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.

Visitors


I sat in the doctor’s office and flicked through the pages of the book that I brought along. The rising panic at being examined intimately and the annoyance of having to sit takes away the pleasure of uninterrupted reading. The door opened and a heavily pregnant woman of Indian origin walked in, followed by her saree clad mother. From the youthful look of her, the woman was perhaps pregnant with her first child and I simply assumed her mother had flown all the way from India to provide her with care, support, love and nourishment at this hour of her need. Mine did 9 years ago. The memories made me smile. Yet there was something in the body language in the elderly woman that made my heart yearn to touch her shoulder in reassurance. An uncertainly, a certain diffidence in her every action that proclaimed ‘I am so out of my comfort zone’! The daughter guided her mother every step of the way, telling her where to sit and wait while she filled out her paperwork, the mother held on to the daughter’s coat and water bottle so she could have her hands free. Once the paperwork was done, she made sure the daughter’s back did not hurt, touched it and said something to her in a language I did not understand. I was called then, and as I followed the nurse into the doctor’s office, I tried to catch their eyes to smile, but they were busy among themselves.

These days, as this country gets richer with the advent of different cultures from all parts of the world, many seniors are making the long trip to come here to visit family. The sight of elderly couples in traditional outfits walking a few steps behind their immigrant family, with a look of wonder and bewilderment is quite familiar, especially in the cities and other touristy places. Since my loved ones live far away, I often watch these visitors with pleasure mingled with envy, and more often than not, give a big smile if I happen to catch their eye. And more often than not, my smile is either acknowledged a tad late and returned with a surprised smile, or I just get a surprised stare – I don’t know you, why are you smiling at me? And more often than not, I notice the diffidence in their body language. A feeling of uncertainty about being in a foreign land with a very different language and culture manifests itself in their steps, expression. That, and also a sense of amazement at the novelty of the place, at how different it is from their homeland. And when I see the uncertainty, I want to reach out and give them a hug. I, of course, am not crazy enough to do it but I want to 🙂 !

So I seek out the ones who look most vulnerable and in need of help at airports when I travel from India to the United States. I unashamedly eavesdrop – I am a Bengali after all, and when I feel there is enough confusion between an elderly couple at what the next step should be in this complicated process of immigration and security check, I take it upon myself to guide them through it. And trust me, the feeling of relief at having a guide who speaks their language is almost palpable.

Many visit to be with their loved ones for a few months and many, while doing so, try their best to be as helpful to their sons or daughters as they can. They sometimes come in an hour of need and try to alleviate the stress of child-birth or new job or any other crisis by being here and helping in any capacity. When I first came to this land of do-it-yourself from a land of abundant domestic help, my family back home just about cried at my condition. ‘The poor girl has to do everything by herself. She has no help!’ they lamented. At the beginning I wallowed in self-pity and lapped up the commiseration till it started getting old. Then I tried to convince them I am not doing anything out of the ordinary, majority in this country do everything without much help. The argument to that was, ‘they are used to it, you are not.’

My parents, when they come, take over certain chores to give me a break. My mother takes over the kitchen, and my father takes over the responsibility of the dog and the children. He often regrets the fact that he can not drive and hence, can not go to the grocery store and spare me that chore as well. Oh, and he switches the laundry, empties the dishwasher AND cleans their own bathroom. One incident stands out in my mind. It was a hot summer afternoon and I was mowing the lawn. My father came out with a bottle of water and waved at me. I was thirsty so I took a break and gulped down some water. He asked me if he could do part of the lawn while I rested. I refused to have him help me, I said, ‘Go inside, stay cool!’ He, however, sat out at the garden bench with my water bottle in his hand with a distressed expression on his face the entire time I mowed the lawn. Once I was done, he was equally impressed with my lawn mowing abilities and disturbed that I married a man who made me mow our lawn! He said a few times, he felt very helpless sitting there while I toiled in that heat. And when Sean came home from work, after an initial hello, he launched into how I mowed the entire lawn, how hot it was, how impressed he was at my strength and what not. Later, in the privacy of our bedroom Sean chuckled, ‘Your father certainly had an accusatory tone when he told me about your lawn mowing prowess! Did you feel there was a hidden message to me cloaked in your praise about ME making you mow the lawn?’
And I said, ‘Buddy, you better believe it. His princess married a pauper who MAKES her mow the lawn. His heart is breaking!’

😀

Almost home…


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finally, my two worlds meet.

I love men.


‘You know, I love men!’ I said this to my husband as we took a leisurely stroll on the eve of our anniversary. If I had said this on the eve of our first anniversary, my husband may have raised his eyebrows. But we have been married for seventeen years and time has made Sean immune to my eccentricities. He takes them all in his stride and puts up with it all, with a chuckle.

‘That’s wonderful! I am glad you love one half of the humanity. Is there a specific reason?’ He wanted to know. He was humoring me, I know. But I never let an opportunity to talk, pass. Honest confession, I am chatty.

Having made the generic statement – I love men, let me qualify. My love for men is not unconditional. For instance, I don’t love those men who feel empowered by hurting women, children and animals. But then, I don’t love women who do those things either. I do not claim to understand men completely. I sometimes find them condescending, specially towards women who talk about sports. Sometimes their denseness frustrates me. I don’t understand why it is so hard to admit ‘yes, I am cold’ in sub-zero temperature and what is the point of arguing with the GPS in the car about directions. It is a machine (with a woman’s voice) giving directions, for crying out loud! And I certainly don’t love the man, who flipped me the bird, when I refused to take a left hand turn and throw my car in front of aggressive, oncoming traffic, the other day!!! That guy needs anger management classes and safe driving lessons. After those, I may consider including him in this love fest.

Anyway, as I sat in one of Ryan’s baseball practices, I watched men, protected behind my shades. The men I watched were dads of Ryan’s teammates. They were teachers, corporate high-flyer, lawyers or physicians in their real lives. But as their cars pulled into the parking lot of the ball park and they donned their baseball gloves to throw with their sons, they seem to be stripped of their adult careers, adult responsibilities and became 8/9 year olds themselves. When their sons ran to their coaches, the dads started throwing amongst each other, without stopping to introduce themselves and without missing any of the continuity. As I sat on the bleachers and eavesdropped, I heard stories of high school sports and glory days of their yesteryear. information about each other were exchanged as the ball flew between them. A sort of friendship slowly emerged while the ball was being thrown and caught. This seamless integration with each other, I notice, when Ryan or boys of his age go to any social setting. No words are necessary to become a part of a team and start throwing a ball. The men have the same formula for integration, I observed. This quality is so natural and so endearing. They parted with a hearty handshake, a hard clap on each other’s back and with a ‘see ya at the game’ – their sons’ game over the weekend. Ryan becomes part of a team every season. So does his dad – he becomes a part of a team of dads, men who enjoy coaching, throwing the ball, practicing, helping the little boys in their baseball skills and perhaps, reliving their own Little League days. I have heard horror stories of parents taking their passion for their children’s games too far, but I haven’t witnessed any nastiness….yet!

The moms are different. We introduce ourselves, ‘Hi, I am _____, I am _______’s mom.’ That is our identity, at least on the ball park. The moms, generally, don’t talk about their highschool sports or their own athletic prowess. They talk about schedules, and the different sports their children play, the amount of homework they get, whether they are in the gifted/talented program. Moms bring dinners at the ball park so there is one less thing to do when they get home. They keep an eye on the siblings who are just tag along. The mommies organize the volunteer snack schedule, who will be the team mom during the game. They keep the children from climbing the fence, throwing gloves at each other, they make sure the boys stay hydrated. They arrange for carpools so they can take their other children to their respective practices. They pull their husbands away from the game and remind them when Joey needs to be picked up or where Samantha needs to be dropped off. The husband turns to his mates and winks, ‘I don’t know any of the schedules, I just do what the boss tells me to!’ That evokes communal mirth among the men and empathic nods and smiles.

Girls grow up faster than boys and very rarely revisit their childhood. The moms are busy holding it together. Men do. They can become little boys from time to time, as THEIR little boys/girls play baseball, football, lacrosse. Then as they drive out of the sports arena, reality sets in, and the men become dads again. Childhood waits…till the next practice or game.

My love for Kolkata…inexplicable.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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