The perils and conveniences of modern life

I woke up in the morning to no running water from the taps and I knew that I have frozen pipes. “Oh no!” I thought, “if only I had stored water to brush my teeth!”

A familiar picture crossed my mind. Growing up, my family and other families in my neighborhood in India did not have running water. We had taps which were connected to the town’s water supply. Water was delivered once in the morning and once in the afternoon except in summer when it was delivered only once or sometimes even alternate days.  We filled up every vessel and an open concrete tank with water during the precious water delivery time. Sometimes they forgot to turn off the supply at the allotted time and we would get some extra water and a very happy mother. In the end, we knew that is our total reserve and we would have to manage it somehow.

In the morning, after some struggle with the heating system, I figured out how to heat the pipes and melt the ice. Hurray! I had running water again.  Before leaving for work, I asked Oishi to make sure that the thermostat doesn’t go below a certain temperature because it was very cold outside. My super-smart, artificially intelligent thermostat from Nest had learnt that I am not home in the morning and thus happily brings down the temperature to save energy.

After a few minutes Oishi texted me, “Who is going to stand in front of the thermostat and monitor the thermostat? So I found an app that will notify me when the temperature drops below a certain point.”

I shook my head, “Really? What’s next?”

We owe them…

Recently I came across a podcast in about a humanitarian aid worker rescuing people from Congo, Africa. I heard it in wnyc for the first time and then listened to the podcast several times before I shared with my friends.
An Impossible Choice

Sasha Chanoff and Sheika, through an organization named, RefugePoint, saves the forgotten people and gives them a second chance at life. It was heart-wrenching and at the same time heart-warming to listen to a story filled with love for fellow human beings.

But the story got me thinking. The media spends scores of hours or pages on celebrities – their lifestyle, their homes, events going on in their lives, and we are glued to the TV and magazines, thus supporting the content. And I thought, “Don’t we owe more coverage and publicity to people like Sasha and Sheika to celebrate humanity?”

However, until that happens, we could at least help them with our time and money. Here’s how.
Get Involved

To be clear, I am in no way connected to this organization. I am simply a regular subscriber and listener to wnyc and believe that there is enough love and goodness among people like us to help the underserved.

New Year Resolutions – Oishi and me

My New Year Resolutions

  • Help Oishi settle down in her college life
  • Teach Oishi to drive
  • Start yoga once again and hopefully make a lifelong commitment to it
  • Feel comfortable biking on the road, alone
  • Sell my home and move to a different town
  • Work towards having a higher level of acceptance in life
  • Learn lots of new technology and software

Oishi’s New Year resolutions

  • Adjust to college life
  • Learn to drive
  • Get scholarships that might aid in my college financial obligation
  • Learn how to knit sweaters and my name and especially socks
  • Try to become an English teacher at the place where I currently teach math
  • Donate most of my stuffed animals to children’s hospitals and orphanages before college

A hearty HAPPY NEW YEAR to everyone!

Happy New Year - 2015
Happy New Year – 2015

It was pitch-dark

“Mama, I had such a terrible performance year last year. I blanked in four consecutive recitals which has never happened before. I am not sure what will happen during the play.” I uttered a few words of encouragement despite being aware that actions speak louder than words. She needed to experience a successful performance.

She was chosen to be the pianist for the winter school play “The Sting.” After lots of weekend and late-night rehearsals, she played her part as the musician for three consecutive nights. I was there for the second one with a lot of apprehension.

“Mama the tickets are first-come, first serve. So make sure you reach early.” So I was there quite early to secure my ticket. While I was waiting outside the auditorium, I bought some candies to put them in her surprise brown packet. There were brown packets for all actors and actresses. The person at the counter asked “What is the name?” “I am Oishi’s mom,” I replied. “Oh you are Oishi’s mom! She is phenomenal. She plays in the dark.”

Frowning, I dropped the candies in her bag and took a seat in the second row so that I can videotape her performance. The lights were a little dim but I was able to record her coming down the steps in a jazz musician’s costume towards the grand piano. As she approached and imperceptibly sat down on the bench, the lights went dimmer until it was completely dark. With nervous hands, I continued taping while Oishi’s hands tore the stillness of the dark night with a beautiful melody. It was still pitch-dark when she stopped and I listened to the loud applause from the audience.

Notes from friends and family
Notes from friends and family
Note from Mama
Note from Mama
The Musician
The Musician

Sharmistha’s Book

A few of my favorite things

Hindustan Cables Limited, the town I grew up in and left once I started college, had little to offer. Fun and happiness were limited to playing with friends on the dusty, worn-out roads, surprise visits to and from relatives (did not have phone), good grades, Ma’s animated storytelling and Baba’s wonderful salads. There was no TV or playground or video games or malls or restaurants or movie outings but giggles were ubiquitous.

Little, seemingly banal to other people, things still make me happy. Some of my favorite things that make me cheerful:

  • Enjoying a book with a cup of coffee on my couch
  • Sharing stories with my daughter and sharing a laugh
  • Unexpected act of kindness from a stranger
  • New technology (software and gadgets) – Two years ago, when I installed my Nest thermostat which had the promise of reducing my electricity and gas bill by 50% using Machine Learning, made me so happy that I couldn’t stop sharing with my friends and colleagues only to be stared at by them as though I have landed from a different planet
  • Solving a software problem or creating a new software other people can use
  • Being able to make someone smile
  • Discovering a new recipe and cooking for my daughter (Sometimes she says “You are a good cooker, Mama”)
  • Seeing a squeaky clean house after my cleaning service leaves
  • Writing a blog post
  • And of course watching this from my all-time favorite movie, Sound of Music

My Favorite Things

Sharmistha’s Book

A kind heart at Pei Wei

Oishi turned 17 today. It is hard to believe that 17 years ago, I held this little bundle covered in amniotic fluid who was to become a source of so many of my emotions. My life had changed forever. Her happiness and well-being came first in every decision I made and every step I took.

I decided to pick her up from school today and have lunch with her. She had picked Pei-Wei, an Asian Diner. Wearing a shimmering silver dress and golden jewelry, which is very unusual for her, she looked happy. As soon as we entered the diner, one of the associates exclaimed, “Oh my God! You are looking so pretty today! Such a dazzling dress!”

I beamed and said, “She turned 17 today. Can you take some pictures of the both of us?”

“Sure,” she replied.

At the counter, when we were about to order our food, she took a large double chunk chocolate cookie and gave it to Oishi, saying, “This is for the birthday girl. I baked it.”

Oishi, with an ear-to-ear smile, said, “Thank you so much.”

We ordered the entrees and I asked Oishi, “What drink do you want?”

The associate picked up two glasses and said, “The drinks are on me. This is her special birthday.”

Stupefied, Oishi and I looked at one another and sat down at our table. We didn’t expect any of these gifts of kindness when we entered Pei-Wei. It was going to be a celebration moment between the two of us, but the extraordinarily kind and wonderful associate became part of that beautiful moment which we will always remember. It was a gift of love from her because she didn’t expect anything in return.

Time and again we come across people who touch our lives and make them more meaningful and beautiful. Before I left, I asked her name. “Kara,” she replied.

Sharmistha’s Book

Cookie from Pei Wei
Cookie from Pei Wei

I walked a different path…

After lunch, at work, I usually go for a walk alone. This is my time to unwind and detach myself from the busy world (at least I try to). I don’t enjoy texting, talking or even listening to music during that time because I believe that defeats the purpose of being with myself. However, I am a dreamer and a planner and find myself thinking mostly about future events, which of course haven’t happened yet. Some are practical planning of juggling a full-time career and responsibilities as a single mother. But some are simply day-dreams. I am quite aware of my day-dreams and thus avoid crowded areas for walking. I choose paths with occasional walkers.

I recently came across a book named ‘Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle and realized how little time I spend in the Now. The good (or maybe the bad) news is that I am not the only one who either reflects on the past or plans for the future. My mother is a victim of reflection of the past. Every time I call India to talk to her, she muses over the joyful times we shared as a family when we were young and adds “Those were good times.”

In Eckhart Tolle’s own words “Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it, so it is considered normal. This incessant mental noise prevents you from finding that realm of inner stillness that is inseparable from Being. It also creates a false mind-made self that casts a shadow of fear and suffering.”

So, yesterday at work, I chose a different path. I decided to walk on a path frequented by walkers because I wanted to stay in the Now, at least for a little while. I will try to stay on this course with the hope of enjoying the beautiful Now.

Sharmistha’s Book

Baba waited and waited and waited until…

Oishi will start college in a few months, and the grueling and nerve-wracking college application process has begun. She is very anxious and nervous about the process but not so worried about being far away from home because she, very wisely, decided early on that she doesn’t want to go too far from home.

I, on the other hand, was eager to start my independent dorm (or hostel as they called in India) life in Kolkata, a ginormous city compared to my little hometown of Hindustan Cables, for studying engineering. I didn’t pay attention to the little detail that Kolkata was far away from home and my parents did not own a car. I was enamored with the idea of living with friends and managing my life on my own, only to discover shortly thereafter how little I knew myself.

I was dreadfully homesick. I wanted to come home every week but couldn’t afford to do it. Sometimes I tried to come home once a month, but that was rarely possible. Ma tried to visit me once a month to hand me my monthly allowance for tuition, boarding, books and food.

There was no phone in my parents’ home. So I couldn’t call them and hear their voice when I felt distressed. Instead, I checked the letter box everyday. Baba was very good with letters and kept me updated of the tiny details in his long letters. But there were days when I just wanted to see them, relish Ma’s cooking and hear Baba’s soothing voice.

There were a couple of express trains from Kolkata to Rupnarayanpur, a railway station close to my home. Besides those, there were many local trains, which stopped at every station and were cheaper. I usually took one of the local trains to get home.

During one of the lonely (most of my friends visited their parents in Kolkata), miserable weekends, I decided to take the train and surprise Ma and Baba. Rupnarayanpur was not a well-maintained railway station because very few trains stopped there. People coming from Kolkata would get down on one platform, jump down on the railway tracks to cross (no one used the over bridge) and crawl up on the other unusually high platform. That weekend, I, weary from the long and arduous journey,  got down from my train and had barely placed my hands on the other platform, when a warm voice said, “Maia, hold my hand.” I saw the hand and felt a lump in my throat. Baba was smiling, “I had been checking all trains since afternoon because I had a feeling you would come home today.”

Sharmistha’s Book

My little compassionate teacher

I have eighteen first cousins just on my mom’s side because she comes from a family of ten children. For as long as I can remember, at all family gatherings, I pretended to be a teacher to most of my younger or same-age cousins. My role play had nothing to do with what I wanted to do in life. Rather it was my way of keeping them in line as most of my uncles and aunts entrusted me with the responsibility. In fact, growing up I never dreamt of becoming a teacher or even thought that passion had any role in trying to become a teacher.

            One of Oishi’s very astute babysitters (whom she called Autin, instead of auntie), once said, “Sharmistha, it is easy to manage Oishi during group games. All you need to do is put her in charge and she will take care of other kids for me.” Oishi was only two years old then. She is almost seventeen now – a strong-willed, compassionate and kind person.

            Amongst all these she has developed a true passion for teaching; something I never thought was possible in a sixteen year old girl. She had been teaching in various capacities for more than a year now. At first she took a course called Youth Teaching Youth co-teaching math to middle school students with her teacher. Then she did her Girls Scout Gold award project teaching math to kids in Trenton. This year she took Youth Teaching Youth once again instead of study hall because she wanted to get more experience as a teacher. Finally, she got a job teaching math in a tutoring center. She wants to be a math teacher and spread the love of math among kids. I still do not quite understand her passion at this tender age but it is uplifting and inspiring to see my little munchkin trying to make a mark in this world in her own way.

            Despite all my efforts to understand how she feels when she teaches, I do not fully comprehend the depth of it. So I want to end with this entry from her teacher’s journal.

“I found out today that I didn’t make the callbacks for Silver Lining, a very selective school singing group. I had envisioned myself on the risers with the rest of the Silver Lining group ever since 9th grade, but never had the courage to try until this year (my senior year). Finding out that that would never happen really saddened me. I guess it makes sense now considering I’ve never had any formal vocal training.

            When I walked into the middle school, even the security guard noticed my difference in mood. When I walked into Scanlan’s classroom, she asked me to teach the rest of the lesson. I said yes despite my mood because I’ve made it a point to grab every opportunity possible to teach.

            At first, I tried to force myself to focus while teaching the kids. I tried speaking a little louder too. It didn’t work. However, once I let my teaching instincts take over, everything turned around. I smiled, and I was engaged just enough to seem okay. I explained Venn Diagrams and had the students shout out the answers. That got me excited.

            I realized that I’m a natural teacher no matter what anyone says. I’m proud to be able to say that my teaching instincts are more proficient than my mind.”

Sharmistha’s Book

Our First Earnings

Oishi got a summer job as math tutor in a tutoring center – her dream job. After a month, when she got her first paycheck, she opened a bank account and was awarded a debit card with a Visa sign. This made her other dream come true – she will now be able to buy surprise gifts for me from Amazon for Mother’s Day.

Sure enough, a few days later a small package was left on my kitchen counter – a very pretty necklace. “Mama, I knew you wanted to buy a 16″ gold necklace for sometime now. I cannot afford gold, so I got gold color and the length is adjustable to 16″. Also, look, the stones are known as CZ. I did a lot of research on them. They look like diamonds, don’t they?” Then she emailed me a link on Cubic Zirconia. With blurry eyes, I wore the necklace. Seizing that perfect moment, she asked, “Can I please take you out to dinner? Nothing fancy. Just dhosa.” All my lectures on how she should save money seemed to have little effect then. So we went, and Oishi proudly gave her debit card and signed her first receipt at a restaurant.

Many, many years ago, my first earnings came in the form of scholarship money after I started my engineering program. Before going home for my first summer vacation, I decided to spend the money on Ma and Baba. However, the thought of giving jewelry to Ma never crossed my mind. There were so many things Ma needed to improve the quality of her life and jewelry was certainly not one of them. So I settled for a tortilla maker; it was not an electric one because those were not available then, but rather a cast iron one, which I carried home from Kolkata. “Ma, won’t this make your life a little easier? Now you can make the roti and poori much faster and won’t have to spend so much time in the hot and sultry kitchen.” Ma’s eyes beamed. “Yes, it definitely would,” Ma replied proudly.

I bought a utilitarian gift for Ma while Oishi bought a fancy gift for me. Surprisingly, both were extremely fitting with our mothers’ needs. We adjusted the form of our gifts as time and space changed. But we remained true to our primal desire of making the people we love happy.

Necklace from first paycheck
Necklace from first paycheck

Sharmistha’s Book