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?”

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

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

Kind and Thoughtful Chicagoans

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.

Sample brushes - a memento from bareMinerals
Sample brushes – a memento from bareMinerals


Oishi & Caitlin on our way to O'Hare
Oishi & Caitlin on our way to O’Hare

Sharmistha’s Book

From Late walker to Leader

Oishi took her time to take her well-thought out first steps. As a first-time mother, my stomach clenched up in knots every time a well-intentioned person, including my mother, asked me, “Is she walking yet?” Every weekend when I called home I dreaded my mother’s inquisition on Oishi’s walking skills and her futile attempts to speed up the process. One of those weekends she plainly commented, “I don’t understand this. You started walking when you were eight and a half months old.” I was feeling helpless with every passing day and was desperately hoping that she’d be walking before first birthday. But she didn’t.

I took my first trip to India with Oishi right after her first birthday. After a torturous twenty-hour plane journey and another four-hour train journey, when my mother saw Oishi after eight months (she was here for Oishi’s birth), she took Oishi from me, both thrilled to see us and worried that she still was not walking yet, and handed her to my limitlessly patient Baba, my father. She said, “I want to see her walking before she leaves India in three weeks.”

Baba held her two little hands every day and walked for hours in our home. However, one day Baba asked me, “Mamoni, why does she not want to walk when I hold her hands? She only walks when she can grab my index fingers. Otherwise she just sits down until she can do that.” I smiled and told Baba, “I think, she likes to be in control.” A couple of days before leaving, I was able to videotape Oishi’s first steps towards Baba, while Ma was screaming with joy in the background.

Last weekend, Oishi, petrified of public speaking, gave her Girl Scout Gold Award acceptance speech in an auditorium full of adults and children. She did not waver. She did not falter. She stood tall in front of more than a hundred people and gave her impeccable speech. Every intonation was perfect and rose to a level that left me and many others in awe. She spoke like a passionate leader.

While she uttered the last words, “Thank you,” the baby picture of Oishi directing my Baba about how she wants to take her first steps on this world crossed my mind and I thought with a grin, “I should have known!”

Oishi’s Girl Scout Gold Award Acceptance speech

Sharmistha’s Book

2013 At a Glance

As 2013 was winding down, I asked myself “Did the year go by fast or slow?” In trying to answer this simple question, I decided to jot down some thoughts which touched me, affected me or meant something to me in 2013.

I published my first book – a memoir about the journey of a small-town Indian immigrant woman from her childhood in an unknown town of India named Hindustan Cables Limited to the here and now. This ought to have been a very happy moment for me, but I was ambivalent. On one hand, I was thrilled and proud to have traveled this unknown path of ‘writing a memoir’ rarely traveled by other Indian immigrant women before. On the other hand, I was nervous and apprehensive about the reactions of people around me precisely for the reason I felt proud of myself.  The Indian immigrant community is a fairly private community, and it is incredibly difficult and uncomfortable to talk about our failures and pains (the memoir had a few of them) openly. So I did not expect anyone to read, let alone buy the book. However, many of my friends surprised me by buying several copies of the book and distributing it to other people, an act of unconditional love and kindness.

I took a long-awaited trip to India with my daughter after I became a single mother more than a year ago. Single motherhood was an unknown and terrifying concept to my parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. My mother did not have the courage to share her pain with any of her sisters until I landed in India this summer. I spent every minute of my ten-day trip shopping, dining, visiting family members, and even visiting my engineering college for the first time since I graduated two decades ago. At the airport, my parents gave me a teary farewell, but I knew they were more peaceful and courageous than when I first landed there.

Oishi started teaching math to the inner-city kids at Trenton this September as part of her Girl Scout Gold Award project. She teaches 5th and 6th graders at Urban Promise in a church setting. What started out mostly as a project for Oishi is morphing into a passion for teaching math. She had always enjoyed peer-tutoring or solving puzzles with my friends. But I see and hear a different Oishi when she shares her teaching stories with me. A more mature, responsible and passionate person. Hopefully, this is the beginning of something new and lasting in her life.

Now that Oishi is a junior in high school , we started visiting colleges. Every college visit was a mini-vacation for us when we got up early in the morning, ate breakfast outside, listened to the admissions officers talking the best about their colleges, participated in a tour given by an enthusiastic college student and finally wondering “Is this college right for us?” During these trips, I was acutely aware of the diminishing number of days Oishi will be home before she heads out to college and there were tears – both from joy of watching her grow into this smart, compassionate young lady and from the sadness of not being able to see her almost every day when she goes off to college.

Amidst all these, I heard about great losses in our community – kids losing both their parents one month apart and parents losing their child in car accident. The impacts of losses are amplified in small immigrant communities presumably because we do not have extended family support. But I witnessed an extremely compassionate community who came together during these trying times and offered unprecedented help to the affected family members. The message of hope was delivered when we least expected it.

Last but definitely not the least, I learned Thai cooking from a Thai chef. More than learning, I enjoyed cooking Thai food for 40 people in my home.  Thai Basil chicken, Cauliflower green curry, Pad Thai, Pineapple fried rice and Tom Yum Goong soup were a few of the dishes served to the guests. I will leave the readers with the thought of the wonderful aroma of Thai food augmented by lime leaves, basil leaves, Galangal and Lemongrass!

What better way to end a year than a beautiful, thoughtful and loving gift from Oishi. She collected Swagbucks Rewards points to get an Amazon gift card, which she used to get a turquoise jewelry set.

In the end, I declared that 2013 sped past me. While I learnt and grew throughout, I still have much more to learn and accomplish and eagerly look forward to a new year.

HOPE ALL YOUR DREAMS COME TRUE in 2014 and beyond… – Oishi and Sharmistha

Sharmistha’s Book

Turquoise jewelry from Oishi
Turquoise jewelry from Oishi