On Loving and Losing Weekends

I recently read the meandering meditations of Rebecca Solnit in her book A Field Guide To Getting Lost. A set of personal essays seeking the meaning of being lost, losing valued places, people and times, and on the sense of being lost in thoughts as well, the book was perfect bed time reading. What does one lose when we sleep? Apparently, during REM sleep our body is temporarily paralyzed which is why we do not move in reality even when we might move in our dream. We are truly lost to ourselves in the night-time, perhaps in a dark cavity filled with symbolism— of desires, dreams, fears and ambitions. What else could explain dreams? Weekends are, I think, the night-times at the weekly level.


It has been a little more than a year since I began my PhD research. Delving into the most darkest dystopias for my research, I have a newfound appreciation for everything simple and bright. How absolutely wonderful that we still have trees! Sunlight! Rain! To think that there could be worlds where there are incessant acid rains, surrogate slaves and a constantly spying government, or a perpetual motion machine that goes around a frozen world, is now just – work. When you take up a long-term project such as this, it is inevitable that it creeps into your time outside work, as well. I have found myself wondering about a possibility or an idea, even a brainwave that restructured an entire chapter, when I am least expecting it– such as in the middle of the night or when I am folding laundry. That is the process.


One day off a week is a useful system when doing a PhD. This has mostly meant that I am losing my weekends to research. One could argue that the post-pandemic flexibility in work timings has made it rather common for weekends to not be the relaxing time they once were. Given that weekends are indeed social constructs, it is only realistic that a global pandemic could also erase the social emphasis on weekends, just as it did with the expectation of working in offices. Could it be that we are witnessing the end of weekends? Or, is it just me?


As a child, weekends for me meant time spent at my ancestral home with grandparents and cousins. Every Friday evening, my parents would drive my sister and me to my father’s house in rural Kerala, a one hour drive away from the mild bustle of Calicut city. My grandfather, adamant as he still is, would open the gate himself and our car would be parked. My grandmother would insist that I wear at least a necklace, or that my sister wear a bindi. My grandfather would ask about school. After the cursory tea and seasonal snacks, my sister and I would slip away to my cousins’ house next door to announce our arrival.


Growing up, visiting my relatives meant being back in the thick of the action. There would be political arguments between my uncles and my grandfather, heated discussion on what someone implied at a recent social event, a nostalgic foray about the past and some quiet afternoon siestas. Those weekends were what I looked forward to after long weeks at school. During the summer, there would be extended time spent with my grandparents. My cousins and I would be busy building our little makeshift hut in the backyard. It was our private hangout complete with a mini-fan, a mirror and some magazines. The perfect getaway from the adults.
By the time I was in high school, these visits began to get harder to schedule. I had weekend tuitions and my sister had her dance classes. My cousins seem to grow quite rapidly during our time away. Weekends were now already a semi-free time with extra demands from school. But that also came with excitement in tuition classes and other events. In college at Buffalo, weekends meant trips to get Indian food. The best haunt was a Pakistani restaurant called Zaiqa with excellent naan sprinkled with sesame seeds. It was on the way to Niagara Falls which meant my friends and I also visited the tourist haunt every other weekend. I consider myself lucky to witness the roaring majesty of the waters of Niagara, to hear it thunder down. You always hear it first before you see it.


Now, weekends are just time to catch up on chores. To do laundry. To plan meals. To order groceries. To buy cat treats. To cook fancier dishes. To read just for pleasure.


Maybe I already lost my weekends to adulthood even before research happened. Or maybe it all just happened at the same time.


But is it not hopeful that for centuries now, humans have just collectively agreed to have two days off a week from work? I know there are exceptions – obviously – but it just says something about humanity that we follow this norm across cultures. It is simply indicative of our collective need to rest. To recuperate. To just be.


I hope this is not the beginning of losing weekends. I like to think that back home there are kids playing cricket on the grounds and closer to Leeds, families having picnics out in the parks. I like to think that some child somewhere is excited to visit their cousins during the weekend. That some teacher somewhere is glad to take a hike and get away from the classroom. I also like to think that at some point, I would enjoy my weekends just as they are, chores and all. I hope you do too.

Top 3 – My List of Bizarre things about America

In two days, I’ll be back in Buffalo, New York for my very last semester at UB. Before I bid goodbye to America in December, life abroad until now warranties a reality check.

Although there have been many things that have astonished, shocked, bewildered – well you get the idea – my delicate (ahem) late-teenage self, nothing has brought recurring waves of culture shock to my veins more than the following facts. They are bizarre because of the absence of the familiar, because a Malayali girl, brought up in Kerala craves for porotta more than a Subway special; wants to burst crackers for Vishu rather than see fireworks from a distance during Fall Fest.

This is for you Athira, you silly Malayali girl.

 

1. Ask an American what a jackfruit is. (November 2012)

It's not about the tool, but the skill...
It’s not about the tool, but the skill…

In my sophomore year, I was cleaning and carving a pumpkin for Halloween with friends, under the supervision of my lovely roommate Audrey. I happened to mention how people usually work hard to clean and sort out jackfruits in Kerala. Audrey had no idea what I was talking about! It had taken me more than a year and a blank look from her to realize that I’m in a really bizarre place, to which jackfruits are not native…

Look at those thorny beauties.
Look at those thorny beauties.

The beloved chakka growing in our backyards and smelling like sweet fruity rotten flowery rubber, has no existence in America.

2. Zebra Crossing? Nope, crosswalks.(January 2014)

During my Study Abroad program in London, I noticed my American friends from UB were baffled when I walked through a Zebra Crossing and the vehicles just stopped. One of them exclaimed “It’s like magic!”

The Beatles probably preferred Zebra Crossings too.
The Beatles probably preferred Zebra Crossings too.

 

They got used to it later, but the look on their faces was priceless. India being an astute follower of the English system, (you’d be surprised how much of the British we still retain) Zebra Crossings appear even in primary school textbooks here!

I still cannot BELIEVE that I didn’t notice the absence of Zebra Crossings in America! The crosswalks simply exist for crossing while the traffic signal allows pedestrians to walk. What is the point of that, really? More info on Zebra Crossings here and Crosswalks here.

3. Strikes are almost non existent. Even illegal. (April 2014)

Yes, you can read that again. In my class called Global Realism with Prof. Holstun and some wonderful classmates, someone mentioned how most employees in various states – railway, airline, teachers – are banned from organizing or participating in strikes. I had to blurt out aloud and check if I had heard it right. My surprise seemed to have embarrassed them.

Supermarket Strike in Washington State.
Supermarket Strike in Washington State.

Banning strikes is a surprising concept to me. Socialist thought runs in the veins of many Keralites and we hold our right to enjoy hartals very close indeed! I missed the hartals. Here’s a hilarious article on Kerala’s fascination with strikes.

hartal-tree-hosue-lil-1

Not that I’m a big fan of unnecessary strikes, but I don’t believe a ban is good either. For more details on strike bans in the US, click here. My naivety denied me from foreseeing this fact, but I should have known the capitalist capital of the world would have some form of control over labor strikes. Oh well.

This is just part one of my pre-college-closure reality check. The next Top Three list will be up soon! Please wish me a jet-lag free week ahead.

For the love of Porotta

Kerala-Porotta

For 3 years I have refrained from blogging about Indian food that I miss while I’m in Amrika, so much so that the repressed food nostalgia began popping up in my poetry. That tradition ends now.

The culprit is Kerala Porotta. First of all it’s porotta, not paratha. (If you’re saying it wrong then correct yourself now or don’t read further). Porottas are our pride, the layered delicacy which is a part of an average Malayali’s diet for reasons that defy logic. Is it because they are healthy? Hell no. Is it because they are easy to make? NOPE. Does it have anything to do with the seasonal peculiarities of our little coastal state? I don’t think so. But we love it. It could be the hot smell wafting from freshly home -delivered porottas or their whiff while you’re walking near Paragon Hotel. Or the sight of them with a spicy side dish. Or just the right blend of crispiness and rubbery-ness. Or the joy of breaking a piece with your hand and feeding the appetite of your senses. Or everything. Like I said, the reasons defy logic. P for porottas, P for poetry and no place for logic. A day laborer to a businessman enjoys his share of porottas. And no wonder they are popular. Easily accessible in thattukadas for cheap prices, hotels for moderate prices and five star restaurants for ridiculous prices. In fact, it is an eat-out dish. All Malayalis eat porottas but a precious few actually make them. DId you know a porotta-cook can earn upto 1000 Rs. a day? No wonder Dulquer was trying so hard in “Ustad Hotel”!

If you ever have a tendency to compare Malabari porottas, that love-child of Malappuram pathiris and the sheer creativity of Keralites, to North Indian aloo parathas, please refrain. Granted the stuffed parathas might be nutritive, spicy and even heavier, but what really beats the unique texture and taste of Kerala porottas? Nothing! Nothing from mexican tortillas to rotis, from dosas to pancakes, from pita bread to naan bread – nothing matches the pride of Kerala.

Porottas are hard to find in America. You can find Biriyani, rotis, naans – even dosas and idlis– but porottas are rare, people. Value them. I’ve been grabbing every chance I get this summer to gobble up porottas. I’m not even kidding – free treats from friends, home deliveries when the kitchen deserves rest, lunches, dinners – it’s been porotta. (I know my carnivorous friends might be thinking “What did you even eat it with? Kadalakkari?” but cut me some slack – Let us unite in our porotta love! FYI, I ate it with Mushroom Masala). Also, because I’m a Googler just like you and because I like this site’s name here’s a Kerala porotta recipe for you – ttp://www.kothiyavunu.com/2009/10/kerela-parotta.html . Some day, maybe I’ll make some too.

There are exactly 23 days remaining for me to find and eat some more porottas. Feel free to buy me some, kind reader.

Obama-Talk

So I heard the US President speak. Those of who have had enough from my Facebook newsfeed in the last 24 hours and want to tell me to shut the hell up about it already, I’m sorry. But this is the one last time I’ll be ranting about it. Rather than the little details of how UB was swarming with cops and how there were identical cars and what an expensive ride his bus was, I think it’s time to reflect on the thoughts I had about the man and his speech itself.

I was on cloud nine when I heard of his visit for two reasons- 1) The most powerful man (fortunately or unfortunately) in the world was visiting my University and 2) I could actually hear him speak in person after having admired his oratory skills ever since he first got elected as the President. That was it. I definitely do not agree with every damn economic or immigration or foreign policy of his Government or think highly about the recent revelations about the NSA snooping around everyone’s Inbox. I do not think that America has any right to send missiles and install military bases all over the world. I certainly don’t think that a display of such armed aggressiveness is doing any good to improve non-Americans’ opinions about the U.S.
My excitement was simply because I could hear Barack Obama speak. The man who became the first ever President of African American descent, who never fails to talk about his family in every other speech he makes and who’s genuine deep voice first gave me goosebumps when he talked about the ‘new era of responsibility’ in 2008. The man who’s book ‘The Audacity of Hope’ I read with earnestness but sadly gave up because I was too young and unfamiliar with the political jargon of the West. The man who’s visit to India I keenly followed and who’s political face I was oblivious to..

The speech was clear and crisp. It was all about cutting college costs. He explained the problem and then proposed three ways to cut college costs and help students pay their debts. I’m only sad that he didn’t mention the International students at all, UB being a premier institution for foreign students. But then, like my friend pointed out, International students don’t vote in America.

Before the speech started I wondered if I’d have lined up at 4 am to hear an Indian President speak. Fact is I would have, had it been someone like APJ Abdul Kalam. Currently however I’m sad to confess that I wouldn’t be motivated to go for a speech by any Indian politician (assuming that they even make one; I’d be surprised to even see Pranab Mukherjee or Manmohan Singh visiting a college or making speeches about relevant issues). Kalam was at least an inspiration. His talks were engaging and worth listening to. Hailing from very humble backgrounds in Rameshwaram and making it big with his genius and hard work, Kalam could be the only Indian to give Obama a run for his money. But he’s not the President any more and I doubt whether the rookies of Indian politics will ever let Kalam take the reins again. This, I speak personally of course reflecting on how I respect hard work and the ability to overcome inevitable hurdles in life. I feel that Barack Obama is inspiring enough to be a great leader with more insight and plans than action. More talk, than duty? Maybe. But if you can hear the talk that’s good (and free) then why not go for it ?

Also, I liked seeing how the people in Buffalo were excited to see their President. I also observed how many of my American friends were critical about his speech especially in the light of the economic crisis. Later people who were initially hyped up about his visit pretended to not care as much and those who were skeptical about it made sure they got tickets. What do we learn from this? That (like my Amma says) if there are three people talking, they’re bound to have five different opinions. Touche. 

UB Protests – Perspective of a Pro-lifer

Yes, I’m against abortion. But this is not a post justifying my opinion on this touchy subject. This is about how the Pro-Life club (which I was a part of, in my Freshman year) shocked and disgusted many UB students with gruesome displays, how a Professor got arrested for “profane” language and how the distressed students responded to the Club’s exercise of “freedom of expression”.

Genocide Awareness Project( GAP) display organized by the Pro-Life Club

The reason I quit UB Students for Life was that I felt it was becoming less of an educative club and more of a political one. I expected more of advocating people about abortion and the consequences of it, but found almost none. I began to question myself whether the main aims of the club was to become controversial and be in the news or to conduct reasonable events that spread the Pro-life ideology. The trip to Washington for the National Pro-Life March, convinced me that my personal stand against abortion was right. But did I have the right to enforce my opinion on other women? I thought not.

Even though I quit the club, I remained Pro-Life. But I believe that the Genocide Awareness Project (which I knew about from the Club meetings back when it was still a ‘long term-goal’) is not a prudent way to spread the Pro-life message. Comparing abortion to holocaust and publicizing statistics using attention-gathering ugliness is NOT how you could possibly convince people that there are better options than abortion. All that GAP does is enrage the highly-liberal student population and gather more hatred towards the whole Pro-life movement. It would only traumatize the people who have already exercised their “Choice” and make them feel like murderers. It would only cause people to remember the Pro-Life Club for atrocious images rather than for  raising funds for a Day Care center or conducting a seminar about the health hazards of abortion. It would only block the way for people who don’t really care about the whole issue, because a lot of students really DON’T care. It would only heat up the campus. And yes, it was a chaos outside SU today.

Protest against the Displays led by Amnesty International

Such horrific images of abortion are not however unseen or unheard of. I’m sure people who scroll down Facebook idly or surf the internet in general come across equally or even more disgusting images. Besides we’ve had pictures of holocaust in our textbooks and reference books! But the display of a bloody fetus, thrust into people’s faces at the Student Union when they would have been walking to their first class in the morning was uncalled for. In fact, that is not a part of the whole Pro-life message at all. Making use of the ‘disgusting-them-out-of-if’ strategy in the hope to solve a scientifically and logically supportable issue would only welcome distrust. The Pro-life side also involves people like me who might be hesitant to see such a personal topic becoming a political controversy. Could there be no middle ground between the extremes? I  believe the Club was insensitive to the student population and to the people who have already had an abortion. I remember one of their goals was to counsel people who have already gone through the abortion process. How do they intend to do that with such displays, I do not know.

I was glad that there were more people today protesting against the display. I was glad that the arrest of the Professor who yelled “That image is FUCKING profane!” made the headlines. She set an example to incite many more students who saw how using the F word could be “breaking the law” on an American college campus.What made her cooler was her adding “Could you please tell my 1 pm class that I got arrested?”- when she was handcuffed and led away by Campus Police.

Coming Thursday, there will be a Pro-Life debate on campus. I’m sure the Pro-Life club will have some preparation to do to answer the enraged students.
On a lighter note, its definitely a bizarre diversion from exams. 🙂