Growing Up

The mansion was so old that only the strength of the creepers along the wall was keeping the structure from crumbling to bits. The mango sapling that Pakhi’s great-grandfather had planted had grown into a shoulder for the withering house to lean on. Humidity and harsh sunlight had long since worn off the physical exterior of the structure, and the shade provided by the canopy of the mango tree was the only respite for the residents of the historical relic. The pond nearby, which had once been clear and filled with fishes, was now a sickly green with large populations of undisturbed algae on the surface. Its tranquil surface was disturbed by the occasional leaf that settled on its surface, courtesy of the mango tree.

The quiet of this stiflingly warm tropical afternoon was interrupted when a lady in a sari tried to descend to the ground floor. The humidity made the fabric chafe against her skin. The flowing drape had been been tucked into her waist in order to avoid being an inconvenience to the daily chores of the household. Tired, she suddenly found herself incapable of chasing Pakhi.  In a manner that defied grace, she summoned Pakhi as loudly as she could from the top of the stairs, hoping that her voice could follow the girl where her physical body couldn’t. Several of the sparrows roosting atop the mango tree flew away in alarm as their afternoon siesta was interrupted.

“What’s the matter, Didi?” cried Jhumki in alarm, rushing out of the spice-filled kitchen to the bottom of the stairs. Mita’s call had interrupted her aroma-laden reveries and she gladly accepted any excuse to leave the poorly ventilated kitchen. Clearly, when the house had been designed, the proximity of the pond seemed calming enough. Now, the windows were closed during cooking to avoid attracting insects from the pond. The stagnant air served to make a neat oven out of the entire kitchen itself.  Jhumki’s husband was the younger brother of Mita’s husband. As the two wives of the family, they felt the burdens of the household together, commiserated about everything together. As her older co-sister, Jhumki called her Didi, a common term of endearment that younger sisters called their older sisters.

“Have you seen Pakhi?” asked Mita.

“No, I haven’t.”

“Jhumki, I tell you, this girl is undoubtedly up to no good. She refuses to grow up. She refuses to accept responsibility. How am I supposed to chase her at this age? Why doesn’t she understand what is expected of her? I am no longer a young woman, and she is no longer a child!”

With this declaration, Mita sat down on the stairs, panting and exhausted. Jhumki hurriedly grabbed one of the hand-made bamboo fiber fans that lay on the table and began to fan Mita and herself. She assumed that this outburst was spawned more by the oppressive heat than any actual rage for Pakhi. Though given Pakhi’s history of being a mischievous child, it wouldn’t have surprised Jhumki at all.

“What happened?”

“There’s a family from Rishra coming to visit us. They have a son, who is soon to take over the father’s textile trade. His parents are looking for eligible brides. They have come to know of our Pakhi from our uncle in Rishra, and they wish to meet her soon.”

“When are they coming?” asked Jhumki, in some trepidation, fidgeting with the drapes of her sari. Guests always involved an extensive cleansing of the house. There were obviously some aspects about the house which were beyond the able capacities of two mere Bengali wives, but it was especially important that they show that they were from an upper socio-economic bracket of society as well. She sincerely hoped that they would have enough time to make the best of it.

However, Mita had other concerns. In order for this union of families to be successful, the bride would have to come across as a desirable, suitable, comely match for the enterprising young man. Feminine grace, or household ability had never been one of Pakhi’s virtues. But now that she was of a marriageable age, it was important for her to cultivate some skills that were basic requirements of a Bengali housewife. It was a truly gargantuan task to teach docility and grace to a rebel like Pakhi.

“Didi, I asked when they were coming.”

“Oh, they said they would be leaving Rishra within the week.”

Jhumki calculated that they would arrive in approximately two weeks. Hardly enough time, but they had to try.

“Didi, that would mean…”

“Yes, I know what it would mean. Now you know why it is imperative that I find Pakhi!”

Tinku, peeked her head out from the door of the nearest bedroom from the stairs. “What’s going on?” she asked her mother.

“Do you know where your cousin is?” asked Mita, sounding harassed.

“No,” said Tinku nonchalantly. Almost five years younger than Pakhi and recently roused from a nap, she fidgeted sleepily with the folds of her skirt, wondering why it was so hot and why the women of the household seemed intent on being noisy.

“My dear, I thought you were out with her in the morning?” asked Jhumki of her daughter.

“I was. We planned to go by the river in the evening. But I fell asleep. I don’t know where she is.”

“That girl…” said Mita, shaking her head, about to start on another one of her maternal rants once again.

“Is it true that someone’s going to marry Pakhi Didi?” asked Tinku, apparently not as asleep as she appeared to be.

“How many times have I told you it’s a bad habit to overhear the conversation of adults?” asked Jhumki sternly, feeling a bit  shamefaced before Mita.

“Ma, how am I not supposed to hear what you’re talking about if you’re being so loud?” countered Tinku defiantly.

“Jhumki, you better watch out for that back talk. She’ll grow into her Pakhi Didi if that’s not nipped in the bud.” Mita’s stern tone made Tinku hurriedly shut up.

“Go make yourself useful! Find out where Pakhi is and tell her she is wanted at home,” said Jhumki. It suddenly dawned on her that she might have to entertain suitors for Tinku someday, and that seemed to be a frightening prospect.

It was too hot to venture outside, but Tinku realized that if she didn’t obey her mother, she would be in bigger trouble than Pakhi was. Reluctantly, she set out for the river. Pakhi Didi had promised to show her how to make those fancy paper boats that could sail down the river. Everyday, she and her cousin would look for interesting artifacts trapped in the wound up nets of fishermen who had finished the morning’s catch. Sometimes, when the religious festivals commenced upstream, the river would bring down the banana leaves bearing flowers and incense sticks, tokens of their devotion to their deities. Inadvertently, some of these would be caught in the fishermen’s nets. Pakhi used to untangle some of the flowers and throw it back into the river. She didn’t want to be responsible for someone’s prayers not being answered, because some fisherman interrupted the passage of a divine message. It was inauspicious, she would say to the impressionable Tinku.

The heavy humid air seemed to restrict her movements which made a short pleasant walk a punishment. When Tinku approached the riverbank, she sat down for a few minutes under the welcoming shade of the mangrove trees.  Maybe if she had just kept her head down, she could have continued her delightful nap. Even now, she could catch up on some sleep here. But then her worried mother would be in the same state as Pakhi’s.. Some of the fishermen’s wives from the nearby huts came by to collect some water in their pots. Since each of them had several pots, they took their time to fill them in, updating each other on the family or village gossip. Tinku watched them from under the canopy. She could tell that they were judging her for being a lazy girl.

Wet, smelly flowers began to pelt a few of the wives. The unmistakable giggle followed, right above Tinku. The wives began to scold Pakhi, perched high up on the tree, collecting fruits and flowers in the lap of her skirt. She laughed at their scorn, and dangled her legs with glee. She suddenly noticed her younger cousin below the tree. A wet flower landed on Tinku.

“Hey Tinku! I didn’t see you there! You are finally awake. Come, we’ll go explore a bit downstream, if we can hitch one of the boats. It’s going to be a fun ride!”

One of the wives snorted at her and said, “Wait till you get married, girl. You’ll know what it means to be so wild and impudent then.”

Pakhi ignored them and descended near her cousin, who was busy disentangling the flower from her hair. Much as Tinku loved her elder cousin, she still thought that some of her methods were immature. “Pakhi Didi, we can’t do that. Not today.”

“Why? Stop being so lazy, Tinku!” She called out in a sing-song voice.

“Jethima wants you at home,” said Tinku, referring to Pakhi’s mother in the appropriate Bengali term of respect.

“So?” asked Pakhi. Her mother needing her immediate presence was not a new story, and would undoubtedly involve scolding and criticism about her behavior.

“Pakhi Didi, there’s some talk of a young man from Rishra who wants to see you. Jethima was running around the house telling everyone about it. If you don’t come back home with me, we’re both going to be in very deep trouble.”

“Why does he want to see me?” asked Pakhi.

One of the wives overhearing the conversation laughed at her. “Your parents want to marry you off so they don’t have to hear your neighbors complaining of your misbehavior anymore.”

Pakhi made a rude face at them as they all collectively jeered at her.

Tinku tried to steer her away and get back home before the sun set and the mosquitoes and insects began their nocturnal activities. Pakhi was surprised, and quietly frightened with that discovery. She wondered why her parents would want to dispose of her. She always thought that she was the sweet heart of the household. Now, it was apparent that she wasn’t going to retain that status any longer. She didn’t mean anyone any harm. Yet, they persisted in sending her off to some alien home, far from the comforts of family.

“Tinku?” she asked her escort, as they walked through the dusty village road washed red in the angry sunset. The silent contemplation was punctuated by the occasional sound of bicycles ringing as they came around the corner, the ripples formed in the water by the occasional cow taking a sip and the gurgling pots of the  fishermen and their wives.

“Yes, Pakhi Didi?” asked Tinku, slightly worried at Pakhi’s sudden withdrawal into silence.

“When are these people coming? Am I supposed to be doing something about them?”

Tinku had never imagined her bold and flamboyant cousin sounding so helpless. “I don’t know when they’re coming, Didi,” came the measured response. “I think Jethima just wants to teach you some household skills that you can show to them when they come. My mother says that aspiring wives are required to know these things.”

“Is it so important to get married, Tinku?”

Tinku tried to provide her with some solace. “I think it’s just an obligation we have to our families, as daughters. We have to uphold our family’s dignity, by being good daughters and good wives. After all, we can’t go about running around mango trees and picking on fishermen for the rest of our lives, right? We have to grow up some day.”

“How do you know these things, Tinku?”

Tinku couldn’t help but feel a sudden rush of affection for her elder cousin. But she couldn’t vocalize what she wanted to convey. Wasn’t docility and keeping a good home apparent in every one of the town’s respected women? They all seemed to carry themselves with grace and poise. They all managed to get all the work done of the house, and were still social enough to host and entertain their husband’s guests. How could she explain to Pakhi her methodology? While Pakhi had been running around, being wild, Tinku had been quietly observant.

“I have a feeling you won’t be as worried when your time comes, Tinku,” said Pakhi perceptively.

“Didi, I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. People get married all the time.”

Tinku spoke with the quiet confidence of someone who was sure that her time was to come eons later.

The sisters tacitly knew that there were several gossip stories spun around failed marriages as well. For a wife to leave her home was disrespectful to her family of birth, even if her new family was the reason of her departure. The wives would always be the first to be blamed. They would also be the first to take the mantle of responsibility in dire circumstances.

When Pakhi bounded up the stairs, two at a time, she walked in on her mother having a serious conversation with her father. “There, explain to your daughter how important this rendezvous is!” gestured Mita, angrily.

“Mita, I don’t think there’s any need to be so angry with her. Let her enjoy the last few days of her childhood,” said Pakhi’s father gently.

“It’s because you spoil her so that we can’t tame her!” said Mita.

Pakhi stood meekly at the door, trying to hide her tears. Why did it always feel like her mother didn’t love her enough? Anything she did was a mistake in the eyes of her mother. There were many days when Pakhi wondered what it would like to run away from the stagnant atmosphere of the village, to be free, to fly. Her name meant bird in Bengali. She was born to aspire for greater heights. Yet, she had a mother who constantly chased her with disciplinary matters.

Even though she wanted to fly away, she knew how much it would hurt her parents to see their only daughter leave. More so, Tinku would have nobody to play with and talk to. While Tinku may not admit it, Pakhi knew that was the truth.

“My dear, come here, we must talk to you,” said Pakhi’s father, placidly. “There is a very handsome young man who is visiting us from Rishra, and he may want to consider you as his bride.”

Pakhi kept her head bowed as a token of respect to her parents. This was old news, courtesy of Tinku.

“We would like you to be as nice to the young man as possible. Show that family that you are a good girl, like your mother and I know you are.”

“Why?”

Mita scoffed in the background. How had she raised such a socially inept daughter? This girl was going to be the disgrace of their family if the young man did not have a favorable impression of her.

Pakhi’s father, for the first time in all of Pakhi’s life, said something stern to her mother. “Mita, I will not have you disrespect the girl. If you think she brings us disgrace, don’t forget that she is your daughter and that reflects on your capability of being a parent.”

Shocked at his comment, Mita looked at her daughter for a while. She looked as though she might argue, but then her good wifely upbringing overcame her and she then hid her face with the hood of her sari. Pakhi looked up in surprise, and exchanged a look with her mother, before hastily bowing down again to suppress the giggle that followed. For once, Pakhi’s mother was going to be blamed for something, instead of her. Pakhi felt delightfully vindicated.

“My dear, it is important that you get married. You are still young. There will come a time when you will be too late for suitors.”

Pakhi was disappointed with the answer, as it didn’t make any sense to her. She didn’t wish to incur Mita’s wrath any further and submitted meekly to the intensive schooling of housekeeping skills as mandated by her mother. Jhumki taught her some of the know-hows she would be required to know in the kitchen, the basics of preparing some dishes. The indulgent aunt as always, Jhumki promised to dress her up in the most alluring way possible before she was presented to the entourage from Rishra. Glad to have some company in the claustrophobic kitchen, she told Pakhi about her own stories of being married, of being a mother and so on.

Pakhi didn’t know whether she should find them amusing or horrifying or both. She found her aunt’s advice confusing and conflicting, so she began to ignore most of it and tried desperately not to burn herself in the kitchen.

The protocol required Pakhi to speak only when spoken to and if so, in a tone of deference only.

Occasionally, when Tinku had dispatched her younger brother to school, she would come back and attempt to rescue Pakhi from the wear and tear of daily household chores. But Mita was having none of it. She was very adamant that Pakhi stay at home and learn to curb her restless nature. However, Jhumki was perhaps more keenly aware of the end of Pakhi’s childhood. She would often take over the cooking from Pakhi, in order to let the poor child spend some rare moments with Tinku and in order to ensure that the family wasn’t accidentally poisoned.

On the cool, crispy night before the arrival of the family from Rishra, Tinku and Pakhi sat under the canopy of the overarching mango tree. The stars  peeked out through the branches. The crickets along the embankment and the pond kept the night from being eerily silent and the moon shone brightly down on the two playmates.

“Tinku, if I get married I’m going to have to leave everything behind. This village, the trees, the river, the pond, the fishermen, everything. Even you.”

Tinku felt a sense of foreboding. It wasn’t like Pakhi to talk this way. Besides, this departure was normal. Why was Pakhi making it sound so alarming?

“What happened, Didi?”

“I want to run away, Tinku. I’d rather leave home of my own accord than be forced to go to a group of stranger I know nothing about my new family.”

Tinku was a little frightened. All these days of preparation would go to naught if Pakhi decided to make an unwarranted exit tomorrow. Imagine the shame to the family if they called a respectable family over all the way from Rishra only to discover that their bride had fled. The rumors would spread like wildfire through the village. It was altogether too awful to comprehend.

“Didi, there’s nothing to worry about. Really.”

“Isn’t it strange how I’m the older one and I’m seeking comfort from you, Tinku? It could be sign that I’m not destined to grow up. Ever.”

“That’s not true, Didi. You’re worried. Its natural.I’m sure everyone feels this way before they get married.”

“I doubt your mother thinks of you as much a failure as much as mine does, Tinku.”

Tinku faltered for a moment in searching for a reply to that. She was obviously in no position to comment on adults, let alone on how they raised their children. Granted, Mita’s methods may have been harsh, but she was perhaps just bowing to the pressure exerted on her by the entire society.

“I’m sure Jethima means well,” said Tinku, wondering if she sounded convincing enough.

They went back to staring at the stars overhead, the crickets getting louder as the night progressed. Pakhi couldn’t help but suppress a pang of anticipated homesickness. If she got married, she would miss these days with Tinku very much.

Exactly two floors beneath the hesitant architecture were the two wives of the family, seeking some company in sharing the last meal of the night together. It was traditional Bengali custom that the wives of the family do not eat until everyone else in the household has been fed.

“Jhumki, I don’t know what I’m going to do with that girl,” repeated Mita, mulling over the rice on her plate.

“Personally, she’s been a very good girl these last few days. I don’t think you have any cause to worry ”

“I don’t understand why it took her so long to understand everything. The other day, she actually asked her father why it was important that she should get married. Can you imagine the impertinence of it? When our fathers and elders asked us to do something, we obliged them to the best of our capabilities. We were told that the fruits of our labor as parents would be repaid by our children. Instead, we have to constantly hear them talk back to us when we try to show them society’s ways.”

“I think it has something to do with the generation gap, Didi,” said Jhumki, wondering if she would be going through the same anxiety when the time would come to marry Tinku off.

“The girl has been very angry with me these last few days, Jhumki. I haven’t let her go back to her childish games. I don’t know if this is merely a tantrum or if this is cause for a serious rift between us. Maybe its because of this separation that she hasn’t grown up the right way.”

“Didi! Please stop taking the blame of everything onto yourself like this. I think Pakhi has grown up to be a delightful child. She may be a bit impulsive at times, but she’s got her heart in the right place.”

“You know what really saddens me, Jhumki? Tomorrow, my daughter is going to be on her best behavior. Undoubtedly, she is attractive enough to engage a suitable husband. The wedding plan will not take too long. Before we know it, that girl would have left the comfort of our home to make her own way in her husband’s household.”

“We too were inducted into this household in the same fashion. Its a tradition that our religion, our culture expects us to uphold.”

“What saddens me is that my dear sweetheart will leave my arms feeling that she has proven me wrong, when I don’t think I want to let her go. Yet, if I don’t marry her now, we will have to endure society’s punishment. More so, she will always hate me for forcing her to grow up.”

“Hate is a strong word, Didi. I don’t think she hates you. In any case, she’ll grow over it. She’ll realize it as she gets older and has children of her own.”

Mita wondered is she was really leaving any more comfort space for her child to grow any more. Perhaps Jhumki could sympathize with her better only when Tinku’s time came along. The night progressed, as the girls were called back inside, and then the final preparations made before the guests arrived in the morning. Anxious, the inhabitants of the tired mansion retired to sleep.

Pakhi couldn’t sleep. She crept out of bed and began to slowly pack some of her favorite necessities into a cloth bundle. The dolls that she and Tinku used to play with, the grass bracelet one of the fishermen had woven for her, a flower she had retrieved from someone’s religious offerings, an unripe mango from the tree that covered their house and so on. Little trivia that captured the best moments of Pakhi’s past. The windows of the house were large enough to jump through, but Pakhi didn’t want to leave via the garden. There were wild cats on the prowl, and Pakhi did not want to encounter them if she was going to leave.

Stealthily, she made her way across the sleeping residents. Tinku would be very upset with her. So would Tinku’s mother, who had been so nice to her during this entire ordeal. She could imagine their disappointed faces, fighting off the village rumors. She could imagine her mother and father asking each other in tears, Where did we go wrong? How did we raise such a wild child? Did she not consider our feelings even once before disgracing us like this? Was she truly that heartless and cruel, to not hesitate in damaging the dignity of the family name? Pakhi quietly suppressed her sobs. She was going to leave all these people and their expectations behind. She was going to be selfish. She was going to fly free.

“Where do you think you’re going?” asked the most dreaded voice Pakhi wanted to hear.

Mita’s silhouette descended slowly from the stairs, heaving herself down the unreliable structure. Terrified beyond measure, Pakhi froze. All those imagined scenarios were coming to life. In that moment, when speed and defiance were necessary, they failed her. She stood there, rooted like a thief caught in an inexplicable situation, confronted by the very thing she feared the most. Her resolve failed her. Feeling stupid, hurt, scared and dismayed beyond anything she had ever felt before, Pakhi began to cry. It was a heart-rending weep, and Pakhi felt increasingly stupid and helpless as the deluge of tears continued. Even then, Mita’s silhouette did not stop it’s descent. Pakhi braced herself as Mita approached closer.

Pakhi continued to sob, unable to supply an explanation for her deed, bracing herself for the torrent of rebuke that would follow.

Instead, Mita merely outstretched her arms and called her daughter to them. When Pakhi went running back to them, her mixed anger and pain resolving themselves into self-doubt, her mother closed her arms around her and quietly said, “Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’s going to be all right.”

Daughter II

Akshay and Sudha stepped off the transit stop closest to their house and Sudha had a premonition that her mother was upset. They missed the school bus because Sudha had been late leaving her classroom. Akshay silently glowered at his 16 year old sister for delaying his meal.

“What’s your excuse this time?”

Akshay was not given to conversation which made every attempt seem abrupt and almost always accidental. When they were at home, their parents insisted that they speak to each other in their first language. But the heavy influence of English at school and in the world made their conversation a bilingual fluctuation.

Sudha felt that her silence would be a greater crime than her delay, so she started with, “I was helping Avani…”

Akshay scoffed as he heard the name and Sudha shut up hastily. She would not tolerate her brother’s judgement on whom she called her friends.

“You don’t see me scoffing at your lame friends!” she protested, hoping that it was more hunger than an actual distaste of her preferences which annoyed him.

“That Avani is a bad sort,” remarked Akshay, unfazed at the comment leveled a his own friends. He was more immune to her opinions than she was to his. Avani was one of the popular figures in school who could only be idolized or despised. She was not given to moderation and neither were the people who formed an opinion of her.

Sudha had nothing to say to that. Her brother’s peer group might comprise of awkward Call of Duty playing nerds who were socially inept, but they didn’t make as striking an influence on their family as her friend Avani.

“Even our parents don’t like her,” he added cementing his argument.

Rohini was a conservative religious Indian woman who had nearly passed out when Avani turned up at their door step at her daughter’s request. She was in heavy make-up and a very short, tight leather skirt which revealed a tattoo on her thigh. Rohini couldn’t understand her English queries but she assumed this girl had something to do with Sudha. Sudha was duly summoned and she had never felt more embarrassed under her mother’s piercing glare, though Avani was oblivious to it. She had quickly ushered Avani into her own room before her shell-shocked mother could recover enough for a response.

“My goodness, who is that girl? Look at her terrible appearance.” were Rohini’s first words as the door was shut on Avani. Sudha was grateful that her mother didn’t know English and that Avani couldn’t make sense of what she might have overheard.

“Ma, she’s a friend..”

“A friend?! Child, she has no modesty at all! Is this how the women of her household teach her to present herself to the world?! How can you call such people your friends?!”

“We just….She needed help in the math assignment, so…I didn’t want to turn her away.”

There was a very pronounced silence, and Sudha was sure that the divine names were silently invoked upon her to find the right guidance in her life, and upon Avani to see the error of her ways and adopt a more scrupulous lifestyle. Continued visits did not alter the first impression. As the anxious, stay-at-home mother, Rohini suspected every evil of peer pressure to befall her innocent daughter, and Avani seemed to her the very embodiment of all the corruption that she imagined.

Sudha was tired of defending herself. Often there had been nasty outbursts. Sudha had claimed that if they trusted her rigidly enforced morals, then perhaps they were strong enough to withstand the alleged moral degradation brought on by influences like Avani. She wondered why her family didn’t trust her with her own safety. After all, she could make decisions herself and she was mature enough to accept the consequences of her choice.

Nevertheless, Sudha tried not to bring her up in conversation with her family. It wasn’t her fault that Avani liked her. She wondered if Avani would think her less cool if she knew that her mother wasn’t educated, or that she had never owned anything remotely risque or that she didn’t have boyfriend, or that she wasn’t from as liberal a family as her own.

“What did she want anyway?” asked Akshay interrupting her reverie as they walked home.

“She needed some help with the biology homework due next week.”

“And that took so long?”

“We ended up talking about…..stuff.”

Akshay didn’t want to know further. He didn’t understand what all the girls had to constantly keep each other updated about all the time. As adolescents, they were still evolving into the world of discovering adulthood. As much as Akshay didn’t want his little sister to grow up, he knew he couldn’t challenge the forces that did. Spare monologues between his group of bespectacled introverts were always a concerted effort to avoid mentioning the “stuff” because a lasting awkwardness would prevail. It was the sort of discussion that their parents would cringe if they heard, but it was part of getting along with a cosmopolitan peer group.

“Stop letting her use you for her homework,” growled Akshay, changing tactics and feeling suddenly protective of his chaste sister.

“Why do you, of all people, have a problem with her? She can’t be ‘too modern’ for you.”

Akshay snorted at the euphemism. “Too modern” was how his parents classified anything that was unpalatable to their customs.

“Come on, tell me. What’s your problem with her?”

There was the obvious fact that there were far too many stories about her navigating the word of mouth as they traveled from the corridors of her classroom to his own. He knew that she strung about the boys in his class to get what she wanted and had left behind many rumor-mills, broken hearts, unfinished stories and a very sour aftertaste. Whatever little he knew of her, he didn’t want her to be his sister’s friend.

“You know what they say…”

“Since when did you start believing what the gossip says? She didn’t even know who you were before we spoke to each other. How can she annoy you when you don’t even know her?”

“She’s too….too annoying,” he justified, pouncing on the pathetic word as though it perfectly captured all that he was trying to convey about her. He could have called her that perfect expletive, but his conscience would not permit him to swear in front of his sister in either language. She probably knew what he was about to say but he didn’t want to test the boundaries of her vocabulary. After all, the same mouth might be called to chant the holy Sanskrit names in the evening prayers.

“Why does she want to talk to you?” came the deflection. Sudha was too sheltered to be considered remotely glamorous and it surprised him that someone like Avani would seek out his goody-two-shoes sister as a friend.

“I’m just a good listener, I guess,” shrugged Sudha. “She likes to talk you know, about her boyfriend and…”

“Spare me the details,” cut in Akshay, wincing at the thought of her discovering some of Avani’s fabled amorous atrocities.

“Ma will definitely yell at me,” mused Sudha as she took her shoes off as she stepped inside the door. She saw Akshay turn his back to her and wondered if he felt that she deserved the chastisement that was to follow. After all, she had never worn shorts or smoked or even remotely attempted anything suggestible to a boy. But she liked to hear of Avani’s conquests like incredible fables from a different world.

“Children, why are you so late?” came the inevitable despair mingled with relief as Rohini rushed to serve the food warm.

“Ma, I..” began Sudha on cue, bracing to face the storm at the mention of the notorious name.

“My last class stretched on and the transit was late,” said Akshay, overriding his sister.

His mother and sister calmed instantly for completely different reasons.

“Oh, you poor children,” continued Rohini in a flurry. “You could have called us at home and told us you were late. Wash quickly, the meal is almost cold now.”

Sudha silently acceded, confused at her brother’s magnanimity. Akshay silently congratulated himself on preventing another one of his mother’s long-winded interrogations about Sudha’s life decisions.

“Here, do you want another helping of rice? Sudha, why don’t you try the Spinach curry? How was school today? What did you learn?”

The questions continued but a response wasn’t expected. Sudha munched her rice slowly, wondering why he had stepped in for her. Maybe she would tell her the truth later. Akshay, on the other hand, rationalized that if the women must have their shouting matches they could do so once he was safely locked up with his xBox.

“I owe you, big brother,” beeped the text message on his phone. Akshay shoveled food ravenously and wondered if his protectiveness was spoiling Sudha’s ability to stand up for herself.

“What does Converse with Kurti mean anyway?”

As a celebration of this blog’s anniversary, I’m going to try to explain why I chose the name Converse with Kurti.

Some cultural enlightenment is in order. A Kurti (pronounced koohr-tee) is an Indian traditional tunic, often decorated with colors and patterns and other ethnic symbols. Kurtis are often viewed as a diminutive or short-handed version of the salwar kameez, or churidar which come with their own scarves (color matched) and their own trousers/leg-wear (again, color-matched). The Kurti is a single shorter unit and is versatile at being paired. This has led to its increased popularity, especially with the college student demographic as it obeys the dress codes imposed at their institution and allows them to be flexible with their fashion. Ethnic patterns meeting skinny jeans was comfortably the last resort option when the comfort of a school uniform disappeared.

Growing up in a concrete jungle means that I obviously had a wider range of college-wear to choose from, but the Kurti remained a classical favorite. In my school, the only time that girls wore the Kurti was when they wanted to appear traditional or ethnic or even patriotic in some way. Wearing a modest Kurti would instantly earn you brownie points from the parents of your friends who may or may not draw unfair comparisons. Wearing a Kurti came to be understood as a symbol of chastity, the willingness to show that you were still bound to the heritage that you grew up with, even if you are equally comfortable flaunting Lees/Levis/American Apparel jeans under them. A kurti simply made people appear shy, feminine, mature, dressed up, modest and comparatively “more Indian” than anything else.

Combine that with the other contrasting brand image, as supported by Converse shoes. When you wear Converse shoes, your peers may or may not peg you to be that cool, low-maintenance girl who doesn’t care what people think but wears a fancy brand anyway, possibly even a gamer or a wannabe punk and almost certainly a tomboy. Your parents might either think you’re very childish (the thing has laces on it like a school-kid’s shoes) or practical (Well, at least she can walk in those) or unnecessarily an adolescent indulgence. (Why waste so much money on Converse when any other pair of sneakers can suffice?)

And what of the girl who wears both? What categories does she fit in? Is she destined to fit in at all? Which milieu of identities shall I claim as my own or is this haphazard mess of perspectives supposed to find a niche for itself?

I used to wear Converse with Kurtis to offset my femininity, to somehow provide a strong, if not equivalent representation to the sci-fi loving, dubstep-jamming punk that continues to code away. To me, it has evolved beyond a simple question of couture, but then what had/was I to become?

Searching for answers began this blog.

Daughter I

When Sudha had been born, Nikesh loved her just as much as he loved her older brother, Akshay. He had even chosen the name for her: Sudha from the Sanskrit word for nectar. Nikesh had always wanted a daughter and he spoiled Sudha with his constant tender affection. The elders of the community often laughed at his doting parentage. After all, daughters are destined to be married off in the future. They declared that Nikesh was inevitably setting himself up for a heartbreak when the time would come for her to leave the nest. Nikesh would reserve his sharper comments and politely mention that such a departure was quite a while away.

Rohini however wished that Sudha was anything but a daughter. She had chosen to marry Nikesh because he was such a refreshing break with his liberal ways, but she knew that her choice was limited to the fact that their families had arranged their alliance first. She often feared that the liberalism would peel away to the years of tradition and conditioning, and that someday her beloved Sudha would find herself bearing the weight of conservatism just as she and all the generations behind her did. She could not predict when Nikesh would succumb to the pressure of their community to let Sudha be treated just as any other girl child in their community.

Rohini still remembered the night before Sudha’s third birthday. Nikesh had come to her room after ensuring that Akshay and his little sister were safely in bed. He held both of Rohini’s hands and led her to the edge of the bed.

“Listen, I want to talk to you about Sudha,” he began and Rohini suddenly began to feel alarmed from the serious tone in his voice. Nikesh instinctively sensed her fingers curl up and began to softly rub his thumbs across the back of her hand to calm her down.

“What is it?” Rohini was unable to mask the anxiety in her voice. The fear of bearing a daughter was catching up with her and she began to suspect the worst.

“Sudha is almost going to be three, and I was wondering how you would feel if I sent her to a school. An English school.”

“Send her to a school?!”

As the only daughter from her family, Rohini had bowed to the Draconian rules which had denied her an education. From the archives of her faded memory, she remembered a time of classrooms and slate-boards and homework. One day, when she was ten, she was forcibly withdrawn from the school by her family. Rohini had to then learn the exhaustive skills of being a good housekeeper so that she would have some claim to marriageability as she grew older. School ended with her childhood.

Nikesh felt the need to hurriedly explain himself to his wife and he was unsure of how she was processing the information. He did not want Sudha to grow up with the same deep gender bias which was so strongly rooted in their customs. He wanted Sudha to be as competent and capable as Akshay. He was willing to invest time, money and emotion into equating the gap. But he wasn’t going to proceed without his wife’s consent. She was after all more knowledgeable in how a woman would grow and he had come to respect her common sense, despite her lack of formal education.

“For how long?” asked Rohini tentatively after Nikesh finished his speech. Nikesh was caught unawares by the question. “For how long do you want to keep her in school?”

“Rohini, I think school is just going to be a start. I want her to be properly educated and accomplished. I want her to be a member of society who does more than just be a mother. I hope that’s what you want too. I am only one of her two parents.”

Years of suppressed feminism came to the fore and Rohini agreed. Of course I want my child to be educated. Of course I want her to succeed, to be just as good or as capable as any man. It sank into Rohini just what a marvel of a man her husband was. Even though he was the better educated of the two, he had asked her opinion. He had not mandated an order. At the back of her head, she could hear the sneers of her community. Educating a daughter? Completely? What a waste of time and money.

“What will the others say?” asked Rohini, drowning out the chastising whispers at the back of her head with her own voice.

“I don’t care,” said Nikesh almost nonchalantly. He did care somewhat, but only to the extent that it made him feel like a rebel, uprising against the treatment that his mother, his sisters and his wife received. He was not going to restrict her mind and opinions and thoughts and feelings. He could not bear the thought of raising his beloved adorable child like a ceremonial cow, to be disposed off with pomp when the occasion arrived. But he wasn’t going to show his fear to Rohini.

“…But they will ask…”

If they did, she would have to share the blame. The women would ask her why she dared to let her husband educate her daughter when she could be far more useful at home. The women would ask her why she didn’t influence his decision strongly enough. After all, he was a man. What did he know of growing up to be a woman in their society? The gossip would fly. The women would say, “Oh, they probably didn’t think their daughter was pretty enough or skilled enough to be married and keep a home, so they probably educated her in a desperate attempt to make her more desirable.”

“Their talking doesn’t change anything.”

Rohini felt his hands grow cold and she realized that she had to be strong for him and for the three year old toddler cuddled up with her brother in the next room. Some part of her mind despaired why she was going against the tide. Perhaps it would be easier for them as a family to go with the flow and manage their lives as the generations before them had. Then, she realized that being a part of Nikesh’s individual rebellion was a part of the struggle that she had endured all her life and she was no stranger to difficult circumstances. Sometimes, Rohini sought the comfort of religion to soothe her anxiety. She used to bristle at the fact that nowhere in the scriptures was it mentioned that the women should be denied an education. If anything, their numerous pantheon hosted some of the most powerful goddesses. Perhaps time, convenience and biased interpretations had eaten away at the legends like dust. She comforted herself knowing that she wasn’t doing anything sinful. If anything, educating her daughter could enlighten her about religion and perhaps bring her closer to spiritual service than Rohini herself could be.

But then another calamity befell. She remembered that he had insisted on an English school. What if Sudha grew up absorbing the Western culture? What if Sudha should completely forsake and abandon the social customs that had rigidly maintained their world for so many years? What if this education turned out to be their imminent downfall, and Sudha somehow brought disgrace to them and her ancestors by adopting the alien ways of the West?

“Why English?” asked Rohini, hoping that she could find a loophole in his argument this time that her feminine charm could distort back to reality.

“I don’t intend to stay in this city forever, Rohini. If we are to go places and accomplish things, we have to speak the language that the others speak and English is the most common of them all. It’s not too hard to learn, don’t worry. My brother and I had to learn it, and it’s a part of Akshay’s curriculum from next year.”

“But…..do English schools teach our scriptures? Why can’t we send her to a local school? Surely they teach the same numbers and things?” she asked again.

“I don’t know, Rohini. I feel that an English education would be wholesome,” said Nikesh, sensing a real cause for concern. Rohini remained silent but Nikesh felt her fingers retract in the unmistakable way when she found her strength shaking, and his determination faltered.

“If you’re worried that she will grow up wrong in any way, she will still be housed under our roof.”

He felt empty saying it because he felt as though he did not have a strong argument to support him. Now it appeared that he was resorting to the value-system of the very same mechanism that he was rebelling against. Any culture that stagnates is eventually doomed to die. But Nikesh was unsure that Rohini would accept his abstract philosophy. Some part of him claimed that Rohini didn’t need to understand and she probably didn’t. Why should he bother with asking her opinion anyway? She was no more than a product of strict upbringing behind narrow walls and narrow minds.

Hypocrite. Nikesh banished the thought immediately, recognizing that he was giving in to the pressure. He would have to provide the safety net for Rohini and himself, and he wanted to treat her as an equal in this process, no matter how difficult it would be. It was easy to point out the flaws of the culture they lived in, but as parents he had now taken on the additional responsibility of filtering the better aspects of a cultural upbringing to their child.

“Rohini, I know this is difficult. But please trust me when I say that we are doing the right thing.”

“I’m not questioning that but…”

“I may not know all the pitfalls that come our way, but I need your support,” said Nikesh and he had never sounded so vulnerable.

“…We are bound together in this,” admitted Rohini rather lamely as she tried to rally all her strength.

“I’ll fill in the paperwork for Sudha’s school,” said Nikesh rather suddenly and he left the room. He wanted to distract his mind with action so that the deeper ramifications wouldn’t eat away at his conscience. He was also very suddenly alarmed that his guard dropped before his wife, and he needed some time alone to figure that out.

When Nikesh left, Sudha invoked the divine in the practiced Sanskrit whispers and prayed that the deities would protect and guide her family. As she chanted the names and legends, she felt that she would take Sudha’s religious education personally into her own hands if required. Let the schools teach her what they will. Sudha would not grow up to dishonor the universal force which kept Rohini’s world together, even though Nikesh was radically restructuring the methods behind it.

What it means to wear a sari

Wrap the first part around your waist. Remember as the silk eludes your fingers that this is the same token of feminine glory that your mother, her mother and all the mothers who came before her wore with dignity. This was what it meant to be a woman. No longer are you the small girl, or even the awkward adolescent.

Pleat by pleat, twist your fingers to capture the folds and then bunch them together to form the flowing folds that tucks in neatly at the front. When you walk,  each fold expands to accommodate your stride. When you stand, they shall remain vertically undisturbed, tucked in after each other’s shadow, meek and respectful towards the ancient tradition.

Let your elegance cascade over your shoulder as you pull up the fabric diagonally across your chest. Watch how it nestles against your form and speaks of modesty, yet leaves the one side of your torso to feel the open air and rejoice in its sensuality. The sari will now  either fall over your shoulders and protect your arm entirely hiding the soft strength of the same arms that build homes and lives. Or if you need to present yourself in a more formal occasion, it will remain neatly pinned to your shoulder, the folds falling behind in regulated order.

It is not just a garment. It is the heritage of an entire culture, whose patterns speak of the many hopes and dreams and scenes from home. It is a heritage woven by women and children of the past who are binding together the grand-daughters to their grandmothers, knowing that their work is for the worthy alone.

Now it has been done. The last pleats tucked in, the last folds straightened, the pins set. Another identity is born.

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.

How to keep my new-found sanity from disappearing next semester

Winter break is ending and I am binge-blogging because I know that once college catches up with me, I will barely have time to sleep let alone write. A lot of things have happened during this break, things that I’m proud of. I’ve worked on myself to change my outlook on many different aspects of life. I’m worried that once college begins, and the external pressures that I have been pushing out of sight crop back up, my new-found resolve will crumble.

I want to trust myself better.

One of my resolutions is to not be a pushover. This should come rather naturally to me because I am quite aggressive and can even be territorial about the things that matter to me. I’ve been told that I “come on too strongly”. I’m not going to punish myself and say this is bad because it’s a part of me. Suppressing it for all these years has led to other people using me and getting away with it. Unfortunately, the new safeguards that are in place may not be finely attuned. Which means I am now paranoid about other people using me and treating me like a human doormat and at some level I am being reduced to someone who is transactional instead of generous.

I need something to remind myself of my goals and ambitions and needs. I need something that is capable of telling my barriers when to lock down on the situation and when to permit things to pass. I need to find other instant stress relievers. Writing is one of them, but in the vortex of blind rage, the last thing I am going to do is sit down and compose my thoughts coherently, let alone record them.

So I asked for advice from some of the most trusted sources in the world: my parents.

My father says that the primary cause of my insecurities and my unnecessary emotional stress is my poor health. He is right to a large extent. I don’t know why I thought I had bragging rights to the fact that last semester I survived for nearly 7 hours on a single green apple. Then I thought I was going to prove my strength by pulling off nearly 4 hours of sleep every two days. And then, I was expected to code up a proof for Leibniz’s formula for pi in less than 100 characters in a nightmare of a programming language called Lisp.  To top this all off, I would obviously be unable to solve the problem, burst into tears and start questioning everything from my math capabilities to the fundamental reason for my existence. Yep, this is the Amazing Race to Mathematical Understanding. I have inserted a proof here, for those people who do understand that this is truly less than 48 hours of nerve-wracking stress and worth only 5 points of my homework.

For the record, this is the Leibniz proof in human-comprehensive math. Image/Proof credits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leibniz_formula_for_%CF%80

For the record, this is the Leibniz proof in human-comprehensive math. Image/Proof credits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leibniz_formula_for_%CF%80

Indeed, I have lived the zombie life. No matter who you brag about this to, they will wonder how you are alive and marvel at your strength. Silently, they may think that you are surely on a path to an early death. Deep down inside, I know this is not sustainable and treating myself like a prisoner sentenced to hang is not something I particularly enjoy. So full points to father. Healthy body = healthy mind = 100% functional sanity = 0% worrying about what other people think/do/etc.

My mother reminds me of something else entirely.

Back  in India, every Saturday evening, we would go to a nearby Hanuman Temple (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanuman). Every month, we would attend a long ritual, I forget what the precise name of it is, but it was a sort of recounting of the heroic tales and prayers asking for forgiveness and blessings. At the end of the prayer ceremony, all the attendees would have to tie a sacred yellow/red/orange strong on their hands. This string was so strongly bound that there was simply no way to take it off without cutting it. All day and all night it would stay on the wrist of your choice. It was a string that would protect you from all evil and guarantee the blessings of the deity in whatever task you chose to perform. Maybe it was years of conditioning, but I have become so used to it that without wearing the bracelet/wrist-band my wrist feels a little odd about it.

I think it was this ceremony, the Satyanarayan Puja. Image credits: http://www.daijiworld.com/news/news_disp.asp?n_id=98851

I think it was this ceremony, the Satyanarayan Puja. Image credits: http://www.daijiworld.com/news/news_disp.asp?n_id=98851

I don’t know if it protected me from evil, or whether I felt that I had divine approval about any task by virtue of the string alone. But I do remember my mother telling me that whenever I was angry/depressed/hurt, I should look at the string and remind myself to calm down. Years of wearing the string taught me that every time I look at is, it serves as a divine reminder that I have better things to do in my life than be frozen by my own stupidity.

I haven’t been able to attend any such ceremony ever since I arrived in the States. But in memory of that turmeric-dyed string, I now wear a sports wristband with me. It has the flag of the United States on it, so religious symbolism aside, it serves as a direct reminder to what my overall purpose here is: to educate myself and become a better, upstanding member of human society.

Like Wonder Woman's bracelet, this has the power to let e be truthful to myself. Also, it resembles her costume and so is doubly awesome and supercharged.

Like Wonder Woman’s bracelet, this has the power to let me be truthful to myself. Also, it resembles her costume and so is doubly awesome and supercharged.

As long as I remember these two things: stay alive and stare at band when in trouble, I think I’m going to be okay. Finally, I feel a bit more equipped dealing with the next semester now.

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.