Recently I came across a podcast in moth.org 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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
On the second day of our one week trip to Chicago, Oishi’s glasses broke – the lenses were intact, but one of them popped out of the frame and I struggled to put it back in. She was getting very nervous because I had a lot planned for the trip – a four-day hop-on hop-off tour covering not only the important city attractions, but also the south, west and north neighborhoods; Chicago River Architecture boat tour; and the Blue Man Group Show. We were close to the Water Tower and dashed inside an eyeglass store named SEE, hoping to pay some money and get the glasses fixed so that they would last the duration of the trip.
“Can you please fix these glasses? We are vacationing here from New Jersey,” I said to one of the girls at the counter. I was going to offer some money but she did not give me a chance. After a few minutes she brought the glasses to Oishi. With a bright smile, Oishi exclaimed, “Mama these are perfect!” The girl smiled and said, “I am glad they are. Enjoy your vacation!” Oishi and I were so taken by her unassuming act of kindness that we ran to Macy’s, which was right next door, and bought a gift card for her. When we gave her the card, she looked incredulous, and Oishi whispered “Mama I don’t think they are used to it. I guess being kind is the only way for them.”
Right after we checked into our hotel at the Chicago Loop district, I discovered that I did not bring my makeup and brush. I whined a little and Oishi commented, “Gee Mama, I thought you forgot to bring your medicine.” But deep down, she wanted to do something about this. After her glasses were repaired, we were ready to take on the world, and I decided to buy makeup. I strolled into Sephora and Oishi said, “Mama, I will be nearby while you buy makeup,” and she left the store. After a few minutes, when I was almost done buying, she came back and said, “You don’t need to buy any makeup brushes because I got six of them for you.”
“What? How? Where did you get them?” were only some of the questions I started firing at her.
“Relax, Mama. I went to buy a face brush for you at bareMinerals but the price was more than I could afford. So the store lady asked whether I wanted to surprise you and gave me these free sample brushes.”
We were on our way to the Chicago O’Hare airport via the blue line and a bit melancholy, since it was the last couple of hours of a relaxed and wonderful vacation. Neither Oishi nor I was paying attention to the announcements in the train. At Western, the train stopped and a young girl, before getting down from the train, asked us, “Are you going to O’Hare?”
Oishi and I looked at each other and replied, “Yes.”
She smiled and said, “You have to get down here and take the bus and then the train again from Logan Square station. They are doing construction between Western and Logan Square.”
With a disbelieving look, we replied “Really?”
“Trust me. I am going to O’Hare too,” she said, and indicated for us to follow her.
Oishi sat down next to her in the train from Logan Square, and I asked her name. “Caitlin with a C. I am Irish.”
Within a few minutes, Oishi and Caitlin started talking as though they have known each other for a long time. I couldn’t help but take a picture of them. She stayed with us until we got to the airport and asked us whether we would be okay from there on. Oishi and I were touched by her caring attitude and decided to get her contact information. Hopefully they will stay in touch!
Besides Caitlin, there were many unnamed strangers who gave unsolicited directions upon watching two lost women holding an open map with nervous and wandering eyes. Help was right around the corner wherever we turned.
I highlighted only a few encounters with the kind and thoughtful Chicagoans during our seven-day trip to the city, while other countless considerate and selfless happenings made the trip an absolutely perfect vacation.
I cannot end this post without a hearty shout-out for the unequivocally entertaining Blue Man Group of Chicago.
“Mama, don’t come home from work before 4:50 PM,” Oishi texted me last Friday.
I texted back, “Okay,” and murmured to myself, “What is she up to now? Hope I will find the home in one piece.”
I came home when I was ordered to, but she did not allow me into the kitchen. Instead, I was ordered again to go to my bedroom upstairs.
After about half an hour, Oishi brought a plate full of delectable-looking and mouth-watering stuffed mushrooms. I was starving after the whole day, and the presentation was intensely appetizing. So, the plate was empty in seconds.
Embarrassed, I asked, “Why, mama?”
She simply shrugged and said, “Just wanted to make something special for you before going to Baba’s house.”
Oishi rarely cooks. Her cooking has been limited to heating soup and making omelet. Until recently, she was quite afraid of the stove. So I didn’t want her to cook on the stovetop when I was not around. Not only did she find a recipe which didn’t need a stove, only an oven, but she managed with whatever ingredients I had at home, and improvised and substituted some of them with her own ideas.
It was brilliant and delicious, but above all, it was a product of selfless love and thoughtfulness.