Aging


Aging does not bother me too much. In a weird way, it is liberating. The face is not as thin as it used to be, the jawline is getting blurry, there are pouches under my eyes, the hair has significant strands of white. Although, I must say when I take care to blow dry my hair, and the strands of white are not all fuzzy and crazy like, they totally look stylish.

Feet hurt a little at the end of the day and yes, the back hurts sometimes when I wake up. The knee creaks and the doctor tells me my bones are bad. Physically, it is a downhill journey but mentally it is freeing. I speak my mind more, I am less sensitive, I can laugh about myself and the horrible insecurity has magically disappeared. No, you will still not find me dancing wildly on the dance floor but that is primarily because I have 2 left feet and no sense of direction. I can cause serious injury to fellow dancers by grooving in the wrong direction. When someone calls me old, it is not an insult, just the state of my being in the present moment. I embrace all of it. Except one thing……

What is with the belly fat??? I hate that jiggle. And it is not about what people are going to think about my pear shaped body, it is completely about my efforts at getting rid of it and the utter failure.

All my life, I have been unable to put on weight; so with the cockiness of someone with fast metabolism I did not pay attention to the gradually accumulating belly fat till one day I could not button my pants. Talk about a rude awakening. Every time a pant feels tighter or the love handles spill over the waistband I promise myself, this is it – less carbs, no sugar, more exercise and I can get this to disappear. But I work at a library. It is a well known fact that librarians love to eat and feed fellow librarians. Customers love us and show their appreciation by bringing us home made goodies or store bought treats. Moreover, I am a Bengali. We Bengalis can not resist food. So all of the above work against my good resolutions.

So now that I have written down all the reasons for my burgeoning girth, I can hopefully work towards a resolution. There are a couple of reasons for that. A doctor check up is coming up. My doctor will not be amazed by my fantastic BMI this time and second being a Kolkata trip in a couple of months. Kolkata means home, Kolkata means parents, Kolkata means love, Kolkata means memories, Kolkata means amazing Bengali food and Bengali sweets, Kolkata means…. belly fat. Sigh. And my slowing metabolism. Deadly combination.

NOLA: Day 3


Our vacation in New Orleans was constantly threatened by a big storm Alberto that was gathering strength in the vicinity and was expected to lash out in the general area. We kept the weather channel on and checked weather update on our phones a lot before we booked tours or made plans. After getting caught in torrential downpour on the first day, we carried our umbrellas everywhere. Saturday morning was supposed to be rain free so we had booked a tour to see the bayous and meet some alligators. We showered, got dressed early and headed down to the lobby where our transportation company was supposed to pick us up and take us to the waterways. There, we were going to board a boat called Swamp Thing, explore the bayous and see alligators. Very touristy, I know. After collecting tourists from different hotels, our van left the city and deposited us by the water in a very rustic setting with a small ticket counter, a tiny gift shop, relatively clean  restrooms and a captive alligator next to the gift shop, sun bathing.

 

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After waiting for about 20 minutes, the captain of our boat, a native of the area, welcomed us all and started navigating the boat into serene waterways. He kept up a constant chatter telling us the history of the land that we saw around us, but I really wished he would stop talking. The day was so beautiful, the green around us was so lush, the water was so still that it reflected the azure sky and the breeze caressed my whole being. I just wanted quiet so I could absorb this stillness within my soul.

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But he kept talking. I leaned back on Sean and tuned him out. We passed a small burial ground by the water – unkempt, forgotten, home to those long gone. As I write this blog, many weeks after our trip, that tiny little forgotten cemetery evokes a special feeling. It found a special place in my heart.

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As we went deeper into the bayou, we met our first alligator. The captain turned off the boat, grabbed a bag of marshmallows and went to the side, dangling the marshmallow from his hand to attract the alligator’s attention. He also spoke French to him. It was obvious that the alligators in that area knew the drill. S/he came right to the boat, grabbed the marshmallow, chomped it down and asked for more. Since that was our first one, everyone in the boat took million pictures of him/her. During our time on the boat, we saw several. The captain spoke to all of them in French, fed them all marshmallows. Some travelers  did not like the fact that he was feeding unhealthy snacks to the creatures. He pooh poohed their concerns and said alligators did not have any sense of taste. They are attracted by the white color of the marshmallow. While we were engrossed in finding alligators in the water, and squealing like children when we spotted one, the captain held up little Elvis, a baby alligator, about year and a half old. The women in the boat screamed. He offered to pass the baby around. Men held him, women refused. When it was my turn, I held him of course. After that, a few women dared to hold him as well and I believe Elvis was held by all and of course, photographed.

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It was close to lunch time when we were dropped off in front of our hotel, but instead of rushing in to take a nap, we made an executive decision to take the historic street car to go to the garden district to see the antebellum style houses. We bought day passes for street cars, rode them all the way till the end and rode back to where we started. It brought tram cars of Kolkata to mind. There were many tourists on the trolley as well as residents of the city. I wonder how irritating they found us, tourists, taking up space in their public transport just for joy rides.

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Once we got off at St. Charles street, it was way past lunch time. We could hear our stomachs growl but from previous experience, I knew getting food won’t be easy. Surprisingly enough, we did not have to reject too many restaurants before we found Daisy Dukes – a restaurant that served breakfast all day. Sean was happy. I was relieved. The biscuits were amazing.

Guess what we did after? Yes, that is correct. We hurried back, got in bed and promptly fell asleep. Promises to keep and all that.

Since we bought day passes for the street cars and since I was doing a lot of walking on my bum foot, we took the trolley to Esplanade, at the end of French Quarter  to give Frenchmen’s  street another chance. I had to really twist Sean’s arm to go there again. He had given up on the street. It was a completely different experience from previous day though. The street was vibrant, alive and filled with music. It had completely transformed itself at night. And although the restaurants did not have any food for Sean, we listened and moved to jazz music. After spending the entire evening there, we walked back to our hotel. I was completely done with checking out restaurant menus, knowing we will find nothing for Sean since the simple red beans and rice were cooked with sausage. We stopped at a small cafe – Cafe Beignet for a chicken salad sandwich for me, omelette for Sean and a plate of beignets.

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The next day was our last day in Big Easy. We still had to see World War II museum and Lafayette cemetary. We had to buy mementos for the kids. We still had to take our afternoon nap. Last one in New Orleans.

A friend commented on my last blog that she felt a sense of ennui in these blogs. The ecstasy of Rome (my blogs on Rome) was missing. That comment stayed with me. And as I reread the blogs on New Orleans, I did realize both Sean and I have learnt to slow down. In our previous travels, we wanted to do something every minute of our vacation. This vacation was different though. A lot of the focus was on resting, taking a break, sleeping, recharging. We both are beaten down by constant activity. We both needed the escape and the quiet solidarity.

 

 

 

And a love story..


My parents hardly ever agree on anything. They are two very different people with vastly different outlook on issues in life. However, they vociferously agree that within 2 hours of Sahana’s birth they saw her lift her head up. I have tried, over the course of eighteen years, to reason with them, “Newborns can not raise their heads. You must have been mistaken somehow in your excitement of seeing your first grandchild!” At that point, one of them seek approbation from the other:
“Tulechilo. Dekhechi. Bolo? Matha tulechilo na?”
(Yes, she lifted her head. We saw. Tell her did she not lift her head?)
The partner supports this observation. When it comes to the super ability of their grandchildren, they stand united. No amount of arguing, teasing, laughing can move the solid conviction that their grandchildren are extra-ordinary, unique, special, born to serve a greater purpose, brilliant, beautiful……

Eighteen years ago, when I was working hard to bring my first child to earth, I had my husband in the room holding my hand, coaching me to breathe in New Delhi, India. And my parents were pacing nervously near the delivery room, their ears perking up at any sound, any swish of the door. Finally when Sahana was born, she was cleaned and swaddled and I was taken care of, I saw my mother flash me a victory sign and my father crying tears of joy as they wheeled me away from the delivery room to private room. And since that day a love story began. Story of little Sahana and didiya, dadai.

Baby Sahana spent a lot of time in the arms of her grandmother, while grandfather sat nearby spending hours adoring her various facial expressions or simply lying next to her as she slept on their bed. When she got a little older, didiya told her stories, plenty of stories. Stories of Mahabharat, Ramayan, Krishna, Thakurma r jhuli. Dadai introduced her to animals, plenty of animals. When we visited Kolkata, dadai held her little hand and took her out to meet the numerous stray dogs and stray cats in our neighborhood, that he took care of. They taught her to be kind to creatures, big and small. They bought her toys, books, anything she wanted and spoiled her rotten but they never interfered when I felt the need to discipline her when she misbehaved. For that, I am grateful.  After our move to United States, the physical distance multiplied but the bond between this little girl and her grandparents remained as strong as ever. The yearning increased and when the yearly rendezvous happened between the two, the love was palpable. Ten year old Sahana  welcomed them at the airport with tight hugs, brought them home and said to didiya, “Golpo bolo.” (tell me a story).

Teenage Sahana confided in her grandmother her teenage angst. Story teller didiya became her confidante and dadai became someone to debate with. Dadai would say something outrageous and know-it-all grand daughter would try her best to prove him wrong. Dadai, often egged her on to get a raise out of her.

When Sahana was fifteen, she went to Kolkata alone for six weeks and stayed with her grand parents. The three of them talked, visited family, ate delicious food, went to the mall and movies and when all the talk was done, they just sat with each other, hooked electronically to their respective devices. For her grandparents, her presence was enough. For her, being with them in the same room in companionable silence was gratifying.

She is off to college now and sometimes she feels the urge to leave everything and go back to Kolkata, to didiya and dadai. She skypes with them sometimes, planning the best time to visit before she launches into her life as a young adult.

Little girls don’t stay little for long. They grow up, they change. The bond of story telling, animal loving, hand feeding, cuddling remains  strong though. No matter what she does, her grand parents think the world of her still. In their eyes, she is extra-ordinary, unique, special, born to serve a greater purpose, brilliant, beautiful…… She is that special one who lifted her head within few hours of being born – an insurmountable feat. No one can convince them otherwise. Nobody tries 🙂 !

Pears Soap


As my mother unwrapped a bar of Pears soap and slid it on the soap dish in our common bathroom, we knew winter in Kolkata was official. Those of you who have grown up or lived in India would attest to the fact that winter in India (at least most parts of India) is a season of relief and joy. After the stifling heat of the summer came refreshing monsoons. Then monsoon and constant rain became an irritation. The roads were a mess, waterlogging brought life to a standstill, commuters looked up at the sky with a frown as they tried avoiding the raindrops from their neighbor’s umbrella. Monsoons gave way to hemanta (fall). For us, Bangalis, that was the time to look up at the cerulean sky spotted with cottony clouds and dream of Durga Pujo. After the  pujos were over, there was a let down period of a few weeks till the blessed cold season descended upon us. And the advent of winter, for me, was the fragrance of Pears soap in the bathroom. I think that soap had a decent amount of glycerin in it to moisten the drying skin during winter time or so the company boasted in it’s advertisement. I believe this was a family tradition – this bringing out of the Pears soap. My grandmother heralded winter with Pears and so did my mother and aunts. Why stop a good thing?

I wanted to eat fish today. Not the fillets that you get in the supermarkets here. I wanted fish with its tail, head and eyes intact, just like we have it at home. So after cooking dal and a vegetable dish for family dinner, I braved the cold, jumped in my car and raced to the Indian grocery store to buy me some fish. As I put in dal, spices, paneer and other staples in my cart, I came across a nicely built pyramid of Pears soap. I picked one up and breathed in. It made me smile. The fragrance reminded me of myself as a little girl  demanding the lep (a comforter stuffed with cotton) to be brought out in October (the temperature did not dip down then, only the evenings held the promise of cooler days). Ma and baba teased me for being ‘Sheet kature” (not sure of the exact translation, perhaps cold wimp). It reminded me of Tuhina, the one and only body moisturizing solution that was bought in our house. Do any of you remember Tuhina? Is it even manufactured anymore? Winter in Kolkata meant family outings at the zoo, complete with boiled eggs, nolen gur er sandesh (sweets made with special molasses) and oranges. Winter in Kolkata meant school picnics in the grounds of Victoria Memorial. Winter in Kolkata meant badminton games, fruit cakes, brightly lit Park Street, Christmas. Winters in Kolkata meant Kul er achar. Winters in Kolkata meant Saraswati pujo and yellow sarees. Winters in Kolkata meant Kolkata Bookfair. Winters in Kolkata meant colorful shawls and vying for a spot in the sun. Winters in Kolkata also meant falling in love with the love of my life.

The whiff of Pears at the Indian Grocery store reminded me I loved winter once. I have not felt the soft caress of Kolkata winter for a very long time now. My thin Indian skin can not bear the intense cold that I experience here. I find no joy in bundling up, feeling my face freeze or slip and slide in ice. I still have not learnt to walk on ice or drive on snow. But I have learnt to love parts of winter here too. The silhouette of bare trees stretching up to the sky, waiting patiently to fill up with leaves, is beautiful. Snowfall is beautiful. My husband’s exuberance after a snowball fight with the kids always tugs at my heartstring. The snotty, red faces of my two children as they sip hot chocolate after a particularly cold day are a joy to watch. Sitting on my favorite couch on a winter afternoon while reading a book makes me feel completely content. The warmth that envelopes me as I open the front door and enter my little house reminds me I am lucky. Yes, I have learnt to love some parts of winter here too.

I bought a bar of Pears soap and I used it when I came home. It reminded me of my mother.  Now I am surrounded by fragrant memories of winters left behind. This winter afternoon, all of sudden, became beautiful!

 

100 Day Saree Respect


I was made aware of this celebration of sarees on a social networking site. Women posted saree clad pictures on Facebook and told a little story or memory associated with that particular saree. I believe the notion was to highlight the elegance of this beautiful ethnic wear and boost this industry. One particular friend of mine wrote beautiful memories with each and every saree she wore. Not only did she look beautiful, but her stories made a fascinating read and her sarees, to me, became much more meaningful. Stories and memories inter-weaved within the threads – what a fabulous concept.

My sarees are well-loved but not much worn. They stay well guarded in a closet in my basement as I live my life in jeans, trousers, sweaters and shirts. Sometimes I harangue my husband to take me out on dates so I can drape one of my lovely sarees. Swim meets and baseball games get in the way. So when I open the closet that house my sarees, I stroke them longingly and make plans……one of these days I will wear this one or that. And then the weather turns frigid. However, the hope remains – next spring, next summer, next fall. In the mean time, I acquire more sarees. They come bearing love – love of my mother and father, my sisters and brothers (cousins), my aunts and uncles from home.

Two of my sarees have a story or memory with my mother that I want to share. I had heard the name of a saree store called Byloom in Kolkata. I had seen photos of sarees bought from Byloom. Their texture, design, color combination seemed different, unique, more to my taste. Two days before I was scheduled to return to United States, my mother and I decided to pay a visit to this saree store and see with our own eyes what the hype was all about. The plan was to simply pay a visit, look at their wares and then turn around and come back home. My suitcases were full, and my purse was light. I had a little bit of Indian money left in cash and I decided to take just that with me. I took out my credit cards along with my debit card and left them at home. If I did not have plastic, I would not be tempted to overspend. Wait, why was I thinking of spending? My suitcase was full, right?

My mother and I are both geographically challenged so after asking at least 3 people for directions we arrived at the store. The last direction was asked right in front of the store, so when the gentleman who pointed to the store right across the street and gave us a strange look we felt slightly embarrassed. We walked in and promptly got lost again. This time we lost ourselves in colors, patterns and texture. The salesladies were amazing at their job, the colors were splendid and rich, the textiles smelled of home and comfort. I, not a fashionista or lover of clothes by any means, was hooked. My mother, an impulsive shopper and an ardent admirer of fashion and clothes, was miserable. I had instructed her not to bring money. We were just going to look, remember?

We had never done better math in our lives!! I bought a saree for my mother. That was it, I had money (cash) for that – parting gift to my mother before I left India. And then the salesladies did their magic, “Didi, look at this color on you!” They draped a pink saree on me. Three of them came over to ooh and aah over it. My mom joined in. Then they found a blue one, a little more expensive. They double ooh aahed over it. My ma joined in again. The oohs and aahs went up exponentially with the value of the sarees – just an observation. I was calculating fast in my head. I had two days left before my flight departed, no one would make blouses for those sarees. I had to buy ready made blouses for them. Groan! More calculations. Finally, when I had hardened my heart against amazing sales pitches, when I had closed my eyes against the splendor of colors, when I had shut my ears to my mother’s berating at making her leave her money at home, I headed to the cashier with my grumbling mother in tow. I told the cashier I bought some stuff but I had X amount of rupees. I was not savvy enough to calculate the sales tax in my head so I may not be able to buy all that was being packed for me. He smiled politely and said they accepted credit cards. “Ummm…I am not carrying my credit card!” I mumbled. My mother, I think, growled.

As the cashier tallied up my purchases, I realized I held my breath. Fortunately, I had enough money to pay for it all with about 15 rupees to spare. Feeling buoyant and happy we sailed out of the store swinging our bags. And we laughed joyfully. The memory is not about having enough money to buy those sarees though. The memory is about getting lost with my mother, hearing sales pitches with her, being admired by her, being scolded too and finally laughing giddily over our joint naughtiness. I am not sure I have rightfully penned the day, the story or the feeling. My mother and I were more than simply a mom and child that day. That day we were co conspirators, we were math whizzes (somewhat), we were rule breakers (rules created by us), we were quick planners, we were fast shoppers, we were fellow gigglers, we were happy bag swingers. We were perhaps more friends that day than parent and child. We were also hiding some tears behind our laughter at the upcoming goodbye. It was our last show down before the curtain of years fell till we were together again.

On her birthday, this memory stands out. Happy birthday, Ma! Here is to many more years of rule breaking, bag swinging, saree conspiring, and of course mindless laughing after being naughty. We Bengalis do not say “I love you’ because it does not need to be said, I know. This Bengali has learned to say it anyway. Moreover, she loves to say it.

I love you, Ma!

Here are the sarees, which have this precious memory!

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An hour on the streets.


Instead of using the very useful tool called Google search I still go old school, like arriving at a mall without checking first what time it opens. I did just that in Kolkata, when, after dragging my feet for a couple of days, I bit the bullet and went to shop for some summer kurtis for myself. I must have written before that I detest shopping with a passion. I believe it has something to do with making decisions. I have a mental block and the damage is irreparable. I found myself in front of West Side Mall in Gariahat at 10 am because I wanted to beat the shoppers but parking lot seemed unusually quiet. I asked the gentleman guarding the mall, ‘Kota e khulbe? (When will it open)’ I was there right at 10 presuming the whole world operated on US store hours. Well, I was wrong. India entertains its consumers an hour less than they do it here. The mall opened at 11.00 am. I had one hour to kill.

So I decided to walk the streets of Gariahat market, my old stomping ground. I know this area like the back of my hand. I thought I would immerse myself in memories by walking from one end of Gariahat till the other – from Ballygunge Station to Anandamela, cross the intersection and walk back on the other side of the road.

When I lived in Kolkata and walked the streets of Gariahat I always had a purpose. I was either going to Ballygunge Institute library, or going home from the bus stop, buying fish and vegetables or out for puja shopping. I threw myself in the crowd and elbowed my way in to get to where I was going. The events occurring around me did not register at all because I was part of the incessant movement. This time however, I was purposeless, an observer, a pilgrim of sorts, out to pay homage to my past and the place that has seen me grow.

I watched the shopkeepers sprinkling holy Ganges water in front of their make shift shops on the sidewalks of Gariahat road as they opened for business, hoping to appease the gods for a successful day. Some were opening their big bags of ware, slowly taking them out to display. The men seemed to be in no hurry, they laughed and chatted with each other, teased and talked about politics and cricket with their competitors as the items came out from huge gunny sacks.

The store keepers who had legitimate stores had opened slightly earlier. They were sipping their morning tea in small earthen cups, called bhaar, from nearby tea stalls, as they sat comfortably turning the pages of a crisp newspaper. I assumed they were the shop owners and not employees, just going by their demeanor.

The tea stalls and food vendors were busy preparing ghugni, luchi, aloor dam to feed the travelers getting off at Ballygunge Station, the shop keepers and the parents and children from neighboring South Point School, whose elementary section must have let off just then.

Little boys and girls with tired, sweaty faces were being dragged by their mothers. The saree clad, mostly young mothers carried their heavy bags while the children allowed themselves to be gently pulled, almost in a daze. Some mothers bought oranges from fruit vendors and after feeding the children the healthy snack, they said loudly, “Ektu jol din toh” (Please give some water) to the man selling fruit. And then to the kids, “Aiiii, hat bhalo kore dhue ne!” (wash your hands well).

Saree shops, shalwar shops, bindis, costume jewelry, magazine stalls, cake shops, watch shops, luggage shops, plastic toy stores – you have it all on the streets – at a good price, if you know how to bargain.

College boys and girls stood at the bus stop flirting, touching each other at every opportunity they got, playing out the age old flirtatiousness between the two genders, flouting the morality of a repressive society when it came to relationships. I watched the innocent, youthful flirtation and joyous laughter safely hidden behind my shades as I waited for the lights to change so I could cross to the other side.

On the other side of the street was the store where ma and later myself, bought our inexpensive blouses and petticoats. The employees were elderly men and as I passed by the store I saw them still – frozen in age. I wanted to peek into my old library which had kept me entertained throughout my childhood and then youth with dusty copies of Noddy, Famous Five, Nancy Drew, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Rebecca, books by Eric Segal and then Richard Bach, but somehow I missed it as I kept walking. Kolkata changes with passing years, Gariahat, somehow, does not. Even the shopkeepers that I knew from childhood – their structure, their clothes seem to be replaced by the next generation having the same structure, same outfit, same demeanor, same dialogues with customers. This continuity was very reassuring. A little part of Kolkata refuses to step into the contemporary decade. A little part of Kolkata remains incongruous.

I passed a group of boys and I stiffened for just a second till I remembered the confidence that silver hair can provide. As a young woman, when I passed a group of young men, I braced myself against an unwanted touch or some kind of unwanted remark. A lone boy hardly ever said anything, but a group of them was a different matter altogether. I remembered the feeling of apprehension as I passed groups of boys, my eyes to the ground, my pace increased, as I got silently ready for some kind of shame. That day I looked back and felt a little bad for the insecure young woman I used to be. I looked the boys in the eye as they took in my short-cropped hair and shocking pink shoes. I smiled and nodded; surprise registered in their faces, unsure of what their reaction should be. I chuckled as I moved on, peeked in Bharat Shevashram, lamented the loss of trams in the Gariahat area as I took in the construction that was going on to cover up the tram lines there and arrived back at West Side Mall after 11:00. The door man, looking dapper in his navy blue uniform, opened the door for me and smiled an unsure yet happy smile as I looked him in the eye and said a big, smiley “Thank you!”

The feeling of walking the streets of Gariahat is fast fading but as I write these little snippets I travel back to that hour, to that day, to that place. We live so many hours, a few stand out and get etched in memory. This particular hour was one such.

The rendezvous


I never get into arguments about Kolkata…anymore. I had to qualify that statement with the word ‘anymore’ because in my young and foolish days I asked my foreigner boyfriend to leave the city because he made an innocent (and true) comment about the dirt piling up in the corner of a street. I have wizened up since. I have finally realized that if I look from an outsider’s perspective, Kolkata does not appear very lovable. Kolkata needs to be discovered. It does not open itself up easily. One needs to have a deeper insight to dig within and discover the charm that hides underneath its veneer of dirt, dust and traffic. And this wooing the city takes time and effort.

I met a young American woman at the Dubai international airport as we waited to get on our connecting flight to Kolkata. Upon hearing Sahana and I converse in Bangla she asked if she could practice her Bangla with us. She was exuberant about the city. She, we found out, goes to the city often for her dissertation.

“My fiance is from Kolkata. He lives in US but he introduced me to the city and I fell in love. How can one not fall in love? It is full of these new discoveries that one can make almost everyday of their stay if one is looking. The people are wonderful, the food is to die for, the street dogs are adorable!” I had found a kindred soul. Her praise of Kolkata made me all shy, tongue tied and all warm and fuzzy. Praise of Kolkata does that to me, every time. 🙂

Since my love of the city is deeply personal.

I woke up before everyone on my first morning. Part jet lag, part excitement of being home, part anticipation and partly – desire to be alone with my thoughts and the first glimpse of Kolkata as it awakens into a new day. I tiptoed out so as not to bother the tired help, sleeping in the living room. I perched myself on the wide window sill of our back windows which opens up to a wide vista of the sky line of South Kolkata. A few tall buildings, coconut trees, the solemn white dome of the Ramakrishna Mission, the terraces of the neighborhood houses and the wide expanse of Kolkata sky. I sat still, savoring my first hello to Kolkata after two years, soaking in the slowly lightening sky, the sights, the sounds of the city – so familiar. My very own rendezvous. In the cooing of a lonely dove, the eccentric flight of numerous crows, the whistle and distant rumbling of the first local train, in the sound of water filling up a bucket, Kolkata embraced me deeply, meaningfully. The city opened up its palm to show a glimpse of my life that I spent here.

‘Nothing is lost. I have it all here within me. Safe’. First morning of Kolkata said to me.

I arrived truly, at that very moment.

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.

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 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?’