Monday, February 21, 2011

Furniture Weekend

Friday was a warm day.

A daytime temperature of 17 degrees Celsius and a night temperature of 11 degrees Celsius may not qualify as warm in the part of the world that I come from, but here in New Jersey, it was a welcome respite from one of the severest and most snow-laden winters of recent times. At school, people were already walking around in shorts and sleeveless T-shirts. The weekend was going to be sunny too. A lovely weekend for going out and enjoying the fresh air, one could say.

So although a strong wind had started on Saturday morning and the temperature had dropped below 10, I decided to wear just a fall jacket with my jeans and sneakers while going to IKEA with a friend. I did not take my gloves or earmuffs – they are notoriously difficult to manage inside a warm store. And previous experience had taught me that IKEA was warm inside. On second thoughts, I just pulled on my woolen cap and left.

A visit to IKEA is, of course, less about buying necessary home furniture and more about touching, feeling and getting tempted by unnecessary ones. After a few hours of uneventful browsing which consisted of sitting on sofas, lying in beds, climbing atop bar stools, opening and closing cupboards and admiring ourselves in mirrors of all shapes and sizes, we felt we were sufficiently hungry to do justice to the free dining offer from the cafeteria. During this weekend, IKEA would deduct the cafeteria bill from the store bill for a purchase of over $100. To maximize the benefit of this offer, we filled ourselves up to bursting point with stuffed salmon fillet, buffalo chicken wraps, chicken tenders with fries, some lovely Swedish princess cake and coffee while watching planes taking off and landing at the Newark international airport. We shopped some more for things that my friend needed for her new home and then we proceeded to stuff our bags with random irresistible stuff like stainless steel trivets, photo frames, wooden wall-racks, tool kits and potted cacti until we could barely drag the bags behind us. We would, of course, have the heavy furniture shipped home, so we had nothing to worry about.

At the checkout counter I had the first inkling of doubt that all was not right. The never-ending line eventually delivered us to the lady with the bar-code scanner at a snail’s pace, and there we learnt that we had to actually bring the heavy furniture out too, like everyone else, before we could get them home delivered.

Now this was a problem. We had already paid for our two bagfuls of not-so-light stuff when we were informed of this. Since we could not carry this stuff inside, one of us would have to stand there with the two bags while the other (in this case, I) would have to go and pick up a bed, a sofa and a few chairs single-handedly and re-navigate that queue which had doubled by this time. It wasn’t easy. Apart from the fact that the things would be heavy and hard to place on a cart single-handedly, I would have to somehow fit everything on a single cart.

Which I eventually did. I single-handedly tamed the cart which was constantly trying to roll away and loaded the sofa, the bed, and all the chairs on it, and finally joined the line which was now several times longer. By the time I paid for this stuff and finally passed the counter it was nearly six which meant we were still not too late. We just had to get it home delivered now.

And overcoming the home delivery queue took us… around two hours.

Carrying two large bags of heavy stuff, apart from our heavier backpacks and pushing a cartload of furniture, we waited for two hours. Every few minutes, someone would try to push a cart through our queue and somehow they always chose the gap around me to squeeze in so that I had to readjust my cart. And while the queue passed close to a door to the outside world, we suddenly realized the long queue was no longer our most unpleasant experience of the day. The outside air had cooled beyond our wildest expectations and even standing ten feet inside the sliding door made us shiver.

“Stay warm,” said the gentleman at the counter as he took the payment for our shipment and handed me the receipt. We knew how ridiculously impossible it would be to follow that advice. As we stepped outside the wind hit us like a wall of ice and the next half-hour wait for the bus may very well have been my longest half-hour. Even with the help of a muffler from my friend, I could not get rid of the feeling that I was going to freeze over. The temperature, as I saw later, was a -4 feeling like a -12 and so no wonder my fingers felt like they were going to fall off any moment even inside my pockets. We were thankful when the bus came, even though it was filled to capacity. The standing ride back to civilization on the twisting road which had us hanging on to the handles with the heavy bags may not have been my most comfortable ever, but I can hardly recall another time when I have enjoyed being on a bus more.

And in the end, all this was totally worth it. When the furniture boxes arrived the next day and I looked at my brand new sofa bed and bar stools at the end of four hours of inexperienced carpentry, it seemed to take away all the bad memories of the previous day’s misadventures. This was much better than asking friends for months to help out with car rides – this weekend made us feel that we could actually do something without their help. This was just another enjoyable-in-retrospect weekend activity that was part of the American experience, and now both of us have brand new furniture to show off.

And show it off I will.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Saraswati Puja

As Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa USA finalist Rasika Shekar finished singing her rendition of “Munni badnaam hui” and an auditorium full of people stopped their dancing and made a dash for the dining hall to queue up for mutton curry, I reflected on whether this enthusiasm was befitting the festival it was supposed to celebrate. I, as a Bengali, have always considered Saraswati Puja a special day of the year, but most of my Saraswati Pujas had been special in a completely different way.

As anybody growing up in Bengal over the last few decades would say, Saraswati Puja is the Bengali equivalent of Valentine’s Day, for that was one day of the year when the boys got to enter the girls’ schools without fear and vice versa. Now, of course, the boys and girls see too much of each other around the year anyway. But I, for one, never had the good fortune to celebrate the Bengali Valentine’s Day because I left Bengal at the early age of five. All I knew about Saraswati Puja before that is the fact that it was the day when we worship the goddess of learning, and all I remember is that my grandfather used to conduct the puja at our house in Hooghly. Also, one of those years I had had my “first writing ceremony” or haate-khoRi. Maybe I don’t even remember that. I just know that from the photographs.

The Saraswati Pujas that I do remember were at Allahabad. North Indians don’t celebrate this particular festival, but the day was always a holiday in school as hordes of pilgrims thronged the city of Allahabad to take a holy dip in the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna on Vasant Panchami (another name for the day). There were a few Saraswati Pujas organized by Bengalis around the city, and we attended those.

We fasted since the morning as we got dressed in our ethnic best. I usually wore a kurta-pajama and my sister, like most little girls, wore a yellow coloured sari. We accompanied our parents to the nearest Puja and offered anjali (flower offering) to goddess Saraswati before we ate anything. We usually visited a couple of other Puja places too, so our breakfast consisted of fruits and sweets offered to the goddess. We prayed for good marks, and when we felt we had gathered enough blessings to last the year, we returned home.

I almost forgot to mention the most special thing about Saraswati Puja. That was the day when we were not supposed to read anything. No text books. No story books. No newspapers or magazines. Nor was writing allowed, and only a child who had no concern for his exam marks would dare to defy this ban. The good part was that nobody could tell us to study for the entire day. The bad part was that passing the time sometimes became a problem because when I was not studying I was usually hunched over a story book.

But there was only a small amount of time to be passed. There were other events left.

Lunch was khichRi at the Bharat Sevasram Sangha. This is a charitable non-government organization that (among other things) arranges free lunch for people on several days of the year and the food was something that had been offered to the goddess. Somebody who has not had the experience of sitting in rows and eating the scalding hot food can never imagine how delicious such plain vegetarian cooking can taste. We always had our lunch there on Saraswati Puja. Then we walked home in the delightful winter sun. As I sit down to write this, I cannot think of even one Saraswati Puja when the weather was gloomy or rainy. I may be mistaken, because Saraswati Puja is one of those days that are permanently etched in my memory as a sunny and joyful occasion. Gloomy ones may have occurred, but my young mind didn’t store them that way.

In West Bengal, there are usually a lot of cultural activities during the evenings on this day. Dance recitals, elocutions and singing performances by children are held in many schools and colleges. Some schools have exhibitions. In Allahabad, however, we did not have any such cultural celebrations. Some of my father’s colleagues and their families were invited to our house and we ate peas-kachauri and alur dom that my mother made for dinner. We stuck to a vegetarian menu on this day as we did on several other religious festivals, and this was the only menu that seemed appropriate for this night.

Things changed after I moved to college in Kolkata, and then went to work in Hyderabad. Or did they? I can’t seem to remember much about the Saraswati Pujas of my later years. Maybe I am growing old, but somehow the image of the sunny Allahabad Saraswati Puja overshadows every other memory of the event. The only thing that I can remember is that I no longer followed the total ban on reading and writing on this day. My parents moved to Hooghly in 2007 and they restarted the Puja at our house the next year. Soon afterwards, I flew to the other side of the Atlantic to worship the goddess of learning in my own way.

And here I was – wondering whether flashy item numbers were a fitting tribute to the white-sari-clad veena-wielding goddess, and slightly worried whether my eating meat for dinner would somehow delay my graduation date. I explained to myself that although I had offered anjali that morning, it wasn’t really Saraswati Puja but just a convenient weekend close by. Then I realized that I had eaten meat and taught a class on the real Puja day too.

I told myself to grow up and joined the queue. Someday I will get to celebrate Saraswati Puja the old way again, but till then, I have to adapt myself to the American way.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Mixed Emotions

Can a journey of nearly 12000 km with an 11 hour wait in between be enjoyable? Mine was, because apart from the fact that I was going home, I also saw something from the plane that I had not expected to see. I saw Aurora Borealis, or the northern lights, through the plane window during my night flight over Iceland.

It was a strange experience, and frankly speaking, not totally unexpected. I had hoped to see the thing when I bought the Finnair tickets in September and that is why I had chosen a left side window seat. Yet, when I peered outside the darkened cabin and saw the flickering green light dancing in the sky, I could hardly believe my eyes. The whole plane was sleeping, or so it seemed to me. As far as I could see, I was the only person who was looking out with face (and later camera) glued to the window and gasping as the light played around in the star-studded clear sky like a giant green curtain twisting and waving in the wind. In the incredible joy of being able to see such a thing, I didn’t seem to mind the long and boring journey at all.

Similarly, when my sister Jolly bade goodbye to us and left for her new home with her husband at the end on my month-long stay in India, it did not matter at all that I had known for the past 24 years of my life that this day would come. I still couldn’t hold back my tears. It was an occasion of great joy, and one that was completely expected and prepared for. I knew she would be happy where she was going. And yet… and yet… speak of mixed emotions!

An Indian wedding is, of course, a lot more than the silent tear-shedding goodbye part. Bollywood movies seem to have given the western world some idea of what it is like (“Was it a big splashy three-day Indian wedding?” a colleague asked me after I returned) but what people here know is still the tip of the iceberg, especially if it is a wedding in your own house.

The month leading up to the wedding was busy – I and my sister were preparing the trays of gifts that go to the groom’s house on the day of the wedding reception. “Is it dowry?” once an American friend had asked me. It is not dowry as the gifts contain mostly items of clothing and toilette for the bride, the groom and close family members, and then specific items are completely chosen by the bride’s family. Similar trays of gifts arrive from the groom’s house as well. But coming back to the story, these gifts are sent in trays or platters and every family tries to decorate their trays and platters in some unique way. For us, the decoration consisted of an origami model stuck on to each item, and I had been making these models for a month when I was not helping Jolly pack and catalogue the other items. Then there was some shopping to be done, some other important work to be finished (like taking Jolly to see Harry Potter 7), and some old friends to be met with since I was back in Kolkata after a year. Overall, it was a vacation that was busier than the average semester at school.

The hard work was not without its rewards, of course, and the fact that I am scared to step on the scales now should suffice to indicate the nature of that reward. In our parts, it is customary for the bride-to-be’s relatives to invite her for an elaborate lunch in the time leading up to her wedding. In this case, the invitations were for me as well, and even if my sister got away with eating less with her “I am dieting for the wedding” excuse, I was always confronted with “You don’t get this stuff in America, so eat it now.” Not that I need any confrontation when served food, but whatever.

The wedding itself was four days. Those four days now seem like a colourful blur of space time where I was too busy most of the time. Now, as I sift through the tens of gigabytes of photos taken during those days almost half a month after the event, small sights and sounds come back to the mind. We did not employ a professional photographer for the event – it was I and some of my cousins who covered the entire event. The first day was the day before the wedding, the day when Jolly ate her last lunch as a bachelor. The day started with me photographing the cutting of the fish at the caterer’s early in the morning, and then passed in a rush as scores of friends and neighbours and relatives joined us for lunch. Jolly’s friend painted her hand with “mehendi” which is an herbal dye made of powdered henna leaves usually worn during weddings. The evening passed in last minute preparations.
After a sleepless night, the next day started very early, quite some time before dawn. A Bengali wedding is full of so many rituals that there is hardly a moment during the whole day when something or the other is not going on. The gifts from the groom’s family arrived sometime in the middle of this. The house was full of guests once more as Jolly proceeded to have her “gaaye-holud” or ritual turmeric bath. After a hurried lunch, professionals arrived to adorn her for the wedding. She was dressed in a red-and-gold Benarasi sari, gold jewelry made for the occasion and her face was adorned with sandalwood paste designs. In between other work, I went and took pictures of this process. Then we left for the wedding venue which was on the lawns of an outdoor swimming club. Sayan, the groom, arrived directly to this venue for the wedding.
The wedding went on uneventfully and by the time we came back home with the couple, it was well past midnight and we were utterly exhausted. However, nobody slept in the night and the night was customarily spent in singing, chit-chat and general merry-making among the couple, their friends, cousins and siblings. We even saw part of a movie on Jolly’s laptop. Next morning, by the time Jolly and Sayan left, we were sad, but tiredness and relief were both more important feelings for all of us.

But our work was not finished. Although I did sleep like a log for a few hours after lunch, I was back at finishing the trays in the evening. The house was empty now – only my parents and I were left, and parents were busy with other work. A cousin dropped in to help for some time, but I could still sleep only at 1:30 a.m. I had to wake up again at 6:30 and continue the work. We went to deliver these gifts to Sayan’s house (which is an hour and a half by road) a little later. By the time we reached, delivered the platters, had lunch there and came back, it was evening and it was time once more for us to go to the reception in their house. Friends and relatives had started coming in once again to join us.

Jolly was sitting on a throne in the reception, and her only jobs were grinning at guests, accepting gifts and posing for photographs. I realized I needed some more time to get used to the idea that she was not a part of our household anymore when I started looking for her absent-mindedly when we were eating dinner at the buffet to see if she was done eating, and then remembered with a start that she was sitting on a throne downstairs.

A one-day gap between the reception and my return trip seemed too quick and unfair, especially for my parents. But my school had already reopened and I had my teaching job to take care of, so I bade adieu to my family once more on the 20th of January. Jolly had Sayan had joined my parents and some other relatives at the airport, and as I talked with her using our exclusive jargon and laughed at the little internal jokes known only to the two of us, I overcame my earlier sorrow. She was happy. She was still the same sister to me, and what’s more, I now had more members in my family.

But time was running out. I had the 63-hour long journey back to Newark in front of me, with 12 and 24 hours of waiting at New Delhi and Helsinki respectively. What’s more, I was leaving home this time, and there would be no Aurora Borealis to cheer me up. So here I am, back at this snow covered depressing city which I had once described as a winter wonderland but which now looks like a huge construction zone with snow instead of earth heaped higher than my head all around. The only good thing about being away from home this time seems to be that it makes it easier to accept my sister’s absence in the house.

One way or the other, life is full of mixed emotions.