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.

Clenched


Loss is relatively new to me. It has not been a year yet. I hear from friends that we relearn to live around our losses eventually. I am learning. I have written a grief journal which I doubt I will ever be able to revisit. However, it helped immensely as an outlet to pour out my grief at the time as I was hurting so badly that I did not think it was worth living for a short while. I now know that life is worthy because life is fragile and short and beautiful (for the most part). I now know, thanks to books and conversations, that love, joy, friendships, grief AND loss is tapestry of my life. Recently, I read a book called The Guncle by Steven Rowley where he writes “Grief orbits the heart. Some days the circle is greater. Those are the good days. You have room to move, dance and breathe. Some days the circle is tighter. Those are the hard ones.” As days go by the circle gets greater, for sure. I smile at memories more and still tear up a bit that we will make no more. But when special days come up my whole body clenches in anticipation of tremendous pain.

Ma’s birthday on November 1st, 2021, was painful. Worse than the actual day were the days leading up to it as grief orbited very close to my heart, constricting it so much that I had trouble breathing. Baba’s birthday is coming up on March 2nd. I have been losing sleep over how much pain that will bring. I smile, though, at the memory of us wishing him happy birthday via video message and he responding with an uncomfortable laughter and a confused “hmm… same to you.” He was not used to being wished ‘happy birthday’ in English. His birthdays, in his days. were celebrated with payesh (rice pudding), blessings of his elders, sumptuous lunch and dinner. When I was little, I saved money to buy him a wallet and decorated a card. I don’t remember singing happy birthday to him growing up. The singing and wishing came much later and he never got used to it. He liked it though, which was clear from his beaming smile as his little grandchildren (and even when they grew up) sang to him. He just never learned the proper response. I don’t know how I would be on his upcoming birthday as he has ceased to exist (physically). Yes, I am all clenched up inside anticipating a surge of unbearable pain but maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe, I will make sure the memories I have with him are blessings. Maybe I will wake up that day and sing him a happy birthday anyway and I will remember his confusion……and maybe, I will smile.

Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bar.


Last night I discovered that I threw away baba’s last gift to me. Everytime I left Kolkata, baba bought me a bar of Cadbury Fruit and Nut chocolate bar. In 2019, when Ryan and I left Kolkata with the hope of returning in May of 2020 to celebrate my 50th birthday with them, baba bought 2 chocolate bars for each of us.

After a laborious process of checking in, clearing immigration, getting my act together at Kolkata airport, we sat down near our gate and pulled out our chocolates. I opened mine first, unwrapped it and saw that the chocolate was covered in a white, powdery film. It was bought from a local, small grocery store in front of our apartment and I thought they must have kept this lot of bars beyond their expiry date. “Oh, my chocolate bar is bad. Ryan throw yours out. I am throwing mine out.” I threw the chocolate in the nearest trashcan. And as the chocolate swooshed inside the trashcan, Ryan exclaimed, “Mom!! NO!” He looked at me,incredulous that I would throw out a whole chocolate bar, “Why did you throw that out? Look it says it is normal to have the white film on the chocolate. It says it right on the cover.” And so it did.

Seeing the regret on my face at my hasty action, Ryan shared part of his chocolate bar with me before we boarded the flight for US. And he teased me mercilessly.

Yesterday, the four of us went to dinner when this topic came up. I said if you think about it, I threw away dadai’s last gift to me. Ryan said, “But I shared with you my gift from him.” And Sahana said, “Right there is a circle of love.”

Memories, anecdotes, stories circle in my head constantly. What the two kids says last night stayed with me as I tried falling asleep.

Music


I am listening to Rabindrasangeet (songs written by Rabindranath Tagore), as I sautè chopped onions, add fresh ginger and garlic paste, spices, chopped tomatoes to the dal simmering on the stove top. Along with the aroma of my very familiar food, memories are wafting towards me of days gone by. Each song that comes up in my Spotify Playlist evokes different memories. Memories of people, memories of moments, memories of a slice of life that I have lived, memories of sunshine and happiness, memories of heartbreak too. Music does that to one’s soul. I did not listen to music after my parents’ death. We listened and loved similar songs and I have innumerable memories of singing along to those in our shared moments together. Listening to those songs alone was simply too painful. I have slowly allowed music to seep into my life again. I realize with astonishment how life truly goes on. How I am living and laughing too at times. Sleeping at night however is a different matter altogether though.

Ma, for the life of her, could not carry a tune. Did that stop her from singing out loud along with songs that played on our radio? No, it did not. I am not a connoisseur either but I can recognize correct notes. I, of course, never said a word about ma’s singing abilities but I did laugh inwardly. I was mean to her singing prowess – in my head.

Baba, on the other hand, was quite a crooner. He would close his eyes when his favorite song came on the radio and croon along with a lot of emotion and actually sung quite well. But more than his singing, I enjoyed hearing about his memories associated with songs that he loved in his youth. He would talk about them sometimes. I tried to picture him as a young man, hanging out with his friends from his engineering college, going on trips, Durga pujas of his youth, a snatched memory of his mother or father.

My mother and father have become memories now. As the songs pour into my soul, I remember our shared moments. Music, today, was bitter sweet.

The “goods” in the week of July 19th.


The whole point of this exercise is to be mindful of little things which enrich my life. It is to be aware of the small picture and not simply live through the moment which was good. The point is to acknowledge them. I thought of skipping this blog of “goods” this week. It has been a long week of routine. This week has been one of remembering and being sad of my loss. But I still had some “goods” and I want to write those down.

I have been hitting my step goal every day. I go for my walks and then during my breaks at work I go around the grounds of our library and end up at the library garden before going in.

I went to the farmer’s market with my friends and bought bread, coconut cupcakes and absolutely delicious strawberry balsamic vinegar.

On Wednesday I was supposed to drive to pick up Ryan from his school after practice, but my angel of a daughter finished her work early and offered to go in my stead. I could go home and relax instead.

My garden looks vibrant with colors. My osteospermum, in other words, African daisy plants lay fallow for many weeks. All of a sudden they are full of buds and flowers.

Ryan finished fifth week of summer biology and talks a lot about what he is learning. He seems excited. One more week to go.

Ryan’s swim practice will end next week. The anticipation of not having to drive him for a few weeks is one of my “goods” for sure.

I find myself laughing with my coworkers more these days. Sometimes I surprise myself that I can laugh again. But that is good. That is moving forward. My parents would have wanted that.

Ryan scored well in his Advanced Placement test of World History. Funnily that was surprising to both of us as he said he did not test well in that subject. He also did not know when the result was coming out. My friend, whose daughter took an AP test told me she got her result. I checked and there it was. I worry about that boy about his organization skills.

I love sitting down with Sahana at the end of our days and exchange customer stories from our respective work places.

Ryan had a swim meet in Virginia this weekend. Sean and I dropped him off at the facility and drove to nearby Leesburg. We walked around the historic downtown and ended up having lunch in a cute restaurant called Shoe’s Cup and Cork. I had a good day.

On Sunday, while Ryan swam, Sean and I walked by Potomac river. I paused by the river for a while and thought about ma and baba.

This week I had a long conversation with my cousin in India. Both our mothers died on the same day within 10 hours of each other’s death. Interestingly enough, these two sisters-in-law were close friends as well and we both remember their giggly youth. We laughed about how they planned their exit together to giggle some more like yester years and eat junk food like they used to. Then we both cried. My memories of our shared childhood is a comfortable place to land when my grief becomes too intense. I told her that.

Ryan got best times in 6 of his 7 events. His happiness at his achievement after putting in hard work is definitely in my list of “goods”. Ma and baba were embarrassingly proud of both of their grandkids. I bet they are bragging about them to whoever will listen as I write this.

There were still moments of sadness during days (and a sleepless night) but there were no I-can’t-breathe anxiety this week.

May your list of “goods” be long. Hope you have a great week.

Shopping


After many, many months I went shopping today. Alone, at least physically. Yet I felt the presence of this one excited woman by my side who loved to shop and often threatened to disown me due to my hatred for shopping. During her visits to America, going to the mall or Walmart or Kohl’s or Target was her favorite outing. And much to baba’s chagrin, she bought the whole of Walmart to take back to Kolkata as gifts for people. Her gift giving was legendary. She bought for her extended family, the helpers in her house, their children, the woman who did her facial – literally her whole universe got gifts from her when she returned from any trip. The weight of their luggage drove baba crazy! To keep their luggage under control, she often left some of her clothes behind. She said, “Dite bhalo laage.” (I love to give).

We did not have money in my childhood. We could only afford to buy new clothes during Durga puja or Bengali new year. I still remember the joy in ma as she flitted from one shop to the other in Gariahat market with an unwilling me in tow bargaining for the best price with shopkeepers when we had money to buy new clothes. Somehow she managed to have enough money to buy books though, year round. As I got older and as shopping malls sprouted in Kolkata, she did go to them. But it was evident air conditioned stores with neatly piled ware were out of her comfort zone, where salesmen and women referred to her as “madam” with cool professional demeanor. She missed the “na boudi, ki bolchen? Eto kom e ki kore debo?” ( no sister-in-law, how can I lower the price that much) of bustling and hot Gariahat market.

Busy Walmart or Target gave her immense joy as opposed to Ann Taylor or Banana Republic. Yet as I walked around the mall today peeking into those stores, I remembered her. She would have loved it.

I have planted flowers in their memory as well as for my own peace. I planted a red geranium the day after she died and I call it my “obstinate ma plant”. I love it very much and keep a close eye on it. But gardening was not her thing. She liked to look at flowers, sure, but she loved material things more. She liked to buy things, not just for herself but for others, mainly for others. My house is full of knick knacks that she got for us from places she went. My closet is full of kurtis and sarees she bought for me. I remembered her as I walked the mall. I had vowed that I would draw the line at going shopping to please her soul because I detest it, I crossed that line. And as I thought of it, I smiled under my mask. That obstinate woman is still getting her way, even after death.

The “goods” in the week of June 21st


Every morning my day starts by sitting in front of the photos of my parents. And then walking out to see the flowers that I planted in their memory. The photos were taken during our “happy” times, on our back deck during one of their visits to USA. With each passing year, they got frail but we captured happiness and youth and energy and froze it in a frame. Looking at those photos each day is one of my “goods” as I savor those joyful memories before I start my day.

On a mundane but important note, we are successfully maintaining our daily schedule with 2 cars. Each week we sit down and do some permutation and combination of who needs to be where at which time and figure out how we can work out the car situation. We have 3 working adults and one teen who is taking Summer Biology and swimming 6 days a week. On top of going to work we need to figure out his drop off and pick up. And so we have a family meeting every Sunday evening. We laugh.

I finished a graphic novel and am now reading The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. That takes place in my blog of “goods” because my friends had betrayed me for a long time. Since the beginning of this horrendous ordeal I have not been able to focus on a single page of a book. I have written plenty, read none.

Last evening was special when our first born treated us to a lovely dinner with her first ‘real’ paycheck. I get emotional easy these days but as she pulled the check close to her to pay, I choked up. Her grandparents would have been so proud. I also had a pang since I shared all the milestones of my 2 children with their grand parents and this I can not.

Sean and I drove out to water front to have a morning together on Sunday.

Soon we will be going back full time to the branch. I am ready and it will be good for me. It helps if I move all the time. And work is a place where I feel my life is unchanged.

Ryan successfully finished his first week of Summer Biology and is urging a few of his friends not to quit summer classes even though the teachers are teaching an academic year long course within six weeks and the load of work is intense. He got accepted to be a Peer Educator for younger students in his school and I think he is very well suited for this job.

I have started listening to music again. It was bitter sweet since I listened to all the songs that baba loved and sang along. I was cooking as I listened to Hemanta’s golden voice. I cried with every song as I remembered baba’s voice yet it brought some respite.

I get happy speaking to Gouri, Breshpati, Khushi and mashi who are holding the fort for me back in Kolkata. I don’t really want to talk to many people right now. I do love talking to those women. I feel the essence and love of my home through them.

It is a joy to see Khushi’s smiling face peering through the camera.

This morning I got the news the man I entrusted to get ma’s death certificate has been able to collect it. It is strange that it is a part of “goods”. It is though since acquiring it was quite a process.

Obstinate ma plant is blooming a vibrant red.

Sometimes I struggle to write this post as often nothing seems good but when I end up writing it, the list of ‘goods’ surprise me. I hope your list of ‘goods’ is also long. Have a great week, all.

He has no one..


This post will be one of the hardest to write, but write I must or else I will explode in pain.

A few men came in to our house to take baba’s body to the crematorium. Since he was still mildly covid positive, the Kolkata Municipality, which takes charge of such situations, took his body for last rites. I was on video as they prepared him and started taking him down. I heard one man say to the other, “So sad, he has nobody around.”

That hit me like a brick. He has so many people who love him. Not only his daughter but extended family, friends in social media. His friends constantly reached out to me, organized help, was ready to do anything for him. His nieces and nephews, which include my friends, were coordinating oxygen refills, organizing cash when needed. In his home, he was cared for by Gouri and Mashi who have cared for him for many years. Even at the hospital he called out for Gouri. Gouri was standing right by him when they took him. He has people. Nobody could be there with him at the end but he did not have much consciousness to acknowledge the absence according to his caregiver. He became drowsy and went away gently like ma.

Those words of the municipality workers hurt. They haunt me still when I think about it. This Covid has caused so much devastation. I think being alone at the time of one’s last breath and helpless daughter/s or son/s (many, many like me all over the world) looking on via video are some of the most heart-rending consequences of this disease.

Baba Ganesh or Baba Ganoush?


Fresh off the boat story. I got introduced to different cuisines after my move to America. My first meal, once I landed in Boston, was spaghetti and meatballs made by my fiancé ‘s mother. It was different from what I was used to and delicious. The next day we went out for dinner with Sean’s family to an upscale restaurant. I looked at the menu and found nothing remotely familiar except the word ‘chicken’. I knew chicken, so I ordered lemon chicken. I took a bite and hated it immediately. For an Indian, chicken was not meant to be eaten bland with only tart lemon as the overpowering flavor. Chicken should be cooked in a myriad of spices, after lovingly sautéing onions, ginger, garlic, tomatoes…

My brother in law looked at my face after one bite of the chicken, laughed and asked if I liked my food. I contemplated if I should be polite or honest. I decided to be honest.

Anyway, after our marriage Sean introduced me to middle eastern food and a love story began between me and hummus, kebabs, koftas, tzatziki, tahini, baba ganoush. For the longest time though, I was confused as to why the delicious eggplant concoction was named after one of our most beloved Hindu gods, Baba Ganesh. Due to a touch of dyslexia, I read the menu wrong, Baba Ganesh instead of baba ganoush. And I heard it as Baba Ganesh when someone said out loud, baba ganoush.

One day, in complete innocence, I voiced my confusion to Sean, “Isn’t it strange that people named a food after a Hindu god? Why do you think they did it?”

“What do you mean? Which food?” He asked.

“Baba Ganesh! The eggplant dish that I love!” I confidently replied.

“Do you mean baba GANOUSH? Completely different from Ganesh.” Sean laughed.

It was a moment of euphoria and realization. Wait a minute…..two completely different words!!!

Yesterday, I made baba ganoush at home as pictured above. It looked lovely, I garnished it with love and as I was arranging the parsley, I remembered my confusion about the name of this dish long time ago. The memory made me smile.

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!

🙂