We look forward to inconvenience…


There was a new sidewalk being built on my way to work. That meant sign holders holding up STOP and SLOW signs when I was trying to get to work on time. The first time I discovered this, I was annoyed. I had not taken road work into account and there was a chance of me being late. I am that person who likes to arrive places at least 10 minutes early. On one such day, after waiting for the sign holder to change sign from STOP to SLOW, I inched my car forward to cross the area of road work cautiously. As I approached the sign holder, my grim face cracked a smile. The holder of the sign was a young man who enthusiastictically waved at each car that passed by. His face was animated, hopeful even that a fellow human would connect with him and wave back in reply. His happiness, for that is exactly what it looked like, was infectious and I found myself waving back cheerfully. The next day he was there and the following day as well with same infectious exuberance. I looked forward to the road block and his wave. One day Sahana was driving me to work. As the road work area got closer, I got ready for my daily moment of connection. And Sahana said, “I wonder if my friend is going to be here.”

It turns out, she was equally enamored by this young man’s enthusiasm to spread happiness by waving enthusiastically as he allowed cars to pass by. We both then exclaimed how we loved this little moment and how this simple gesture of a smile and a wave brightens our day. We both agreed we look forward to this inconvenience in our commute and isn’t that strange?

The side walk is complete now and our friend is not there anymore to hold up his sign. I don’t account for the small delay in my commute any more but I do miss the bright smile of my young friend as he waved to me from the other side of the road. I hope he is working on another project, spreading joy to another group of people. I also hope people are smiling back at him, making connections, seeing. I hope they are allowing him to be the bright spot in their days.

Fish head


“Don’t dig too deep into the freezer.” I warned the family after my recent trip to a Bangladeshi grocery store.

“Why? What did you put in there?”

“Fish head. A big head of carp (ruhi).” I gleefully replied.

“Ugh! Ewwwww!” I expected this response from my half Bengali daughter. My white husband skillfully hid his “I am also disgusted” emotion from his face.

You can take the girl out of Bengal, but you really can not take the fish head loving Bengali out of the girl. Fish head was/is my favorite. Even when I was a horribly picky eater, I loved fish head. Macher matha diye dal (fish head in mung dal), muri ghonto (no idea what this is in English), macher matha r chocchori (again, no idea what this is in English). I, however, only got to eat fish head when I went back home. I did not know those were available here as well. So when I found them neatly wrapped and frozen, I did not hesitate. Once I came home and safely ensconced it in my freezer did it hit me that I have never cooked fish head in my life. I only ate them once they were lovingly prepared by whoever was cooking. Till this day, a traditional birthday lunch of a Bengali must include a fish head and payesh (rice pudding). If one has the means, the bowl of payesh would be a silver one as well as the spoon.

Sean has had a funny relationship with fish heads too. He claims those are the reason he went vegetarian. When he got transferred to Kolkata, he had to travel to remote villages of Bengal for work. Wherever he went he was treated royally by locals and was generally the guest of honor. When they served him lunch or dinner, the best portion was given to him – along with rice and vegetables, a huge head of fish generally adorned his plate, looking up at him with dead eyes. This American man was repulsed by the sight of it, forget trying to eat it. But the villagers looked on with such pride that he did not want to hurt their feelings either. He turned vegetarian so he could refuse the fish head. He perfected the art of a huge smile, folded hands, bent head and the words, “Oh I am a vegetarian. These all look so delicious. I will eat the rice, dal and vegetables.” The fish head, at that point, was removed while the women and men tsk tsked at Sean’s choice. What joy is there in life if you don’t eat fish, mutton, chicken? We Bengalis (many of us, not all) live to eat.

Anyway, the fish head rests in my freezer. I think of it often, with equal measure of anticipation and apprehension. I want to eat it and I also am a little unsure how to cook it well. Yes, there are YouTube videos but will my cooked fishhead bring back memories of home?

Conversations with little Ryan.


Sixth grade conversation about sex.

Ryan: Those who don’t have sex become mountain climbers, right?

Sahana and I stare blankly at him for a few seconds before we ask, “Why do you say that?”

His logic: Well, you know they have regrets and they want to spend time in the mountains, climbing rocks. They could also be divorced. Then the men grow a beard. Uncle ______ climbed rocks till he got married and had a baby!

This was hilarious. Sahana and I could not stop laughing much to Ryan’s chagrin.

Since he could talk, Ryan has had insightful observations on life. They were cute but also poignant. In most parents teacher conferences we were told he brings in an aspect into conversation that is out of the box. And that makes the conversation very interesting. The boy is seventeen now. Constant chatter has given way to grunts and monosyllabic responses to my queries. But I have found if I simply be in his presence without asking questions about school and academics he opens up. I see a glimmer of the little boy who, at the age of 4, sided with an errant pigeon (Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus by Mo Wilhelm) who was making all sorts of mistakes while driving and should not have been behind the wheels. 4 year old Ryan went against the general consensus of other 4 year olds in a book reading session at the library. The pigeon should be allowed to drive because everyone deserves a second chance.

Connecting with strangers.


Poet unknown to me

This came up in my Facebook memory feed today. A friend, who is an ardent Kolkata lover like me had shared this a while back. My world in Kolkata was whole then. Kolkata was home. It still is, in a way, but not in the same way it used to be. The city knows my every ‘first’, so it will always be my love but it is also smeared with sadness and tainted, somewhat, with my anger.

Anyway, I digress. What I wanted to write was this. I took some of ma’s sarees in a tiny tailoring shop near Maddox Square. There was hardly enough space for 6 people to stand comfortably within the store. My cousin, Sahana and I along with the wonderful woman who was taking our measurements, had taken up most of the room in the store. It was hot in there, a standing fan was whirring tiredly, circulating hot air within the store. The pleasing smell of new garments permeated the space reminding me of Durga puja when this smell of new garments surrounded us along with unmitigated joy. For the rest of the year, we could not afford to buy anything new. I digress, again. As we were giving measurements and my cousin was explaining the design to the tailor, a woman walked in with fabric that she wanted to be made into blouses. We Bengalis don’t say hi/hello to each other, I noticed. Is there a Bengali equivalent of greeting other than nomoshkar? And nomoshkar sounds too strange to begin a conversation with a stranger. It seems like we just jump in. And we did – this woman and I. I don’t remember who initiated the conversation or how it started but by the end of it I knew so much about her. Then our work was done, we bade each other farewell. We, most likely, will never meet again but a connection was made, life stories were exchanged.

During my previous trips, I have made similar connections with complete strangers in Ananda Publications book store in Gariahat. That was easy though. Bibliophiles simply start talking about books and suggest books to each other. “Have you read…..?” “NO, did you like it? Maybe I should buy it.” Kind of like dog owners here, one does not need any introduction to exclaim about dogs on walks with their pets.

Strangers become friends in that city in the East, for sure. At least friends for a few moments, an hour, a few hours. Some friendships continue perhaps, and some don’t. But the connection that was made kind of lingers in the heart and perhaps one remembers that I met someone, a stranger, who lend me an ear, and who shared snippets of their lives.

Here…eat!


This blog is about our recent trip to Kolkata. No, not about the emptiness and grief but about love. Gouri, as I have written before, took care of my parents till they died. And Breshpati, Khushi’s mom, also took care of them but she did not stay with them. She came to work and went back home after her work was done.

As I wrote earlier, this blog is about love. Love through food and feeding. My days in Kolkata were fraught with anxiety compounded with grief. And while I felt the impossible amount of love being showered upon us by the women who live in our house, I was too distraught and anxious to fully appreciate it. Looking back, I can feel the warmth of their love, their tireless efforts to show us that although my parents were gone, they were there to love us. Breshpati made my favorite food every single day. Gouri got the ingredients and did the prep work for cooking. Breshpati’s mother did our laundry, swept and mopped the floor. Although I sat down to eat, I did not have any appetite due to the intensity of grief and anxiety of cutting through bureaucratic red tape. But I made an effort. Since I am older, they listened to my refusal to more and more food but young Sahana had no such escape. They showed their love upon her by constantly trying to feed her.

Here is what happened. Sahana would eat lunch around 1 pm after we got back from our various errands at banks. The ladies would eat their lunch after us and settle for their afternoon siesta. Breshpati woke up from her nap within an hour to break a sweet pomegranate and bring the seeds to Sahana on a plate because one day Sahana mentioned she loves pomegranates. Sahana, not quite hungry after her sumptuous lunch only an hour before, would take the plate so as not to offend Breshpati. Having fed Sahana yet again, she would go back to resume her nap. After about an hour of pomegranate, a chocolate bar would appear for Sahana, brought in by either Khushi or Gouri. And then naps would resume for them again. Within 45 minutes of chocolate, the ice cream vendor would go by our street. Naps would be forgotten at the deep cry of Kwality icecreaaaaaaaam. Tremendous excitement would ensue among the ladies as they called down to the ice cream wallah to wait. Khushi and Gouri would run down to buy ice cream for all, whether you want it or not (they can not fathom why one would not want ice cream) and offer us those with triumphant smiles. I would forcefully refuse and request Khushi to eat my share. And right after ice cream would be tea time.

Before we left, Gouri said to me, “Didi, we can never give you the love that your parents gave you. But we tried our best to make sure your home coming was at least somewhat similar to what it used to be.” She said all this in Bengali as she shed tears at our departure. Now I think back to those few days and realize that with everything going on about settling affairs, I really could not appreciate their immense love towards us. But I think back on it now and know that despite my horrible loss, I am lucky in love and also wonder what did I do to deserve it?

Sometimes you just need a hug…


The best way, in my opinion, to get through a day is to focus on little wins. Yesterday’s win was a hug from a customer at the library. It doesn’t sound professional I know, but sometimes, to get through a day, one needs a hug. This particular woman needed a hug. And me, a public library worker was there to give her one.

She came up the stairs, somewhat distraught, very anxious, with a piece of paper which had call numbers of certain books that she needed. I took her to the particular section and asked her a few more questions about what she was researching. She did not even know where to begin her research to find information about her needs. I left her looking at the books, went back to my computer, came back with more information on her topic. As she took the papers from my hand, tears glistened in her eyes. “This is a gift. Public libraries are gifts. I wish I could give you a hug.”

We both had masks on. And I hesitated a bit – Covid, professionalism….But then I thought “To heck with it.” I gave her a hug. She asked my name. She told me hers. I wished her luck because she will need it. And she left.

My day got a whole lot brighter. I had my win for the day.

Spring


There is something about spring. Yes, even when it is overcast. I find myself smiling at carefully nurtured spring flowers as well as the unwanted (yet often very beautiful) weeds. The light green buds on trees, the glorious magnolia trees showering me with petals on my daily walks, the few cherry blossoms that waited for my return, the yet-to-bloom but full-of-promise rhododendron bush in my yard, the busy ants, who will soon become a pain as summer approaches, the smell of sweet basil in my back deck from the saplings I just bought yesterday, the frolicking bunnies in the yard, the young sunlight forcing its way through grumpy clouds and washing the floor of my living room – all of these make me thankful and fill me with good cheer and, most importantly, hope.

And this is perhaps the only time I tend to be slightly poetic, despite schedules, travels, commitments et all.

I weeded my flower bed diligently, yet I see a few weeds sprouting already. But my peony is coming back and rhododendrons will bloom soon. I see a couple of gladiolus stalks sprouting up. I uprooted all the flower plants after last year’s bloom except obstinate ma plant. It is the red geranium which I planted last year, the day after she died. It looks dead still and shows no sign of life. But it is spring, it is the time of resurrection and also hope. So I live in hope that it will come back to me and bloom in all its glory.

Stain


I thought I had done thorough examination of ma’s sarees before I chose a few to take to the tailor. I wanted them to be made into dresses and kurtis which I primarily wear during the summer months in US. When I went back home for the first time after ma and baba’s death, I had to deal with banks and fixed deposits, lockers and house deed. One of the tasks, however, was to clear their closets. As I brought out their possessions and stroked them lovingly, both Sahana and I teared up often. Their belongings apart from their clothes, included my entire childhood – pictures of baby me, my report cards since kindergarten, award certificates, all the letters I wrote to them from US. I brought back those memories along with some of ma’s sarees, some of her kurtas, some salwars, some of her costume jewelry. I brought back baba’s sweater, his shawls, some of his kurtas for Sean and Ryan.

A few of ma’s sarees, specially the white ones, had stains on them. Sahana and I laughed and shook our heads as we discovered stains on otherwise gorgeous sarees. She chewed betel leaf and those stained her outfits. Some of the sarees, however, were pristine. I chose those for the tailor to transform them into outfits I will mostly wear in this country. And as I wear them now, the analogy of soul leaving the vessel of a body and being transformed into a new form doesnot escape me. Old sarees finding new forms.

This morning I opened a black and white kurta which was made from one of her sarees and discovered faint stains of turmeric perhaps on the shoulder area. This one should not have passed inspection, but it did. I smiled at it though. Ma became more real because of those stains. I visualized her at the moment when unaware of the turmeric on her hand, she must have wiped it on the saree. She was at some event perhaps, she was perhaps laughing with someone. She was alive. Maybe she saw the stain and exclaimed that the saree was spoiled now. But she washed it, pressed it and saved it in her closet. Perhaps this was a favorite saree and now it is with me. I am wearing it.

I have been wearing her clothes these days. Her jewelry too. I wrap baba’s shawl around me when I am cold. I feel them near me. These touched them and they are now touching me. In my search for benevolence, these feature.

In a few weeks, it will be a year since they both died 9 days apart. These days, I wake up in the mornings and relive those last horrendous days till I have to mindfully remove the memories from my head. I try to distract myself by dressing up, putting make up, posting dolled up photos on social media yet at this time grief orbits very close to my heart, restricting breath, songs, joy.

Memorial


I have had this feeling of not doing enough for my parents. For the longest time after their death, I suffered from self doubts, from what-ifs. It is a terrible way to live. At long last I have realized how hard I tried with all that was within my power. The Covid outbreak in India in the months of May, June of 2021, the political leaders, the complete breakdown of infrastructure are all the reasons ma and baba died. Along with tens of thousands of families, we lost our dearest ones.

After they died, I felt I did not do anything to honor their memories. Guilt, self doubt, feeling of inadequacy kept me miserable for many, many months compounded by the grief of losing them.

I hoped to gather people together to hold a memorial service of some kind to remember the two people who were such huge part of my life who suddenly ceased to exist physically when I finally went back to Kolkata. Due to the shortness of my visit and the labyrinthine process of settling affairs, I ran out of time. There was no formal memorial service for them. Yet, as I look back on my short stay, I realize I had the best form of ‘remembrance’ with the people who knew them the best. Each morning as I sat on a dining room chair sipping my first cup of coffee, Gouri and Breshpati joined me with their steaming cups of tea. The first day they talked about the trauma of dealing with their deaths. I asked them to narrate happy memories instead since I have lived their last days many, many times in my head. And so they did. After the first day, we sat together each morning laughing hysterically as we talked about the happy memories of their everyday lives caring for my parents. We talked about how baba tricked ma, or how ma yelled at baba for being a glutton or their interaction with Khushi, or the fun memories they created with other members of our extended family. We talked about their work to help the vulnerable in their community.

I went to visit my uncle and cousins. In each visit we laughed till we had tears in our eyes at the life time of happy memories of ma and baba. It was not all joyful, of course. We veered dangerously close to sad memories of helplessness during the Covid days but we quickly detoured back to happier times.

I realized this kind of organic retelling of memories and laughing (and crying) was so much better than organizing a formal get together to force everyone to talk about them. In this way, in installments perhaps, I celebrated the lives of ma and baba instead of mourning their deaths. I mourned them for all this time. Back in their city and my city where they gave me life and opportunities, where they made and nurtured relationships, loved and cared for others, I celebrated their lives with people who celebrated them with me. I came back with a sense of fulfillment. Grief still orbits my heart, but it has given me space to live, laugh, dance, feel joy.

Khushi’s education


Khushi’s mother, Breshpati, has learnt to sign her name. Although she does not know a word of English, she attends every school meeting that Khushi’s school arranges. The meetings are in English. She signs her name, enters the hall, sits through the meeting without understanding a single word and signs out when the meeting is over. She goes because she wants the school to know that she is invested in her daughter’s education. Then she asks the parents of Khushi’s classmates what was said in the meeting. Her husband never goes because he cannot sign his name. He is embarrassed.

During my visit to Kolkata, I observed the routine of Breshpati and Khushi. Breshpati gets her daughter up in the morning, makes her breakfast as the little girl wipes sleep from her eyes. Khushi brushes her teeth, dons her clean and ironed school uniform, eats her corn flakes and walks half an hour to school with her mother in the heat of Kolkata. Breshpati then comes home, cooks for other people, cooks for her own family, walks half an hour again to pick up her daughter. Khushi spends the afternoon either drawing, reading or watching cartoon on phone. In the evening, Breshpati walks her again to someone’s house for tuition and practicing spoken English. She cooks for another family while Khushi works with her tutor.

Little 8 year old Khushi navigated online school through her mother’s phone for close to 2 years without any technological help from her parents. My parents, when they were alive, helped. But they have not been around since May of 2021. Today Breshpati sent me Khushi’s report card. She has been promoted to third grade. She got A+ in each subject. She has chosen chess as her elective. Her favorite subject is math. And this is what her teacher wrote in the comment section – she has “been consistent, has exceeded expectation and created a mark for herself. Truly commendable.”

During my visit, Khushi and I had some meaningful conversations. She talked, I listened. I listened to her telling me about how hard her mother works, how intelligent her mother is, how caring her mother is. The child is mindful of how her mother is giving it her all for Khushi’s success. That made me so happy. Breshpati left me a voice message about Khushi’s grades. Her voice was infused with happiness about her daughter’s success, about the validation of her efforts to give her daughter opportunities. I smiled as I thought how proud my ma would be today.