Kolkata journey – Began.

“Mom, you are in a weirdly good mood! Turn it down to a 5.” Informed my sassy daughter gleefully as we chomped down a Dunkin Donut breakfast at the airport before our plane took off for Dubai. After two weeks of intense schedule, unnecessary worries of health, presentations at work and other issues, we were ready to take off – headed to roost. And yes, I was uncharacteristically chirpy.

After a thirteen hour-long flight to Dubai, five hours layover there and then a four hour plane ride to Kolkata, I was ready to hate the universe. But then, almost magically, the lights of Kolkata appeared beneath us. My hatred melted away leaving an inexplicable joy in its place. The relief of arriving at our destination was compounded by the relief of coming home. Ryan, who was sitting by the window, nudged me to show the lights of the city below us and seeing my ecstatic and expectant face, said in a very characteristic Ryan way, “Your time to shine Mom! Your time to shine! We are coming to your city!” I did have a tiny little pang in a remote corner in my heart – my city, not theirs, never theirs. My city indeed!

I have already written a blog about going home (Almost home) so I do not want to repeat myself, however, I did wonder if there are many cities out there in the world where those who belong feel such deeply personal ownership towards it. My happiness was shared by many of the passengers on board. A ripple of joy and excitement passed through the plane where murmurs like:

“Eshe gechi!” (we have arrived)
“Oi dekh Kolkata!” (See, there is Kolkata)

was overheard over the drone of the plane’s wheels engaging.

Since I am a Bangali, I shamelessly eavesdropped on the conversation of the young couple sitting across the aisle from me (they were speaking loudly). The young woman’s joy was written all over her face and I automatically felt a kinship with my fellow Kolkata lover. She hugged her little son in glee and said, “Babu, eshe gechi, Babu eshe gechi!” (Babu, we have arrived).
The woman’s husband quipped up, “Haa, joto kichu pocha, bhanga, nongra shei shohor e eshe gechi.” (Yes, where everything is nasty, broken and polluted, we have come to that city).

As one can imagine, a big argument ensued. The husband tried to say he was simply jesting but the wife’s Kolkata loving sensibilities were severely wounded,

After a relatively hassle free customs and immigration check we arrived at our designated carousel. I have written before that I find this last stretch absolutely unbearable but a miracle happened. The carousel never broke down like it has done in the past and both our suitcases danced their way to us only after about seven to ten minutes of waiting.

And then came the most coveted moment. The moment that makes two years of planning, worrying, anticipating all worth it. My smiling mother, my beaming father and this time my happy husband as well since he had arrived in India prior to us for work.

The hugs were awkward as usual. We still do not hug comfortably yet the happiness was palpable like you could almost touch it. My America born, very-used-to-hugging children threw themselves at their grandparents and were filled with kisses.

We emerged into the smoggy, dusty outside. I breathed in deeply and smiled. The commotion and complete chaos told me I had come back home. I smiled wide. And promised myself to imprint every moment of my waking time in my memory which then will sustain me till I can come back next time. I promised to feel deeply and meaningfully. I did.


Flying solo

This blog will be an exception. I will begin at the end this time. This blog will be about my experience of leaving Kolkata – alone. The family left Kolkata when the school vacations ended. I stayed on for one more week to experience the city on my own without the responsibility of two half grown humans.

As I lifted the backpack on my shoulders, turned around to wave goodbye to baba and entered the Kolkata airport with my single piece of luggage, I felt light. Sad, excited and light. Leaving Kolkata is always sad. Recently I read a book by Reyna Grande where she says that her umbilical cord is buried somewhere in her village in Mexico, so no matter where she lives she feels the pull towards the village where she was born. My umbilical cord was not buried anywhere in Kolkata except, perhaps, virtually since I have a similar pull towards the city. In Bengali we call this attraction ‘naari r taan’. Every time my plane takes off from the soil of Kolkata, I feel a tug at my heart. There is always a sense of uprootedness all over again, even after so many years. This time, however, I was also excited. I have traveled by myself only twice in all these years of my life. I have been accompanied by my parents first, husband next and for the last 15 years, by the children. I realized how tense I usually am when I travel with the kids. My whole energy is focused on their well being. When they were little, my plane rides were spent keeping them occupied and relatively happy – changed, nursed, rested. Now I look out whether they have their bags, their earache, their hunger, their moods, their quibbles. This time, however, I felt light, alone – in a relieved kind of way. I felt I would even enjoy the 24 hour long journey back home. That sense of excitement at an impossibly long flight seemed incredible since I strongly dislike plane rides like most people I know.

I have always loved to converse with strangers. I was at it right from Kolkata airport. First victim was a young man who made the mistake of sitting next to me. I found out about his job, his intentions of going to Dubai, where he lived in Kolkata, his university, his return and more. He too, seemed to be too happy to chat. Next was an elderly gentleman from Cape town, South Africa, who had come for business and was returning after traveling to Kharagpur and another place which I could not figure out due to his pronunciation but did not want to keep asking for the fear of annoying him. He said I must visit Cape Town, it is very beautiful.

There were many first time flyers traveling with their spouses for some pilgrimage. These men and women were confused, loud and excited. They provided me with such entertainment as I watched them interact excitedly with each other inquiring about passports, tickets, water bottles, food. Before the boarding announcement was made, I got up to use the restroom. As I opened the door of the ladies room, I was shocked to see a woman completely covered in a black burkha doing her business with her stall door wide open. She shrieked and so did I. Her husband was outside the main door of the ladies room. He came running and shooed me away. The lady was reigning in the entire 4 stalled bathroom by herself. Her husband was standing guard. I decided to flee the scene, walked a few extra paces and opened the door of the next bathroom very cautiously. It was clear.

On the flight, I always book myself an aisle seat so as not to bother my fellow passenger when I wish to get up to go to the bathroom or stretch my legs. Trust me, in a 14 hour long flight, you need to stretch them as far as you can. Soon enough, I was joined by two young men from a village in Murshidabad. Their final destination was Singapore. They were going via Dubai, then Dammam and finally Singapore.

“What are you going to do in Singapore?” I asked.

“We will work as electricians for 2 years.” They said.

They asked me where I lived. After hearing I work at a library in US, one of them asked how I managed to find a job in the US. The other asked if I could bring them over to the US by sponsoring them and then find them jobs too. I ruefully shook my head and said neither do I have that power, nor the influence. They were disheartened.

It was evident quickly that this was their first ever ride in an airplane as the man next to me fiddled with his seat belt trying to figure out it’s purpose. They clearly needed help. They experimented, I helped. They opened and closed the food tray, asked me if they could take the pillow and blanket with them when they landed, could they at least take the headphones. They reclined their seat and made themselves comfortable. I had to tell them to sit upright till the plane took off, showed them the seat belt sign and explained about it being lit and then off. Every few minutes their phones would ring, before we took off. I could not hear what the person on the other end asked but they must have been asked the same questions since the answers never varied:

“We are sitting in our seats, we got lemonades, there is AC in the plane, we are listening to music, we will be given food, we have a pillow and a blanket, we can watch tv if we want.”

When the stewardess asked them to turn off their phones in English they looked at her blankly and then looked at me for help. From that time on I became their official translator. They refused food when the stewardess asked them if they wanted mutton, chicken or vegetarian. They shook their head in the negative.

I knew they were excited about the meals, I asked them:

“Khaben na?” (You don’t want to eat?)

They readily agreed and voiced their choice. Once they finished they asked me if we are given seconds. I said they could certainly ask. They decided not to.

After that, the stewardesses asked me questions, I translated them back and forth. Understandably, they were nervous about their next connection to Dammam. They asked if I could help them. I had a tight connection myself and had to run, but I explained to them the information board where they can look up their next flight. They got out their boarding passes and I showed them which flight number they should look for. Their eyes still remained unsure and yes, a little helpless.

As I pulled my luggage from the overhead locker, when the plane stopped at the gate in Dubai, one young man shook my hand and the other folded them in a namaste.

I walked off to clear security and find my next gate and marveled at the courage of my new found friends and thousands others like them who leave their comfort zone to explore the world for livelihood. They are breaking the glass ceiling in search of a better life for themselves and their loved ones.

I knew they would be much more confident in their next flight to Dammam and finally when they reach their destination, they would have mastered the art of flying. Who knows how many ‘firsts’ await them in their lives, but I do hope all of them are enlightening. I set out for my own world but the two men remained in my memory – first their helplessness and then their determination and courage to achieve something better.

Good luck, gentlemen. I had to write about you, so I remember.