Posts Tagged ‘Calcutta’

Filed under: Monday Memoir

Remember these?

Remember these?

Dee-doo dee-doo!

“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?

Related posts: Calcutta Bangles, Charlotte, Storms Past and Present.

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First in a new series.

Trigger: 8 year old K informs me that she can hear me coming from the sound of my bracelets.

The summer I turned sixteen, I spent a month in my grandmother’s house in Calcutta, convinced I was going to die. As in, die right there, not make it home. I had traveled there on my own from Long Island, NY, where I had spent the previous month nearly dying of boredom in a musty, dark, pre-fab type house in a soggy and wooded depression near Brookhaven National Lab which suffered from its own miserable micro-climate. (I think I also visited some colleges then, but the dank house left much more of an impression on me.) But the “I’m dying” feeling I had in Calcutta the following month was much more real as it involved fevers, vivid and bizarre dreams, and endless trips to the bathroom.

The long journey began smoothly enough, insofar as departures from JFK International Airport are smooth. The overnight flight deposited me in Paris around 6 am, and as my next flight, to Delhi, wouldn’t leave until the evening, I had the time to take the commuter rail and subway into the city, stop in at our home to water the plants, sort through the mail and make sure all was well between the two month-long sublets, meet a family friend for lunch, and head back out to the airport.

The troubles began on the second flight, to Delhi. I’ll spare you details. Suffice it to say that I was exhausted, doubly jet-lagged, and feeling the beginnings of panic in the pit of my stomach by the time I landed in the smoggy humidity of Delhi. Thankfully, another family friend met me at the airport amidst the push and shove of the throng right outside the arrival doors, and ushered me, in his air conditioned car, to his serene home where I slept for a couple of hours before heading out, yes, to another flight. The final leg, to Calcutta.

Most of my month-long sojourn at 9A Little Russell Street that year is a blur, but a couple of memories are vivid, and one is the following: Lakshmi, faithful employee (still referred to as “servants” back then) of my grandmother for decades, sitting on the floor by the side of my grandmother’s bed to which I was confined, fanning me when the load-shedding caused the ceiling fan to come to a halt. No matter what time I awoke, no matter how many or how few times, she was always there, a quiet but reassuring presence in the dim room. Quiet, but not entirely: the jangle of her thin gold bangles up and down her arm when she moved was what told me that she was there. And it is what told me that I was not alone, and that perhaps, after all, I would not die during that visit.

Toward the end of my stay, when I began to recover from what was probably the double whammy of a bug of some kind combined with an unfortunate reaction to anti-malarials, my grandmother presented me with a blue velvet-covered jewelry box. The velvet was thinning in places, revealing the bald box below, and the clasp was a carefully wrought one, a silver latch that caught onto a very small knob. Inside was a set of three thin gold bangles, the middle one decorated with delicate pieces of ruby. It was the first of many such boxes of her jewelry that she gave me that summer, and probably the one of least monetary value, but when I slipped them on that day, I felt as though those bracelets were giving me an almost magical type of power, to one day bring the sound of reassurance to someone else. I’ve worn them every day since then.

A few days ago, when I entered K’s room to wake her for school, treading carefully so as not to impale my heal on a stray Playmobil personage, K rolled over sleepily and said: “I can always hear you coming by the sound of your bracelets.” I smiled in the dark, both surprised and not that she could hear their thin tinkle through her closed door. “Is that a good thing?” I asked her. She nodded. I brushed her forehead and gave her a kiss, glad that I’d been right, all those years ago. So when, a day later, she announced that from now on she wanted to use her alarm clock to wake her up every morning, I felt a sudden sadness. Ok, I told her, if you want. Because when your child wants such an easy piece of independence, you give it to her. I showed her how to set the alarm and turn it off.

Friday morning, after I slunk past her room without waking her, heading straight for the kitchen to pack lunch boxes and make breakfast, I heard her bedroom door open, the bathroom door close, and I knew she’d managed to get up on her own. The end of an era? But then she traipsed down the stairs, and the first words out of her mouth were: “That alarm clock is much more unpleasant than I expected.” I laughed. “Beep-beep, beep-beep!” I said. “No, don’t, it’s horrible! And it’s hard to turn off, and then I was worried I’d wake up S, and I didn’t like it one bit.” So I asked her if she’d rather go back to Mom waking her up, and she nodded. Whew!

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A powerful storm ripped through Massachusetts tonight, bringing raging winds and ceaseless, sky-illuminating lightning as well as a short but torrential downpour. Watching it from the window of my home, I was vividly reminded of the sights, smells and sensations of summer monsoon storms in Calcutta and Bombay during my childhood. The cawing of the crows flying in circles as the wind picked up. The heavy smell of moist dust as the first drops fell. My sopping wet skirt clinging to my legs. My bare feet squeaking in my plastic chappals, or flip flops, then the cool, slippery sensation of walking wet-footed on tile floors. The whirring power-down of the ceiling fan during load shedding. The slight spray of raindrops on my skin as they broke down against the window screens. The splashing of cars sputtering through knee deep water in the street below. The horrid, probing feelers of a large cockroach emerging from the drain in the corner of the bathroom floor. The chatter of the household help, still referred to as “servants” then, in the hallway, seeking refuge from their usual retreat on the roof amid the drying laundry, makeshift charcoal fires and overturned buckets serving as seats. The clink of ice cubes in my father’s Johnny Walker and the conversation, Bengali with a smattering of English, of the adults as they sat around the living room chatting and crunching on pappadams waiting by candlelight for dinner to be served.

What a different world I inhabit now. As the same sky let loose its lightning and wind and rain this time, so many years later, so many thousands of miles away, I stood in a newly-built home, windows shut tight, my own children sleeping soundly downstairs, cool air blowing out onto my still bare feet through the vent in the floor, the dishwasher whirring downstairs, the lights steadily on, everything indoors dry and still and safe and quiet. I thought for a moment of opening the back door and stepping out onto the deck, letting the wind blow into the house. I didn’t. Instead, grateful to have those memories of storms past, I sat down at my computer, compelled to write.

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