belong.

Excuse me, I murmur to my past, and start walking along Manhattan streets faster than my past is catching up beside me. I have things to do, places to be, I repeat endlessly striving to find meaning in this perennial madness of being trapped among geniuses in the world’s best city. The brutal wind will not let me stop and think about deadlines and work and the pressure of performing well enough to find that niche in which I belong. I have to be constantly aware of not stepping into a puddle because my winter boots are supposed to be on a holiday, and the Starbucks on my hand is my guiding beacon to warmth.

“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”, say Simon and Garfunkel and I hear the million clattering shoes on the asphalt paved roads to futures that dissolve behind innumerable avenues and crossings as large pools of people drift in and out. In the echo of their multilingual, multicultural identities, I hear the ghosts of the cites I’ve left behind and the ones that will come. If I have to call that one absolute place where I belong my home, then what of the transient journeys through the places where I have found different pieces of myself? Will I ever find that one perfectly shaped hollow in the geometry of life, where all my edges and curves will fit perfectly?

“Please stand away from the platform edge,” says the station recording and the train rushes in to scoop millions of aspirants to the future. Excuse me, I say to my future, taking a step back. Excuse me while I wait for the rain to fall.

Advertisements

Impressions

In less than four days I will go back. The terror of the library that haunts my days and my nights will be waiting, gates open wide, temperatures between lounge and reading rooms that are too differential to be comfortable. It’s a place that smells of the forgotten assignments and last minute deadlines and silent frustration. It’s a place that is so obviously drenched with coffee and productivity that several glossy eyes are simply scanning off Facebook and online stores.

Boulevard of Anticipated Dreams. Image credits: http://en.wikipedia.org/

Boulevard of Anticipated Dreams. Image credits: http://en.wikipedia.org/

I will struggle to find a place near a socket. Always, always I’m in the crazy hut for a socket because my soul has now been embedded into these electronic devices that I carry around, and I know that if I should simply disappear these metal beings will live on to portray the oddity that I am and was.

Some philosopher who chooses not to study in libraries because they represent the many shattered dreams of prospective weekend nights will tell me that the suppressed silence is too stressful to get work done. Indeed, we all have our excuses for why and why not the library, which is a standing testament to generations of knowledge should be regarded simultaneously as a haven and as a perpetual state of coma.

I love sitting by the windows watching when it rains and it comforts me immensely that I am surrounded by the warmth of knowledge collected over so many years and people who are struggling through the same, if not equivalent, journeys as I am. I will revel in the simple joy of being warm and indoors when I will check my phone for the temperature outside and let that Google-data-induced number induce a shiver under my many layers of sweaters.

Confessions of a self-declared pluviophile. Image credits:http://www.caminodesantiago.me/rain-gear-recommendations/

Confessions of a self-declared pluviophile. Image credits:http://www.caminodesantiago.me/rain-gear-recommendations/

I will be going back to the city. Except for the library, where there is still the rustle of paper, the vibrating phones and the ghostly glow of battery-drained laptops, there is a perpetual noise that screeches through all other aspects of life. There are so many opinions, jokes, conversations, protests and complaints against that background of the noisy wind, milieu of pedestrian footsteps and shadows of vehicles in perpetual motion. There will always be something open in this city that doesn’t sleep. The old neon lights will be replaced and I might find myself in a restaurant which will close after nearly 30 years because it is simply not sustainable. I will then have to find a new place where I can derive the same comfort, for that is what I’m searching for in all this noise and solitude.

Sometimes when it rains and if I am outside, I will pause and think back to all the different places I have experienced the unadulterated joy of the rain. The soft persistent drizzle in New York that creates an odd glow as it pushes against the eternally mobile tide of people. The afternoons in Bangalore where I would watch children running free, ruining their shoes and school uniforms by skipping across puddles and wait till the next morning when the paint from the walls would have run. In the distance I hear the clamor of everyone trying to board the local express to Howrah, and I would watch the few beggars huddle in the shade of the platform station watching the torrent wash down in merciless waves. It’s a testament to the worn-out Konnagar station sign that it does not crumble.

Tri-lingualism and drier weather. Image credits:http://static.panoramio.com/photos/original/46392735

Tri-lingualism and drier weather. Image credits:http://static.panoramio.com/photos/original/46392735

I will go back to the life of New York, and sometimes I will feel the deep, unexplained wonder of the beauty that it is. Silently I will concur with every other person who has been charmed with New York and I will also paradoxically agree with the many who hate it.The noise, the metallic grime and the insomnia is not for everyone. I will go back to the life where I am so caught up in absorbing the little impressions of life around me, friends, schedules and food that I won’t relish pauses like these until I am thoroughly depressed or put-down by life. It is a shame because I have come to love my solitude so much, but I know that if I tell anyone that I am simply staring into the endless nothing of a place where everything is happening all the time, they won’t believe me. It’s not their place to believe.

So listen future me, listen to these little bits of sanity talk back to you in the mixed dialects of Bangla, English and the inimitable, classic Harlem-Bronx. Listen to the uncovered impressions of soft vowel sounds, the crisp familiarity of a language I hear almost everywhere and the on-point sass of a social demographic which insists on being heard.

This is my world and I belong here. These places own a part of me as much as I am a transient visitor, and perhaps it is a hybrid of these short and ageless visits that form a large part of my identity. I know that I am one of the many zombie shadows who hallow the libraries, and perhaps I may even be in one of those states when I am re-reading this. But I will pause, no matter how small that pause is, and breathe in the realm of what is physically, materially, tangibly, obviously happening around me. This is who I am. This is what I owe to myself.

And in less than four days, I will be going back to it.

Flashback: Durga Puja

It’s that time of the year again. Mid-October, when the skies are finally clear from the monsoons, and schools have finished their first series of exams and everyone’s pining for a holiday. In Kolkata, stores are probably giving insane discounts and sale offers. People are buying all sorts of new things for themselves and to gift other people during the Puja. The idols of the deity are finally painted in and are about to be installed in themed canvas tents. We call those enclosures “pandals”. Always beautifully decorated, sometimes each town competes with another’s in terms of variety of theme and expression of the deity. After all, Goddess Durga is back home from her residence in the abode and she has brought her children along with her. Although the festival is for ten days, the last five are the most fun.

Durga_Puja

Image credits: Top ten Indian festivals of all time omgtoptens.com

It’s that time of the year again when my grandmother will gift me new clothes to wear for each of the five days. If she’s visiting me after a few months, she tries to estimate my growing physical dimensions from a grainy Skype video call and brings a salwar suit along with it to match. She also buys me accessories and jewelry to go along with each of those five suits. She brings sarees for all the female members of the family, and one even for the domestic help and the chauffeur’s wife. She brings t-shirts for everyone else. Every morning, there are prayers and rituals followed by breakfast. Once we’ve arranged some mode of transport, my grandmother would take me along with her to visit the different temples and pandals all over the city.

You may think that this influx of the new is exaggerated, but it’s not. In the trains and buses, every man, woman and child is decked in something new, if not downright festive. The ladies usually carry a tray of offerings to the deity and gifts for other visiting members as well. It’s a great communal activity. For large expensive pandals and fairs, a community usually sponsors the installation of a deity and all the members volunteer.

During the day, there are mostly prayers, rituals and visits from nearby members of the Bengali community. If there’s something Bengali people love doing it’s knowing how to while time away in good conversation. The Bengali word for it is “adda”, and it’s meaning extends from gossip to a report on recent events and anything in between. Friends, good food and very flexible schedules are mandatory requirements for a good adda session.

The Bengali definition of good food includes luchi (inflated cornflour flatbread), aloo dum (potato in rich gravy) or rice. A fish curry may be served as well if it’s lunch time, finished off with a rice pudding.

Bengali food in full glory
Image credits: Poribeshon.com

 Goddess Durga is considered to be our mother, because she conquered evil and she protects our homes and families and brings joy, prosperity and strength to her devotees. But in our culture, we also take to viewing her as our own daughter. She is the young bride of the family who has left the home of her husband to spend some time with us. It always seemed to me that in the morning, we would treat her to be officially a goddess. All the rites and rituals, carefully planned and performed. The offerings placed in a certain way, the right mantras chanted, the right fasts kept and broken. In the evening, when the pandal lighting has been switched on, something different happens altogether.

Morning ritual preparations

Morning ritual preparations
Image credits: Mother

Most pandals are constructed such that there are two platforms. One for where all the deities are installed and the other for public performances by people of the community who participate. Dance groups, poetry challenges and music performances dominate the evening. Add another healthy dose of adda and more food. Most of these performances have the central theme of Goddess Durga’s glorious conquest. Occasionally, there will be a parody of Bengali culture or an exhibition of Tagore’s works. Under the invocation of Goddess Durga’s blessing, rare exceptional talent takes over the second podium for five spectacular nights.

Usually, my grandmother and my mother would be my constant adda companions. I would ask her to re-narrate the epics when I felt a bit out of place or ask her to explain some ritual to me. Or we would take the opportunity to people-watch, and my grandmother always had something to say if I stared at a cute Bengali boy a little longer than necessary. But that’s part of what defines our very close relationship. My grandmother would talk about how the deities were decorated and arranged at different sites, and then we’d talk about food, life and so on. All around us everyone was updating their friends and close family about news of other relatives, who got what for the Puja, who wore what to which pandal and so on.

I’m remembering all these today because I’m very suddenly homesick. The physical distance between us feels immense. I haven’t tasted a mustard fish curry in almost a year, and I have a very weird craving for luchi right now. But more so, I miss the holidays, the bustle, the general aura of being Bengali and doing Bengali things. All through today, I’ve been listening to Bangla songs, feeling more emotional than usual.

Today is the last day of that festival. The gorgeous deity will now be immersed in water. Everyone is sad to see her go. All the married women smear themselves on with sindoor, the red powder that women use on their forehead to indicate their marital status. They will smear some on the idol too. They want Goddess Durga to bless their families and homes, and they smear this on the deity so that she carries this token back with her when she metaphorically leaves for her abode. My mother and grandmother are usually the first of the household to wish each other and put the red powder on each other. Someday, when I get married, I hope I’ll be able to continue their tradition.

The Sindoor smearing followed by the idol's immersion Image credits: festivals.iloveindia.com, hinduism.about.com

The Sindoor smearing followed by the idol’s immersion
Image credits: festivals.iloveindia.com,
hinduism.about.com

The elderly bless the young. Gifts and wishes are exchanged. Everyone is quiet towards the end of the evening, as the pandals are cleared out. The youth usually chant the slogan, “She’ll come again next year” as a reference to how the festival will be celebrated annually.

My mother called me today and said that she remembered how last year she had prayed to the deities for my academic success and for the well-being of our family. Exactly one year from now, I’m in an Ivy League institution. She called me up to say that she was very proud of me. For everything that I had done. She said that when she went to visit one of the pandals, she saw a deity that resembled me in its likeness and she was so grateful to the divine authorities for their everyday contribution in putting our big dreams to action. She said that one of the younger wives at the pandal wished her well and said that she someday aspired to become a mother like my mother. She talked about how much it touched her and how she felt that she could have been only where she is today by having a daughter like me.

I allowed myself to shed a few tears. I don’t think I deserve such high praise from a mother who has done infinitely more for me. We ended up being more sentimental than usual. I watched a few videos on Youtube about the immersion, and though I feel so removed from my grandparents and friends, I   know their best wishes are with me.

Departure

We have never lived in a house of our own. I have never known what it means to actually live in the same place for all my life. I actually find the change rather comforting. I see home as a sort of constant environment that we grow in, so that we can deal with our internal changes without having to worry about external adaptability. This theory is easily refuted by the fact that most of the changes we do undergo happen once we are beyond the comfort of home. Managing our personal space and time, for example. With frequently traveling parents, I have come to find that home is not a structure that houses my favorite relatives. There has to be something relevant to home which makes us so averse to leaving it.

Most of my memories of moving out of homes involves reliving the specifics of the location. I could remember the views from the windows, the people whom I would meet, how the plants were arranged, what the weather what be like. I tend to remember the memories associated with the place, as I suppose most people do. Surely travel locations also hold the same place in our heart. I don’t really care about the geographical location of the place. It’s what happened when I was there and how that counts. So, it can’t be the memories either.

I think that one of the reasons why home matters so much is because of the routine we subconsciously associate with it. When at home, we are at a state of being in which we have certain things planned out for us in a predefined way. No matter what that routine is, if its pleasant and if we are habituated to it, we call that home. Some people find this solace at their workplace, where the constant drive of work keeps them rigidly bound to a series of events. For most people, me included, its hard to move out of a specific routine. That’s perhaps why most people are averse to sudden disruptions or changes in their routine. We don’t like to leave home because we are abandoning the routine that comes with it.

This time my home is not an apartment, it is not my alma mater. It is a country: India. I’m going to be leaving this beautiful place behind for my beloved New York. Throughout my childhood, I’ve come to personify cities as people and as someone who has grown up in a few Indian cities, and now studies in the US, I have quite a geographical family.

Mumbai, where I was born, comes back to me as the young rainy, impulsive baby-sitter that watched me grow from an infant to an eight year old. All I can remember about that city is the rain. It poured torrentially during the monsoon seasons and some of my fondest memories have been in that bone-drenching rain.

The last few days of the Ganesh Chaturthi celebration: Ganesha, the deity of prosperity and good luck, is submerged into the waters as a ceremonial departure to mark the end of the festival. 

My first discovery of mushrooms, snails and earthworms, the long walks I would take with my grandfather during which time he would tell me stories of the plants and trees that grew in the nearby park. It was an hour’s walk from my house to the point where the school bus would pick students up. I can remember my uncle insisting that I finish my lunch in school. The traffic, the sights and sounds of the city (especially during Ganesh Chaturthi) gave Mumbai this lasting impression of driving energy. As the center of national financial activity and home to the entertainment industry, Mumbai’s stereotypical citizens also embody that can-do attitude.

When my family moved to Bangalore, it was still a sleepy town. As I learned later, the IT boom that made it a notable hub was brought by the immigration of IT-qualified people like my parents and many others. With the sudden rush of people, this laid-back, pleasant retirement destination was transformed into a city with as much life as any other metropolis. Since I lived in Bangalore until I was nineteen, I have many more memories associated with this place. In the beginning, the charming weather always made me feel lethargic. It was perpetually cloudy, even though it rained sparsely. But it was never uncomfortable. Learning the local language helped me cross the rather large cultural divide that exists between one region from India to another.

The Bangalore skyline

I can remember learning to adapt to the soft, passive-aggressive ways of the city. The city has grown with me, losing some of its cherished greenery to make way for taller glass and metal structures and bigger names. Oracle, Accenture, Wipro, Intel, Microsoft, IBM, Infosys and Cognizant became household names. Computer programming was integrated into my school syllabus from 8th grade. Everyone and anyone worked either in IT, or in some other branch of these large magnates. Call centers sprung up all over the city, expanding its boundaries, much as I was learning to expand my own horizons.

The Bangalore skyline at night

With time, there was a huge influx of expatriates back into the city, which forced another population boom. The city’s cultural profile began to now span across several nations, if not states. What I find most endearing about the spirit of the city is how we learn to accommodate everything. It is a statement that is jokingly referred to as the Bangalore slogan. “Swalpa adjust maadi” which means “Adjust a little” in Kannada. It’s an effective rephrasing of “grin and bear it”. There are a million reasons to complain everyday about many things. But at the end of the day, you become what you work yourself into. Due to the call centers and the IT industry firmly establishing base, this sleepy little town had to work across multiple time zones. Despite the lack of infrastructure to be able to host such growth, the city grows while its inhabitants grin and bear it. I too began to stay up late at night discovering more about my growing passion in Computer Science. One of the first things that came to my mind when I landed was that if Bangalore was a person, I would be hugging it so hard.

I used to think these two places were the most important cities in my life. I honestly can’t compare both of them. One has been an elder sister, who is growing everyday, expanding and making new advances, like me. The other has been a forgotten baby-sitter. She did her duty, and while I may not remember the most important lessons I’ve learned from her, its the fact that she still taught me well what counts.

Then entered a new person in my life: New York. Famous, glamorous, classy, desirable and yet with its own flavor of underground, New York is somewhere I’m going to spending the rest of my years in college. I used to think that I wouldn’t need any adjustment moments, since I was coming from one of the most diverse countries in the world. But then I was put right. This wasn’t just a language or a cultural difference, it was an entire nation apart. I honestly haven’t lived in new York long enough to write more inspiring literature about it, though there’s no dearth of that all over the internet. I think I know where they found their inspiration, though. Its New York. ‘Nuff said.

New York skyline at sunset, most of the blocky buildings with their windows lit up, and centered on a Empire State Building lit up red at its top.

The New York skyline

I’m in Bangalore now, soaking back into a much-needed dose of home. However, with an established routine at New York, that city has become my home as well, even though I am still its foreigner. I simply do not have the capacity to describe what I will miss about Bangalore when I’m in New York. Strangely enough, through my summer break here, I’ve been trying to capture what it is that I miss about New York when I’m in Bangalore. It’s probably the transition between two routines: one of a schoolgirl in a family with doting grandparents and loving parents and one of a strong, independent young woman who is managing her own show in the capital of the Empire State. It feels a bit unusual to adjust to both these routines, but now I realize that I have now grown to fill both these requirements.

I’m leaving Bangalore soon. I’m trying to console myself that this beautiful city will always be there for me, waiting with her metaphorical arms open wide. But while she has come to represent comfort, my best friend 8299.57 miles away wants to expose me to the rest of the world with her. I don’t understand why I should feel so torn between two of my most favorite places in the world. But while they may be cities, I am a human. I am allowed to feel nostalgic and hold on to sentiment. I can never compare between any of them.

Goodbye, Garden city. I will miss you terribly