5 April 2021

Dismantling a system

I had to devise a system to travel light during my trips to India every quarter. I did not want to check in luggage (all those flight delays and lost baggage caused too many headaches) and I did not want to lug around too much weight on my shoulders either.

So, I basically kept a whole set of stuff in India. I had shirts, shorts, jeans, night clothes, shoes, socks, running clothes, running shoes, chappals, hats, winter clothes, chargers, adapters, tripod and what have you – all neatly packed in a big bag. After every trip, my mom would get the clothes washed and ironed and keep them safe in the almirah for my next trip.

The night before I showed up, she would bring it out, get somebody to go buy toilet paper, bottles of water and a Pears glycerine soap. I have no idea why but she always got Pears glycerine soap for me.

This time, the realization dawned on me that the life span of that bag full of stuff has come to an end. I am not coming back to this house any more. And certainly, I am not coming back often enough to India to justify keeping a whole set of stuff here.

Had to dismantle the whole system. Gave away the clothes mostly to my brother, brother in law and my nephews. Threw away most of electronics stuff.

Another reminder of a chapter closing…

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5 April 2021

The wall clock!

Back in the days, when we were kids, if we woke up in the middle of the night, the noises we would hear were fairly predictable. A couple of dogs barking without rhyme or reason, a rare vehicle going by, some security guard’s whistle in the distance and if it were closer to dawn, the birds chirping.

Then in the summer of 1980, a new sound got introduced. Tick-tock, tick-tock – you could hear amidst the general tranquillity. And if you stayed up long enough, you could hear the gentle gong of a wall clock announcing the time. The number of gongs would match the numeral value of the hour at the top of the hour but only once at the bottom of the hour.

Yes, we had a new wall clock! The one and only. Forty one years later, it still adorns the walls of my parents’ house. It stopped working long time back. Years down the line, dad got rid of the pendulum and got it retrofitted with a battery operated small box. It still gave time – but no gongs. Even that eventually ceased to work. I think mom got tired of getting up on the stool to change batteries.

As a final gesture, she put a picture of one of the religious figures (Sitaram Omkarnath) they were disciples of on the clock. That way, I guess, they kept looking up to the clock multiple times a day – just for a very different purpose.

But the three years that I was home when the clock was there – saw some exciting times. The most adventurous part was dad allowing me and my sister to wind up the clock. We used to wait patiently for Sundays to come. At exactly 11 am, we would wind it up. There were two keys – you can see the keyholes in the picture. My sister did the left one – she went clockwise and I did the right one – I went anti clockwise. After that, we put the key back in its place and made sure that the clock lined up on the edges where dad had put some markers. (else the pendulum would stop swinging).

The three siblings – we used to marvel at the precision of the clock. We used to hope that it would miss sounding the gongs once in a while. Nope, like… errr… clockwork, it would give a whirring sound for a few seconds (I assume the hammer mechanism would be set up) and then go – Gong! We were prone to counting out loudly how many gongs it sounded. Hoping against hope that one day we wouldl catch the clock slip up. It never did!!

Soon, in school, our physics teacher taught was that the time period (T) of a pendulum swing … don’t take this to the bank… my memory can play tricks on me … but I think it was two times pi times square root of length divided by gravity. In other words, how far the pendulum went on either side did not matter. It would come back to the middle exactly after the same amount of time. Apparently, Galileo had proven that first. I tried to disprove that at times trying to count my heartbeats for every swing. Not once could I get the better of Galileo.

Anyways, coming to the present, as I was scanning across the walls at my parent’s home before taking my final leave, I saw the clock quietly staring down from the wall. What great witness it has been to timeless experiences in the Roy family.

As I put my head down from the clock, I realized – that calendar, that clock, that watch… how much they strive to remind us that time is a finite thing for us.

Unfortunately, we switch batteries for the watch, wind up the clock, flip the calendar pages with an attitude that time will never end for us.

And then when the finiteness of our time actually slaps us across our faces, it hits us hard.

Very hard.

5 April 2021

“Ason”s with a lot of history

I am not sure there is an exact English word for “ason” but what it is is a floor mat that is used for sitting down. All throughout my life (till my parents moved to Kalyani), at my parents’ place as well as in my brother’s place, I have always eaten food sitting on the floor. Sitting at a table to eat is a rather modern concept in the Roy households.

These two mats were extremely special in our household. For one, they are much thicker and for another, they have nice prints. These were kept for special occasions. Growing up in a family where there was not much money left over after our education expenses, special occasions were rare to come by. I can tell you exactly how many times we had invited others for lunch or dinner (thrice is the answer) in my entire school years from home.

But there was an annual ceremony that we religiously celebrated and these two mats had a field day. And that is the day of “Bhaiphonta” (or “bhaiyadnuj” as it is called in North India). This is the day, sisters celebrate their brothers. There is usually a small or sometimes elaborate ceremony, exchange of gifts and true to Bengali style – lot of good food, especially sweets!!

My earliest memory of these mats are from 1972 when I was a kindergartener threatening to get into first grade within a few weeks. My uncle (mother’s brother – you saw the picture of his family a few posts back) who lived nearby was the guest we used to have. My mom gave “bhaiphonta” to him and then my sister gave “bhaiphonta” to me and my brother.

There is a rather funny-now, embarrassing-then story from 1972. You see, growing up, in our culture, respect for elders was a big thing. Especially in our household, where that value was drilled into us. My uncle who was younger to my mom, would do his “pronam” – basically you go down on your knees and touch the elder’s feet with your hands or head. Not being exactly conversant in all the rules and regulations, at the tender age of six, I simply followed what he did and did my pronam to my two years younger sister!! That caused some laughter all right!!

The tradition of that sister-brother ceremony on these two mats has weathered the passage of many decades. It still happens at our house. My brother is able to attend. You might remember that a few years back I had surprised everybody at home by showing up for bhaiphonta without anybody having any inkling of my visit. If you go to that post, you will see these two mats continuing with their solemn duties.

The three of us decided that to keep up with our parents’ memories, my sister will take care of keeping the mats and every bhaiphonta, we will use these two mats. You know, just to create a Roy household tradition.

And that might also give me something to look forward to – bhaiphonta trip to India every year!!

What do you think?

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5 April 2021

I guess I was always like this…

Anybody who knows me a little, surely knows that I am fairly organized. Some have criticized me for being almost OCD. I disagree. I AM OCD. I have to have everything neatly ordered, listed down in colorful ink and all that.

Sharmila and some close friends like Avi and Amitesh often make fun of what my wife refers to as “Crop Circles”. I will tell you that story some other time. But one of the questions I regularly get is “Were you always like this?”

My usual answer is “Yes”. I often cite a story from my elementary school days when I had borrowed a book from the British Council Library on how to be organized in my studies. It had ideas like not studying the same subject for more than an hour at a time, to take some time off between long bouts of studies, mnemonics on how to remember stuff and all that.

I was so taken in by the book that I convinced dad to pay the penalty for a lost book and never returned that book!!

Now I have incontrovertible proof. While going thru the bookshelves to see if there were any books rich with dad or mom’s memories, I could not help chuckle at how I had organized my books. If you carefully notice, many of those books that have withstood the vagaries of three and a half decades still have their original cover on them and a curious numbering system.

I used to put a book cover – with the standard brown paper that my dad would get us – on every book. “Brown paper molaat“, I am sure my Bengali friends will recollect. And then give them a library-style number. While no Dewey system, it was a system after all. I am sure you can decipher my system fairly quickly.

First, every book had the letter “R” (for Rajib). This was to establish – rather unambiguously, that it was MY book. Not my sister’s, not my brother’s, not Tom’s, not Dick’s – or in a more appropriate context – not Jodu’s, not Modhu’s – it was MY book.

Second, it would be followed by one of two letters. Once you see M, PH, CH – you can make quick shrift of it – they stood for the subjects – Math, Physics, Chemistry, History etc etc.

Third, it would have a number which would denote the sequence of that book number in that subject series!

This was all when I was in high school or before! I gave a silent chuckle, realizing how organization and discipline in how I spend time has been part of my identity pretty much all my life…

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5 April 2021

Our first measuring tapes…

Way back when – I cannot even remember – maybe I was a first grader??, my dad had brought home a green colored measuring tape. I think mom used itt for making all sorts of dresses. She had a Usha Merritt sewing machine that she used to make dresses. That sewing machine itself was a marvel for me. That needle with the eye on the wrong end, that wheel with the bar on one side, those two spindles where you put the string rolls, the maintenance box that came with it – I remember them vividly. Not sure whatever happened to that sewing machine.

In any case, I got introduced to this measuring tape fairly early on. Couple of days back, found it again while going thru mom’s stuff. Immediately, a lot of memories flashed back.

Initially, of course, I had no idea what it did. But one day, dad sat me and my sister down and taught us how to measure things. How to hold one end of the tape one one corner and then read off the tape from the other corner of the object. He also explained how to think about one-half and one-fourth. We did not go any further than that on fractions.

Have you ever taught a kid how to change font size, style or color for the first time? The next document is usually a veritable mess of all colors, font sizes and styles. Yeah, that is pretty much what happened to me and my sister. After coming back from school, we would measure up everything at home. If there was anything worth measuring, we would have measured it. It was a thrill that sounds silly today. But you would be surprised how the two of us kept ourselves busy. It was not like we were writing down the dimensions anywhere… just measuring up and measuring up again.

Then one day, the retractable measuring tape showed up. By this time, the thrill of measuring was gone. But the retractable mechanism was to die for. Previously, at times, my sister or I would stand up on the bed, hold the green tape’s one end in our hand and let it go. Somehow, we derived great delight in watching the whole thing unfurl itself and then we would roll it up again manually. The retractable one was much more fun. We could do it anywhere…

For the next few weeks, that’s all we did. Pulled the tape and watched it snap back!! Pull it again and let it snap back. The trick was to do it without getting our fingers pinched!

Indelible memories of silly, simple fun!!

Can’t believe my parents never got rid of them!!

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5 April 2021

The one and only time they visited us in the USA

They were reasonably excited to come to the US to see their first grandchild. Early October 1998, I had flown to India to get all their paperwork in order. On Oct 5, I took them to the US Consulate to get their visas. We submitted our paperwork and then waited in the hall.

Presently, my mom’s and dad’s names were called. As we walked up to the counter, the gentleman (from America) behind the counter asked me to tell my dad to go back and sit. He would like to interview my mom only. Also, he asked me to ask her if she would like to be interviewed in English or Bengali. I asked my mom and surprisingly, for somebody who taught English in primary school, she said “Bengali”. A translator (called Gobindo, I remember) came in and I stepped out of the booth. I was within earshot distance and could generally hear what was going on.

The consular would ask a question, Gobindo would translate, my mom would answer, Gobindo would re-translate and that went on for a few minutes. After about six fairly standard questions, he asked “Do you have any intent to immigrate after you reach there”. After the translation was done, my mom gave an answer that I have never forgotten – “Gobindo, onaakey bolo je aami to onaader bhasa-i bujhtey paarchhi na. Okhaney immigrate korey aami ki korbo?”. Gobindo faithfully translated back – “Sir, she is saying she can’t even understand your language. Why would she want to immigrate to that country?”.

Apparently, he was satisfied. I could see the smile on his face and the familiar sound of loud stamping on some paperwork followed. He excused her and called me back. “Come back in the evening and pick up their passports. And have a safe trip”.

Five days later on Oct 10, we exited India from Sahar (Bombay) airport. The next day, we arrived in New York. And their much expired passports still bear the immigration stamp of their entry – Oct 11, 1998.

As much as they were thrilled to see their first grandchild, they did not take to America too well. They wanted to go back to their own home as soon as they could. The fact that dad could not walk up to the grocery store to pick up vegetables (he could not drive a car) or that they could not speak the local language got to them fairly quickly (they would always pick desolate streets to take Natasha out in her stroller so that they did not have to face any “Good morning” or “How are you” from Americans!!). (I guess mom was right, after all).

After three months, I took them back to India and dropped them home on the 11th of Feb, 1999.

Those were the only flights they had ever taken in their lives!!!

Towards the end of her life – 2019 onwards, my mom had expressed a couple of times a desire to come to the USA one more time. That never happened; but if she had outlived dad, I know we would have given it our best shot.

Ah! Well…

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4 April 2021

HOLY MACRO!!

I got a Facebook friend request… from my mother in law!!!

Lest you forget, I wish to remind you this is the same lady who used to bleat “Niki, help me” when she was in US a few years back because the iPad used to go all “edik-odik” (topsy turvy) on her, apparently, every time she moved!!

Now I am afraid, she might get on to Instagram too!! (that would be a one social media she is on that I am not).

(In an ultimate self referential irony, she is going to read this whole post in Facebook!!!)

I am still rubbing my eyes…

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4 April 2021

The long journey – literally and metaphorically begins…

Brother’s and sister’s families left this morning. And I came over to Kolkata airport to commence the 4 airport, 33 hour trip. For the first time, I am feeling lonely. As long as the siblings were around, it took the edge off missing our parents. I am sure they are feeling the same way.

There is an old Hindi song that I am constantly reminded of…

नI जाने क्यों होता है
ये जिन्दगी के साथ
अचानक ये मन
किसी के जाने के बाद
करे फिर उसकी याद
छोटी छोटी सी बात
नI जाने क्यों…

Na jane kyun hota hai
Yeh zindagi key sath
Achanak yeh mann
Kisike jane key bad
Kare phir uski yad
Chhoti chhoti si bat
Naa jane kyun…

Roughly translated (improvements welcome)

“Don’t know why
This keeps happening to me
After somebody has taken leave
My heart is suddenly flooded
By memories… of that person…
… of the snippets of dialogs we had
Don’t know why….”

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