Looking back

The car accident in Berkeley happened the first day I moved there. I had not yet slept a night in the house I was going to share with two other girls. Tom had spent the day painting the room for me. I liked bright colors and we had chosen a rusted orange for a wall. I came home after a mile walk from the bart station. I remember humming a song along the way. I remember watching my shadow. I remember the black backpack I carried. I put the bag down when I entered the apartment and smiled. Tom was listening to Bollywood music on my cd player. The room smelled of fresh paint. The mattress we had bought at Ikea on the ground. He offered to drop me to yoga class before heading out to a Buddhist class he was taking. We hadn’t moved in together yet. It was just a little over a month ago that we had met. I wanted to bicycle to yoga but my tires were flat. I changed and we left the house and turned a corner and in that moment as I turned to look at him, we were hit. I remember thinking as the sound of metal on metal crushed my breath out, ” I hope he is not hurt.”

Why do I remember that evening, this evening here in Pune? The children are playing after a pizza dinner and Tom is in a meeting with India. Every day that we are here, I am over taken by a surge of emotions and thoughts that I struggle to arrange and give voice to. It is but natural for me to turn my gaze backwards at America and the life we led. The contradictions in India are apparent and in my face. The contradictions in America more subtle and harder to decipher. On one hand is a country of immense wealth and yet getting medical care even with a health insurance is a challenge. I remember the day after the accident when Tom took me to the hospital and the numerous forms we had to fill, the questions we had to answer. I was not insured.The care in the hospital was perfunctory and for months afterwards, we struggled to find care. In many doctor’s offices, you will not get an appointment without a health insurance. This is in what is considered one of the most advanced countries in the world. Here, in India, we get medical care more easily. No doctor will ever refuse to see you. It is against the grain of this country and yet no system is yet in place for traffic to make way for desperate ambulances.

“How do you like it here?” I am often asked. I do not have a clear answer- yet.

Pune under siege

Every morning I wake up to the rains. It is green outside my patio doors and beyond that are high rise apartment buildings in every direction but one.  Builders are working hard and quick to rectify that lapse. Pune is green. Beneath, beside and under all the upcoming high rise buildings are patches and sometimes stretches of greenery. This is what differentiates this city from other Indian towns. As a hub for Information Technology, it has money, as is visible in the cars on the road, the numerous malls and the ubiquitous high rise apartments with names such as Galaxy and Paradise.  People I have met are more laid back, and life is comfortable here due to the availability of jobs, the gentle weather and a landscape that is flecked by hills, lakes and open spaces- still.

buildingsAs I have written previously in other pieces, author Amit Chaudhuri, my writing instructor at the UEA workshop has started a campaign to preserve the fading architecture of Kolkata. The architectural history of a city  being replaced by the monotony of modern high rises. If you have not signed the petition, please consider doing so, for the sake of beauty, if not for the unique nature of a time in Kolkata as recorded and witnessed by the architecture under seige-   www.avaaz.org/calcutta

In the month that we have been in India, I have been watching his movement gather momentum.  At the very least what it is doing is waking us up  to the onslaught of all that is cement and concrete, banal and uniform- a modernity that around the country is gradually edging out India’s beautiful. The heritage of architecture- a metaphor.  As I look around me at Pune, at the possibilities of beauty, its natural landscape, alive but gradually getting buried  under blocks of cement, I think of Amit Chaudhuri because I wonder whether the city of Pune will need a writer with the zeal of an environmentalist to save it.

buildings 2

In memory

On the day after the former president  of India, Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam passed away, I lifted my pen, as I must every day. Thirteen years ago, when I got married for the first time and was ready to go to America, my mother’s professor- a freedom fighter who had been beaten up by the British and jailed several times had asked me sadly,  ” For whom did we fight? What will happen if the future generations of this country, the educated citizens leave India? How can this country prosper?”  I remember holding his hand, I remember looking into his eyes and I remember wondering, how many men like him remained in India? My mother’s professor, Kapila Chatterjee passed away ten years ago. Yesterday we lost A PJ Abdul Kalam, a man who once said about himself that he was made completely in India, a man who was proud of his Indianness. He died doing what he loved most- teaching.

Somewhere on the other side of this world, in a storage container in America I have his books. Ian Jack who was my writing instructor at the UEA writing workshop, once told me that he believed people bought more books than they actually read. He was right. Today, I will go buy again “Ignited Minds” by Kalam and finally read it.

Eating by the side of the road

Sometimes I feel we are living in a bubble. For the well to do in India, everything is taken care of. Doors are opened for you, rooms are cleaned, food appears on the table- almost magically.  You are aware that outside this realm there are people who go hungry but you avert your eyes when they knock on the windows of your car, hoping fervently or feebly as may be your mood, that they will go away. The women who come to work in the house, tell me about their lives sometimes, about open sewers or husbands and sons who do not work, leaving the burden of running the house on them. I listen but do not want to listen too much. I have been instructed by neighbors and friends that “they” can sometimes make up these stories to gather sympathy. I think though that no matter whether these stories are fabricated or not, their lives must resemble their stories.

I ate Pani Puri from a road side vendor two days ago. I had stepped out of the car into the monsoon rains to buy decorations for the house. It was the littlest one’s birthday. Outside that store, a man stood next to his cart selling what I consider one of the most delicious North Indian snacks ever. Fried, puffed balls of wheat stuffed with beans and mashed potatoes which you dip in sweet and spicy tamarind water. You open your mouth as wide as you can and you pop one in, letting all the flavors wash together in a deliciousness that must be eaten to be understood.  In Kolkata, during the UEA writing workshop, I desisted from eating with the others on such outings because I was aware that coming from abroad, such a venture could only lead to a regrettable gastronomical disaster.

pani puri

What prompted me to eat this now? I think it was out of fatigue or boredom of living in the bubble. Fifteen years ago when I did a graduate program in Pondicherry, my classmates and I would head out after classes to forage for food and the food vendor outside the university was our favorite haunt. Maybe it was nostalgia? Maybe it was a test. If it was a reality check, I failed miserably. I spent most of that night and  yesterday drinking massive amount of electrolytes and in misery. My stomach was in a turmoil and I could almost hear it asking me in a state of disbelief, ” WHAT WERE YOU THINKING?”

“What were you thinking?” the four year old’s birthday gathering asked me too. I had no fitting reply other than “I like pani puri?” muttered feebly. “No one, not even us who have lived here our whole lives would eat pani puri off a road side vendor especially in the monsoons.” they all said. “Sniff” is what I said in response. Pani means water. “Imagine the tamarind water made of rain water, tap water and…”  here they would trail off and I sniffed some more.

What I did not tell anyone is that I was almost glad it happened. I needed to step out of my bubble, it will just have to be a little more informed here on. The way to experience a country, the way to perhaps even live cannot be in a bubble. By the way, that pani puri was the best I have eaten- ever.

Three girls

Our three girls fly around us like sparks of fire. In India, we are often met with questioning and very pitying looks. Three girls? No one would like to exchange places with us here. The reactions vary from open concern, “Three girls? How will you get them married?” to covertly concerned, “Three girls? It must be hard to plan for that no?” to the more genteel comments such as, ” Three girls? How lovely to have daughters.” or the most outrageous of them all, ” Shouldn’t you try again?  Maybe this time it will be a boy?”

The male child in India is a prized possession. Traditionally, the upholder of the family name, the care taker of parents in old age, the one who has to light the funeral pyre of his parents, the one who shall bring in a bride with a hefty dowry. A win-win social set up if ever there was any. And so it would have continued if it was not that somehow, somewhere girls started to get educated, dowries became an outdated proposition (except in some very interestingly backwardly forward states and communities),  and the tradition of sons who lived with their parents faded.  Women friends of mine take equal — if not in many cases more care of their aging parents compared to their male siblings, and most of my girl friends are as educated as any man I know.

Yet, real emancipation in India for women is still an arduous road, a struggle fraught with difficulties and often very serious dangers. In recent times India came under international notice for the rape of a girl in a moving bus in Delhi. There were nation wide protests, change was imminent, reform was promised and proclaimed. In India where the name of a rape victim is still not legally allowed to be revealed, she was called India’s daughter. Such irony in the moniker. But change didn’t happen. How can it in a country where the birth of a male child is largely more celebrated than that of a girl child?

Rapes, female infanticide, sexual harassment and in certain places even child marriage are a part of the darker fabric of this nation that is simultaneously dashing head first towards a modernity it is not prepared for. Look up Uber and the sexual harassment cases in India for just one example of this.  My friend and writer Sayantan Ghosh recently published a piece about how a popular singer has glamorized rape, sexual harassment and the general state of women subjugated to the male gaze in his very very popular songs. That there have been no protests or outrage against songs that glamorize  humiliations of a girl, is in itself a discouraging sign of how things still stand here-


Freedom for women, women’s rights — such glory, such glamor in these words — but even in a country like America, women are infamously paid less for the same jobs done by their male counterparts. Yet, I must acknowledge that as a woman I have experienced the greatest freedoms in my life, in America. Whether a woman wears a pair of shorts or a bikini, in America NO ONE will ever ever say that she deserved to be raped or harassed, or that she was asking for it because her revealing curves were justifiable temptations for a man. Such indignity, such shame to have to live under these social conditions, where politicians, law makers and even the police can blame a woman for her own abuse.

And yet, I have come here to India. I have brought with me my American husband, our three girls. I have loved this country where I have called as a brother every man I have not dated, wanted to date or marry, where we still touch the feet of our elders with respect, where a doctor will see you without first taking payment from you or even making sure you can. My country of origin, how your heart must bleed at the injustices against its women. Swami Vivekananda  said,  “The best thermometer to the progress of a nation is its treatment of its women and it is impossible to get back India’s lost pride and honor unless they try to better the condition of women.” So, as I stop to hail that Uber today, even as I love it that I can buy Kellogg’s cornflakes or shop at Sephora or  go for a drink with a friend,  I know that there is still a long way to go till I will not be an object of pity because I am the mother of three girls.

Yesterday in pictures








I looked out the window and I saw the first cyclist I have seen so far in Pune. A serious athlete and the fastest one able to navigate the clogged traffic. Is this the future of cycles in India?

Billboard Pune

Whoaaaaaa! Did that billboard actually say what it did? An ad for a housing expo and it is advertised to target all the upwardly mobile  supposedly into living in together and presumedly also unable to find housing?

Berk T shirt

Walking by a store, I stopped to take a picture of this t-shirt. Ah Berkeley! Sometimes I miss home.

Beneath the perfect life

I have a recurring nightmare. In it, I am not a writer, I am not a dancer, I am nothing. A couple of months ago dissatisfied and disillusioned with my job as an administrative assistant in an exclusive private school, nestled in Berkeley one of the most beautiful places in the world, I complained about my job to a well known writer in  San Francisco . ” If you leave your job and you tried to write and if you found you could not or nothing came of it, what is the worst thing that can happen? You will stay at home and bake cookies with your children? That is not too bad a life is it?” he asked me.  I shuddered inwardly at the thought while I demurred.

Do not take me wrong, I love my girls. There is nothing in me that doubts that. I have birthed them and loved them with a ferocity that has far outlived any passion I have felt for any man. There is a problem though. A home baked cookie does not give me joy. I often wish it did, it would make me a woman more content. I have a husband who would support anything I wanted to do including baking cookies all day long. I am blessed with enough resources to do that if I desired. Roosevelt once said, ” Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” Being a mother to my girls, making sure to the best of my ability that they will be kind and strong women in a tumultuous world are indeed work worth doing and I will do it. The problem again?

That little part of me that is beneath my role as a mother is sadder every day that I do not write or dance or walk or balance on a yoga mat. And on days like today which was great – swimming classes, a half hour on the treadmill, a buffet lunch fit for a king, hot chocolates under the rainy skies, but,  with almost no time for myself, I can feel her sadly murmuring in a corner of the heart. And on less than idyllic days, on days when the children haven’t been on stellar behavior, when I have been unwell, when I have pushed myself to live up to my ideal of the mother I must be; she shrieks and screams in my heart, she beats at the walls. My thoughts turn murky, gloomy, grim and dark.” Is this why Sylvia Plath put her head in the oven? Is this why Virginia Woolf walked into the pond with stones in her pockets?” I am under no illusion that I am a writer of their stature. But I am a writer and I am a woman and I can be as imaginatively doleful as I like. This one place I have freedom.

So every day that I agonize over clothes left lying around, socks and underwear under the feet, counter tops littered with left over food, unwashed faces, unbrushed teeth, fights, tears and an overflowing sink- all of which require my supervision and skills, I tell that little voice in the heart to hold on and be patient. These sweet little girls and this home needs me. When they are grown up, when they will know how to bathe, when they have learnt how to choose and how to live their own life, when this house will be quiet and no squabbles require my judgement,  when that day comes, I will be an old lady. Perhaps by then I would have given up coloring my hair, perhaps by then my skin will glow a little less, I am not worried about that (ok,maybe just a little) but really, I am more worried about the voice in the heart. ” I must do this work,” I tell it, ” Hold on, hold on. I promise to give you voice today, tomorrow and the day after. I promise to keep trying as long as I live.”

Between two worlds

Old man rain

Everything has changed. Nothing has changed. I vacillate between the two every day I am here. We have a cook and two kindly women who come to clean. There is a Sephora and even a Wetzel’s Pretzels in the mall we visited yesterday.I have seen ordinary looking people spend more money than I earned in a month when I worked in television eleven years ago. We buy what we need, secure in the rate of dollar conversion. I have tired myself out as the family communicator, often people cannot understand a word my husband speaks. He is busy learning Hindi on Rosetta Stone.Our home has the bare minimums required to live. How much does a man need? The monsoon mornings are cool and windy. I do yoga on a mat before the children wake. The winds, the birds, the open patio doors- this I love. I write when I can. India has skyscrapers and malls. India has children knocking on your car window asking for food. My husband went back to the doctor for a follow up today. She charged him nothing for the visit. “Why?” I wondered. An old man sleeps in the rain under a covered bus stand. “Does he sleep soundly?” The rains in Pune keep this city cool. I have carried myself here, to my country, I say. I am Indian but then really I am not anymore. I am an American now. The conundrum continues, I am looking for the key.

Two roads become four

“In India two roads become four.” That is what my husband and I talked about on our way back from the hospital where he underwent an endoscopy this morning. It was a test our doctor in Berkeley had recommended before we headed to India but the co pay for it with our health insurance was almost three thousand dollars there,and, two days before our departure from Berkeley, that was a bit hard for us to rustle up on short notice. So when the doctor in Pune suggested the same test, we decided to just get it done. A friend of a friend of a friend offered to watch the children for us. I did not just make that sentence up. A friend of a friend of a friend watched our children for almost three hours when my husband and I were in the hospital.

The hospital was at the end of a cul de sac. He had to be admitted at the emergency ward which was a little unnerving. Of course my husband is a curiosity in India bigger than I am in America. Everyone in the hospital was kind to us even the orderlies who I sensed bit back sharp words when I asked too many questions. After waiting for a half hour we were escorted up to the operation theatre where I was asked to remove my shoes and then asked to wait outside. I peeped through the window at Tom sitting in pajamas and a shirt too small for him. I don’t think there are many 6ft 3′ wearers of that uniform.

OTWhen the doctor came, I was summoned in and he explained the procedure to both of us before taking him away. I looked around me at the beds covered in blue tarps apparently clean though all of them seemed stained in orange hues, a line of thought I did not want to pursue when I was sent back to my waiting post.

The results were important enough to warrant a detailed explanation from the doctor post procedure and not scary enough to detain or hospitalize him. The cost- eight thousand six hundred and forty rupees.  In other currencies that would be one hundred and fifty dollars.

On the way back from the hospital, my husband and I talked about Indian roads and how four rows of cars managed to drive parallel to each other in spaces meant for two. I was thinking about these roads, when it struck me-  a friend of a friend of a friend whom I had never met watched the girls this morning. Maybe India is like that-  space on the road, in a heart, in a home, always, for more even when it is the unknown.


Pune- Day 3

I stood this evening and watched the life in the ten storied apartment that faces our hotel in Pune. Very few curtains were drawn and I wasn’t sure if I breached any etiquette by looking at their lives. The lady  in the apartment directly opposite our room who cleaned her kitchen every night was there tonight too. I wondered who lived with her and why they never helped. Televisions were on in many rooms, couples sat on couches, in many houses fans whirring wearily from the ceilings. The monsoons are almost here in this city. I can feel the promise in the wind. The dampness in the air.

I am tired this evening. The logistics of settling us down here have been mind numbing. A friend who was in the writing workshop with me and has two published books to her name called up some friends she knew and I had some virtual hand holding. I needed it so I could hold my family’s hand. This was my country, I wanted so badly for them to love it the way I did and every day the logistics fray away at my optimism. This community of women friends is growing out largely from the UEA writing workshop in Kolkata and it is something I missed in my life in America. It seems that women here somehow have more time to support each other even if they hold full time jobs, write books or have children and families they care for. The landlord’s wife came to help me set up the television, find a cleaner and even arranged to have supplies sent over to the house, the head of HR in my husband’s company accompanied me to the market place so I could avoid the malls and buy kitchen utensils at cheaper prices, my writer- friend’s friend spent a lot of time on the phone with me to see  in what ways she could help. And so as I stood this evening gazing out at the road in front of this hotel, I think back to this women and feel a moment of gratitude. I am a story teller and India is full of stories. For now though I must acknowledge that I am tired and must rest. Tomorrow we move into our house.