Monday, October 23, 2017

"We are going to Kolkata!"

This is a vivid memory from my childhood. I must have been around 5-6 years old, definitely not more than 8. We lived outside Bengal, and once or twice a year, we boarded the Madras Mail (an overnight train) as a family to visit Kolkata during summer or winter vacations. There, I spent significant amount of time in my mamar bari (my mother’s parental home). We were all a “joint family” back then, a family where parents, children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, everyone lived under one roof. They show a lot of that in Greek and Italian movies.

My dadu or grandfather had two elder brothers, Boro dadu (boro means bigger or in this case, elder) and Mejo dadu (mejo means middle). They all lived in one huge, two-storied house in Howrah with their spouses, children, and grandchildren. The house had a “dalaan” or an open central courtyard that led to the well. There was a large wooden table in that dalaan. The table was so high for me that I needed support to prop myself and climb it. It is the same table where every male member of the family ate their breakfast before leaving for office. The table had a deep gash on one side and a nail sticking out on another. Even when I close my eyes now, I can still remember the feel of the table. For it was my favorite spot to lie on my belly, prop my chin with my hands, and watch the ongoing of the entire household; my three didas or grandmas lighting up their stoves to cook, the smell of burning coal that still makes me cry out of nostalgia, the domestic help, “Mongola’r Ma,” scurrying around to get chores done, my uncles busy eating rice and fish curry before leaving for work (always finishing the meal with “ombol”), and the neighbors dropping by to spread or garner news. 

I was too short to reach the wooden table, so I would use the adjacent chair to climb. That chair had a history too. “Buri pishi,” our widowed grandma (grandpa’s sister) sat there in the mornings, the two of us (the oldest and the youngest) being the only ones not in a hurry to get anywhere. So we sat side by side, buri pishi on the chair and I, belly flopping on the table, both of us with all the time to observe the world around us. Buri pishi often tickled my feet, catching me unaware, a constant source of annoyance. Till date, I hate anyone touching my feet. Given my size and height, the table offered an excellent vantage point to keep an eye on the ongoing of the entire household.

Sometimes, boro dadu or mejo dadu decked up early in the morning, wearing a fancy dhuti (a garment tied around the waist), a smart, cream colored shirt buttoned all the way without tucking in (unlike trousers), and dab generous amounts of Pond’s talcum powder on their face and chest. My own dadu never wore dhuti on a daily basis unless it was a wedding. He mostly wore a lungi or pajama. Anyway, the dadus would preen themselves, put on their best shoes, tuck a huge black umbrella under the armpit, and sit at one corner of the huge table for brunch before leaving home. Still lying on my belly, my chin propped on my hands, I would ask, “Where are you headed, dadu?” To which boro dadu or mejo dadu would beam proudly, “I am headed to Kolkata. I will be back in the evening.”

These words always made me giggle. I found this conversation hilarious. What do you mean, I am headed to Kolkata? We were already in Kolkata, weren’t we? How could one go to Kolkata while living in Kolkata? Back in our home, my mother used to tell everyone, “We are visiting my parents in Kolkata for the vacation.” To me, everything was Kolkata. I now understand the difference. We were technically in Howrah, a twin city to Kolkata separated by the Hoogli river. When we visited Victoria Memorial, we were in Kolkata. Whenever we took a bus and crossed Howrah Bridge, we were in Kolkata. When we ate moglai porota at the Shibpur tram depot, we were in Howrah. But in my little mind, technicalities were irrelevant and borders were non-existent. Everything was Kolkata, a nice and big city we visited during vacations or family weddings and met all the long-lost first, second, and third cousins, a place where a lot of people lived in one big house. Specifics did not matter to me back then. Demarcations were but only in the mind.

I have somehow held on to the trait even now. I continue to believe that Harvard University is in Boston although I have been corrected many times that it is in Cambridge. Seattle and the eastside are the same to me, one big place I call Seattle (unless I am in Seattle and have to go to Bellevue or Redmond).

“Where in Seattle do you live?” I have often asked people, only to be corrected and told, “We live in Issaquah/Bellevue/Kirkland/Redmond.” I know the difference, and I always laugh out loud when corrected. Little do they know that sometimes, I even refer to Portland as Seattle, although it is “just” 175 miles away. To me, Seattle means all of these- UW (which is actually in Seattle), my ex-office in Redmond, Inchin’s Bamboo Garden, Mayuri in Bellevue, and the amazing waterfront in Kirkland. Mount Rainier is in Seattle. Olympic National Park is in Seattle. You get the point. It is not that I cannot tell the difference. It is just that when it comes to Kolkata or Seattle, peripheries become all-encompassing and borders become non-existent.


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