Please watch his eye and the curt nod of his head….please?

My mode of transportation in Kolkata, India was an auto rickshaw. It is a motorized, 3 wheeler scooter which was built to accommodate 3 to 4 people but in reality, it carried 6. I hailed one with a flick of my hand, jumped in, glared at my fellow passenger if he was trying to get closer than necessary and promptly immersed in my own thoughts, whatever was important at that time – classes, exams, job interviews, crushes. Never noticed the weaving of the auto, never paid attention to the distance of my auto, or the lack of it, from the vehicle in front.

Last year, I went back and discovered that I have turned into a complete wuss! What happened to that intrepid girl who stopped on coming traffic by boldly stepping off the curb to cross the street, who just looked at the cars, raised her hand and the traffic either stopped or weaved around her to let her cross, the girl who could non chalantly get on and off a running bus! I clutched my children’s hand, stepped off the curb and stepped back up quickly as the cars came without reducing speed with the hope they would run the red light without getting caught. It was a hilarious two-step dance. I finally yelled at the traffic police to stop the traffic so we could cross the street. The traffic police completely ignored me and continued to listen to cricket scores. Within a week, however, the old me came back to do exactly what I did fifteen years ago, stopped the traffic with a look, crossed the street while weaving around moving cars.

I go to India primarily to eat. Oh, and visit family and friends, of course. What? Did I say something different??? Since I eat a substantial amount I feel the need to join a gym, mainly for my peace of mind. Every morning, while going to the gym in auto rickshaws, I made two important observations. One was that the decorum of sitting amongst men and women in those vehicles had changed. In my days, when a woman stopped an auto, the male passengers, if seated at the back of the vehicle, got out and went to the front to let the woman passenger take the safer seat, as a show of courtesy. This time I noticed men didn’t bother to get out, they just opened their newspapers wider and continued reading or glanced at the women passenger and continued talking on their cellphones. The sweet act of chivalry had disappeared. Since I believe in women being treated equally everywhere, this didn’t bother me….too much. I protested against this when I was young, but when I saw the absence of this kind gesture I admit I felt the loss of something good and beautiful!

I also discovered the unspoken code of conduct among the Kolkata drivers. There is that special look, when one comes to an intersection, that slightest nod of the head which determines who has the right of way. Most veteran drivers knew the code and followed it. Some new ones waited too long and was awarded with a yell and a choice expletive, ‘Arreh, jaabi to saala, dariye aache dekho song er moto!’ The literal translation, ‘Yo, will you go, beep, or stand there like a clown.’ Few polite ones said ‘Arreh jaa na!’ (just go) without the expletive, but that was rare! At the beginning, I sat at the edge of the seat holding on to the guard rail white knuckled. Then I noticed this silent communication between my auto drivers and the other drivers on the street. There is a reason to this madness after all. After that, I sat back, relaxed, enjoyed conversation with the drivers. Life was good….till I met one who certainly possessed a death wish and weaved around big buses like someone…..possessed. I did croak once in a while, “Bhai (little brother) drive carefully!” My brother would reassure me with a bright smile, “Didi (big sister), don’t you worry! You are in good hands!”

I always hugged my children a little tighter when I made it home safe on those particular days and thanked the universe immensely for keeping me alive to see another sunrise…er, let’s make that ‘another sunset’ as my supportive spouse just pointed out I am fast asleep when the sun actually rises, so I shouldn’t lie in my blog!!!

The green and yellow - a very familiar sight in Kolkata.

Visiting my university with the children.

On our trips back to India, I believe both my kids rediscover their mother, or at least they look at me with a new eye. They get to hear stories of their mother when she was their age! ‘Mom!!!! Our age???’ Here, at home, mom is an entity, looking after them, scolding them, constantly reminding them to pick up their book bags, behave well in school, clean their rooms, taking them to practices and play dates, kissing their hurts away, holding them close in a sudden bear hug. I don’t think they regard me as a separate individual, I am more of an extension of them. I am taken for granted, except, maybe on Mother’s Day! But when we go back, they actually pause a bit to look at me, as a separate person with a life where they didn’t belong for a while. That thought is a little unreal for them. They see my baby pictures, my school certificates, my college photos, several memories of the girl – me, the young me that my parents have saved like cherished treasures. Just like I save my children’s baby teeth, their little hand prints, their pre school artwork, with the hope that I will hold on to their babyhood, at least in my memories and relive these days when they are grown and gone! My parents even saved my kindergarten artwork, much to my children’s amusement!

It was a very hot summer morning in Kolkata. Sahana couldn’t wait to get going. We were going to visit my university. She wanted to see my university and I needed to get my transcripts so I decided to take her. The trip started inauspiciously, as we witnessed a relatively harmless auto accident. I could tell she was shaken up a bit. It was a short bus ride to the college yet the girl was drenched in sweat and red in the face. We got off and entered the gate! I was immediately transported back twenty years. It was almost surreal that I was there  at my alma mater  not as an eighteen year old but as a mother! I could almost see the twenty year old me with dangling earrings, long hair tied in a plait, maroon t-shirt, blue jeans sitting on the steps with  friends contemplating whether it was alright to cut the next class and go to the canteen instead! The young people going around us in groups talking, laughing, teasing each other was us, about twenty years ago!

To be honest, I was so lost in my memories, didn’t pay attention to the fact that Sahana was very quiet. I started showing her where I hung out with friends, our building, the grounds, the bridges, the canteens, the pond the library, the auditorium. I was oblivious that she didn’t utter a single word still but just walked next to me and kept up. Finally, I asked her what she thought. She stayed silent for a few more seconds and said, ‘It’s…..nice, mom!’ My sweet, polite girl! I then looked around and saw my school through her eyes. She had seen the campuses of Harvard and Tufts University, her father being from Tufts and aunt from Harvard. My campus, I don’t think, quite measured up.

I could tell the heat was getting to her. We sat under a tree in the shade and looked at the huge field, where some stray dogs were gambolling around in the shimmering heat. Men and women walked by us, so young and full of hope and promise. There, I told her stories. Stories of when I first crossed the threshold of the huge campus, my nervous heart beating fast, leaving behind my sheltered life at an all girl’s school, my dreams and aspirations as an eighteen year old, stories of the laughter I shared, my fears that I faced, the mistakes I made, the thoughts that I learnt to think, the books that I read, the friends that I found and kept for life. I showed her the building where her grandfather, my father, came to study Engineering, as a young man. He walked the same paths as I did, frequented the same canteens as I, made friends, laughed a bit, gave his heart, got his heart-broken, just like I did. My ten-year old listened quietly. There was no impatience, no eye rolls, no exasperated sighs. It was a beautiful moment of bonding between us. I think the place became meaningful to her as her  eyes swept through the moldy yet grand buildings, the greenish brown fields with burnt grass, the mangy stray dogs and the trash littered across.

I finished my work at the office and we took an auto home, but not before she took my camera and shot pictures of me in front of places which she heard were meaningful to me in the stories I told her.

Best of all, last year when we went back, she asked her six-year-old brother to come along to see mommy’s school. The brother was excited. He, too, like his sister, was melting in the heat on our way. He walked along with us, playing with the toy soldier he had in his hand. Never paid any attention to anything I said, or any building I pointed out. He only looked up with interest at some boys playing soccer on a field and showed some enthusiasm when I pointed out where his grand father played cricket. I think he was trying to visualize his heavy-set grand father, as an athletic young man, playing a sport. The circle of life.

I didn’t think the experience could be complete without riding a rickety public bus back home. Sahana feared that every time the bus rattled the floor would give away. Ryan noticed, with obvious glee, that he could see the road underneath through the floor of the bus. They were fantastic and uncomplaining about the heat, the dust, the walk, the bus. We treated ourselves to ice cream before going home!

Sculpture in front of the library.
A rickshaw in the campus.
Melting in the heat on a public bus.
The reward.