Libraries in modernity

BC Kol

I love to smell in books. I imagine myself addicted to the smell like a glue sniffer. It goes to my head, makes me heady and giddy with the possibilities. I am in the British Council Library in Kolkata. It has been a while that I have visited a library. I am an Amazon book buyer and in fits of anxiety about the future of book stores, a spontaneous book store visitor.

Getting into this library was going through airport security-almost. We were separated from our bags and our phones. Some of my friends even had their bags confiscated. I was lucky to have entered along with Ian Jack, the moderator of this evening’s author conversation at the British Council library along with Amit Chaudhuri so I got to keep my bag with me.

I walked through the rows of books and calmed myself. It always upsets me to see how global suspicion has seeped even into the rows of bookshelves. The smell of the books comforted me and I walked by them gently touching them with my finger tips. The last frontier of sensuality in a mechanical world.

British Council

(Above: Amit Chaudhuri and Ian Jack in conversation at the British Council Library, Kolkata.)

Kolkata walks

When I can, I try not to breathe in Kolkata too deeply. I am susceptible to asthma. So it was with some apprehension but with an equal amount of expectation that I joined Amit Chaudhuri, Ian Jack houses caland students of the UEA writing workshop for a walk around the neighborhoods of South Kolkata.

Amit or Amit da as I call him is spear heading a campaign to save the architecture of the city from developers and builders who are changing the once eclectic skyline of the city to one jagged with sky scrappers.

These houses of the Bengali middle class are defined not only by the curious time under the British when they were built but by quirky details such as verandahs surrounding upper levels and grates and grills with designs. I know not much about architecture but beauty even in shabbiness I see, recognize and admire.

Residents standing on their balconies glared at us and we stared back. I ventured to smile but no one returned the smile to me.We stood under awnings when the skies opened up. Rain-I love rain. I love the softening of the earth, I love the hope it brings. We walked into by lanes empty mostly of traffic, houses past and present jostling for space-an intimacy that characterizes the heart of this city. Men playing cards on the side walk, an old man bathing under a water pump. The heart of Kolkata beats here openly- not yet dug up and replaced by new structures that are almost ugly in their undisguised utilitarian pretexts of modernity.

If you are interested in signing the campaign to save the architecture of Kolkata sign the petition here- Petition

cards pic

 

 

Kolkata 2015

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 thrFlurys Kolkataee 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.

 

Not blogging from India anymore

So now I am not blogging from India anymore. The question is, should I have a new blog id? That thought aside, returning to Berkeley has almost been seamless. Walking in downtown San Francisco a couple of days ago, I felt for a moment that joy of freedom that India does not give me. I am anonymous here. The very symptom of my aloneness is now my friend. no one knows me and even if they did they do not care about what I am wearing, how many times I have ben married or whether my shorts are too short. Am I now an American? My eldest daughter tells me that she is Indian on the outside and American on the inside. I wonder if that holds true for me. And does it even mean anything anymore? All these nationalities, borders, cultures, differences- are they slipping and sliding into each other creating a whole? All these thoughts aside- we are in America now.

Summer rains

August 4th

Today it rained. It is A’s birthday. It has rained many times like this before.  Then my house used to let the water seep in gently through hidden cracks, like music, flowing into waiting pots and pans. Then, Lola, my dog sat miserably under a chair- she hated the rain. I am with Tom now. Rain in Pondy is a happy place. Pakoras fried on street corners, families huddled under umbrellas, children jumping in puddles, the sea calm, grey yet wild. Rain in Pondy is a dream I remember when I am cold and wet in Berkeley. The roads slick with oil, grime and cow dung smell of the earth, of child-hood and truth. I want to get wet in this rain but I am still in the car. I don’t want my shoes to get wet. I am smiling. It rained in Pondy today.

Day 6

My house is a collection of memories. Pieces of furniture unmatched, uncoordinated used to each other after three decades together sit side by side in uneasy but accustomed companionship. If my parents were still living together that is how I imagine their life together would be. It is early in the morning, I am jet-lagged. The sun should rise soon, there is comfort in certainties. In a few days we sell this apartment that I owned with my ex-husband. Tom and I have bought a home across the road. I look forward to cleaning this apartment of the memories sleeping in the sofas and tables. I will lay them on the side of the road and hope someone will pick them up and use them. The time now is 4:30 am.

Date unknown

We entered the restaurant to eat and blanched. The table right in front of me was covered with flies. I took a step backwards, the girls took a step forward and exclaimed,” Mommy, mommy, look, flies.” I nodded grimly and turned to look around. A man eating at the table next to us pointed vaguely to a distant corner and said” Go there.” I turned and walked out trailed by two eagerly chattering girls, one tired husband carrying one very curious baby. Next door was another restaurant, open air as the one we had just visited but no flies. We sat down and ordered our lunch. The mango juices fresh and cold soothed my constantly waging thoughts on life in India and I gazed out at the green trees and let the children and husband voices wash over me. Over lunch, a couple of dogs weaved in and out from under our table licking our crumbs oblivious to the girls laughing, screaming and valiant efforts to keep their legs away from them. Cheese sandwiches, summer salad, mushroom crepes- the lunch was almost impeccable. India, a study in fierce contrasts soothes me in moments of calm. I observe the girls getting out of their air-conditioned cars and home and walk on the roads. They count the cows, goats, kids, they talk about milk coming out from under the cows, they ask me why people don’t take the dogs home, why we don’t take a hungry dog home. I remember a time when I did. When my mother would find me standing outside the house feeding milk stolen from the kitchen to feed the strays I would stumble upon.Now, I am not so optimistic. Now, I avoid the eyes of the homeless, rarely look at the animals. Now, when I have so much more materially than I have ever had in my life, I am filled with a sense of hopelessness. What use is the penny to the homeless, the sip of milk to an animal that will live its days out in the sun and rain living always on scraps? Though sometimes I do stop. Boys throwing stones at a dog that wants to play with them, security guards waving big sticks in the faces of road peddlers to get them out of their door-ways- sometimes I stop, sometimes I yell and sometimes someone listens, sometimes someone laughs and sometimes someone yells back at me… But I realize I do it now more for the sake of my girls. Indifference to injustice is a terrible thing. Memories of who I was stir me and I speak up for that girl who was and for these girls who are witnesses and my hope for a world that could be just a little less indifferent.

Day 4

Four days into my trip to India, I had to sadly admit to myself that I had come to no conclusions or understanding about myself or my identity as an Indian who is now a resident of America. In the elevator in my way up to a “wi-fi” cafe, on the third floor of a fancy  albeit gaudy leather boutique, I would sip a sweet lime soda, blog in my diary while the temperature close to a hundred degrees F beats against the frosted glass. For three days now, Paro almost eleven months old has a fever- heat exhaustion. She spends most of her day in an air-conditioned room as does the rest of the family. I make quick dashes into the open world and rush back with equal alacrity. I am under assault- sounds, smells, smokes, light, dust, colors. I am drained. I am home.

A note from Pondicherry

I came to Pondicherry, now called Puducherry, when I was eleven years old. I try and come back atleast once a year. One can never go home but one can make a home in different places of the world and move from one to the other. I hope to give my girls the open spaces of mind and heart that come from seeing the world as one that is whole. In the process I hope to be able to keep my heart and mind open to all that was and could be.

An American family moves to India for a year.