A lesson in vigilance

This morning my three year old took the hand of one of the housekeeping staff at the upscale hotel we are staying at and went to find balloons. I have often let the children run around in the corridors outside our room because we are on a higher level in the hotel and it would be hard to get lost unless… Her older sisters came back to report that their little sister wanted a balloon and so she was taken away kindly by a hotel staff who asked the older sisters to stay behind. My husband, brother and I ran in crazy circles trying to find her and she was returned to us in a few minutes by the contrite person concerned. Those minutes were long ones.

We complained, we were angry, we spoke, we vented, we asked for explanations. The hotel has apologized, we received flowers, a cake, a bottle of wine, a hand written note. The manager went through security cameras to follow the sequence of events and so far the story of the balloon is straight forward and holds true. So should end the story and I wish to see things in perspective and not over react. Only in my mind, this event has thrown me down a dark rabbit hole. I have been molested as a child, I know that sexual abuse can take a moment to occur, I know that you carry the scars always and I know that I would never forgive myself if… So I have complained, I am upset, I do not want the most probably kind lady to lose her job but for the first time after our arrival I am scared.

This incident has been indicative of many of our experiences here in these ten days in Kolkata.  Strangers take pictures with our children without asking us, people have gone out of their way to help us or to pamper our children, we have experienced great hospitality, someone also walked away with our child today to give her a balloon. A giant decanter, a million ingredients shaken and mixed together, create this life here. As parents we are always concerned for our children. As parents this work is going to be more of a challenge when we are traveling with them on unfamiliar terrains. This evening as I sit here and write this piece all I can think of is how grateful I am that I can hear the laughter of my children as they play in the room next to me.

sorry

Workshopped

finally

Today is the last day of the writing workshop. I feel a sense of a loss I can’t define. Amit Chaudhuri and Ian Jack shared in degrees measured and unmeasured parts of themselves with us  writers published and unpublished. We were workshopped like metal or pieces of wood using words of praise, words of censure, erudite criticisms in colorful ink. Two groups created through an alphabetical coincidence (Our parents were solely responsible for this). “Why were we here? Why did we come?” Words used to discuss and analyze,  “The austere is beautiful, restrain admirable, writing is thinking…”

The roads are filling up with water inch by inch. With one hand I have held a paper and pen, with the other I have held on to this family of five. Some said, “I like what you say.” Some said, “I do not like it.” Some said, “You should have used this word.” Some said, “You should have packed and unpacked.” I wrote these down on a piece of paper and this morning I made a paper boat. I set it floating down a rain clogged road. I have spoken of anger, I have spoken of race, I have spoken of being a woman in my own ways. I have said what I have, I hope, with candor and grace. Off to the world now to do our work, I carry some words, I carry some people and some of both I must leave behind.

 

City of Joy

 

Rains 1

I stepped out of the hotel yesterday morning and for a long time sat under a balcony watching the rain pour down ceaselessly. The effect was like buckets being emptied in endless succession. I remember fifteen years ago in Bangalore, pushing my scooter through water that was waist deep. I lost my shoes, the scooter had to be repaired. I remember the hot bath when I came home, the pleasure in washing the mud off my body.

The rain waters on the roads in Kolkata did not reach waist level though some people did have to wade through waters half way up to their knees. A baby was washed away while their family slept on a narrow platform on a slighter higher level. Taxis refused to bring my colleagues doing the UEA writing workshop and one girl wrote of wanting to cry on the side of the road as she could find no transport. Another girl doing the workshop could not meet her husband who had flown in specially for their wedding anniversary.

Rains 2

What is it that has changed in India? People speak of modernity, it is a word thrown around in conversations;  women smoking in groups, torn jeans, swanky malls, high-rises, swimming pools, conversations in English. The news about the baby who died that night had a small mention among all the other reports. Where is the modernity I ask when a sleeping baby can float away in the night and no one gives voice to the loss of his parents- these pavement dwellers in the city of joy?

 

 

The gods in the hotel

When people ask me about why we have moved to India, I sometimes tell them about the deities in the hotel. The boutique in the hotel is a small one full of shimmering and over priced fabrics. When I am unable to take walks in the monsoon rains, I compensate by walking in circles around the hotel corridors and have stopped occasionally at the boutique to look at the displays. One morning a few days ago, I saw them-  a row of deities on a shelf close to the ground. “That is funny. I wonder how I never saw them.” I thought. I walked closer to inspect them and they were all there- saints, gods and goddesses, the symbol of  a cross, a statue of Christ.

A hotel employee dressed in his uniform sat kneeling on the floor and one by one he picked up the statues and pictures, washed them with a wet tissue, dried them and delicately adorned them with vermilion before placing them in a row on a shelf in a cupboard that I had never seen open until then. The roses he placed at the feet of the deities were the same roses I had seen in the flower arrangements in the hotel lobby.

I sat next to him on the ground and watched as he continued his prayers in silence. “Is this your altar?” I asked him. “No.” he replied, “It’s everyone’s altar. All the employees in the hotel come here to pray. Once a week one of us bathes and feeds the gods.” He placed little balls of sugar candy on a plate, he lit a small lamp and incense sticks.

I got up to leave and wondered about the fire hazards of lighting a lamp inside a wardrobe but surely the gods must be pleased at such devotion. It has stayed with me since- this devotion in a corner of a hotel boutique and sometimes during my walks now I am tempted to open the cupboard to peep in on the gods and see how they are doing.  And now sometimes when people ask me about why we came to India, I don’t tell them about my home sickness, I don’t talk to them of alienation in exile, I tell them about the gods in the cupboard.

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.

The wanderings of an American family