Friday, November 8, 2019

Of winter, love, and other scents of beauty

A few weeks ago, I was stretching out in my living room after a long day of work when I got a sudden whiff of something familiar yet far away. The faint, crisp scent reminded me of the sweetness of fallen leaves pressed beneath a hundred footsteps, with just a hint of smoky wood-fire. It took me a few seconds, but I soon knew what it was: the first hint of winter was in the air. I smelt it before my skin felt the first goosebumps of chilly weather. The scent had me awash in a wave of pure joy and contentment. Winter was on its way.

More and more, I am convinced that I was a member of the canine species in my previous lifetime. My olfactory sense is arguably my keenest, and occupies the lion’s share of all my sensory experiences, shaping and dictating my choices and actions fairly often. Places, for example, have very distinct scents of their own, and my instinctive reaction to the scent of a city or town determines my overall impression of the place. The smell of mountains, regardless of the specific area, always fills me with a sense of peace. Mountains smell of pinewood forests and clean, sweet air. They smell of water trickling  down the slatey mountain walls. Quite often, they are replete with the  damp, hazy fragrance of fog , and walking through a particularly thick cover, one can almost taste the mustiness that accompanies the scent. It can be a revolting odour to some, but I associate the smell of fog with peace and leisure. The smell of mountains is so deeply entrenched in my memory that the mere thought of it brings the fragrance alive to my nose, bringing with it a heart-wrenching desire to drop everything and start travelling, stopping only when I am in the heart of Devbhoomi. 

Memories have un uncanny way of hovering right underneath the surface, ready to come alive at a moment’s notice. Years can pass by without an incident or an individual ever coming to one’s mind and yet all it really takes is the mere hint of the smell of the past for all the walls to come crashing down in glib reminder of the throbbing urgency of the past that never quite resolved itself. Then again, sometimes the memories are bittersweet, making one heave a melancholy sigh and breathe in deeply in an attempt to travel back to days – and people – from a long time ago.

In my mind, much of my past is arranged in boxes with their own assigned fragrances. One of the fondest memories from my childhood is of rainy afternoons in the family room, with the scent of petrichor wafting in through the window after the first showers of the season. I would sit with my parents around our massive bed, all of us engrossed into our own respective books, stopping every now and then to breathe in the earth’s luscious odour. Even today, few things give me more contentment than reading quietly in bed with a loved one. Petrichor comes alive for me out of season, and is all the better for it.

I have a mercurial temperament which often causes me intense emotional turmoil and suffering. Sometimes, one of the only things that can help me feel centred after a particularly rough day is soothing scents, usually of the very Bengali dhuno, or the somewhat more easily available lemongrass. These scents remind me of home, of love, and of belonging. Then there is the scent of pages from books, both old and new, each holding its own special type of allure. If amour had a scent, it would be the scent of ink on paper. Or perhaps it would be the scent of dew-drenched grass. A tough choice to make.

But really, as with most other times in life, it is the scent of people you love that really keep you going when the going gets tough. The fragrance of security when ensconced in a parent’s arms, the scent of pure adoration as the family dog nuzzles you, the scent of adventure that friends bring with themselves as they drop by… and, of course, the cozy smell of peace and belonging as you breathe deeply into your lover’s soft skin as sleep takes you over, and then again the first thing as your day begins… Life is beautiful if only one learns to appreciate the really important things, and smells.

Saturday, September 14, 2019


I wrote this essay while travelling home from Delhi for the weekend last night. It is a reflective piece, and captures some of the recent capriciousness of my mind. But writing it helped make me feel more centered. Maybe writing is indeed my meditation. 

What does it feel like to be a grown up? And at what point does one know that one has reached quite the right age to be deemed a fully capable, functioning adult? Is it a complete break from one’s childhood and adolescence? Does it arrive all at once, like a cloudburst? Or is it an innocuous process that keeps coming at you unobtrusively, growing inch by subtle inch, until you wake up one morning and you know that childhood is over? These are some of the thoughts that have been gnawing at my mind for many, many months now. And yet, I have no answers.

According to social and legal norms, I am an adult now. I have been so for a few years. I am nearing twenty three, and it is dawning on me increasingly what a strange and curious time of life the early twenties are. To borrow from witty Instagram posts, I have contemporaries who are married and in the family way, and then there are others who have to plead with their parents for permission to meet with friends. There is every other kind in between, from globetrotting solo backpackers to couples living in together, from ardent corporate kids to dedicated artists and social workers, there are the slackers and the workaholics, the party animals and the couch potatoes. And then there is me.

I finished the Young India Fellowship in June, and went back home to West Bengal for a month to relax. It was the first proper vacation I had ever had: the previous ones had always been term breaks and annual school vacations, with some examination or course preparation always lurking in the back of my mind. But this time, I had really reached an extended period of separation from my academic pursuits. This time, I was taking an ‘off’ period before embarking into a working life. I had made up my mind even before joining the Fellowship that I would work for at least a couple of years after the Fellowship ended before continuing with full time academic engagements. Accordingly, I started applying actively to job opportunities on and off campus since early into the Fellowship.  It was a strenuous and emotionally exhausting process, as anyone who has ever hunted for jobs would know only too well, but I had the privilege of choice between several engaging offers by the end of the year. Since I had also planned ahead for the vacation in July I informed every organisation of my availability from August. Meanwhile, I took the time in July to weigh between a couple of offers and finally decided upon an associate researcher’s position at Katha India’s Child Poverty Action Research (CPAR) Lab in New Delhi. I have been in love with this city for years now, and since Calcutta with its abysmal job opportunities beyond some tech companies could not be a meaningful option, Delhi was the obvious choice. Zeroing in on a job brought much needed clarity and contentment, and my mind was free at last to breathe easy and enjoy the leisure days. And enjoy I did, in my own unique way, consisting mostly of sleeping and eating and indulging in long awaited adda with my parents. And of course, there was lots of dreaming and fantasizing about the future.

The month passed all too soon, and on 31st July, I was back in Delhi. It is always with a wistful twinge of the heart that one leaves home behind, but I had the not-too-common privilege of being genuinely glad to be coming back to this city. It makes life so much easier if one can start a new life with more glad anticipation than mere misgivings. That first week back in town was a whirlwind time for me. I had already booked a room in a shared apartment in Chittaranjan Park – the mini Calcutta of Delhi – before leaving in June, and I meant to finish the work of moving in to my new home as far as possible in the few free days I had before work began on the 5th. I did so, with unending help from my gem of friends Alisha and Asmita, and of course Shilpi Di. The boxes and trolleys seemed unending, and by the time I was done getting everything into place, it was already Monday, and time to start my professional life at Katha.

There were two other people joining the CPAR team along with me – Kartikeya Jain and Pratyush Dwivedi. They were classmates and friends from their time in Ambedkar University for their Masters, and through a lucky coincidence, had both been selected to join CPAR in research positions. I went to office on the first day with a good amount of apprehension, my socially uptight, reclusive tendencies threatening to rear their ugly heads at any hint of discomfort. But these fears were laid to rest pretty quickly, and a few hours into the day we had already slid into a comfortable sense of camaraderie, relying on each other for help in keeping up with the information and instructions being bombarded at us. Shilpi Di was my boss now, of course, and Aparna the second-in-command of the team, and as the weeks went on, we continued to shave off rough edges, so that now, one month down the line, we make a group of perfect weirdos steering possibly the most eclectically productive team in the organisation, with Chikoo the old mutt our constant mascot!

 But this post is not really about starting a new job or getting a new place, though both of these form very important elements of how my life and thoughts have been shaping up lately. For both of these are integral to my quest of finding my own place in this world as an independent grown up. And so we are back to the question with which I started out. When does one know, really?

Much seem to have changed over the last two months, and yet, surprisingly little feels different. I am a salaried employee of a reputed organisation, with responsibilities and expectations toward my workplace. I have to pay the rent, the electricity and the maid, and I shop for groceries and cook my meals more extensively than I have ever done before. I am referred to as ‘ma’am’ much more frequently than I was used to. I have recently become the local guardian to a friend’s brother. I am seriously considering getting a dog in the not too distant future. I have savings and insurance plans in place, thanks to Baba, and I have short and long-term career decisions hanging in the offing.

However, I still have a tough time getting out of bed each morning, spending more time than I would like to admit bargaining with myself for an extra five minutes of snooze time. I have quickly established myself as the slightly clownish baby of the team at work, and play the happy combination of roles as butt-of-all-jokes and receiver of most pampering. I struggle while making healthy eating choices, giving in far too often to the temptation of cakes and ice creams. I get happy buzzed on wine and beer and romp around in my room late at night in my tattered, pale pink pajamas, singing mushy romantic songs. And I am still deathly scared of cockroaches, and call up my parents several times every day to chat and complain and wail about life.

I am the same person that I was two months ago. I enjoy the same hobbies and curl up in bed in the same peculiar poses. I have clearly not got over my college sense of humour, often leading to vague awkwardness at work. But somewhere, there is a faint hint of someone a little more somber, a little more restrained. I have taken to bringing work home at times, so as not to feel guilty about not earning my keep. My interests and expectations concerning love and romance have shifted significantly toward something a little more level headed, a little less tempestuous than what I have been used to these past several years. I am looking for a stable, peaceful individual rather than a fellow wild child. I am ready to put in time and effort into something meaningful and potentially long term, and am willing to walk away from half hearted attempts at ‘time pass’. And lately, I have been thinking deep and long about the meaning of life, the reason for my existence in this transitory world.

Do these changes make me more ‘grown up’? I really do not know. And, quite frankly, I do not care overmuch about it. I do not fear growing older; in fact, it has been a standing joke with my friends at Ashoka that I am the ‘mommy’ of the pack, always watching over them like a mother hen. I have never been the usual kind of youngster anyway, with very little interest in parties and shopping and living the ‘high life’. I do not really feel like a different person; maybe just a tad bit less higgledy-piggledy! I am writing this essay while on a flight back home to Calcutta after a long and tiring couple of weeks at work, not for a leisurely weekend but because of some medical troubles in the extended family. I am going home to stand by my mother in a time of need, and that, I suppose, is grown up enough. I can forgive myself for occasional slips into childish behaviour. So long as I can continue to tread this balance, I will be doing well enough, I think!

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Reflections on money and the moneyed

When I was a little girl, my parents never gave me an allowance, or ‘pocket-money’ as it is called here. Instead, they asked me to lend a hand with household chores and gave me ‘payments’ for whatever work I did. Now I know a certain line of thinking about parenting would condemn this as a bad idea since children should learn to do household work as a matter of course and not as something for which they are rewarded; I do not want to go into that debate here, because while an interesting thought, it is a completely different issue from the one I now have in mind. My parents’ method successfully taught me the joys and responsibilities of owning money that is hard earned. In other ways too I was exposed to the family finances from a young age, and as such came to handle significant sums of money with confidence and care far earlier than most of my contemporaries; indeed some still probably don’t, particularly among the girls, and we are now in our twenties.

I never put a lot of thought into my relationship with money, though. I come from a well-off middle-class family, which puts me into the top 1% of India’s population. By God’s grace and Baba’s hard work I have never had to know financial hardship, and my only exposure to poverty has been through literature and cinema, and the fact that I live in a country with an abysmal and ever-growing gap between the haves and the have nots. In my family, the norm has always been to put money firmly in the role of an instrument providing safety, comfort and convenience, along with the ability to indulge in charity and the occasional luxury, the former being viewed as an integral duty by virtue of being human, the latter highlighting rare and special occasions such as vacations, the savouring of fine liquor or festive shopping sprees. Our family has always believed strongly in the value of living simply if not frugally with little attention to conspicuous consumption. I spent the first sixteen years of my life in a small town without ever using a ‘branded’ lifestyle product. Cell phones came late in our lives, smartphones later still. Eating out was done maybe once in six months, maybe less. The family car spent far more time in the garage than it did ferrying any of us about. And our lives were none the worse for any of this. I never felt any sense of loss or inadequacy from the absence of any material objects and experiences that most families in our social class see as integral parts of their lives, particularly in the big cities.

When I moved to Calcutta for my higher secondary education, I joined a somewhat ‘elite’ institution where a large number of the students belonged to one of the richest business communities in India. Soon, I got used to seeing luxury cars outside the school gate, and a certain snobbish stance in classrooms that translated into the financial and psychological equivalent of ‘tu janta nehi mera baap kaun hai’ (don’t you know who my father is?!), though the latter was never directed at me personally given that I was academically far ahead of most of them and somewhat intimidating in my physical appearance and demeanour! This crowd was conspicuously absent during my years at Jadavpur University, where the student body’s so-called Marxist stance in life made way for the reverse snobbery of turning up to class looking like homeless madmen who had just woken up from a roadside ditch the done thing. Since I moved to Delhi though, the high school variety of people have skyrocketed in my vicinity, particularly in my university, which attracts that very crowd through its social as well as financial model. I now reside and study in an atmosphere where branded merchandise rule the day, as do parties and ‘fun’ that involve all sorts of lavish lifestyle choices. And recently, from my time working at the India Art Fair in Delhi, I have first-hand stories about the uber-rich who throw money at artwork the way kids do in candy stores, and I am talking about seven-figure sums here.

I have had the time to muse long and hard about the issue of money and how it affects human lives. And at this point, I feel sufficiently confident of having seen the entire spectrum of financial capacities of people. And I must admit, I have come to despise money and the moneyed more than ever before. I also pity them greatly, and I will presently explain why.

My first and possibly greatest grievance against the moneyed class is how money and civility seem to be inversely proportional. This, I suspect, is particularly true about the rich in India. We as a nation do not place much value on politeness and courtesy to begin with, and the few of us who do practice these values to some extent often do so more from the fear of being called out for misbehaviour than from an innate sense of civility. As money brings a certain privilege and social protection with it, that fear melts away, exposing the natural rudeness and uncouth behaviour of the person. It is also a way for them to exercise their power over the lowly plebeians; after all, how many will raise a voice of protestation against someone who earns a hundred or even a thousand times as herself? This brings me to the inflated sense of self-importance that these people have about their lives and work. As part of my work for the Art Fair, my group had to collaborate with some fashion designers, upcoming names in the Indian fashion industry. One of them was an uncivilized lout who liked to strut about ordering people with a sense of importance that was frankly ludicrous for someone who is, in essence, a glorified master tailor. I am happy to say I had the chance to take the individual down a peg or two and made good use of it. Afterwards, as we trundled around the Art Fair thoroughly uncomfortable in the rather mediocre looking but cut-throat priced designer-wear, we were congratulated by several of the collectors (I have been using a rather less civilized term invoking the canine family to refer to them in private conversations, as it seemed to reflect their attitudes more aptly, but I will desist here for the sake of propriety) for our ‘luck’ at getting to wear them, and advised us to ‘enjoy’ it while we could. I could not decide whether to be more astonished by or full of pity at their idea of what brings joy in life.

That, I suppose, is my second biggest complaint against money, as well as the source of my contemptuous pity for those who have too much of it. The more one devotes oneself to the pursuit of money as the sole aim of one’s life, the more disconnected one seems to become from real love and joy and peace. Lives are given meaning through the possessions one owns, and the prices one pays for it. The art becomes insignificant unless the artist is expensive enough, the vacation becomes pointless unless it is where all the other millionaires also go and spend their money. The worst affected, of course, are not those who are the real earners of the millions, but those who are his family – usually the wife and children. The sense of entitlement they bring with them is mind-boggling, as is the stupidity that is often an unfortunate additive. But I suppose you do need the thick skin (and head) if you have to survive the plastic lives they do, with their kitty parties and leather bags and gossips about the latest ‘in’ things.

I feel saddest, though, for the middle class, the class that aspires more than anything to be like their uber-wealthy counterparts. And what they cannot emulate in earnings, they try to make up for with the spendings. We have more and more families that are aiming for designer trousseau and destination weddings but do not have adequate medical insurance or retirement funds. And, perhaps worst still, far too many people are giving into the lure of commodity fetishism and ‘living it up’ at the price not only of their futures but of their present mental and emotional growth.

Which brings me to the idea of charity. Increasingly I am coming to the conclusion that human beings are not inherently good and kind and keen to help others. They are often quite the opposite, in fact, and have to be coerced by social institutions into putting up a veneer of civility and self-restraint. Since no similar institutional coercive measure exists in the case of charity, it is a small surprise that few people, particularly among the rich, feel the need to do much about human beings subjected to poverty. A former friend from Jadavpur who belonged to one of the traditionally rich north Calcutta families and had no qualms while talking about his collection of pens worth lakhs routinely fought with poor rickshaw pullers over a few rupees and thought I was a gullible fool and a bit of a squanderer for giving money to the various aid seekers, usually the old and infirm, who regularly came to our campus for help. I am not denying that there are many rich individuals who give away huge amounts of their money for charity – I hear J. K. Rowling lost her billionaire status because she donated so much of her wealth. In India, however, it is too little done by too few. In my personal experience, it is often those who have to skip outings with friends because they have to buy groceries that make charity a regular habit. One of my history professors at Ashoka, while discussing communism in class, told us about how he heard people at his gym defending the Ambanis spending obscenely at the daughter’s wedding by arguing they had the right to do whatever they wanted with their ‘hard-earned money’ while criticizing the idea of loan waivers to farmers as it would make them lazy and encourage the bad habit of not paying back on future loans.  What does that say about the rich, and about those who aspire to be so?

I know many will consider this essay a classic piece of sour grapes, but I have myself considered this possibility and rejected it with a laugh long ago. As I started out by saying, I am acutely aware of my privilege of belonging to a comfortably-off family. Having said that, I have not been able to decipher how several more zeroes to the sum in the bank account would have made my life significantly more fruitful. Greater scope for charity would have been one, and it would have been nice, as Rowling had once said, never to have to worry about paying bills in one’s life, but apart from that? What could I have been able to buy that would give me greater long term life satisfaction? The consumer habits practised by the moneyed, I have noticed, is based almost entirely on the question of bragging rights. In my family though, the practice of discussing our incomes with outsiders or asking after another’s has always been seen as a sign of ultimate bad manners and unrefined culture, and the same goes for talking about the prices of our possessions. Growing up with such cultural inclinations, how on earth will buying a bag from Louis Vuitton or a watch from Gucci give me greater joy than my present ones from Dressberry and Titan respectively?

I will close with a reminder, to myself as much as to my readers, about what I said earlier about making money a mere instrument and not the master of one’s life. It is frighteningly easy to lose conviction if one is exposed to a frivolously wasteful environment for too long. Far too many of my friends in Delhi have Apple phones and laptops, and my open ridiculing of Apple users has, as a result, become more guarded. It is only a matter of time, I’m afraid, before a sneaking desire ‘invest’ in a designer accessory may take root in my heart. I hope I will remember to revisit my own writing then, to remind myself where that particular path leads to.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Goodreads Review: Twilight Falls on Liberalism

Twilight Falls on LiberalismTwilight Falls on Liberalism by Rudrangshu Mukherjee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have the privilege of studying at the university where Professor Mukherjee is the Chancellor and Professor of History. I have attended some of his classes and been impressed by his command of the subject and style of delivery, and wanted to know how far his expertise was translated on to his writing. This was a major reason for my picking up this book, as also was my interest in the subject, and I must say that it was a worthy read.

Professor Mukherjee starts the book - closer to a long essay at 133 pages of a pocketbook - with introducing the current socio-political atmosphere around the world and the manner in which the ideology of liberalism is under attack from various fundamentalist and totalitarian forces. Then, true to his historian's method, he goes back to study the conception and growth of the idea of liberalism from its 18th century Enlightenment roots and its changing scope over the ages in keeping with contemporary world economy and polity. He touches upon the fundamental contradictions within the ideology and the paradox of its birth from the same roots that gave rise to totalitarian tendencies. He moves forward to discuss some of the critiques of liberalism and continues the chronological study of 20th-century eclipsing of the ideology through the rise of dictatorships across Europe. He traces the cyclical pattern of rising and diminishing popularity of the ideology through the century before closing with the 21st century socio-political attitude towards liberal ideals as displayed by the three major world events of the last several years - the election of Donald Trump in the US, Brexit, and the rise of right-wing governance in India with the coming of Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister.

The major drawback in the book is the lack of analysis or at least historically moulded informed guesses as to the reasons behind the rising tide of totalitarian tendencies across the world. While Professor Mukherjee has touched briefly upon the economic meltdown of 2008 and the growing threat of Islamist fundamentalism as possible reasons for the decline of liberal beliefs, these interconnections could have been explored at greater length, providing a more nuanced understanding of contemporary world politics for the reader. This would have been particularly helpful for the lay reader since Professor Mukherjee's ability to explain complex philosophical and political ideas in lucid language makes this book intellectually available to a wide range of readers. That apart, this is a most interesting book by way of introduction to the political ideology of liberalism and is sure to get the reader enthused about learning more on the subject. 

View all my reviews

Monday, January 7, 2019

Starting afresh

As I write this, I need to begin with an apology, to Baba more than to anyone else. Baba’s encouragement was the reason I started this blog all those years ago, and since then, almost every post has seen hours and sometimes days of Baba’s coaxing and cajoling before being finally written and posted. There has been a steady decline in the frequency of blog posts since I left Durgapur in 2013, simply because the persuasion has had to be virtual for the most part. And then I moved to Delhi - Haryana really; coming to that in a minute - in July last year to ‘live my own life’ and the posts dried up completely. It was as if I had forgotten about the existence of this blog. Baba kept on with his requests and prodding, but I always came up with some excuse or the other for not writing, the commonest being “I don’t have the time”. Now that is some serious poppycock of course; I had time to party and get drunk and even play with dogs. It was the more cerebral of my interests that took a backseat.

Funnily, though, I had anything but forgotten about my blog. In fact, I kept using it religiously to send in writing samples to various prospective internships and academic opportunities, and even employers. And it did come in very useful to me; thanks to the rather impressive number of essays that have accumulated on my blog over the years, I had a wide variety to offer, and it helped me get associated with some interesting and enriching projects, including the chance to review books professionally for The Hindu Business Line. Writing itself has also been a very regular part of my life all this time; I have done more writing assignments in the last six months than I had in the three preceding years taken together. The course I am currently pursuing, the Young India Fellowship at Ashoka University in Sonepat near Delhi, is a one-year multidisciplinary liberal studies postgraduate diploma course, and it includes a very wide range of subjects, all of which require extensive reading and writing. I write an average of two term papers every month, and other smaller essays every so often. Additionally, I am also doing a work project with a startup, as part of the Fellowship curriculum, that aims to build a database of graphic novels in India. Since I am part of the literary end of the initiative, it is my job to read and review graphic novels and write blog posts for the database (yay?). Long story short - I have been writing often enough, just not for my blog.

I have put some thought into why it has been so, and have come up with a couple of reasons. They are mostly to do with certain mental blocks that I have created for myself about this platform, and I am raring to dismantle those. In fact, I have plans to redesign this blog significantly, content-wise as well as visually. I have been experimenting with photography lately - who hasn’t, though, in this age of smartphone cameras! - and I want to see if I can use some of those to complement my writing. I have also been feeling more and more that I should go back and give fiction writing another try. After all, it was fiction that I began my writing career with, at the ripe old age of five. Finally, I have some projects in mind that I have been mulling over for quite some time now, certain internet-based startup plans which I could possibly link this blog to. Let’s see how that works out.

This much is a promise though, to Baba and to any other reader who still bothers to come to my blog. This blog will not remain the neglected suorani that it has been over the last year. The Bootle BumTrinket 2.0 is here to stay. On that note, have a wonderful new year, everyone, and welcome back!