The taste of oranges

Dida bought oranges, but never ate any herself. “Have another one,” she would say, as she passed a plateful of peeled fruit to us.

“Why don’t you eat one too, Dida?” I would ask, curious why she always gave them to us.

“Oh, no. These oranges are not to my liking. They’re too sour and too small. You should’ve seen the oranges we had when we were kids. Baba would buy them by the dozens on his way back to Singur from Kolkata, and mind you, for only a few annas too. And so sweet! We would eat them to our heart’s content and when we were full, we would use the other ones to play a game of catch.”

“But Dida, that was so many decades ago! Surely, you’ve felt like eating oranges since then?”

“It is true, that as a child I loved oranges,” she would say pensively. “But you’ve never tasted those oranges. They were the best oranges I’ve ever had. They were juicy and had just the right amount of flesh. The flavor is still in my mouth. Why lose that memory?”

To say that Dida grew up in a middle-class family would be an overstatement. She was the eldest daughter of a respected, but poor scholar in pre-Independence Bengal. My great-grandfather was a renowned scholar, who authored one of the key Sanskrit textbooks for students learning the language for the Matriculation examination, but he was not a member of the landowning gentry. Back then Bengal was still very much a feudal society, and Dida’s family in Singur had no land. Dida’s mother, my great-grandmother, died when Dida was a child, forcing her to have a truncated childhood. Although Dida never mentioned the hardships of her youth, it must not have been an easy life to suddenly have to run the household and take care of her younger siblings.

Let me tell you another story I vividly remember about Dida. Many years ago, Dida showed me a wooden jewelry box that she had kept for decades. The intricate wood-carvings had smoothed over and the bright red velvet interior had faded. In it, she kept the medals that she had been awarded in school as a child. She had been an outstanding student, and had stood first in in every class. All her teachers agreed that were she to continue her studies, she would make a name for herself. But she was the daughter of the pandit-moshai, and it was her calling to sacrifice her wishes to help her descendants make a name for themselves. So, when she was fifteen her studies abruptly ended, and she married my grandfather. Moving from her father’s home, she quickly adjusted to a joint family, and she raised my father and my aunts, teaching them the ideal that an education, even if you had land to live off of, was important. Dida never spoke about her own wishes or her own education being cut short. But she did not let the fire die inside her, ensuring that my aunts were one of the few women to go to college and to seek employment, at a time when neither the education of women nor their possible contribution to society was given much value.

Dida also helped raise me during two of the most crucial phases of my childhood, neither giving in to my whims, nor ever losing her temper. She loved us dearly and often repeated that children were principal, but grandchildren were interest: and that the moneylender is more enamored with the interest than the principal. Like other women of her generation, she was a well of such homespun sayings. She passed away over a decade ago, leaving me a wealth of memories, fables, and moralities.

For no reason in particular, I recalled her fondness for oranges and her reluctance to eat them today. Nowadays, whenever I want to savor the flavor of oranges, I can open the refrigerator and pour myself a glass of orange juice. I can pick a choice fruit from the fruit-bowl in the kitchen and peel it myself. But the oranges of childhood were much sweeter.

The Hindu Milk Miracle

A few months after I started blogging, a very close friend of mine noted that even though my blog was named “It’s a Miracle!” after the Hindu Milk Miracle, I had never written a word about it. The fact is that I really had not put much thought into naming my blog: in fact, I had no intention of blogging regularly at all.

Regardless, the thought did stick in my mind. But instead of writing a long essay about it (I seem to be doing that quite a lot lately) I decided to create a comic-strip.

The Bangla version of this comic-strip is on my Bangla blog.



This time…

All my adult life – which admittedly has not been very long if maturity is the defining characteristic of adulthood – I have been told that in order to be successful, I need to manage time effectively. At face value, this advice seems sagacious since there is only finite time on this planet. But when I’ve thought about it more, I’ve found that those who offer advice on managing time are not interested in whether I pursue activities that might possibly stretch my lifespan by a few years or make it more meaningful or enjoyable: they are talking about multitasking, an unfortunate catchphrase describing the act of performing as many routine chores as possible in the least amount of time. In short, they want me to do more work in the same amount of time.

Is this always good advice? I’m not sure. Here an analogy might be useful to visualize time management. Say, for example, that the total amount of time in which you want to complete an activity is an empty glass. Of course the glass has a defined volume; if you pour more water in the glass than it will take, the residual water will spill over. Say also, for the sake of the analogy, that the least amount of time it takes to do an activity properly is the volume of water that fills the glass to the rim and then some. Time management teaches you different ways to pour the water into the glass with the promise that none of it will spill over.

Obviously, the analogy applies only if you’ve reached the point of maximum efficiency. In this case, you are at the stage where you can not appreciably decrease the time it takes to complete a certain activity unless the situation changes. Those who multitask will say that successful people juggle multiple activities at once, so they have a longer timeframe to complete the task. The implicit argument in this case is less reassuring: why do one activity well, when you can do a number of activities at the same time adequately or poorly?

A motivational speaker might say that human potential is infinite and everything is in the realm of the possible. In a sense, people do get better at what they do with dedication and experience. Here another analogy is useful. In a fixed amount of time, I might be able to juggle one or two balls while a professional juggler might be able to handle four or more. Given the time, inclination, and training, I should be able to learn how to juggle more than the number I currently can. But there are physical and mental limits to what I and other humans can comfortably achieve. For short spurts of time, I might be able juggle multiple balls, but this unnatural activity is clearly unsustainable. Increase the number of tasks anyone needs to concentrate on at the same time or the duration of time needed to maintain this strained state and you have a recipe for failure.

A side effect of the constant urge to do as many things at once is that we’ve created an attention-deficit-prone society in which the ability to concentrate is an endangered skill. Left to our devices, we all seem to fall back on our devices. No one can stand in a train or in a line or on an elevator without looking at smartphones anymore. Everyone is reading and listening to music and sharing their life-story in 140 characters and walking and working at the same time. How many times a day when we should be focusing on the task at hand, do we get distracted by email? If I’m not interested in the minutiae that my friends share on social media, why do I bombard them with the mundane details from my life as well? If I take a photograph every waking minute of my life, don’t I need another life to view them once myself? What were tools which were supposed to help us stay connected and save us time, are taking up more of our time than we’d like to admit.

Of course everyone wants to do more in life. But we need to step back and understand that time deals us two blows simultaneously. The first blow is that with every passing moment there is less of it left in life. Regardless of whether we know how long we are going to live or not, our lives have an expiry date. Death is a real deadline. The second blow is that with every passing moment what is done can’t be changed. The time I spend checking whether I have any new email in my inbox while participating in a conference call is time I have lost forever. I cannot compensate for it by trying to cram a ton of activities into a shortening life and euphemistically calling it quality time.

My one-month-old son whose brain is developing at a faster rate than his father’s is now, knows a thing or two I understood myself before I got infected with multitasking. He is not trying to watch a movie and read a newspaper and have a conversation with the rest of his family at the same time, though the day he will simultaneously process a deluge of information will come soon. Today, as he was on my lap and staring at my face I reached for my smartphone to check my email. Sensing that his father was not giving him his undivided attention made him furious. I got the message and I put the phone down. Somethings are more important. This moment will be gone before I know it. Email can wait.