The Namesake


Recently we discussed Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake in our book club. For some of the participants, the characters were not quite real. They felt good that they read the book but the characters were not authentic enough. For those who are not familiar with the book, here is a brief synopsis. The story explores the lives of a young couple, recently married, who come to the United States in the 1960’s from Kolkata. The husband is a researcher in a university in New England and the young bride accompanies him to build a life together. The marriage was arranged by their parents so they get to know each other, and fall in love in a completely new country, far away from parents and relatives. They make this country their home, raise their two children here, develop friendships yet suffer from a sense of displacement. They cherish the opportunity that America gives them, yet they pine for the loved ones they left behind. The later part of the story follows the life of their oldest child – a boy, who they name Gogol after Nikolai Gogol. You have to read the book to find out the reason for this unusual name. As Gogol grows up, he has issues with his name so he changes it to Nikhil in college not realizing the sentimental reason behind this name. The book talks about Gogol’s self realization as first generation American and the dichotomy of balancing his roots and his birthplace.

Gogol’s life interested me somewhat since I have two biracial children and one of them is trying to figure out where she belongs. But I completely and utterly related to Ashima, the young bride who came to bitter cold New England right after her marriage. Her desperate attempt to understand a new country and her efforts to replicate the experiences of home, here. The book has a description of Ashima trying to make jhal muri (a very delectable roadside snack in Kolkata) with puffed rice and Planter’s nuts but something is missing. Something is always missing when I make the traditional Musur dal, bati chocchori, alu kopi – a very simple Bengali meal, in this country. Is it the oil? Is it the taste of the vegetable? I am still not sure. When I fry the spices in hot oil, the aroma reminds me of home but not quite, not quite. Something is missing.

The sense of displacement grows faint with each passing year as I deepen my roots in the soil of this country. I understand it more, I start to feel like, yes I belong. I nurture sustaining friendships that make me feel loved but what I find missing is the shared history. I long for those who will share the memory when “Abhi na jao chodke ke dil abhi bhara nahi” plays in Pandora. It is not simply a song. It encompasses a part of my life. It is the memory of my dad crooning it as he tied his shoe laces when he got ready for work. It is the memory of loudspeakers during Durga pujo. It is the memory of coming of age and stealing glances at the boy I liked. It is the memory of the lobby of our university. It is the memory of people I sang this song with, it is the emotions that evoked in all of us as we sang it together.

It is the immigrant experience, never belonging fully and belonging to more than one.

Neighborhood grandfather


I consider reading as a means to freedom. Freedom of thought and freedom of expression. Reading takes you places that you did not think existed, reading introduces you to new ideas and lets your ideas soar. Reading sets you free. I was concerned my youngest child did not take to books as my oldest did. After many pushes and shoves towards books I finally realized that I can not shape him into any mold, instead, my job will be to expose him to new ideas via means that appeal to him and let him spread his wings on his own terms – discussion, research, news on television, non fiction books.

If you read my blogs you probably know, my young Ryan is a deep thinker. Since he was little his thoughts were different – he probed deeper. His teacher, in a recent meeting, reconfirmed our perception of him as one who thinks outside the box. Ryan seems to be an exception to my rule that reading sets one free. He has set himself free by observing, evaluating, thinking and reading books that appeal to him.

At dinner, the other night, we were discussing dreams. He was asked, “What are your dreams, Ry?”

“I don’t have dreams, I have goals.”

“Well, what is the difference?”

“You can dream but they don’t seem that solid. But you set your goals and you work towards achieving them. I set goals.”

Coming from an eleven year old, that sounded somewhat precocious. We asked him what his goals are then.

“My goal is to become a neighborhood grandfather.” He solemnly replied.

“Errr…what?!?! A neighborhood grandfather?!?!” His father and I exchanged bemused glances.

“Yeah, you know. I am going to be that grandfather in the neighborhood who is always there for someone who needs help, advice.”

“But you are just a child. Why are you jumping to old age and grandfather? What are you going to do in between?” It was hard not to laugh.

“No, no! There are many goals in between that. Being a neighborhood grandfather is the ultimate goal. Before that I will go to Stanford, swim in the Stanford swim team. I will open my own business and create lots of jobs. I will help a lot of poor people so they can have a good life. I will marry someone nice and have kids. And then I will become a neighborhood grandfather.” The fork rested on his plate as he got a dreamy look in his eyes. “Or maybe I will become a professional baseball player or an Olympic swimmer. I will be famous, I will earn a lot of money and I can help even more people that way.”

Dreams and goals got entangled at this point, but we smiled at our child as he dreamed on and set goals for himself. As I see my two kids grow up, I glance upon the innocence and beauty of childhood. I feel myself a mere observer and perhaps a chronicler of these beautiful times of their lives. I write them down judiciously so I can offer these moments up to them when they are all grown up. When asked about aspirations, a child mentions a profession – teacher, engineer, scientist…..
My child’s aspiration is to be a neighborhood grandfather. Personally, I think that is a superb goal. We need neighborhood grandfathers to bring back the human connection which we seem to be losing fast in our digital age. Grow up to be a neighborhood grandfather, child. Bring people closer. Bring them out to the porch again. Re establish the connection.

Dada


I still remember the excitement of standing at the bus stop to get on a public bus to go to school by myself. I was in grade 9. After coaxing and cajoling for almost a year, some of us got the permission to use public transport to go to school. We had finally grown up enough to leave the school bus behind. I distinctly remember the beating heart and the clammy hands, clutching the fare. My first step into the world of grown ups, as a semi grown up! I later found out that my dad had followed me the entire way to school, in the same crowded bus on that first day to make sure I did not get lost. You can imagine my indignance at that! He tells the story to my children with much laughter as the children laugh with him.

Anyway, the point of the story is, as far as I can remember I have called the young, lanky bus drivers, auto drivers, taxi drivers as ‘dada’ (big brother). That was the norm. I asked them if they would take me:

‘Dada, jaaben?’ (Big brother, will you go?)

I haggled with them over price and fare.

‘Ki bolchen dada? Dosh taka r ek poishao beshi debo na!’ (What are you saying? Won’t give you a cent more than 10 rupees)

But lately, I realized they look at me strangely when I call them big brother. They see the crow’s feet near my eyes and the silver in my hair and wonder, ‘How old does she think she is, calling us dada?’

When I go back now, I catch myself and use the appropriate endearment ‘bhai’ (little brother) instead of the one I am used to ‘dada’.

How would they know that when I go back, I slip back into that young girl, the fresh faced young woman who felt she owned the streets once upon a time? How would they know that when I go back, I shed the identities that I have accumulated since I left the city – that of a mother, a wife, a lover. I am back to being me again – daughter of India. The daughter who boldly came home in the middle of the night from work without any worries of rape and assault. Perhaps I was lucky, but there was less fear among us. There were the neighborhood boys, dadas, who held vigil even that late at night.

Kolkata does that to me. It reduces me to myself. It reduces me to the girl I was before I spread my wings and flew away. And I love being that ‘me’ for a while, luxuriating in the feeling of being just a loved daughter, niece, big sister but alas, granddaughter no more. I walk the much walked paths to bus stops, stores, phone booths, xerox shops which I walked numerous times as a little girl, a young student with a big pack pack, a college kid and then a woman in love. New stores have taken the place of some old ones yet the roads remain the same. Some of the dadas I used to know still keep vigil in the neighborhood. They have whites in their receding hair line, wrinkles in their faces but they are there. The sight reassures me. They keep my childhood intact. My memories remain safe. And as I hail a taxi these days, I remind myself to say:

‘Jaben bhai?’

Jack the Ripper and Ryanism.


Ryan chatters about a lot of things. Constantly. I try my best to listen to most of them, and engage in educational discourses about them. Although sometimes I just say ‘uh huh’ ‘uh huh’ not really hearing a word. I hope  there are at least some other  mammas out there who won’t raise their eyebrows at that 🙂 !

It was Ku Klux Klan for a while. He finished reading They Called Themselves KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group by Susan Campbell Bartoletti and then a fiction by Sharon Draper – Stella by Starlight, a historical fiction about KKK. We had animated discussions about hate, segregation, human courage, standing up for human right. I loved every discussion. The latest obsession, however, is proving to be a bit dicey – Jack the Ripper. He started talking animatedly about this mysterious killer who killed only women and whose identity, till date, is a mystery. What else can ignite a child’s imagination than unsolved mystery, murder, gore? I have half heartedly answered questions and did not offer up Google like I usually do so he can conduct further research. I felt I needed to filter the research on this particular interest.

Tonight at dinner, while stabbing half heartedly at his spinach salad, Ryan told the family that he has discovered more information on Jack the Ripper.

Gulp. I waited. Sahana waited. Sean looked at us with questioning eyes – what is happening?

‘I found out that Jack the Ripper only killed roaming women in London. So for example, if  you or Sahana decided to take a pleasant walk at night, you would get killed by Jack the Ripper. I think it was very wrong of a Jack the Ripper to kill but more so, kill women who just wanted to take a walk at night? That is very bad. And I am sorry to say, the ladies of London at that time were not very smart. If they knew there was a killer killing women if they walked at night why would they go out for walks after dinner anyway? Shouldn’t they have just stayed at home? At least they would have been alive!!’

I asked if I could write a blog on the information he gave the family about this nasty killer. He agreed I should. This concerns women’s rights. I guffawed, got up from my chair, went around and gave his rosy cheeks a big smooch. Sahana called out from the kitchen, ‘Give him a kiss from me too, Mom. Your son is adorable. You are adorable, Ryno!’ Sean ruffled his hair as he passed by him, chuckling.

After the day’s chore was done, as I was sitting down to write the blog, Sahana came to me excitedly, ‘I know why he said Jack the Ripper killed roaming women. He asked me who did the Jack the Ripper kill and I said ladies of the night. He, of course, asked me who they were. I got nervous because he did not know anything about prostitution so I said ladies who roamed the streets of London at night!’

She shed light on this particular Ryanism and we both giggled out of Ryan’s earshot. Oh Innocence, you are precious and so short-lived!

I collect these Ryanisms to share with friends and family. I collect them also for me, so  when he is a man of the world, I will remember his innocence and childhood and perhaps share stories when we are all gathered,

‘Do you know when you were just a little boy, you said…?’

By the way, I think Jack the Ripper is almost on his way out, I feel him fading away. He is being usurped by…….none other than…….Hannibal Lecter!! Oh Joy!!

Hold on to dreams..


The change is very gradual, almost imperceptible, yet I notice it lately. The silent burst of the colorful bubble of dreams in the young mind of my son. The brush with reality is painful and the realization harsh. Even a year ago, being an Olympic swimmer was a possibility, beating Phelp’s record was not simply a pipe dream but an achievable aspiration. Playing pro baseball was not wishful thinking but a natural progression of life. What else would he do other than play professional baseball? Or win gold medals in Olympics? He has his mind set to two schools when he grows up – Harvard and MIT. But now questions and doubts are casting shadows on those innocent dreams. I am not good enough! Am I good enough?

Those dreams, at the age of nine, at the beginning of fourth grade, are slowly starting to look unrealistic. Although I know this is simply a part of growing up, yet it devastates me to think that he will not casually say anymore ‘I will win one more medal than Phelps in Olympics’ or, ‘Mom, when both Ravens and Orioles want to draft me, what should I do?’ I just want him to dream on – for as long as he can. And who knows, his dreams may well be his reality one day? He is a little bundle of endless possibilities like every other child.

Last night while brushing teeth before bed time he said to me:

‘Mom, the child born by mixing you and dad, (interesting choice of words) that is me, should be super athletic and very smart, right? Dad is super athletic and you are very smart?’

‘Well, you ARE super athletic and you ARE very smart!’ I said. Please note how I avoided answering the ‘you are very smart?’ question! 🙂

He thought about it quietly for a few minutes.

‘Being good at sports is not going to get me anywhere, is it?’ He then asked.

‘Being good at sports is an ability not everybody has. It is a gift. Accept at it as one. And you love playing, so play. We can see where it takes you later. But you want to be well-rounded. You want to do well in school and learn all that you can learn as well!’

‘I am finding fourth grade very challenging. This is the most challenging year of all I think. Can you help me?’ (He just started fourth grade)

The cry for help was so plaintive, so innocent and genuine that I stopped what I was doing and took him in my arms.

We had a talk and planned a plan till he felt confident that we are all in it together, mom, dad, sister too. We are team Ryan and we will help him learn, no matter what. It indeed is a big transition from previous years to fourth grade and his steps are faltering. But he knew enough to ask for help. I am grateful. We have a plan. Bring it on, fourth grade. We got this! 🙂 And we high-fived!

We will make sure those dreams return! We need those bright, colorful bubbles floating around childhood. My mommy heart wants to save all of them, none can burst! So there! 🙂

For the love of….money!


Those of you who follow my blog will know that Ryan is a believer. He is a true believer of God and a devoted worshipper of….money. He, since a tender age of 2 or 3, has been strangely attracted to money in any form – paper bills, coins, currency of any country. The word ‘money’ has always brought on that expression of awe and reverence. He is very religious too, no, not the ascetic kind. He is very mindful of the quality of his life on earth and he worries about his existence after he passes on from this material world. He has learnt to merge his two loves – love of God and love of money by sharing his wealth and helping the impoverished.

In a recent discussion with his uncle, he expounded his theory of this happy merge of his two passions.

‘When I become a trillionaire, I will choose someone who does not have any money and make that person a billionaire. However, I will take away his money if he takes drugs or alcohol. He can not do that!’

He does not want money to serve vices. Good thought, I thought and we had a laugh over it.

He has different schemes always for earning. In India, he earned money first by carrying his grandfather’s grocery bags. He refused a rickshaw and politely asked if he could have the rickshaw fare instead if he carried the bags of vegetables and bloody fish. His grandfather agreed. Then he charged his indulgent grandfather for his companionship if there were no bags to be carried. Lastly he charged his innumerable aunties and grandmothers for hugs and kisses. He made a sweet sum at the end of his stay. He gave all of it away to his grandmother before leaving India.

In summer he weeded my flower bed for 5 dollars and opened a lemonade stand. Since he does not mess around when it comes to money, he wrote out a contract engaging Sahana as his junior partner and employee with a 75-25 % contract. And he calculated the exact amount that he owed her, and paid up.

Recently he has cooked up another scheme with friends. They are making book marks and selling them. I came home from work and was told triumphantly:

‘Mom!! Sahana bought 6 bucks worth of book marks!!’

I turned to my daughter, who is currently flushed with baby sitting money and also the money she gets from mowing our lawn, and exclaimed quietly at her generosity.

‘Why did you buy so many bookmarks? 6 bucks? That is a lot of bookmarks!’

‘It’s all good mom! This is all part of my plan. When we grow up and I am a poor struggling writer and he is a successful business man, I will remind him of this day and how I contributed to his start up business. The guy is a softie, he will help me out with my finances. I have got it all worked out!’

Well, then….:)

Shylockism…


I laid my head on my husband’s shoulder and said, ‘We have given birth to the reincarnation of Shylock!’ My insensitive husband guffawed at that, I snapped my head up, glared at him and showed him the white of my eye!

We were seated at my parents’ house in the summer of 2013 in Kolkata enjoying a few stolen moments while the rest of the family played up on the terrace.

This story is about my 8-year-old son, whose love of money has assumed legendary proportions amongst family and friends. Ryan has been often spotted sitting in a corner with his money jar, counting pennies and dimes. He saves everything he gets for birthdays and Christmases and puts it in his college fund (his money jar). He claims he is saving every penny from a young age to help us pay for his college since he has heard us talk about education in America being expensive.

Ryan’s Shylockism started innocently enough. On the second day of our vacation in Kolkata, his grandfather (dadai) asked him if he wanted to accompany him to the fish market. Ryan agreed. Upon return, I received an excited boy glowing from sweat and happiness and a chuckling grandfather.

‘Your son is something else. That boy will go far!’ His grandfather was still laughing.

I learnt, in due course, that Ryan offered to carry dadai’s tholi (jute bag carrying fresh fish) home. Dadai was touched by his young grandson’s offer to help and let him carry the bag. When they reached home, Ryan innocently asked if dadai thought he deserved to be paid for his services.

‘Paid? Why?’ Dadai played along.

‘Well, first I carried bloody fish and fish head which is extremely gross and second, didn’t you save some money by not getting on the rickshaw because I carried your bag? Don’t you think I deserve the rickshaw fare?’ He asked.

‘I hope you didn’t pay him!!!’ I exclaimed.

My father said with a chuckle, ‘How could I not? I was defeated by logic!’

A pattern thus developed. Ryan refused to go on fun outings, if there was a possibility of accompanying dadai on errands. Dadai let him keep the change from rickshaw fares and bus fares – which Ryan termed as his payment for ‘companionship’. This story spread far and wide. All of a sudden, there was an amusing competition among the adoring aunts, uncles, grandmothers (my aunts) and grandfathers (my uncles) to pay Ryan money for kisses and hugs. I have pictures of Ryan holding bills while a grandmother kisses his cheeks.

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I laughed along for a while and then tried to stop relatives from playing this game. But as it happens whenever I go back home, my children hide behind the indulgent family members and smile at me cheekily as I get chastised for being too strict.

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Ryan often counted his ever increasing pile of notes with a gleam in his eyes and proudly told his sister how much he had. I shuddered at his mercenary tendencies. I talked to him in private about not accepting money from family, he shrugged and said, ‘But they want to give it to me!’

The night before we left for home, Ryan carried some of his money when we went out for our last stroll in Kolkata. He disclosed he needed to find a toy store as he planned to buy a toy for 3 month old baby Khushi, who was living in my parent’s house at that time. Khushi is the baby girl of the young woman who cooked delightful meals for us during our stay in Kolkata. A toy shop was found, a toy for Khushi was bought, Ryan’s own money was spent to buy it. That made me smile.

As we headed home, Ryan ran into Bancharaam – the famous sweet shop in Gariahat. During our two week stay, Ryan dashed into every sweet shop or cake shop that we came across to longingly stare at the varied sweetmeats displayed in the show cases. We hardly bought any, yet he went in to see them and salivate over them. As he went into the sweet shop, he saw a little girl, about the same age as Ryan, tugging at my shirt for some money. He came out and whispered to me, he wanted to buy her some sweets. The girl chose the sweets she wanted and Ryan bought them for her. My smile widened.

On the morning of our departure, Ryan kept insisting that his parents hand him over all his money at once. He had given his money to us for safe keeping. He was getting in the way, so I gave him his money back and told him sternly to stay out of our way so we could finish packing.

In a little while, his grandmother came into our room, holding a bunch of bills with a baffled expression. Ryan had taken all the money and given it all to his grandmother to spend as she chose fit, after he was gone.

Sean and I exchanged glances. I gave his apple cheeks a kiss as I laughed and wiped away a tear at the same time.

Everything was alright with the world again.

The messenger ladybug.


Host of memories came crashing down by an inconsequential ladybug. As I turned on the ignition of my car, harried and stressed and late for work, a lady bug landed on the windshield with a light plop. And it brought back memories of a curly haired little five year old girl squatting on the driveway, brows furrowed in fierce concentration, counting the dots on a ladybug.

My daughter was born in India and was raised by not only her parents, but by a village. Her universe consisted of parents, grandparents, a plethora of uncles and aunts, little friends who grew up with her, adopted grandparents (our landlords), adopted uncles and aunts (our friends in the Indian city where we lived), domestic help, who was an integral part of the family. Her life was enriched by the love and nurturing of all – family by blood and family by association and friendship. For the first five years of her life, it was a party every day. Playdates, frolic in the parks with little friends, visits to Kolkata whenever opportunity arose, travels to exotic places with mom and dad. And peacocks and lady bugs. We had three resident peacocks in the neighborhood, who sometimes came to visit us in our balcony. When Sahana, Sean and I went for our walks in the neighborhood, Sean made horrible peacock noises, much to the chagrin and embarrassment of his wife and amusement of his toddler. He expected to get a response back from the peacocks, but his peacock call wasn’t authentic enough and he never heard back from them. The aunties and uncles who walked around our neighborhood always chuckled at the white man’s perseverance.

And there were lady bugs galore. Ladybugs or ladybirds, was a huge topic of debate between me, the native of a former British colony and my husband, an American, the pollutant of Queen’s English. The ladybugs/birds featured a lot in the children’s play. They counted them, counted the dots on them, let them crawl on their hands and laughed at the sensation. Despite the usual sicknesses, Sahana had a fulfilling and happy time. She thrived in the love.

Then we moved. We came to a new country, a new state, a new home and to loneliness. Before we built a new circle of family and friends around us, that is exactly what we came to – loneliness. From the constant buzz of family, we moved to the thrum of crickets outside our suburban home. During this time, one day, I saw little Sahana crouching down and looking at a solitary lady bug in the driveway of our new house.

‘What are you doing, baby?’ I asked as I lowered my heavily pregnant body next to my little girl.

‘Mama, look!!! A ladybug!!! Mama, do you think this lady bug has come all the way from our neighborhood in India to see how I am doing? Do you think it missed me? Now that it has seen me, will it fly back to Anushree and Rohan and tell them about me!’

As I write this today, eight years later, my eyes tear up at the intensity of her homesickness she must have felt then. That was the magical age of unending possibilities and ‘anything can happen’s! I kept the magic alive and said,

‘That is exactly what the ladybug will do, honey! It will take your news back to your friends!’

She turned her attention back to the ladybug and said,

‘Ok, go tell Anu and Rohan, I miss them. And tell the other ladybugs, I miss them too!’

With that she walked away with a stick in her hand to explore other treasures.

She doesn’t look for ladybugs anymore. She deals with the complicated world of high school, she reads “To kill a Mocking bird” and writes papers on “Female infanticide in developing nations”. She is slowly becoming a thoughtful, mature woman. Dreams have changed, magic is dealt with skepticism. But since I am the treasurer of HER childhood memories, I chronicle this faithfully, in my heart and in this post. I do this for her, and perhaps, more for me. Who knows one day, when she turns back, she will look for this little nugget of gold. A forgotten moment, yet etched forever in her mother’s memory.

Almost home…


The preparation of going home to Kolkata starts almost ten months prior to the actual date. It starts with pinning my husband down to look at his calendar and give me some dates to work with. Then comes the intolerable stress and anxiety about finding the best price for tickets, looking at layovers, working out swim meet conflicts, assuring the competitive son that going to India is more important than swimming in the Divisionals. Finally, when the tickets are bought, thinking about and looking for gifts to bring back home. And while doing all this, pausing suddenly to savor the sweetness of a childhood memory, smiling at some inconsequential snippet of home that is precious to only me, being mindful of the soothing, calming, reassuring feeling that I will go home soon and I will bask in everything that is so familiar, yet somewhat different with the passage of time.

Driving to the airport, standing at the check in line, getting on the flight – I don’t quite mind. There is the hustle bustle of fellow travelers. The energy of others, at the beginning of the journey, energizes me. I see fellow South Asians and play guessing games with the family – which city do you think they are going to? I note with awe, the immaculately dressed and impeccably made up women getting ready to board a long flight. How do they look so good and will they look this good at the end of 24 hour travel, I wonder. Some actually do!

As I find my seat on the plane and buckle my seatbelt, I look around and grin foolishly at whoever catches my eye. My joy is contagious, I get smiles and nods back generally. And every time the flight starts moving for take off, I invariably say, ‘Here we go! Goodbye_______ (my hometown)! We will see you soon!’ The children haven’t chastised me about it yet! They smile indulgently at my enthusiasm.

As I feel the plane starting to descend, I grip Sean’s arm and smile, despite the terrible ear popping, ‘Half the journey is over, dude” The lay over is spent walking around whichever airport we are transiting from, looking at duty-free goodies and eyeing the chocolates. Then it is time to get back on the next plane again. This time, the flight is full of Bangla speaking fellow passengers, saree or salwar kameez donned, brown-skinned, small boned, familiar! I eavesdrop shamelessly, butt into conversations unwanted but soon get accepted. The common topic of discussion, generally is ‘Kotodin por deshe jacchen?'(How long has it been since you went home) ! Desh….motherland…a word that fills me with a warm and fuzzy feeling of belonging.

I bear the 24 plus hours of travel in relatively good humor. I smile and nod ecstatically at the grumpy immigration officials at Kolkata airport. I seem to want to impress upon them that the entry stamp that they so nonchalantly pressed upon my passport is so meaningful to me. They are the gatekeepers who just opened the door to the enchanted land where my past is waiting for me.

I turn into a very disagreeable person at the baggage claim, I confess. Every second there seems intolerable. My husband feels my irritation, he massages my back, smiles kindly, tries to distract with conversation, yet I remain irritated. Each time this interminable wait to retrieve our luggage becomes unbearable. So close, yet not quite there. I politely harass the young airport officials, ‘Bhai eto deri hocche?’ (Brother, what’s taking so long?). Invariably, the carousel gets stuck and I mutter under my breath.

I do all this because just behind the wall stand two humans who I simply can not wait to see. They have been counting months and then days, like me, till our plane touches the ground. I know they have come early to avoid getting stuck in Kolkata traffic and I know that as every passenger goes out of the terminal, their eyes brighten with hope. And then dim again. It’s not me, yet. Not us. They are the treasurers of my childhood and youth, they keep my memories tucked away in their treasure chest and guard them with love and longing. They are the ones who smile wistful smiles at my ‘remember when’s. They are the only two people who ever so eagerly await my arrival and shed tears at my departure.

Finally, when our luggage is gathered we push our cart to the exit past the custom official, my eyes scan for those two beloved faces as the children run ahead. This reunion happens every twelve months and I am parched for their presence. When I see them, or they see us, my father’s face is a combination of relief, joy, excitement, happiness. His face seems just about ready to burst with all these emotions. My mother is more expressive, she smiles from ear to ear, squeals our names, comes forward to envelope the grand children in a bear hug, and then hugs me fiercely with unspilt tears of happiness glistening in her eyes. My father gives me an awkward side hug (hugging doesn’t come naturally to him), he hugs his grandkids and shakes hand with his son-in-law.

He, then, gets busy warding off unsolicited help from airport porters, calls the driver of the rented car that will take us home. My daughter, who is fluent in Bengali, claims Didiya (grandma) and narrates all that happened on the flight. Little Ryan is generally shy, unable to speak the language, stands quietly with a shy, tired smile. Didiya notices and takes his hand. His little hand willingly disappears in her grasp. He nods and smiles mostly while his sister talks nineteen to the dozen. In the car, as we head home, Ryan slowly reaches out and touches Dadai’s (grandfather) shoulder giving him a little nudge. Dadai nudges him back with a conspiratorial smile while I blink away some unexpected tears at this silent communing.

Finally, my two worlds meet.

Pilgrimage, no less…


A happy coincidence occurred in my life recently. My friend’s daughter sent me a questionnaire for her summer holiday project. One of the questions was ‘Name five people who have influenced you and why!’ I didn’t have to think much when I wrote the name of my class teacher. One of those five people, who has been most influential in my life is my class teacher of 5 years, Miss______. Guiding and inspiring a class full of hormone imbalanced teenagers must not have been easy, but Miss (that is what we called our teachers in India) did it with an ease which amazes me now.

A few days after writing the answers to the questionnaire set by my friend’s daughter, I found my teacher back in my life after 23 years, thanks to Facebook and efforts of a very dear girlhood friend, who kept on searching for her. Her efforts paid off, Ms _____ was found. We were told in her excited status update, to send in friend requests. After my initial doubt of is she the real one, I sent in a request and got accepted as her friend right away. From student to friend. Life has come to a full circle. I have grown up! I instantly wrote to her as I excitedly told my family,

‘I can’t believe it, I found my teacher on Facebook. I am messaging her right now! This is surreal!’ Yes, I am one of those people who overuses the term surreal.

Her influence in my life has been twofold. The first one being that of what educators dream of – instill the love of learning. She ignited in me the love for languages. She taught us Bengali for five straight years, and in those five years she held open the door of Bengali literature for me. I peered in and saw the treasure. And then there was that point of no return. She let my imagination soar, she waved the magic wand and opened my blind eyes so I could immerse myself in the prose and poetry of Bengali literary stalwarts. She taught me to think on my own, she gently let go of my hands, stood back and watched as I took hesitant steps towards appreciating literature. Appreciation of literature transcends language barrier. Love of Bengali literature paved way for love of English literature and translations of literature in other languages. She taught me to express my ideas coherently while writing. Well expressed ideas got kudos, a satisfied smile and a nod of the head. Badly written assignments got this rebuke,

‘Eki mudir dokan er bhasha? ‘ (This type of language belongs to grocery stores)! Why grocery stores? Don’t ask. 🙂 !

Some of the phrases she used for us have become legends in themselves. I will not even try to translate them in English (they were delivered in Bengali, of course) except one. As she asked us Bengali grammar and each of us gave wrong answers and kept standing, she said to us, ‘Bokader jodi kono building thake, tumi tar chile kothay thakbe’ (if there is ever a tall building for fools, you will be given the penthouse suite!) Since 20 of us stood in the class somewhat shame faced at our failure to provide the right answer, this statement caused considerable mirth. But we dared not bring any smile to our lips, so as not to be disciplined further. All the laughter was reserved for after the ringing of the bell. As we filed out into the corridor to go back to our classroom, laughter erupted like a dormant volcano. We imagined 20 skyscrapers of fools built next to each other and all of us looking out of our penthouse suites. It was a collective shame which turned out quite humorous at the end of that period.

Educators have one of the most difficult jobs, I think. They have the responsibility of inciting in their students this love of learning which is (or should be) the primary goal of education. And they have to do this within the strict parameters of set curriculum, standardized testings and the numerous other set of rules that different boards of education dictate for them. Miss had to stay within those parameters, she had to finish the curriculum, despite all the rules, she inculcated in us the love for the language that she taught.

She never had to raise her voice to bring the class under control. Her personality was such that before she entered the class, we sat up straighter, looked attentively towards the front of the class and made ourselves ready to listen and learn. We tried hard for her. I remember, our class got the trophy for being the best class in whole school. I have a proud picture of her holding a trophy with all of us around her, a thin, bespectacled me all the way at the back, peering at the camera. She encouraged us to participate in dramas, public speaking, debates, music. We went out and won inter school competitions in those. She was the wind beneath our sail. She pushed us so we could soar and reach our potentials. I am unsure of how the child psychologists would rate her method of disciplining us, but I, her student, would attribute her disciplining to that what Rabindranath Tagore talks about when he says,

“Shashon kora tarei shaaje
Shohag kore je go”

(The discipline that is infused with love is the best form of discipline)

It certainly worked for us. We felt her love and carried the love with us as we moved on and grew up.

I have so many happy memories of play practices and performances under her leadership. After 23 years, she remembered. Her first lines in my inbox was “Kemon acho? Ekhono natok koro?” (How are you? Do you still act?)

Her one particular advice came back to me after I became a mother and my children started going to school. She had said to us, when we were in eighth grade, ‘Do me a favor. When you are parents and your children go to school, instill in them a love of learning. If family and neighbors worry about the grades they are getting, lock yourselves in a room and throw the key away. Do not participate in the race for good grades but teach them to think for themselves, make sure their curiosity and thirst for true knowledge is satiated.’

Whenever my children truly enjoy a book and excitedly tell me the new information that they learned in school, I see their glowing faces and think of the advice I heard at age 14. I admit I haven’t been able to step out of the race completely, I have partially given in to societal pressure. Yet, I try not to. I try to talk about what went wrong, what they could have done better and most importantly, what did they learn?

All this happened a couple of weeks prior to my short trip to India. And I knew right away that going home would remain incomplete if I didn’t visit Miss. As two of my friends and I rang her doorbell, we became 13-year-old for a few moments, slightly unsure, apprehensive. There she was smiling. Our beloved teacher, now our friend. Three of us went to meet her with our children. The young ones sat silently with a grin on their faces as their mothers dissolved in laughter, again and again. There were, of course, a lot of ‘remember when’s! There were 23 years of life to catch up, so many laughs to laugh, so many memories to remember! My two childhood friends, who went with me to meet Miss are now educators themselves. I sat there quietly listening to them discuss their profession with their teacher, who perhaps, had some influence in their choice of career. They certainly have a wonderful role model to draw inspiration from. As we headed home, my daughter looked at my glowing face. ‘Mom, you are so loved!!’ She said with wonder and admiration in her voice. As I drowned in a beautiful feeling of contentment, I realized I am. I am so blessed to have been loved so.

Now all my visits back home would include a visit with my teacher. It is a pilgrimage, no less. After all, we are ‘her girls’! Every single one of us in that class.