Filed under: Monday Memoir
“Let’s do dee-doo dee-doo!” This is Little One’s rallying cry to launch Skype and visit with the grandparents who reside in France.
“Oh, we’re doing a visit?” chimes in Big One. “I’m going to my room to get my flute to play for them.” She scoots up the stairs, and is back in an instant with an armful of items to share with them as I set up the laptop on the coffee table. Little One is rummaging through her toy bin to find her latest treasure, a rubbery blue frog with a disturbingly large tongue. She starts flapping it wildly in front of the computer even though no one is online yet.
We will Call Calcutta now
How different this all is from the days—always Saturdays—three decades ago when my parents, my brother and I would gather to Call Calcutta (it was always like that: “Children, we’re going to call Calcutta now”) to speak with my father’s mother. My heart would sink. I never knew what to say to my grandmother, a sweet but strong, soft but firm woman then in her 70s who lived so far away in distance and, it felt to me, in time. I loved her, and had many pleasant associations with her from our family visits to her home: the soothing odor of sandalwood and anise; the tickle of her hands rubbing my back ever so gently; the softness of her plain, widow’s saris and of her cheeks as I kissed her good night; the reassuring jangle of her massive ring of keys tied to the end of her sari; the unwavering love with which she indulged my every whim. But so far removed from her, ensconced in my Parisian childhood, with my parents hovering over me and my grandmother valiantly trying to engage me in conversation without knowing any of what mattered to me—my school, my friends—I wanted to shrink from the phone.
I keep getting engaged
It would start with all four of us in the living room, first around a rotary phone, then some years later around the first press button phones. For some reason, my recollection is strongest of the times when my brother had already left for college, and I, six years younger, was on my own with my parents. My father would pick up the receiver and dial whatever he needed in order to reach an Indian operator. This in itself could take several attempts. Once he got through, the volume of his already powerful phone voice automatically went up a few more decibels. I would worry that the neighbors would hear everything and be annoyed. He would put the phone on speaker and we would hear the distant, tinny voice of the operator with her lilting Indian accent. “I’m getting engaged,” she would say, indicating that the line was busy. “I keep getting engaged.” Or sometimes she would fail completely to make the connection. Or the call would get dropped. My mother would start to float away into the kitchen or pick up the newspaper. My father would pace around a few minutes. I’d slink back to my room, silently hoping we wouldn’t be able to make the connection, then thinking of my grandmother and feeling bad. My father would then start the whole rigmarole again.
How are you keeping?
Eventually, after what could be a couple of hours, we’d get a connection. “Pronob?” would come my grandmother’s hopeful voice, uttering her son’s name. “Hein!” my father would yell into the receiver. My mother would hurry back to join him, straining to hear her mother-in-law. I would drag my feet back down the hall to the living room. A conversation in Bengali would ensue, sprinkled with enough words in English that I could glean the basic gist: updates would be exchanged regarding health, doctors, relatives, house affairs, longtime servants (still referred as such back then).
Then the receiver would come to me, moist and warm. My parents would stay nearby, presumably in case the line got cut and we needed to restart the whole process. As though I wouldn’t know to call for them. I desperately wanted to turn off the speakerphone, not because there was anything to hide in my stilted conversation with my grandmother, but because their hearing both ends added to my anxiety about how to respond to her questions. She would do her best, asking me how school was going (fine) and how I was “keeping” (well.) I would ask about her health… and then I didn’t know what else to say. I could picture her well, and the house, the wall and heavy gate that separated it from Little Russell Street, the rows of lush potted plants along the walkway to the door. I could imagine the slightly off-kilter whir of the ceiling fan, the front edge of each blade caked in dark brown grime. I could hear the crows, the honking cars, the clatter and chatter coming from the kitchen. But I wondered what she could imagine of my life. She had traveled widely and visited us in France, in Switzerland, in the UK. But, I thought, what did she truly understand of a little girl’s life in the 70s and 80s in these places, when she’d grown up, married at age 9, in the Calcutta of the 1910s?
The corollary to these calls, to the distance between us, was the awkwardness with which I tended to greet my grandmother when we did see her, either (most frequently) in India, or in Europe. Her face would break into smiles as soon as she saw me, and she would pull me into the soft folds of her sari, holding me in her gentle way. “Anju-buri” she would croon repeatedly. Her delight in seeing me would feel overwhelming, mostly because in those first moments, I did not know how to relate to her.
No more disconnect
When my children greet my parents, often at the airport, or perhaps on arrival at our home or theirs, there are immediate hugs and kisses all around. Everyone starts chattering. Conversation picks up as though it had just ended a few minutes earlier. And that is almost the fact. Weekly video visits, interspersed with phone calls made on a whim, keep everyone apprised of all the details of daily life. My parents know the names of Big One’s friends, have seen the latest school report, have read books aloud to Little One via the screen, have sung songs with both of them and seen their latest favorite books or items of clothing. My children have commented on their grandmother’s haircut or new glasses, have joked around with their grandfather about some mannerism of his. So that when they are all put in a room together, the reunion is seamless.
I wonder what might have been possible had such technology been available to my family when I was a child. Looking back, I see how limited my knowledge and understanding of my grandparents was. Will my children look back in thirty or forty years and think the same thing, unable to fathom that there could ever have been a disconnect so much deeper than what they experienced?