Friday, May 31, 2013

Close Encounters of the Newark Kind - 2

The first thing people say when I start this second story is, "What? It happened to you a second time?" Then I have to pause my narration and explain that it happened not two but three times. I almost feel like "The Chosen One."

Anyway, this was my birthday, so I remember the date this time as well. October 15, 2009. I was walking home from the station after an evening class around 9:30. The weather was unusually cold for that time of the year, the mercury hovering just around freezing. Coupled with light rain and strong winds, it had driven everyone out of the streets. I was walking home by a road I assumed to be safer than the one where the previous incident had occurred. I had my backpack with my laptop, my small digital camera and a few gifts that my friends had given me. I had an umbrella, but since the cold was numbing my fingers, I was walking with my hands in my pockets and the umbrella resting in the crook of my neck. But I had to be ever alert because the wind was threatening to blow the umbrella away and my hands were ready to spring into action in case such a thing happened. In other words, I was concentrating on my umbrella and not on my surroundings - a mistake that could prove very dangerous here in Newark.

Suddenly, I felt my umbrella move. There was something in that movement that was different from the swaying in the wind, and since I was already alert and nervous about my umbrella flying away, I reflexively pulled my hands out of my pockets, grabbed the umbrella handle, and in one continuous movement, turned round on the spot and came face-to-face with a man.

Actually face-to-face is an exaggeration; face-to-chest would be closer to the truth. He was a huge black man, at least six feet tall and proportionately wide. He had crept up behind me and was trying to grab me from the back, but my backpack and umbrella were in the way. The sudden movement in my umbrella which had caused me to turn was the result of this attempt. "Don' say nothin'," he growled in a low voice as I confronted him.

This is the point in my narrative where, however much I may try, I cannot maintain the serious tone and break into a smile, if not a chuckle. My listeners usually follow suit as well, for what happened next was, when you look at it from the future, somewhat comical.

Now if someone had walked up to me with a gun or a knife and demanded my belongings, I would probably oblige, because that is the best course of action when you think about it. However, I did not get time to think about it, and the first thing that I did without thinking when I saw the man on top of me saying "Don' say nothin'" was to hit him repeatedly with the open umbrella and cry out for help.

The man was either drunk, or tired, or probably both. He was utterly taken aback at this onslaught and stood frozen. My umbrella, on the other hand, turned inside out, broke at the tip of the handle, and fell down on the sidewalk. By that time, I had moved away some ten-fifteen feet away from the man, and was still shouting. He stood rooted to the spot for a moment, then swore at me and turned away. As I saw him hurrying away into the darkness, I half expected him to return but he never did.

After a few seconds, I went back to the spot, picked up my umbrella and the broken plastic hooked handle piece, and walked home. I was badly shaken, but unharmed. The umbrella was completely unharmed too and is still being used after just a handle replacement.

This time, Mahendra Dutta & Sons of Kolkata had saved the day.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Today was the commencement ceremony of our university. Here are the customary and mandatory photos in the silly garb. Thanks to my parents and my labmate Atreyee for carefully capturing each and every moment of the ceremony on their respective cameras.


Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Close Encounters of the Newark Kind - 1

I still remember the date. It was the 20th of January, 2009. It was the day president Obama took his oath of office. It was also the day my university opened after my first winter vacation in the US.

I was returning from school with my friend Amrita. At around 7:30 in the evening I and Amrita got off the subway and started walking. She went to her house near the subway station and I started walking towards mine which was a fifteen-minute walk away. There was thick snow everywhere. As I was about to turn into a main road from a lane, I saw a group of three men walking towards me.

I have seen men walking towards me before, and I have seen men walking towards me after, but on that evening, a voice inside me said something was wrong and I changed my direction on seeing them. Seeing that, they also changed their direction and followed me. I came to the main road and crossed it. They also did. They were stalking me and closing in on me. There was nobody that I could ask for help on that deserted parkway, especially since there were no houses around. Next to the road there was only the darkness of Branch Brook Park. Obviously, there was no time to phone for help.

One of them threw a snowball at me that missed me. I knew I could not start a fight or I would be dead. I could not run and outrun them. Not in the best of conditions, and definitely not wearing snow boots on six inches of snow. Besides, I had a heavy backpack. Normally, the recommended course of action in such a scenario is to hand over one's wallet. However, in my case, they would probably not stop with my wallet, and my backpack had my new laptop within, besides my small old point-and-shoot digital camera. What could I do? I thought like crazy as they drew closer, and then a crazy idea came to me.

I did the only thing left to do. I stopped and turned back, and let them catch up with me. When they were close enough, I said "Hi."

In retrospect, I now realise that "Hi" saved me that night. They were completely taken aback. They probably wanted to rob me but either they were overconfident, or it was their first time and they were nervous. Whatever be the case, they did not have the nerve to attack me straightaway after I had started talking to them, so they started talking to me. The first question was, "Are you Chinese?" I replied in the negative. "Do you know kung fu?" Again, I shook my head. It may sound funny now, but only I know what was going through my mind. Yet by some miracle, divine or otherwise, I didn't lose my head. I started talking to them. They were playing with me, almost like a cat plays with a mouse. Three teenagers - one black, one Hispanic and the third also probably black, but with a scarf around his face so I couldn't tell his race for sure. The temperature was -4 with -9 on the windchill, so I was pretty heavily covered up myself.

They playfully asked if I had a dollar. I said no, as I was a poor student. They hit me with balls of snow several times and pushed me into the snow once. I fell down, but strangely, my mind was ice cool. Thinking about it later, I was myself surprised by this, since I am usually a hot-headed person. But that evening, as I rose up and dusted off the snow, I spoke to them as if I was hurt by their behaviour. I talked all nonsense: "Today the school has reopened and I'm tired and I don't want to play and blah blah blah." All the while I kept walking towards my house. By this time, there were houses beside the road but there was no light in any of them. They, meanwhile, were behaving in such a rowdy manner that even if I tried to stop a passing car, it would seem to the driver as if there were four drunk men trying to stop cars by the roadside. Once they left me and went to the other side of the road, and then came back again. One of them had a knife that he was playfully juggling in his hand. He did not threaten me with it. The others told him to put it away, since it would not be needed.

They gradually started hitting me more and more with the snow. Now being hit with the snow does not hurt at all, so I was not concerned about that. But walking alone on a road with three teenagers surrounding you and becoming more and more aggressive, while you know you have your laptop, watch, cell phone and camera apart from some money with you, is unnerving to say the least. They also pushed me a couple of times but I steadied myself and kept walking and prattling.

Then they said "Hey, your bag is pretty, why don't you give us your bag?" It was a strange sort of demand,  asked more as a child would ask her mom for a toy she sees at a store. I pretended not to hear, kept an eye on the houses beside me and kept walking. Then they pushed me and I fell in the snow for a second time. This happened in front of a house whose porch light was lit and I could see light inside. I stood up and walked straight up the drive. The boys were stunned. "What??? You live here?" they asked. I nodded and went up to the front door and pressed the bell. The boys were hanging around the hedge just out of sight.

To my horror, nobody opened the door.

I rang the bell twice and then dialled 911. Someone picked up the call, asked my whereabouts and a dozen other questions, and then transferred the call to police. The police again asked me the same questions and said they'd send someone right away. I kept standing there in the freezing cold for 10-15 minutes. Nobody came. Then I decided I was going home since I did not want to freeze to death. The boys were nowhere to be seen. About fifty yards away, I saw a police car parked by the road. I said, "Did you guys come for me?" They said, "No, we were just passing. We never received any alerts!" So I told them everything. They took down the description of the fugitives and went to look for them while I walked home (I was already halfway there). Nothing happened after that, and even the police did not call back to check if I was OK.

Policemen are the same everywhere I guess!

Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Schoolmaster

Here's my translation of this poem by Rabindranath Tagore on his 152nd birth anniversary. Meanwhile, I wonder what the poor kitten who comes to our house in Hooghly everyday for after-lunch leftovers is doing in the absence of my parents in the house.

The Schoolmaster
~Rabindranath Tagore

Let’s say I’m schoolmaster Kanai,
        The kitten is my pupil today,
I don’t use the cane on him, mother,
        It’s just a twig that I use to play.
He’s always late for class,
        Never interested in the lesson,
Raises his right paw and yawns
        When I say, “Here, listen”
He neglects his studies all day,
        Spends all his time in play.
I say, “M N O P Q”
        He only says, “Mew, mew.”

I explain the books to him,
        As much, mother, as I’m able,
“You should never steal food,
        Be good, like Gopal of the fable”
All I say goes in vain,
        He listens to nothing at all,
Let him come across a fish,
        None of this he’ll recall.
And sparrows – if he spies one,
        He’ll leave the class and run.
I keep saying, “M N O P Q”
        He mischievously says, “Mew.”

Repeatedly to him I say,
        “At school time you must learn.
Play to your heart's content,
        Once school is over and done.”
He’ll act as if he’s a good boy,
        Glance at my face looking bland,
Every word that I said,
        He’ll pretend to understand.
Whenever he gets a chance,
        He’ll vanish from sight at once.
I say, “M N O P Q”
        He only says, “Mew, mew.”

(Translation by Sugata Banerji)

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

On Being a Doctor

... of Philosophy.

It seems only yesterday that I landed in the United States to do my Ph.D. in Computer Science, and now, nearly five years later, I suddenly realize that I'm done. Soon I'll be walking at the commencement ceremony in a cap and gown, something I haven't done earlier. And most importantly, my parents arrived here last week to see me do that. I have waited for this day for five years.

And what years they have been!

There are a lot of things that I want to write about - good, bad and ugly - things that I had not written about before. But more of that later. As of now, I am too busy to blog. I have to spend time with my parents.