Aug 3, 2017

Giggly fathers

The VCR whirred into life at the exact moment when my mother had overpowered my father. He was lying on his back, trying (and failing) to defend himself from her tickle-happy fingers. The camera jiggled in my brother’s hand as he shook with laughter.

My brother had returned home to Kolkata for a visit, after a year in the US where he was helping our aunt set up her fledgling business. He had acquired the videocam with the first of his American earnings and zealously recorded our family life. 
In agonizing detail. 

Mar 22, 2017

A percolating jog

A little boy travels on the Commuter Train to Boston with me most mornings. He's about 4 years old and hard to miss once he hits the platform. The toy Thomas trains clutched in each hand (usually James and Percy) are as distinctive as his exuberant little jog. He also has a kind of barely contained energy that convinces you that the only reason he doesn't flat out sprint, is the inconvenient office throng crimping his style. He makes up by percolating between people as Dad does an erratic jog to keep up.

The tousled little head caught my eye again today as it bobbed up and down at knee height. Commuters were bundled-up and be-scarved this chilly first-day-of-Spring but the visible parts of many faces wore grins at the sight. This included a young lady who'd suddenly broken into a jog herself, matching the boy's gait exactly for the length of one whole train car. The smiles she darted at him were impish and joyful, alike.

He must have noticed, because there was no more slipping between people: he stayed with her, his side-long glances every few steps infused with serious purpose. The man had a mission, it appeared. My grin had morphed into a burbling laugh at this unconscious display of companionship.

I'm afraid it reached her.

She whipped her head around with an embarrassed look and settled quickly back into a dignified walk. Her heels clicked formally once more on the concrete as she fell back. The little boy looked around for her, unsuccessfully, since he'd pulled ahead by then. He smoothly took to percolating again and I lost sight of him. 

Soon, the platform ended and I dove into the warmth of the North Station terminal building. Navigating the cross-crossing lines of swift pedestrian traffic required focus and agility and heralded a shifting of mental gear, like every day. I hurried on towards the office previewing the day ahead: triaging and ranking priorities, running through project statuses and making note of calls and emails to make and return. But an old and familiar thought thrummed through my preoccupation, as I knew it would for the rest of my day, brightening it. The thought was: let no one tell another just how to be happy, for our sources of joy are as varied as they are rich.

Feb 10, 2017

Still standing, covered with frost.

Winter Storm Niko, a strange Nor'easter, with relentless winds that whispered,
Not roared.

Minuscule crystals of deep, deep cold outside safe windows,

Frantic, interpretive dances to the purity of fractals,
Or impending Apocalypse.

It passed and most things still stand.
Covered, in frost.

Jan 10, 2017


A slightly edited version of this post also ran on
Fourth grade, 1980, Doha, Qatar.
  On the first day of first grade at the Doha British School in Qatar, I discovered that recess was hot, dusty and not entirely pleasant. What it was not, was Nairobi where I had lived until recently; cool and green. I found myself shunning the overheated, running, shrieking kids in favor of the small playground area where the metal play equipment baked quietly in the desert sun. I was testing the creaky swing with my hand (before trusting it with the rest of me) when my new classmate, Jennifer Bentle, approached. My heart leaped at the thought of making a first friend. I offered Jennifer a shy "Hello" as the swing groaned to and fro on it's own.
     She looked at me with a frown, scrunched up her freckled, button nose and whispered into my ear, "I hate you. You have brown skin."

      I remember reflexively examining my standard issue Indian-brown arm, to see what might be so repulsive. Skin color was an unexamined idea in my life until then so I assumed her distaste was valid, perhaps requiring some action. When the self-inspection yielded no clues, I looked up with an honest query on my lips.
     But I had addressed the back of Jennifer's blue gingham frock: she was walking away, her neatly bobbed brown hair swinging triumphantly with every step
      Maa responded to my tears that night by arming me with a script. It was for the playground the next day. She was driven by a dark, retaliatory rage that I understand only now, as a parent myself. I too have a hair-trigger for aching vicariously for my child. Braiding my long, black hair with extra gentleness at bedtime, she promised that the next day would be better. I wasn't convinced and went to bed with a heart full of dread but mind steeled with resolve to make a stand.

   I still remember the nervous ring of my feet on the metal stairs that brought me from class to the school yard the following day. Jennifer was by the see-saw when I marched up and tapped on her shoulder. She turned around and recoiled slightly at the sight of me. My resolve started crumbling at the imminent rain of horrible words and before my courage could desert me completely, I blurted out:
  "I hate YOU, Jennifer, because YOUR skin is white!"

   It was exactly what my outraged mother had coached me to say. Only recently did it occur to me that she must have also been smarting from echoes of the 'brownie' Colonial insults that had haunted her freedom-fighter father. My mother is not usually given to vitriol of this kind.

   Thankfully Jennifer didn't hear my hateful little speech. She was, at that moment, blurting out her own nervous script right over mine. More than one mother had been coaching the previous night, apparently. It went something like this: 
"I don't hate your skin! I was nervous about the first day of school yesterday and grumpy. I'm really sorry, Chandreyee: I didn't mean it! My Mum's SO cross!" 

   The fact was that six year old Jennifer Bentle had just come from England to this bright, hot, desert country and was utterly unnerved by the otherness of everything. This included her first day of school I know this because of many subsequent recesses worth of chattering, games and playdates. She became one of my best friends for the next 7 years I spent in Doha. Our fathers knew each other professionally so polite notes inviting each to the other's home passed between our moms. She came to my birthday parties and I, to hers. In the photo at the top of this post, she's wearing two ponytails (just like my two braids) and is seated next to me. It was my last day at that school before I moved to Saudi Arabia.

   That was my first brush with empathy: a look at how feeling for someone else can turn perceptions on their head. If Jenny's words scarred, they also showed me that first impressions are not always the whole ball game. As a bonus, my accidental discovery of empathy and understanding showed me the path to coping: with the otherness I would face as well as being the 'other'.

    The fact is, we are each of us, 'other' to one another: urban/rural/ex-urban, black/white/shades-in-between, white/blue/pink colors-of-collars, all degrees of ability/disability and the spectrum of sexuality. Whichever groups we occupy, the others are different, discordant in the moment, with our worldview, values and lives. But only until shared human experience cuts through the noise, reducing the primacy of differences, rather than their existence.

    My friend Jenny was undoubtedly parroting over-heard racism. What's significant in this story is her self-awareness of being wrong and most importantly, that she communicated it to me. Before Jenny apologized, I had been on the offensive and thus, on the path to hostility and division. My aggression was for the sake of my dignity and understandable, but had she not spoken up and I, listened, ours would have been a familiar tale of division and hate.

    Since the 2016 Presidential election, I find myself continually revisiting these twin ideas of
 'otherness' and communicating: of the need to open ourselves to similarities as well as differences, to ask, respond and engage so we can understand what can be understood and co-exist with the rest of it. Neither gloss over 'otherness', nor pretend to accept it fully, but to know that we all have the capacity of holding more than one opinion in our heads without shuttering our hearts. 

    I'll never forget my first day of school and I hope you who are reading this, don't either. If for no other reason than when you meet your Jennifer Bentle and hear her hard words, you will ask, or at least think, "Why?" and try to understand, rather than dismiss, her. 

You might be surprised at what happens next.

Chandreyee Lahiri is a geographer and GIS Specialist (Geographic Info. Systems) who works in environmental conservation. Originally from Kolkata, India, she made her way to the U.S. via Africa and the Middle-east, making 'home' a slippery idea. Right now, home is Waltham, MA with her husband and 10 year old son. Chandreyee dabbles in short fiction, children's literature and story telling and believes that Faith in human goodness is the only kind she needs. Her blog, focuses mainly on valuable moments that fall between moments. She hopes we'll all keep trying to reach and help one other because even 'a little bit of something is more than a whole lot of nothing'.

Nov 16, 2016

#OneWaltham against hate

Address to the School Committee for Waltham Public Schools during the public comments period of their bi-monthly meeting on  16th November, 2016.

Good evening.

My name is Chandreyee Lahiri. Our son Oyon Ganguli attends 4th grade at Fitzgerald Elementary.

First of all, thank you for all your hard work in determining the future of our high school. An updated building is key to a strong future for our kids. Before you proceed with this important work tonight, I'd like bring up anti-hate programming in our schools so that we're strong on the inside too.

Since last week's presidential election the Southern Poverty law Center has tracked over 300 hate crimes nationwide. Against Muslims, the LGBTQ community, people of other ethnicities and other minorities. Many of these hate crimes played out in schools. Some were even directed at the winning party, proving how ill is this wind that blows. We in Waltham have been safe so far (I think), but I can’t help but worry. 

So I reach for Hope.

Oct 17, 2016

Out of synch

One misaligned spine in a tidy row of 'books' drew me.
To a cliched metaphor about Conformity. 

Then the host of the yard sale ambled over.

He spoke of his father:
of neatly bound 'books' of 45 rpm records.
of a love of music.
of the promise of promotional singles.

$300 for the lot.

Priceless treasures likely lurked in this carefully curated collection.
If the close of day didn't bring a sale, they'd catalogue. And Research.

I looked down at the mug of cooling coffee in his hand.
Up, at the faraway eyes beneath graying hair.

He didn't want a sale.
He wanted his father.

Jun 2, 2016

Odometer Clicks

This piece will be performed as a piece of oral story telling at a public production called 'Voices' on June 4th and 5th (2016) at Somerville's Davis Theater (near Boston). Loosely modeled on the Moth Radio hour, this is the debut story telling event of the Bengali Theater group 'Off Kendrik'. It is themed 'Immigrant experiences' and will hopefully be repeated to capture more 'Voices' from the diaspora. 
Event details and theater company info here.

Odometer clicks by Chandreyee Lahiri

Did you ever watch your car odometer for a milestone?

100,00 miles?
200,00 miles?

If you did, chances are, you were young.
In that excitable phase where Life is charted with symbolic milestone.

Let me take you back to one of mine.

Apr 22, 2016

"The Cleaner": birth of an idea

We were spending a lazy summer weekend at our neighbors 'camp' on the shores of a New Hampshire lake when my friend Anu's FB tag showed up. It was the ALS Ice-bucket challenge that was swamping everyone's news-feed, inciting equal parts amusement and annoyance. I've done my share of ranting over armchair activism that breeds complacence and indifference but jumped happily at this one.

That afternoon on the O'Connors' dock by the glassy, peaceful lake our friend Michele filmed as my 7 year old son Oyon dumped a bowl of ice water on my head and we made our appeal for research funding to cure this awful disease. 

Amidst the usual din of comments on the video I posted on FB was one from my friend Nandita in California. She was sympathetic to the ALS cause but indignant at the irresponsible waste of water. California was severely drought-struck so her ire was understandable. Also, the scale at which the ice bucket challenge was playing out meant that the cumulative volume of water wastage was substantial, no matter how well-intentioned.  

Nandita had a point.

It's never as much fun to concede to reason as it is to complain though, so I took to ranting - not thinking that Oyon, who was within earshot, would pay any attention to my words. Heaven knows, he doesn't usually. I grumbled that Nandita was missing the point: the average ALS challenge probably only uses a gallon or two but raises awareness and funds. I muttered to myself that a daily shower surely uses more than that and without helping fight ALS.

Little ears pricked up at that: "How much water do we use in the shower Mamma?"
 Dr. Google answered: 50 gallons in 10 minutes 

"Is 50 gallons a lot?" he asked, trying to understand the horrified expression on my face.

"The milk jug in our fridge is 2 gallons. Now imagine 25 of them gurgling down the drain." I answered distractedly, my insides twisting with guilt at the 20 minute showers that were my routine.

Oyon shrugged and walked away to resume playing (and not-listening to me). I didn't think more about it. Until a few weeks (maybe months?) later, when Oyon stepped out of his bedtime shower with a particularly thoughtful look on his face. 

"When I grow up, I'm building a shower that only uses 3 gallons of water." he announced.

"How will it do that?" I humored him.

"The dirty water won't go into the sewer. It'll go into a special tank where there's a sponge, a bar of soap and a scrubbing brush! It'll get CLEANED!"

"Hmmm. Then?" I said, only half-listening. 

ASIDE: Oyon, like many kids, has a steady flow of crazy ideas and fantastical stories. I try my best to be his sounding board so they'll keep coming but have slipped into the age-old parenting model of only half-attending at times so I can multi-task. I'd like to think that the validation of being heard helps grow his self-esteem as well as his imagination. The last one seems to me the most important goal of childhood, for without an imagination there's no way of truly understanding of the world around us. Or people. Because an imagination helps you to deal in abstracts: as important for developing skills like empathy and compassion (for which you need to imagine the feelings of others who may be unlike yourself) through science (dealing often, with invisible ideas). 

So that day too, I tried to lend him my ear. Or at least part of it.

"And then......" his legs were planted apart in brace position and he had jazz hands going as if for a big reveal....."the clean water goes back up to the shower so you can use it AGAIN!"

"Hey!" I said, looking up from tidying the counter, "That's actually a good idea!"

"'Course it is! It uses 3 gallons instead of 50!" he said with an eye-roll.
"But....You will have to add a little every month to the water tank." he added thoughtfully.

"Why? I thought all 3 gallons are getting cleaned and re-used." I asked as he towelled his hair.

"Yeah but lots of drops get trapped in our hair and never make it to the drain. Also, there's evaporation." he said, tugging on his clothes.

As his head hit the pillow that night, he sleepily announced "I'm calling it 'The Cleaner' "

"Sounds good!" I answered before turning off the lights.

That was that. For then.

He moved on to other fanciful creations over the next two years: The Listener (translates animal sounds to human), special boots to walk on Lava, fighter planes that fling rotten food instead of bullets and bombs (to make wars peaceful), a new airplane wing design that will shorten runway length and many others I no longer remember.

But he kept coming back to The Cleaner. 
Last year, at age 8, he even came up with a pricing scheme: 
- Low at first so everyone could afford it: those who wanted to help the Earth AND those who wanted to save money because they didn't have much to spare. 
- Then when it got popular (because so many people had bought it already), he'd hike the price and make tons of money. The rich would buy it even at high prices because their friends had it and it was cool. 
- Everyone’s happy!

One look at my stricken expression and he rushed to explain:
"'s ok! I become a millionaire BUT poor people save money, rich people get more cool stuff and EVERYBODY helps save the planet!" 

But he had misunderstood me.

I wasn't disappointed (too much) in his capitalist inclinations. I was taken aback at how well he'd intuited his parents' worldviews, sensing that we valued compassion over materialism and were queasy about the idea of great amounts of amassed wealth. Plus, he'd not only understood the basics of modern day market forces but harnessed them for his own ends! I suspect his generation is hardwired to these senses but its still a little scary to me.

So there he was. An invention nestled in his brain, tied up neatly in a clever marketing package, but nowhere to put it.  This year when he became eligible as a 3rd grader to enter the Fitzgerald Elementary School science fair, we nudged him to give his dream an airing. 

He and his friend Mateo decided to test the filtration part of The Cleaner. By now it had evolved from the original cartoon (of a scrubbing brush and bar soap) in Oyon's 7 year old head to a chamber where pistons drove sponges back forth, trapping the dirt and letting clean water flow out. Mateo and Oyon's research quickly revealed a more realistically filter designs that they tested and presented in a beautiful presentation to the judges.

Blow number one:
Mateo's research revealed the existence of a recycling shower, though it's still a niche product that's not easily obtained. Oyon's invention was not unique after all! They soldiered on as we whispered solace into Oyon ears that this was only proof that he was thinking along the right lines. 

Blow number two:
A Silver medal, not Gold, at the science fair. Now, everyone got a medal so the Silver really was only average. Now we were whispering solace into his ears about how almost all the gold medals were won by 5th graders so it was a tough contest. Most of all though, the winning projects were so impressive that the outcomes were just. There was a valuable lesson here: there will always be people better than him no matter how good he is. Their win doesn't necessarily mean his loss if their work was admirable. That's actually a source of inspiration, not dismay or envy. He liked some of the Gold medal projects SO much that this rationale actually seemed to get some traction.

It didn't totally quell his sadness though: the wind had visibly gone from Oyons sails. He's fairly buttoned up about his emotions so it was only the occasional comment that gave him away.
"It was a dumb idea"....."what’s the point anyway, someone already made it"...."I don't want to be an inventor anymore. I'm going to test Minecraft code instead"
To be fair, he also was a little bored of this idea by then and had moved on to others.

But when Camp Invention, his favorite summer camp, put out a call for entries into a nationwide invention-centric contest, it seemed a providential chance for his Big Idea to try and get out again. After all, before he had entered an 'invention' in a 'science' contest so the goals were really not well matched. But Oyon would not budge in his determination to call an end to the sordid episode of The Cleaner.

Now we don't usually force things on Oyon (though we insist he honor his commitments) so this was pretty much the first time I brought my foot down - with an almighty crash - to tell him that he was GOING to enter the contest because….we said so! (So liberating to use those 3 words, given the democratic parenting we default to in these times of mindful child-rearing.)

My husband was travelling for work and unable to referee as usual so I tried to behave myself with this project of forced labor. Oyon reluctantly agreed to spend 20 minutes on 2 Saturdays to create his invention prototype and the 4 minute video submission for the contest. He was draconian about the terms and conditions too, using the kitchen timer to drop the project at the determined time. We’ve made many toys from trash in the past though so 40 minutes (and my help cutting plastics with sharp tools) were enough for him to put together a prototype. We’ve also made short films before so it only took a few minutes in Windows Movie maker to edit for length, add music, credits etc.

This was the final product that he submitted to the nation-wide Camp Invention ‘Mighty Minds’ contest:


As I emailed the link on his behalf I added a note about how this idea came into being, along with a disclaimer that we found out only recently that it’s already been invented. I added a request for some words of encouragement from the judges because I knew he had little chance of winning. All I had wanted was to garner some support for him and teach him to keep faith in himself, to know that the path to success is paved with failure.

A few weeks later, we learnt he'd won the grand prize. Nation-wide.

Our lives are terrible exciting right now.
Oyon's is even tinged with a little glamour. 
He's soon to travel to DC, be part of a prestigious ceremony (with Mo Rocca and some of the brightest minds of our age), get his invention incorporated in a museum etc. It's a fair bet that I'll blog about these things at some point but the best outcome of all.... is that a nascent idea he had of a Solar powered robot team to clear up space now bubbling, brewing and coalescing into another invention idea. 

This kid might literally touch the stars.

Oyon-ism (5)
I'm fixing dinner one evening as he chatters on animatedly about the days' adventures from the next room, where he's playing trains. I'm cycling through my usual pattern of responses every few minutes: "Wow!"-  "Oh no!" - "Really?"when he suddenly becomes silent. A minute later he's at my elbow...

Oyon: Mamma, you meant "Wow"
Me (still only half listening): Huh?
Oyon: You said "Oh no!' just now but my story needs a "wow!"
Me (shocked that he knew my pattern and a little worried he might be hurt): Oh, Ok. I'm sorry?
Oyon: No problem! I get confused too sometimes.
Me (relieved to have gotten away with it): I'll try to get it right next time, ok? So what happened next?
Oyon (as he walks away to resume playing): I'll tell you but next is an 'Oh no!'. OK Mummum?

It's ALWAYS ok to be around this child.

Oyon-ism (9)
Chit-chatting about his day in school, Oyon announces that they talked about 'hormones' in 3rd grade today. How they can confuse you. When pressed for details...
Oyon: You know, like the blues?
Me: Ms. N told you hormones can make people sad and blue?!
(This is my first experience with American public school education but I could've sworn that sex education waiting until 5th/6th grade.)
Oyon: What? No, Mamma! Not to be rude but please can I read now?
He dove back into Harry Potter's world and I left things be, feeling more rattled than usual. I was signing his homework agenda later that evening when he came by and gleefully pointed to the weekly spelling words listed on the page. He pointed out the words 'blue' and 'blew' and chuckled.....
Oyon: See the hormones Mamma? The 'blues' sound the same but don't mean the same. Isn't it confusing? GREAT for tricks though.

Darn Homophones. Really SO confusing.

Apr 20, 2016

Other mothers, 2015

(Written May 2015 but published April 2016) 
We had just finished up at Oyons doctor yesterday afternoon. On his way out, Dr. Biller paused in the doorway, twinkled briefly and said "Happy Mothers Day!". As we drove home, the car radio burbled its support too for this sentimental occasion: WBUR's alliance with Winston flowers, please your mom and support public radio.

Like last year, my thoughts wandered from the fanfare around this holiday to those who are deprived of it:
- Mother's who have lost their children
- Mothers whose children cannot (or will not) come celebrate like in years past
- Single mothers whose kids may not have father figures to orchestrate the celebrations that young kids cannot wing on their own 
- People who are struggling to care for and celebrate their mothers
- Women who wanted to, be could not become mothers 

Jan 22, 2016

Empty threats

As I collected my 9 year old from school, he excitedly whispered in my ear...."The dog ate my biscuit!"

The bright little face turned up towards me was expectant. The problem was, as with most of Oyons non-sequiturs, I had no idea what he was talking about! 

Dec 17, 2015

Santa: out of the Chimney, into the fire

"M told me the truth about Santa, you know." he mumbled from atop his bunk bed. I only caught the glint of wet eyes because he was above my eye level.

"What Truth about Santa?" I asked, nimbly skirting accidental disclosure.

"His mom said she bought the Santa gifts. And Baba said yes too in the car when I told him…I knew it!!!" he said in a voice wobbling with indignation and grief.

My little human's despair has never before taken my breath away like this. I should have expected it though. In the two years since his suspicions about the Tooth Fairy were confirmed (at age 7), he's been stewing over the Santa Question. 

Oct 7, 2015

Tom, who feels fortunate

Last night a friend was bemoaning the poor state of her focus that prevented her reading "100 years of solitude". It just took too much thought for her current mood for amusement and escape.

Books that require the exercise of emotion in addition to thought, can take more than they give sometimes. They are eventually the books most worth reading, though what they bring to the reader is less easily identified than the sobs triggered by a tragedy or the sighs from a steamy romance.

Oct 5, 2015

Tooth Fairy in a tutu

Just before Christmas, the Gingerbread man shaped box had called out "Stocking stuffer!" from the grocery store end-cap and slipped into my grocery cart. It then proceeded to lounge idly at the bottom of the kitchen drawer and mock me for months after. It had after all, only space to hold about 3 Jelly Beans. Find me a kid who'll settle for that few and I'll give you mine in exchange. The kid, not the box.

Sep 24, 2015

Of demons & monst-ahs

Early this morning, a horrible nightmare that had wound itself around my sleep receded quickly as consciousness dawned. Something about a baby, I think, though it's too dim now to know for sure. I've been on pretty strong drugs for a while (for a terrible cough) and am convinced they are taking a toll.

Headed towards oblivion, but in clearer focus was another bad dream from a separate portion of the night.