Connecting with strangers.


Poet unknown to me

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

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

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

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

Lost in my own city


I went for my usual walk this morning but Dhakuria lake was closed for Holi so I took a detour, got lost somewhat in my own city, asked for direction, was told by the caring man that my destination was too far and ‘sister, take an auto, you can not walk that far’. I thanked him and turned around as I was walking in the wrong direction. The man continued to give me directions and to warn me of the distance. I smiled at him but did not tell him that taking an auto was not an option as I carried no money. So I walked and it felt good. I walked through my very familiar and now somewhat unknown city. Some of the old, now decrepit, houses in my path have been there for years. They were part of my landscape all my life. They evoked so many memories. The new buildings were remote and unknown and if you ask me, they don’t belong to the Kolkata I know – my Kolkata.

‘My’ Kolkata is getting smaller with every visit. Old, familiar houses are being demolished and new apartments are being built. The city is sprawling out in every direction. But those houses along Southern Avenue or the unchanged make shift stores on the sides of Rashbehari Avenue, or the hawkers calling out ‘didi ki lagbe’ (sister what do you want), assure me that ‘my Kolkata’ still exists in some small way.

And I remembered walking the same streets with baba when he walked miles and miles to stay in shape. He talked to, petted and fed every stray dog that crossed his path on these walks. They knew him and crowded around him for the biscuits that he carried in his pocket. As I walked today in the early morning hours, I felt him by my side – youthful, happy, fast and chatty. It was a good morning.

Searching for benevolence


I cannot wax poetic of my beloved city after being back in it for the first time after my parents’ death. The lights of Kolkata, when I first saw it from the plane, brought such joy in my mind in the past. This year, as the plane prepared to land, I looked away. The touch down was rough just like the raw emotions in my heart. The two human beings who came to receive me at the airport for the last 25 years were glaringly absent.

The first step in the apartment was perhaps the hardest. I spent some time splashing water on my face to disguise the tears that would not stop flowing. Later, Sahana and I went for a walk around the Dhakuria lake. There, we found benevolence. In the sweet cooing of the cuckoo bird heralding spring, in the rising of the orange sun over the calm waters of the lake breaking through the haze of Kolkata air, in the squabbling of the huge fish in the lake trying to fight for bread that a woman threw in for them, in the pace of the morning walkers, amidst the banyan trees and mango trees, the polash and krishnachura trees, I found the essence of ma and baba’s love. Kolkata was the city of their hearts (mine too, at one point). No matter where they went, they found the most peace when they returned to this chaotic city.

I also found benevolence in the love of the women who cared for ma and baba, in the love of my cousin brother who stayed up at night to bring me home from the airport at an ungodly hour, in my cousin sister’s question – “what can I do? How can I help?”, in my mashi’s show of love by sending me my favorite food, in Khushi’s gentle words and lovely drawing.

Most of all I found benevolence in my daughter’s quiet presence by my side throughout the long, anguishing journey ‘home’. A rub on the back, holding hands, carrying luggage, through a myriad of ways she took care of her grieving mother, while dealing with her own emotions of losing ‘her people’ as she called her dadai and didiya.

This trip is a whirlwind, overwhelming at best. This morning, I sat at my favorite spot at dawn, watching the sun rise and listening to the sounds of Kolkata waking up. I thought of ma, baba and our lifetime of shared love at this quiet time. I thanked them for giving me life, caring for me to the very best of their ability and also asked for forgiveness for failing to take care of them when they needed me. Their benevolence is present in this house though. I feel it as I touch their things, sleep in their bed, look at the shrine of my husband and children in every nook and cranny of this house. For my lifetime, that has to be enough.

An ideal day


A friend wrote about his ideal day which got me thinking about what my ideal day would look like. This vision of my ideal day is a wistful one which I will never have again.

My ideal day would be waking up in our apartment in Kolkata while everyone still slept. Steal a couple of biscuits (they are called cookies in my adopted country) from the biscuit tin and sit by the window to watch orange hued sun rise over the coconut trees while the crows start congregating on the antenna on our neighbor’s roof to start their morning meeting.

Once the sun’s rays illuminated the top dome of Ramkrishna mission, people in the house would start slowly waking up. The municipality taps would get busy providing water to the women in the neighborhood, filling buckets, washing their dishes, exchanging news. A typical start to a day in Kolkata. My ma and baba would come out of their room, sleepy eyed and happy, greeting me with good morning and ‘how did you sleep?’

The morning would have Sean’s loud laughter, baba’s smirk, ma’s indulgent offering of her phone to little Ryan so he could play solitaire on it and Sahana’s teenage wisdom imparted to all. Khushi would have her breakfast while baba dictated what should be cooked for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

There would be visits to West Side to pick up kurtis. Ma would want to buy the whole store for us. There would be sumptuous meals, visit with innumerable family members, invitations to those visiting us to stay and have dinner with us. If not dinner, then store bought chicken rolls and sweets. There would be raucous, competitive games of ludo. Khushi would win and do victory dance. Ma would advise all the players but never play herself. Baba would beam, pace and discuss with Gouri what needs to be bought for next day’s meals. And I would soak it all in because I would know these blissful days will be numbered.

I will never have these days again. I am thankful I have had them.

My companion, grief.


I carry a card in my hand bag which was sent to me by a liaison of a book club that I manage at work. Her card says, “The work of grief is formidable. I pray as you journey with it grief will go from being something in front of you so big you can’t see around it, to something that walks beside you and only occasionally trips you up, to something that eventually walks behind you. I am not convinced time makes grief all better but it does make it different…albeit slowly.”

I found her words to be so true. That is exactly how grief is accompanying me. The phase where it was all consuming and omnipresent in my life is almost ending but it is certainly walking by my side, staying close and tripping me up more than occasionally. All of a sudden, amidst long stretches of normal hours, especially at work, I am gripped by breathtaking sadness that leaves me hollow. Today I saw a regular customer for the first time after a year and a half. He does not come regularly to the library post pandemic and I am there for short hours as well. Anyway, once we saw each other we asked how we were doing. And then he asked how my family in India was, how were my parents? He had been following the devastation caused by Covid in India and he thought of my family. I had to tell him both my parents succumbed to Covid. His face registered shock at this news and discomfort. I quickly changed the subject so as not to prolong the dreadful conversation and to give him relief. He offered his condolences, we exchanged pleasantries, I helped him with a technical question and then we parted ways. I held my own during that uncomfortable conversation. But in the staff lounge, I broke down crying while talking to a friend. I warned her “Uh oh, I am going to cry” before the dam broke. And she said, “Cry. Let it all out.” I don’t recall if we were even talking about ma and baba’s death.

An acquaintance texted me about a question and asked how my dad was doing. Last we spoke ma had died and baba was still fighting. I had to write to her my dad too had died. She wrote back a message of condolence which, I am sure, was hard to write. I feel now I need to protect those who are asking me these innocent questions from discomfort and shock.

Sahana walked by ma’s photo and gently caressed it as she went by. A sob racked my body at this quiet gesture.

Thoughts like “who will buy fish now when I go home. I don’t recognize any fish and neither does Gouri” popped up in my head while going about my regular chores. My parents are dead and I am thinking of who will buy fish for me?? What an inconsequential and selfish thought but no matter, I got tripped up.

Grief is certainly walking next to me ever ready to pounce. It will again come to the forefront and obliterate everything else when I have to land in an empty Kolkata eventually. Just the thought of going makes me break out into hives. Isn’t it so ironical that a trip which was something I looked forward to every year, counted months and then counted days has become such a source of heartbreak and anxiety? City of joy is now bereft of any joy for me. Ma and baba were my joy. I think often whether I told them that and I remembered I used to say at the end of almost every phone call since the pandemic started “Issh, kobe je tomader dekhte paabo!” (I can not wait to see you). Destiny/fate whatever you call it, perhaps chuckled when I said those words. It shook its head and said, “Never. You will never see them in this life time.”

There are 3 things that are good right now.


Everything seems sad at this time. If I read this blog in about 5 years, I will most likely (hopefully) be in a happier state of mind. I am writing this blog for that future ‘happy’ me. Here are some things to juggle your memory ‘future happy me’:

We are in the middle of a pandemic.

I am the only one going to work for limited hours right now, the others are going to school, working from home.

200,000 people in America died from Covid 19 thus far.

RBG died and it looks like Trump administration will fill the Supreme Court vacancy with a conservative judge.

I can not go home.

But 3 things are going well for me right now.

On the suggestion of a friend, I started watching Mandalorian on Disney plus and I love it. I go through all day with the hope of watching one episode at night with Ryan. I love seeing baby Yoda.

The second show that is now a bright spot in my life is The Call of Midwife. Each episode brings forth different characters in 1950’s England, dealing with a harsh life, childbirth, loneliness and yet the young midwives and nurses in Nonnatas house go out everyday caring for the vulnerable.

The third thing that I look forward to these days is Abir Mukherjee’s Death in the East. Sam Wyndham is in Devraha Swami’s ashram in Jatinga, Assam. He has voluntarily come here to treat his opium addiction. On his way to the Ashram he thinks he saw a man from his past, 1905 to be precise when he was a young constable involved in solving the murder of Bessie Drummond. Mukherjee has done it again.

Ps: I wrote this blog a while ago when there were 200,000 death is USA. Now we are about to cross 400,000 grim milestone. I have long finished the book I mention and also the 2 shows. Some worries remain – my anxiety for my parents, my family catching the virus, despondency for no one specific reason. However, the vaccine is being administered. Hopefully, we can get vaccinated in the coming months and all the procedures for going to Kolkata will either be lifted or at least relaxed so I can go home.

I will not put sugar in your yogurt drink.


We went to the city for a walk on a gorgeous fall day. It was one of those days when I give thanks to be alive and experience the cerulean sky, sweet sunlight, my loved ones near me. After walking around for a while the inevitable question arose, where do we have lunch? The consensus was a tiny Lebanese restaurant which once turned Sean and me away in the past because they were hosting a private party. They could not seat us and were profusely apologetic. Fortunately this time we were welcomed and guided to our seats outside.

The owner was a pleasant looking man with very gentle manners. He handed us our menus. Sahana and I ordered the yogurt drink ayran and our food. When the drinks came out, I took a sip and was instantly transported back home! It tasted exactly like lassi or ghol (buttermilk drink) and just how I like it, salty not sweet. The next time the gentleman came out to check on us, I mentioned how much I loved the drink. I told him I was from India and this tasted just like home. My comment seemed to make him very energized and happy.

“Oh, I am so glad you like that drink. I get nervous when people order that because they don’t anticipate the taste. When I bring it out, they drink it and then they ask me to add sugar. I say no, I am not going to add sugar. That is not how this drink should be drunk!”

This business owner refuses to sweeten the drink from his country for people here because that is not how the drink is drunk!! I related to this on so many levels. I know and accept that one should eat (drink) according to his/her tastes but I can not help but judge when Sean puts peanut butter and jelly on a daal paratha. He sees my face acknowledges the judgement, eats it anyway, and laughs.

Sean’s first encounter with a server in a restaurant in Kolkata was similar to this gentleman’s outrage. He ordered rice and roti and the server told him roti was not available. I presume there may have been some words lost in translation as well during that particular exchange of dialogue. Anyway, when food was served, Sean noticed that his companion got a roti with his order. Sean looked at it with bewilderment and asked the server, “You told me roti was not available!” The server said with a nod of his head that the dish Sean ordered was meant to be eaten with rice. Food dictatorship!

Some things just go together and you simply don’t mess around. If you do, you hurt food connoisseurs like me, like the owner of the Lebanese restaurant, like the belligerent server at the restaurant in Kolkata in 1994. You just don’t do that. You incur our wrath and disdain, if you do!

🙂

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.

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.