I remember always being on the other side of these windows. I am on Park Street in Kolkata and Flurys is a Kolkata legend. Well known for its pastries and sandwiches, enough has been said about it to warrant a visit when in Kolkata. For me, my childhood visits to this city were dominated by my father’s wishes, his likes and dislikes, his monetary considerations. A hundred rupees for a pastry was an unthinkable indulgence for him. My adulthood consists of correcting the lapses of childhood, and in every visit to Kolkata I make at least one visit to Flurys. I sit in a corner writing and feel like an impostor. If I needed to prove to myself that the past is well behind and I have “arrived” this moment here should have been enough – but is it I wonder?
There is now a Au Bon Pain to the left side of Flurys. On my way in today I had stood transfixed outside staring at it. Suddenly I was in Boston, in winter devouring soups in the snow. And then I was not. An old woman tugged at my arm begging for anything and I had hurried into my destination.
After a flurry of activity among numerous waiters, I was seated by a young man who asked me, “Madam you are not from here are you?” I replied in Bengali, “Keno? Dekhe monein hocchein na je ami ei desher?” Why, do I not look as though I am from this country? I have been asked this question too many times not to resist asking my kindly waiter more questions. Why, indeed why is it that in India, dressed in every way as an Indian, I am constantly questioned about my identity, I wanted to know. “Madam, you speak in Bengali. Out of a hundred people who walk in here, ninety will ask me for a seat in English even if they are Bengalis. You are wearing sindoor, the vermilion on your forehead, you wear the white bangles of a married woman, in the generation of the young very few will dress like that.” I looked around me and spotted a Bengali family eating their meal and indeed only the mother and the grandmother were dressed like me, the young girls in the group wore jeans.
I lower my head and begin my lunch as I ponder the significance of my experiences as foreigner, first in America and now back in India. Amit Chaudhuri quotes Edward Said in his book Two Years in Kolkata, describing what it is to live in Exile, “[m]ost people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that—to borrow a phrase from music— is contrapuntal. For an exile, habits of life, expression or activity in the new environment inevitably occur against the memory of these things in another environment.” For me then the layers are quadrupled as memories as a child in Kolkata sit beneath the memories of growing up in Kuwait and then in Pondicherry; leaving, returning and now being estranged from my present in both countries.
My friend the waiter returns to the table to talk to me. He is trying to go to America. “There was a fire that happened on the floor above us,” he says, “Two or three years ago. Women jumped out of the windows trying to escape. Two or three hundred people died.” He had rushed out and given water to a woman who had fallen on an A/C vent before landing outside these windows. She had died a few minutes later. I turn to stare out of the windows. A small boy sells polka dotted balloons. He is so small I can barely see the top of his head. Wires, hundreds of them zig zag across the skies above him, some dangling precariously close to earth. The safety of eating in this bakery is as fraught with danger as would be walking out on the roads and wondering if any of those electric wires can suddenly end your life.
I request for the rest of my lunch to be packed up and take the contact number of my kindly host the waiter, so I can meet him again. I stand for a moment outside the bakery and smell smoke and cannot help but think of that fire and that woman. Sitting on the side is an old old lady, the beauty of her face etched into every line, in the gray of her hair, in her toothless smile. I hand her the food and every penny I have in my bag. She stares at the money and clutches my hand. As I walk away, I am followed by all the hawkers who watched the exchange. I brush them away, suddenly angry. There are no illusions of safety in India and maybe that is what can make one live each day intensely alive and aware of the ephemerality of this journey no matter where you live on this planet.