Going home…


I was talking to the lovely receptionist at my doctor’s office this morning, sharing frustrations of having loved ones far away. She is from Trinidad. Like many of us, she can not go home to see her parents. Borders are closed. We commiserated over our situations and the situations of millions around the world. Stuck. Since then I have checked Emirates website at least 3 times. The intensity of my desire to go home multiplies everyday.

Compounded with all the other worries associated with this pandemic, the feeling of being stuck and not being able to reach my ma and baba plunges me in depths of despair, robbing sleep at night. This, unfortunately, is not exclusively an immigrant problem. I was sharing my concerns with a friend at work. She lives a few streets away from her parents however she said she has not seen them as she is afraid to see her elderly parents for the fear of bringing infection to them. Another friend lost her dad during the height of pandemic and was afraid to give her mother a hug or hug other family members and friends who came to celebrate her father’s life. My husband has not been able to see his mom living in an assisted living facility in a different state. The gates to their loved ones are also closed. Although us, immigrants, have longer distances to travel to reach our family, we all share the same agony of not being able to reach/see those close to our heart.

Sometimes I fantasize my reunion with my parents. First of all, how would I feel when the plane’s wheels touch City of Joy after this horrible disease has a vaccine? How my first sighting of those beloved faces will feel like? We are not a hugging family. When we first see each other we give a perfunctory hug but we all feel that is not natural. We smile though. We smile so wide that it feels like our mouths can not stretch any more. And ma invariably puts her hand on my arm, perhaps to feel that yes, I am really there in front of her in flesh. She strokes my arm gently and in that touch I feel all her love pouring into my being. My father has a beaming smile as if his whole soul is lit up. Finally! Their child has arrived. Then we follow baba outside the relative calm interior of Dumdum airport into complete chaos, smell of dust and blast of humidity of Kolkata. We wait with our luggage talking to ma while baba texts the driver of the rented car to come pick us up. On the long drive home, we are presented with bottles of water and almost always a Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bar. My favorite. I don’t eat it then, but just getting it from ma and baba fills me up with the feeling of being small again. It is hard to explain.

I am sending positive vibes to the universe. End this pandemic. End this for so many reasons but also for me, in this little corner of my world. I want to go back home. I want to go to bed in my Kolkata home, wake up completely jetlagged in the middle of the night and then sit by the window in the living room, facing east to see the morning sun rise over the coconut trees behind our 5th floor apartment.

I want to hear the first caws of crows as they convene for their morning meetings, the first whistle of local train bringing workers to the city from villages, the sound of running water as the slum across from us wakes up to a new day, the soft tinkling of glass bangles as the neighborhood women come to the municipality tap to wash dishes, wash themselves, collect water. I want to sit next to my mom and dad, drinking a cup of tea with Parle G biscuit and looking out the french window where the world is obscured by my father’s plants.

I want to feel their presence. I want be in their presence. I want to be asked that question so filled with love, which no one else ever asks me, “Aaj ki khabi?” (What do you want to eat today?)

As I write these memories down, I see the scenes in my mind’s eye. I almost smell the smells of home, almost feel the love, almost touch the other slice of my life. The slice that I leave behind when I cross the ocean each time. Almost, but not quite…

Universe, hear my prayer.

My fight with television.


Do you remember those times when you wrote hand written letters and waited in eager anticipation to receive a reply in your actual mail box? I date myself when I write this that I am one of those people who checked my mailbox in the mid nineties everyday with the thrill of ‘maybe today there will be an aerogram’. These days checking the mailbox mostly involves a slight irritation at how many pieces of junk mail are going to the recyclable. It was not so about 24 years ago. We wrote letters home. We received letters from home. When I first came to United States in the mid nineties, at least twice every week, I gathered my new life in a new country and poured it on several pages of paper, documenting new sights and new experiences. I sealed the envelope, attached stamps and mailed them to my parents with a wistful sigh. In return, I received a white and blue aerogram bringing with it news from my home across the sea. It told me my cat had new kittens, the Krishnachura tree just outside our bedroom is full of new blooms, the little girl next door got into college, a cousin got engaged. It asked me when I was coming home. It told me I was loved, I was missed.

Along with the letters, there was a monthly phone call. I regularly went to Indian grocery store to buy calling cards to call home. I had to dial in what seemed like a thousand digits, the mechanical voice gave directions to next steps, after which I heard the home phone ring….all the way in Kolkata. Ma or Baba picked up the phone, their voice tinged with excitement and anticipation: “HELLO?”

Then came emails, followed by Facebook, followed by Skype calls, followed by Whatsapp video calls. I can call every day if I want. I don’t, due to the time difference, my work schedule and……Ma’s tv serial timing. Many moons ago, when I was naive about the importance of the television serials, I would call sometime in the morning (my time) thinking I will catch them sipping evening tea in the living room, ideal time for exchange of news and let’s face it……some satisfying, old fashioned, harmless gossip. I would call and the TV would be roaring in the background. Ma would answer yet her eyes would be shifty, glancing up towards the TV, responding with a very polite yet clear, “not now, get lost, we are just at the good part of the show” tone. I would say, “Why don’t you turn the TV down?” She would do it, but still the conversation would be half-hearted or she would say, “Here’s your baba, talk to your baba.” and hand over the phone.

After many such thwarted attempts at conversation, I realized what exactly was happening. Loknath Baba (tv serial), Rani Rashmoni (yet another tv serial) were going through important transformations in their lives (not really, these shows are masterful about dragging on and on) and ma was missing those milestones if I called at wrong time. I wizened up. Now I check my time and call right before the tv serials start or after all the shows have ended. If I call then, the tone is so different. It is a “tell me all about your life” tone. It is “I now have all the time in the world” tone.

There is, however, an exception to this rule. Instead of me, if Sahana calls her, she pays more attention to her grand daughter. Most days, Sahana’s call gets precedence over ongoing tv drama. She gets the “I am so glad to talk to you” tone. In Ma’s own words, “the interest is sweeter than the principal” (ashol er cheye shud misti). I am kind of evil. I make Sahana call and then I jump in to talk before the interest wanes and television takes over. 🙂

An Immigrant and Carl


I was fresh off the boat those days when I landed a job in a downtown hotel as a Select Guest coordinator. New marriage, new job, new country – life, then, was a little overwhelming, very exciting and full of hope. I was trying to understand this new country – its culture, tradition and most importantly, the accent. There were many ‘aha’ moments and then there were ‘oh my goodness, is that true?’ moments. At work I was somewhat of a novelty. In the mid nineties, I was the only Indian in that company so the questions I got ranged from ‘did you go to school on an elephant?’ to ‘are you an Indian princess?’ to ‘are you so quiet because if you talked loudly the tigers will come and get you in your country?’ (yes, I have been asked this question in complete seriousness. And yes, I used to be very quiet once upon a time, mainly because I did not understand what people were saying, the accent, you see!)

They were days when I looked down upon unfamiliar American sports and considered baseball as a poor cousin of the king of sports, cricket and considered American football bestial. Sean tried a few times to expound the virtues of baseball (faster than cricket) and of his team Red Sox but I argued relentlessly to prove him wrong. He made fun of cricket and I made fun of baseball.

As a Guest Coordinator, I had to attend meetings every morning with the Assistant General Manager of the hotel along with the heads of reservation, front desk, hospitality etc. One time, the hotel was hosting a big event where love and pride of Maryland, the star baseball player of the state was going to feature. So at the meeting, I said, “So when Carl Ripken arrives….”. I was cut off quite rudely as the room erupted in laughter. There were loud guffaws all around me. I looked at them puzzled. What caused this eye watering mirth? The Assistant GM said, “What did you say? Carl Ripken? Hahahahaha. Guys, we have to take her to a ball game. We need to educate her in baseball! It is our responsibility!” More hahahahahas followed. I was still puzzled. “What is so FUNNY?” The head of Reservations was a very nice woman who finally wiped her tears and said, “His name is CAL Ripken and he is a legend in these parts!”

See, growing up in a country which was under British rule for many, many years, I knew the language relatively well and I was certainly familiar with names like Tom, Dick, Harry, John, Johnathan, Carl, Bill, William, even Julian (Enid Blyton, Famous Five, in case you are wondering). I was not aware someone could be named Cal. I thought my American mates said Cal but they just pronounced Carl in a different way than I did. And yes, I perhaps never encountered Ripken’s name in written words. There are many excuses I can provide but the bottom line is, I never lived down that story during the time that I worked at that hotel. I was often the target of a friendly banter about ‘Carl’ Ripken.

Cal Ripken is coming to my library for a book talk. I have a baseball crazy almost 11-year-old, who has read Cal’s books and would dearly love to see this legend and perhaps shake his hand, if he is allowed. The tickets to that event sold out in four minutes and I could not get him a seat. His face fell when I told him that. Now our only hope is to try to buy a book and see if he can get a picture with Cal. In between calling the library to secure a spot and trying online, I remembered this story from the past when I did not even know the name of this man at one point. And here I am, getting excited that he will use a room close to my office as his green room before he talks about his book, and I may get a glimpse of him. I have indeed come a long way!

I don’t think about it often, after living in this country for so long, but I realized yesterday what a daunting task it is for immigrants to any country to learn whatever they can about the cultural, social and political history of the land they have emigrated to. The venture is exciting, enlightening and yes, overwhelming.

My love for Kolkata…inexplicable.


I can never sell Kolkata to people who show interest in touring India.

“Errr.. there is the Victoria Memorial, and the St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Maidan is a nice green expanse in the middle of the concrete jungle. And then there is the Ganga and Outram ghaat!” I stammer.

But we can’t boast of the Taj Mahal or the Khaju Raho temples, we don’t have the Lal Quilla or the Lake Palace, we don’t have the pristine Himalayas (unless you go to North Bengal) to lure tourists. Instead, we have bandhs (strikes) at the drop of a hat, we have traffic jams, we have terrible pollution and we have tall concrete buildings which, I feel, are suffocating the whole city. And we have terribly long summer. The pleasant winds bringing respite in the summer evenings, are halted by tall buildings that are choking the city slowly.

In my young and foolish days, I took up arms against those who dared to say a word against Kolkata. I was ready to break up with my boy friend who dared criticize my city. I got this passion from my fire-brand mother, who brain washed me from an early age “east or west, Kolkata is the best”. Yeah, she is very parochial. I inherited that mentality from her and kept the fire of nationalistic pride ignited in my heart. My friends too, were die-hard Kolkata fans and believed that only us, the Kolkata lovers, had the right to criticize our city but heaven have mercy on those outsiders, who dared utter a word against it.

Those days are gone. I am a wise, mature woman now who left Kolkata in the mid nineties and never went back to stay. I learned, in due course, that criticizing something/ someone doesn’t mean loving it less. It means we acknowledge a problem and that is a first step towards looking for a solution. That also means something/someone does not have to be blemish free for us to love, we can love something/someone warts and all.

I wonder sometimes why I love the city like the way I do. Does distance make it easier to love Kolkata? Why does the city invoke such a passionate need in me to protect it from outsider’s disdain? Objectively speaking, what exactly is going for the city of Kolkata? Am I really protecting the city or am I safe guarding the memories that the city and I have built together? I still get teary eyed when I listen to Kabir Suman’s

“Ei shohor jaane amar prothom shob kichu
Palate chai joto she aashe amar pichu pichu”

This city knows my every ‘first’
It comes after me, no matter how far I go from it.

It is not the brick, mortar cement of the city that I love, but the faces, the love, the blessings, the friendships, the heartbreak, the experiences that slowly and lovingly molded me, created ‘me’ and shaped me to the person I turned out to be. It is a very personal kind of love that I have for Kolkata.

Those of you who read my blogs know by now, I am a big believer of living in the moments. I have grown up and moved away but whenever I think back to my home city, the moments and memories of my past crowd around me. The sound of Indian classical music coming from the different houses in the neighborhood as the little girls sat down with their harmonium to practice music every evening, the smell of meat cooking only on Sundays in our middle class neighborhood, the communal ‘antakshari’ game on our respective balconies during daily power cuts, the collective sound of ‘Aaahhhh’ when the lights came back on. There are unpleasant memories too but those don’t surface in my mind much. I have lived through them, and left them behind. I came away with the beautiful ones.

I am going home in a few weeks (still over a month left but the time remaining seems shorter if I talk in weeks, hence….)! Friends ask me what are you going to do when you go back? Do? I will do absolutely nothing. I will lay in our king size family bed, next to my mother and talk. Or not. We will probably read or listen to our favorite songs. I am looking forward to those moments of easy silence next to the person who I still want when I am sad or don’t feel well. I will accompany my father to Gariahat market and hear him proudly say to the fishseller ‘Shob cheye bhalo mach ta dao dekhi. Meye esheche.’ (Give us the best fish, my daughter has come) ! I will cherish his ways of showing love – by buying the tastiest fish, the choicest mangoes, the tenderest meat and the satisfaction in his face when I exclaim how good everything is.

I am not sure if this is true for every immigrant. The thing that I miss most about home is the familiarity. I miss the shared history. I love my adopted land but I am not familiar with the tv shows of the seventies, or the baseball players of yester years. When my contemporaries exclaim about how much they loved a certain show growing up and turn to me and say, ‘Remember?’ I say, ‘No, I don’t!’ I remember Humlog and Fauji and Sunil Gavaskar and East Bengal Mohanbagan rivalry.

I will immerse myself in all that familiarity, all the love for two weeks and come back with enough memories to sustain me in the coming year. The greetings of the neighborhood boys, the smiling faces of my aunts and uncles, the welcome from my friends are my personal treasures. They are the city’s love for me which I can’t show an outsiders. They belong to me and to those who can still feel the love.

image

image