Wednesday, May 15, 2013

EDUCATING Z - Chapters - 21-25

            “The actions speak so loud I can’t hear a word,” thought Z as she went over in her mind the fragments she’d heard about HWMBF over the year. “One can only make so many assumptions based on next to nothing so one ought to forget all about trying to read two tea leaves to decode a lifetime.” The Voice and Ma had been silent the rest of the year after a few spectacular prophecies.
            Home for the summer she began looking for employment and was not very happy with the job she’d found. And she couldn’t find another so she stayed with it. Family was beginning to get on her case a lot lately. Aunts told her she’d better get used to the real world. It shows one ones real worth. She did not look the part to secure a halfway decent job or snag a rich husband. There was no real hope for her future so she ought to appreciate all the comforts at her father’s house before she left it for good.
            Life was a drag but there was the paycheck and the company of friends and the feeling of security being “home”.
            Something had changed - it was perhaps the way the wind blew or the way the river flowed or the point in the horizon where the sun rose or the mirror in her room that had cracked from side to side or the one in her mind that she carried around everywhere she went. In the vast extended family of fifty or more blood relations that lived near one another and visited each other all the time she was not good enough for anybody she met from the time she woke up in the morning to the time she went to bed. The subjects she’d picked at college would make her an unemployable waste of space for the rest of her life she was told. Her temperament, she was told, as well as her complete lack of talent and perseverance, would ensure she’d get fired the first week of work. If she ever did get married he’d probably be struggling all his life to put food on the table so she’d better get used to wearing plastic flip flops all her life. And with that face and ratty hairdo and excess weight and no sense of what to wear she’d be lucky any one would look at her long enough to marry her or even notice her in the first place. Daddy did not think very differently either. He even went so far one day, sipping a ♫ rum and Coca Cola ♫ to tide him over a dark phase dealing with some ♫ shame and scandal in the family ♫ of his new in-laws or outlaws as preferred to call them, to tell her,♫” If you want to be happy living a Queen Life marry a man uglier than you♫. Better safe than sorry.”
“Queen Life indeed,” thought Z. ”This stinks. Ever since Daddy‘s linked his lot with that Mrs Malaprop his syntax and grammar are shot. You can always tell a man by the books he reads and the company he keeps.”
The saddest change that had come about in Daddy was that he no longer saw himself as a part of the extended family, hated the kids, cast aspersions on the capabilities of the boys in the family, lost no opportunity to question the morals of the girls in the family. It was getting rather difficult to just be in the same room as him.
Auntie S thought the world of her but she was a person who was born to be a mother and loved all the children in the family the same.
            It hurt at first but then it began to make complete sense. Ma left. HWMBF did not know her name. All her family was a chorus. Her boss hated her. An aunt went, “How will you ever attract a man with that long hair and 1950’s figure? Girls these days are very slender and have short hair and are tall. Look at my daughter. That’s how you should look. Let’s go get you a real hair style,” and drove her to three hair salons all of which refused to cut Z’s long hair anymore than just a trim because they said a lot of people come in wanting a drastic change but regretted it right away and wept or raged or sued. They asked her to go short in five or six instalments over as many months. Even with all the running around, dance lesson and practice included Z would never be slender. She was born to have curves. And an extra cup of popcorn or an extra piece of candy magically morphed into an extra pound on her which she found completely maddening. Z hated herself in the mirror by now. All she saw was a pudgy tired slob who needed to shave her legs just like her aunts did. Her aunts never missed the opportunity to point out a stray hair or two on her skin anytime they were within pointing distance. All those years of taunting had added up to a hefty sum of loathing, with Z being who she was, directed inward. Ma had been a poor role model in this that she had not known how to see through attacks such as these and nip them in the bud. Z might have learned this elsewhere given how gregarious she was but somehow she never picked up on that little survival skill in all her interactions with a million people. She had been told to respect her elders and just did it without checking first to see if they had earned it. Little did she know that giving useless people power over you makes them go insane and murderously dangerous. Snow White’s step mother wanted her killed as soon as an inanimate object declared her more beautiful than the Queen. Hello!
                        The newest bogey men being sent to Z to send shivers down Z’s spine were, “Who will ever marry you if they find out if your mother wasn’t quite Bengali, her mother a Brahmo, her grandmother a Pir Ali Brahmin. Girl you are barely a Bengali, more a mongrel, and with your grandmothers being sisters you are born of incest. Then your mother had to go die of a dirty rare disease. Anybody who saw her like that would never marry you for fear that you and your children might carry that gene.” Z forgot to ask them if they were born of the same mother as her father why they weren’t mongrels as well. Both aunts had married into families where it was the norm to marry first cousins and their in-laws were all related by blood in complicated connections only they could understand. It was the norm in southern India to marry one’s uncle, or maternal aunt’s son. People had done that for centuries. Their kids were fine, Z’s precious cousins, smart strong healthy beautiful exceptionally talented kids who with a little nurturing would blossom into great athletes, maybe movie stars, industrialists anything. This was a bright wired bunch. The potential was there. If only their parents could see it. She had not learned to question authority yet. And might they not also be carrying the gene for scleroderma? The most unkindest cut of all came from Daddy, “The puppies this year at my friend’s kennel are not quite healthy or good looking so he’s trying to give them away for free. I asked him why that had happened. He said, too much incest, “and smiled as Z cringed and the step mother smiled broadly, both enjoying Z’s heartbreak. The aunt with the hair obsession chimed in with, “Why have you not learned to give yourself to a man? That just hasn’t flowered in you. You have to show society you are warm blooded and welcoming or you look cold and frigid. No wonder no man wants to marry you.” Now that drew some ire from Daddy. He glowered at his sister and changed the subject. These were the very same sisters who had lived in a home built mainly out of Ma’s inheritance and been married with the same money, trousseau, jewelry, pomp, priest, banquet all.
            The tribe in their tribal wisdom born of fear and hatred had found the poison for their peach, the cancer for the cure, the sacrificial lamb who had volunteered to wash their sins with her blood, and had with astounding success most perfectly matched the hex and the single girl who had only asked if she could possibly, if time and circumstance permitted, please, O pretty please with sugar on top, be told the meaning of life.
            One evening as always, while the elders of the tribe segregated by gender, the males drinking an upgrade of hooch, and smoking several upgrades of the rolled up tobacco leaf talked each other down, and the women toiled in the kitchen and played their own version of Chinese Whispers with a twist that involved salad knives and the occasional steak knife, Z was left in charge of her little cousins. They played Cowboys and Indians until each little one hungry and tired went up to his mother and asked for supper or a cookie ♫and then there were none. ♫
 With a little time and space to herself and a bowl full of mixed nuts to assuage the growl in the pit of her stomach, the fire in the belly, she observed the happiness quotient of this enactment of communal harmony. “I hope I find a better way,” she thought to herself. “And truth be told there is nothing to learn here anymore. I can run a house and climb trees as good as any in here. All I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten. Bo Peep has lost her sheep and doesn’t know where to find them.”
            If she had gotten up and looked she would have at least found the one little lamb that was being fattened for the sheesh kabobs the tribe was craving. Yes Virginia, it is possible to be so dumb you can’t find your own backside with your own bare hands.


            A mythic chasm had started to open under Z between who she was and who she really wanted to be, and what she wanted her life to look like and what it really looked like. She put all her trust in this thing called Life and got busy everyday doing this and that and loved the results.
            The chasm got wider and deeper all the while and Miss Elastigirl stretched further and further to bridge the gap. Until one day she decided to explore the chasm and see what was in it. The first thing out of her mouth was a four-letter word. She covered her mouth reeling from the sound of profanity that she had despised all her life. Her face stung with shame but her body felt a surge of power that surprised her. She felt…good?? A sly shy smile came over her lips. In an instant she knew why Ma couldn’t face life and Daddy was robust despite all his misfortunes and ungoverned habits. The secret was concealed in the gaps between the one vowel and three consonants of a very special word. “But I can tell no one. I’ll keep this to myself and it’ll be my silent solace when I’m angry or surprised, bothersome times that always catch me off-guard. I’ll never be a sailor mouth like Daddy. Like Ma, when things get really, really hairy, I’ll say, ‘Oh dear.’ Classy Ma.”
            In the abyss she found she had one guiding light, and just one, motherhood or the hope of it. “But I have things backwards here. ♫First comes marriage, then the baby carriage.” ♫ She couldn’t believe she was thinking what she was thinking and had this vision of herself watching herself thinking. She knew she had to snap out of it and get to dinner if she didn’t want to eat alone.
            Miss Z couldn’t sleep that night. She had a mythic abyss to explore that contained unusual monsters and treasures in unexpected places. Morning happened and off she went to class. About noon in a hallway in the English Department she was waylaid by the Colonial Studies teacher demanding, “So how many weeks is it going to take you to pick up Vaidehi and Ashaad Ka Ek Din? They’re cluttering up my desk. Your paper’s due in five days.” Z had been avoiding writing this assignment while looking to find something else to write on, but here she was face to face with a formidable guru. The gift of obedience not gone to waste Z took the materials, bowed obsequiously, and left too embarrassed to accept an invitation to a homemade lunch of khichdi.
            The abyss was her favorite place to be after a day of studying. Among other things she’d figured out in her nineteen years was that life wouldn’t begin in another four years, nor would it end in another four, this was a long haul, one that lasted as long as you could breathe. It was going to be fairly important to figure out how she would like to spend all of her waking hours. “You’re asleep for a third of your life anyways, you get through the business of living for roughly another third, it’s the leftover third that you have to consciously make up your mind up about. You had better be doing something you feel like doing or you’re dead. In the darkness of this abyss lies the path to that third, the all-important third of my woebegone life.”
Friends invited her on their capers but she said she felt she was drunk enough on life itself and needed no upgrades at this point. She got some plenty ribbing for that,“What are you, a Spartan nun?” The boys she met quickly fell into one of four categories – brothers, buddies, mentors and GBF’S. They treated her like one of the blokes and gave her the respect they’d give a lady, never crossing the line on any count. She had found a band of sisters as well, as she had in school. She found out in the very first week that on the hookup circuit, however, the female of the species is deadlier than the male and was sickened by the observation. Why had Ma neglected to inform her of this dangerously important stuff? She knew she was headed for college. Maybe she didn’t know. ♫ Only the good die young. ♫ 
Z, never one to call her constantly irritable Daddy with little complaints or “Hello, how are you’ s”  because he did not really like to hear from her, having a lot of trouble adjusting to his new marriage, she refrained from talking to him about ’what next?’ Her friends had all pretty much figured out their way through life and she did not really learn anything about how they had arrived at their personal conclusions because it seemed to her things just fell in place for each one. Once again she trusted Life to do the same for her.
Finals were at hand and a fever had gripped the university. Stress was showing up in strange masks. The scariest was one evening at seven walking back from the studio a group of very drunk boys in a convertible drove too close to her laughing like hyenas as she balked and jumped. When she finally calmed down it was nine-thirty and out of a real need for reassurance, Daddy being hundreds of miles away anyway, she called him hoping to hear him say he was concerned. His reaction was,“ So why were you walking the streets alone after dark?” Click.
And with that hurtful sentence a parent-child bond was severed.
Free of all connections to childhood Z began to explore the abyss to see where it went, further and further away from her childhood home back east that had morphed into a monster house in a kingdom from where hearts had been banished. For now it just went darker and deeper and she couldn’t stop walking, walking fast, and then faster, as her need for speed in this zone of dragons and dungeons became insatiable. She went sonic on her monster hunt doing away with the bugaboos of the mind and developed a predilection for the loneliness of the long distance runner, except she was a rebel with a cause. She fancied herself a seeker - halo, heavenly sword and all - in a fable from the Brain Age civilization, whose quest was for noesis as opposed to perception. She fell. Humpty Dumpty was pushed. Her concepts of Self Other Space Time shattered and scattered in an untidy amorphous heap, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to her concept of reality unto this day. But perhaps this was her new reality, her new normal. She just hadn’t been ready for it when it arrived.

23.  ♫ I  AM  WHAT  I  AM ♫

            Clueless about sexual politics, never having been allowed to date, as is the case with a lot of south Asians, Z navigated the dating scene by using the politically appropriate “my religion does not allow it” ruse and it served her well. She’d watched older cousins get into scrapes she wanted no part of. The theatrics made her sick. A broken heart was something she knew she’d despise so why bother. Like Ma, Thakuma, Dida, one would just wait to walk around the sacred fire seven times and then hand over one’s ticker. Simple plan. Couldn’t be easier to execute. But then, we already know how useless plans are. She never talks about that little episode of absurdity with another living soul but somehow her friends are asking probing questions like, ”Is there someone in your life?” or the even more bizarre,” Are you engaged?”, and it freaks her out each time. She is afraid they can look inside her head.
            That actually had always been one of life’s most intriguing questions for Z. Ever since she had watched her first movie, or tenth, she’d had wondered, if you could plug a movie screen to a human head, what would you see??????
            She voiced that thought a few times shooting the breeze with friends and it earned her laughs like no other joke ever did, not even the smuttiest. She never really could understand why though.
            Through middle school and high school there was none of the pressure to impress or to please a man and from the looks of it, her life was as simple as an abacus, or the A B C’s as far as the romance department was concerned. It had left her hours to read and to practice her music and yakity yak and stare into space. One did not consider having a passing crush on a passing rock star a romantic development, at least not to Z, or any of her sensible shipmates.
            College was a new deal. By the middle of freshman year she had hardly any one to hang out with most evenings. The girls were either studying or spending quality time with their significant others. She’d end up in the library every night with the other studious types. Until one day she was dying to find some company to go to the classical music extravaganza in downtown with. She found a kindred spirit through some serious networking, a perfect gentleman, quasi genius, her first GBF. They were peas in a pod whereas taste in music and literature were concerned.
 It was five evenings of pure classical music heaven. And she wasn’t afraid to take the train or bus or walk through dark streets since she wasn’t alone. Her new friend and she had talked through all the commuting like they’d known each other for years, with never an awkward moment, except….
Like most concerts, these concerts didn’t end until late into the night. As luck would have it she’d lost the key to her room and hadn’t had the time all week to get another. With her roommate being gone most nights she couldn’t get in her room without the roommate’s key, which had to be left in a safe place. That safe place, her roommate insisted, was on the nightstand of her lab partner, a very butch, very out of the closet gal. Z was not prejudiced but just uneasy about knocking on her door past midnight five nights in a row saying she was locked out of her room. She needn’t have worried. GBF and butch gal next door knew one another well, having woken up one another in the middle of the night a few times before, for a quick loan of pot and paraphernalia. When she insisted he wait until she had locked her door behind her he had given her a funny look, like ,”How paranoid are you?”  But when she walked past her room up to butch neighbor’s door and stood there looking pretty in pink pondering, “To knock or not to knock”, he asked what her predicament might be. She said her roommate had left the sole key to the room on ‘her’ nightstand. He was suddenly in savior mode. He took charge of the situation and did the same the following four nights, never making Z feel stupid. Over the course of the week they all became friends of course and Z relaxed, and discovered she’d had a lesson in social niceties she had never had before.
“If getting away from home hadn’t included so many ennobling experiences I might not have valued freedom as much,” Z thought.


            “There are so many ways to look at the exact same thing. Can’t count the ways to skin a cat, can we? We dressed in our renaissance look-alike peasant blouses and jeans and curled our hair like Juliet’s to go to Shakespeare at the park, a rite of passage I’m told, and came back having left something behind at the venue, each of us of the sisterhood,” thought Z putting her bracelets and earrings back in their boxes. Getting rid of the mascara was the next thing on the list. “There’s no shame in crying when people die.”
            The kiss of death had left an impression no amount of washing would wash away. Wishing did nothing either. A hush fell over the dorm despite being almost Saturday. Not one of the Freshmen Five as they were known to the rest of the dorm was asleep yet and one by one they gathered in the screened porch that was a makeshift kitchen. Anyone paying attention would’ve noticed right away these kids had wider eyes, ghostlier lips and paler brows now than all semester.
            They had bonded over late night pizza, manicures, spell-checking term papers for one another, and Chuck Norris jokes, but something unusual had happened tonight. Each had showed up almost by compulsion, like moths drawn to a flame, to be part of this family far from home on a night when the tragedies of Romeo, Juliet, Tybalt, Mercutio, Lady Montague, Count Paris and all those who grieved them became too much to bear in the quiet of the night. The solitude of falling asleep brings on angst tucked away in concealed places in the psyche on many, many nights. Somehow on this night that angst was too much to bear alone. The ones with a fondness for annihilation by spirits felt no pull toward the refrigerator door to pull out a wine cooler or hops. This was something that couldn’t be washed away, this mark from the kiss of death.
            They started talking about how cute Romeo was and how funny Mercutio was and by and by they started to unravel from the depths of their souls the real reasons they were here on this night. Death had touched every family at some point and left its imprint in a unique way with each of its special kisses. Great grand parents had passed on so had babies in the womb. Each had a story that brought them closer in one night than a year of picnics alone would have, in a strange, sad, wistful way.
            Too young to see dispassionately that dying is a part of life it affected them in a raw, all the way to the marrow in their bones kind of way; a “something’s rotten in the state of Denmark kind of way . The stories are common enough in the larger world so they are not for telling in this text. But to each young heart caught up in the limited scope of its young life the pain was gruesome. Some knew the purpose of that pain in their lives. Some knew more was on the way. Some knew how to deal with it and some didn’t quite as well.
            Z had this cold awful feeling of seeing Death waiting in the wings. Soon after Ma had died Thakuma had lost all three of her surviving siblings in a space of four months. Why that must happen is a question no one can answer. “We’ll meet again in another life”, she consoled herself.
            Over the year there would be a young friend and a favorite aunt who would choose to make their exits on their own terms. There would be lives lost to reckless behavior. One to irrational crime. “Why? Why can’t we just live normal lives?” would be a question that would weigh heavily on her heart.
Too young again to see death as a metaphor for change they took the sad, sad storeo of Romeo and his girlio literally. Perhaps there was in that story not an irrevocable finality but simply the ending of a chapter in the human experience. If there is life after death maybe the bard should’ve left a couple of clues in the closing scene about such a possibility.

25.  ROOTS
            Stepping out of the familiar zones of family, home, hometown, classical music, had encouraged Z to be more accepting of new thought, new horizons, new everything. And yet she wanted more than ever to see how these new horizons had been arrived at. In other words, she was more curious about her roots than ever before. In an effort to understand the primordial soup aka the Indian subcontinent she joined the cultural association of students run by students of Indian origin. She had noooooo idea that the subcontinent was like a continent in itself. Forty different languages, five distinct religions, several ethnicities, at last count, and she was amazed at the diversity of India. On her two trips to Calcutta and Dhaka this fact hadn’t made an impression on her. She had been too overwhelmed by the heat and the crowdedness and newness, or too young, or both.
Growing up she had learned about Durga Puja, Mahalaya, the right way to make shandesh, and all things Bengali and had been sadly tainted by the cultural elitism of the nose-to-the-grindstone overachieving clan she came from. Satyajit Ray was it, and Hrishikesh Da was as far as her family would venture into Bollywood. She had loved “Apur Sansar” and “Chupke Chupke” among other brilliant stories that they had told, but there was plenty to be said in favor of the Bally Sagoo, Gurdas Maan, Runa Laila and Garba songs that were a riot at every Indian get-together. Somewhere around that time she found a store that rented Hindi movies and discovered Bollywood gems like “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron”, “Guide”, “Aashirwaad”, “Baazaar”, “Mandi”, “Bemisaal”, “Jaagte Raho”, “Mera Naam Joker”, “Teesri Kasam”, “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak”, “Amar Akbar Antony”, “Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi”. The variety was amazing. After years of getting her ears finely tuned to the nuances of different languages and the music of the legends her ears picked up on the simplicity of the three note “Hum the woh thi aur samaa rangeen samajh gaye na, jate the Jaapaan pahooch gaye Cheen samajh gaye na.” and the simplicity was exhilarating. She hummed that song until she thought she was going loco. She needed a new song! But that would come after long silence, expressing the inexpressible, looking for what was good and praising it.
Right about then she was gaining a vocabulary on race, gender, class, hegemony, macrocosms and such. Patterns began to hazily appear and disappear, and before she could decide whether they existed or not, they were gone, subsumed by the familiar, the dominant, the accepted version of things her generation had accepted as reality. One thing remained, a faint feeling, that white people were getting a bad rap for colonizing the world, using up other peoples’ resources and curtailing their freedoms, and dark skinned people were getting a bad rap for being too close to nature, incapable of governing themselves as modern man ought to be able to. To her it looked like over time there were good results and bad results from the colonial period, depending on whether you the judge are an optimist or a pessimist. There were atrocities. And there was progress. “That is how history played out at that time and that line of thinking has a legitimate place in the study of world history. The caste system in the Indian subcontinent seems to have had similar origins. The imbalances are correcting themselves, however slowly. So long as we are headed in the right direction we’re doing okay. If you want to witness colonization of the weak and a usurping of their resources and freedoms you could’ve come to my home for thanksgiving and you would’ve seen it all in fast forward and in monochromatic monolingual sepia. You’d see with your own two eyes ♫it don’t matter if you’re black or white.♫ All that counts is whether you are filled with love or if you are filled with hate. When are we going to take a step or three in the right direction? In the last year my stepmother and a couple of aunts have done just that to the rest of us. We are ‘less’ in everyway in their nomenclature of us. They work no jobs, have no hobbies, no long term friends, no laurels to rest on, a skeleton or two dangling in their closets, but as soon as anybody enters the room, they hand out a compliment followed by a list of inadequacies real or imagined. They taunt and scheme like Scar, and then cry and howl at any insinuation that they are untruthful. They tell their lies a thousand times until it becomes the truth, and parade their half truths as facts. They identify and isolate an honest, decent, weak one like Simba, load him up with guilt, shame, a muster roll of his powerful enemies, and a gross magnification of his shortcomings, and a war of attrition begins. Those of us who shun such behavior give up the fight and move on to some endeavor we think is worthwhile. We look like losers and don’t even know it. Yes we ‘losers’ have impeccable and inane reputations, ‘the pretty one’, ‘the talented one’, the sweet one’, ‘the good housewife’, ‘power couple’, but we’re hurting like crazy. They allocate status, money, time, affection as they please to the rest of us. And if you look closely, the kinder, gentler amongst us are getting less and less of a voice in group decisions, like to sell or not to sell the condos the family owns. The bitterness generated by the cross fire between those who are fair and those who want more than their fair share is eating away at the foundations of this family. And all it took was one deceitful and greedy person with no scruples and a strong will to step over the threshold. Deceit and greed are replacing decency so fast, I wonder what winter break is going to feel like at home? Maybe I should find me a job that keeps me busy all day long.”
The loss of continuity caused by displacement, caused by simply going off to college, or by becoming a Christopher Columbus headed for the other side of the world, or by hitchhiking through the universe, or by being born among peoples following antelope post an ice age, causes a shift in perception. The world ain’t flat any more. Parallax becomes an issue, memory too, as are value systems. One cannot erase ones history, only learn from it, first by embracing it, then seeing it plain and whole. Simplicity is hard to master, even harder to arrive at, in such impassioned ideals as identity, fairness, truth, honesty. But in every muddlemess we all know whose heart is in the right place and whose isn’t, don’t we?

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