Five: Nostalgia in Helvetia, ‘Swiss Bliss’ #paperboats #non-fiction

Switzerland, land of lakes, chocolates, cheese and mountains. This is the country that the world sees in its mind’s eye when it imagines luxury, a high standard of living, efficiency, neutrality and of course, money courtesy of the famous Swiss banks and their even more (in)famous clients. But we Bengalis are a little different. In our mind’s eye, we also see rolling Swiss meadows generously dotted with chiffon saris and pastel-coloured sweaters. Switzerland is quietly pleased with this association and the way that it benefits tourism. It encourages India’s collective fascination with this country by indulging us. A little known lake in Canton Bern has been renamed Chopra Lake. Visitors to Mount Titlis can pose with larger-than-life cardboard cut-outs of Kajol and Shah Rukh Khan. We come with Bollywood dreams and leave with memories of cheese fondue, chocolate, sledding in the shadow of snowclad peaks.

However, some of us stay. In a country with four official languages (German, French, Italian and Swiss Romanch), some Indians – Bengalis amongst them – have been trying to make a life there since the 1960s. Thanks to the Indian IT industry, the last decade has borne witness to a population explosion in Switzerland’s resident Indian community.

Let us follow a typical, young Bengali couple in their journey to and through Switzerland. Let us call them Tina and Raja. Upon arrival, they both marvel at the spotlessness of the pavements, the easy availability of bins, the seamlessness with which trams, buses and cars run side-by-side on the roads…They profess that they do not miss the hustle and bustle of Kolkata’s streets. For days, even weeks, Tina and Raja glow with success, they feel like they are living in the future. Every weekend, they become day-trippers, ticking off tourist hotspots with Swiss efficiency. Each time they board a train, which is often, they say they do not miss Howrah or Sealdah. Nonetheless they cannot help but compare everything that they see with everything they have known. India, especially Bengal and Kolkata in particular all fall swiftly out of favour in their conversations.

Weeks roll into months. Tina craves kosha mangsho, Raja misses a simple aloor torkari. They venture out of their Swiss bliss and go looking for subcontinental shops, they buy paanch phoron, they substitute mutton for lamb. When the weekends arrive, they get together with likeminded friends. They subscribe to Indian channels, they discuss the news and politics of home with passion.  They like, react to and share Indian news on Facebook like the armchair activists that they have become.  They cook food from their childhoods and learn the recipes from YouTube and Google. Overawed by the expense of the Swiss high street, they look for but cannot find an equivalent to Gariahat or Hatibagan. They cannot help but fizz with excitement when they see the likes of Dev or Payel shake a leg with Berne’s medieval clock tower looming in the background. Tina and Raja have a child. Never sure when they will have to return to India, they grow nervous when they learn Swiss children are not taught to read and write until the age of six. They find a lady from Kasba, now living in a Swiss suburb, who teaches the three Rs.  Bengal’s currency rises again.

Tina and Raja come to live in the land of limbo. They borrow from the best of Swiss culture, its discipline and efficiency and they marry that with their Bengali souls. Their child is raised in a kaleidoscope of cultures, she looks forward to the sportsferien when she can go to skiing school in the mountains as much as she looks forward to her long summer vacations in India. She dances to both ballet and Bollywood and has even sung Rabindrasangeet on stage once or twice.


Four: Where’s my Village? Part 1: The Grandparents #paperboats#non-fiction#raisingthirdculturekid

Where’s my Village?

Part 1: The Grandparents

One of the cliches of modern parenting is that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.  Hackneyed, as they may be, the funny thing about cliches is that they are true. The concept of the ‘village’ as a reference to a community in which the child is ideally raised has been around for some time. It’s source? A Nigerian proverb to be precise, Igbo and Yoruba to be yet more precise. It had already existed for a long time, having already had a vital life of its own, when more life and global longevity was injected into it in 1996, when the then First Lady of the United States, Hilary Rodham Clinton wrote a book with the proverb in its title, “ It Takes A Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us” (Simon & Schuster 1996).

However, I must confess, I didn’t hear it from such hallowed sources, nor did it come to me as an inspirational Facebook video of viral, sharable and bitesized content, I first came across it in the opening scenes of the 2007 comedy-drama, ‘The Nanny Diaries’ starring  Scarlett Johansson and Chris Evans, or as my son knows them, Black Widow and Captain America. This was long before I had children but you know how some things just stick? Well, this stuck.

As famed thinker and philosopher Karan Johar once famously said (and wrote, and repeated and made a film about…), “it’s all about loving your parents”. Indeed. For us Third Culture  parents and kids, it’s also about taking that love one step further up the family tree. I propose that part one of creating the ‘village’ is  “all about loving your grandparents”.

One of the things I’ve noticed about my mother, ever since she became a grandmother, is her infinite source of patience. Is she patient with me? Um, no, we’re still working on that. Is she patient with her grandchildren? Yes, yes. A hundred times, a resounding YES. I find myself saying to her the very same things that she would say to her mother when I was growing up, “Where was all this patience, this forgiveness when I was a girl?” My husband says the same thing to his parents. The answer, from all quarters, is the same, “become a grandparent yourself and then you’ll understand”. Our eldest is almost six and as he is only too gleefully observes, his sister is “zero years”. Hopefully, we will have some time yet to prepare for grandparenthood…

Anyway, did you notice that what our parents now say to us is only just a little twist on the original tale, “become a mother/father and then you’ll understand”. Begrudge my children their grandparents’ patience and tolerance as I might, I am very frequently forced to admit that without them this whole TCK parenting malarkey would be a bit of a lost cause.  Even though as immigrant/expat parents we are separated from our own parents by both distance and time, technology can step in to save the day. Thus, with the marriage of old and new, the traditional and the modern, we can ensconce our children within a small annexe of their ‘village’.

One of our fondest memories as a family is that of my eldest’s haathe-khori otherwise known as the ceremony of first writing. It is usually performed on the occasion of Saraswati Puja; as the goddess is associated with learning and wisdom, it is thought of an auspicious time to begin a child’s learning journey. It is usually done under the guidance of a priest or, in our family, grandparents. In Zurich, that was trickier to manage. My parents live across the English Channel while my husband’s parents live the proverbial seven seas and thirteen rivers away. So, how did we do it? Skype! What else? We managed to get just about everything else ‘right’. The Bug was persuaded to dress up in a dhoti-kurta. At age “nearly three”, he was a reluctant to wear anything other than jeans and t-shirts with superheroes emblazoned across them but he donned the dhoti with aplomb because both sets of grandparents would be watching and he would be able to show off. The wifi gods smiled at us that day and the Bug completed his haathe-khori under the watchful eyes of four grandparents. We held his hand and guided his first letters but they did everything else.

We’ve repeated the same trick time and again. I turned to Skype for babysitting purposes recently. The Bonu likes to babble, Mama and Papa love to babble, but they also gotta work. It turns out that grandparents like to babble too. Put the two of them together and the laptop out of her arm’s reach and we have the answer of my dreams.

So, yes, it’s not perfect, it’s not ideal. Nothing beats actual ‘face time’ and when it comes to cooking and food, I really wish there was a scratch-sniff-taste option on WhatsApp, but with everything else that we are doing, I don’t think it’s too shabby a solution either. The kids know their grandparents are “their people” and they turn to them just like we always did.

Three: Experiencing Swiss Resilience #paperboats#nonfiction

”Welcome to the European summer”, the Easy-Jet steward said, as we disembarked. I smirked. I hoisted my then two-and-a-half-year-old onto my hip, swung on my backpack and didn’t bother to brace myself. European summers? Surely Switzerland would have nothing to teach me! I was a born immigrant!

Swiss summers, as I would later come to know, are famously broiling. I realised that I knew precious little about the country at all. When it came to Switzerland, I had previously always turned to Bollywood to fill in the blanks; my understanding of the land of milk and money could be summed up as follows: chiffon saris, pastel-coloured sweaters looped around Shah Rukh Khan’s neck, missed trains and nippy little sport cars zip-zap-zooming over quintessentially arcadian landscapes.

That first summer was challenging with bone-dry spells occasionally delivered by deluges. Ceiling fans and air-conditioning are not all that common. I began to miss May in Kolkata (now that’s really saying something). Not that my first summer here was entirely devoid of joy. Absolutely not. Long walks down well-maintained mountainous trails, barbecues by the lake, day-tripping here, there and everywhere courtesy of the rather fantastic SBB… But something niggled, in spite of the perfection or rather, perhaps, because of it.

Everything was always too perfect, everything just worked. Switzerland, I was beginning to find that, never let me make excuses or gave me white lies to hide behind. I longed for winter, for the silencing effect of snow, for an excuse to be slow.

Snow came. Within hours, snow piled up in drifts, layers and layers of it covering every available surface. Yet, nothing slowed down. Imagine my disappointment. Even in deep midwinter, amidst what was, in my eyes, a Snowpocalypse, the Swiss just kept on going. The trams still ran on time, the trains ran on time, the buses ran on time. There were no snow days. Snow in England usually sees public transport grind to a groaningly predictable halt, it is a time for Chinese take-aways and daytime TV. There were no rainy days. Rain in Kolkata had once seen us housebound. You could fish on the waterlogged streets as well as float paper boats on them. Here, it was different. If you wanted a duvet day, it was on you. You simply couldn’t blame the weather because everyone else…?Well, they were just getting on with it. To my annoyance, Switzerland was refusing to hand me its mountains to hide behind. Instead, it kept urging me to look at, and really see, for once, the woman in the mirror. Personal discipline, something I sorely lacked, is placed at a premium here. The true extent of this never really hit home until a couple of years later.

To say that my second pregnancy was difficult is a bit of an understatement. I spent some of it in hospital and much of it on bedrest. I wallowed.  The women I shared my room with, however, told a different story. One of them had, by the time I met her, had already spent seven weeks in the hospital, with an IV drip permanently attached to her arm. The other had to undergo a C-section at 34 weeks gestation upon which her newborn was rushed off to the nearby Kinderspital where she underwent critical heart surgery. Yet, neither of them fell completely apart. Unlike me, they were not relegated to mush. They found reassurance in routine, and in that routine, found that much-needed space that they needed to be themselves. They refused to have their breakfasts in bed, they refused to remain in their pyjamas all day long, they insisted on throwing the curtains wide open in the mornings, they insisted on going to sleep at a normal-ish time at night, they insisted on taking each day as it came without overthinking what the future would hold. Of course,there were tears aplenty. Heaving bouts of anxiety coupled with soul-wrenching fear.However, at the end of it, there was a return to routine, a return to carving a space for themselves, to the people that they wanted to be in spite of every curve ball that life appeared to be throwing at them. In that small room, shared between three women at their most vulnerable, I experienced Swiss resilience in the face of adversity for the first time in my life in a manner most personal.

So, what has Switzerland taught me? Nothing but everything: that it is high time to woman up, to just get up and keep on going. Its order and it’s routine has forced me to back away from my list of excuses, its taught me that I can no longer hide behind them while languishing in procrastination.

To borrow a line from Disney’s Finding Nemo, “just keep swimming”.

Two: The Story of Us #paperboats#nonfiction

So, I’m a British-Asian married to an Indian,I live in Switzerland. How did that happen?

Well here’s how…

We’ve been married for seven years ‘socially’ and eight years ‘officially’. Our’s was definitely a set-up! It was a classic case of ‘kyun na hum is dosti  ko rishtedari mein badal dale?’ Our fathers are related by marriage. Arindam’s father is my great-uncle’s brother-in-law. We are bangals, and during the 1960s, most of our relatives still lived in the country that is now Bangladesh and was then East Pakistan. My great-uncle was one of the handful of relatives who had made a home in what was then the land of milk and honey, Kolkata. Both my father and my now father-in-law would meet at my great-uncle’s home. They became friends. Over the years, life led them in quite different directions and while the families remained aware of each other, their paths didn’t cross again until one fine day it struck my great uncle (he’s quite the character and deserves mentioning so often!) that he had both a nephew and a grandniece of “marriageable age”. The rest, as they say, is history. History was made at Kwality Restaurant in Ballygunge Phari. And no, my great-uncle was not present!

As I’ve just hinted, we first met at Kwality Restaurant at Ballygunge Phari. I had high hopes from our first meeting simply because I really liked Kwality Restaurant and it was also Christmas Eve. Christmas happens to be one of my favorite times of the year, and I wanted neither the restaurant nor the season to be marred by memories of a bad date! There was a lot riding on this! Poor Arindam simply had to deliver. And he did. He rocked up in double denim, which, at the time, was a definite fashion no-no and terribly associated with Salman Khan. However, this gave me the opportunity to mercilessly rib him for the rest of the evening and somehow this broke the ice. I discovered a funny bone that I didn’t know I was in possession of and he was…Well, he was thoroughly charming.

Both of us were on holiday at the time. Arindam was enjoying some time at home while working ‘on site’ in Abu Dhabi while I was rather enjoying the break after a rather frenetic first term of teaching in Surrey, England. Our meeting had all the hallmarks of a holiday romance, short, sweet and distinctly temporary. Surprising exactly everyone, it stayed the course. Over the next year, we kept in touch over increasingly, lengthy phone conversations. I didn’t have a smartphone at the time (I was a teacher, this was 2009!) and Skype wasn’t ubiquitous as it is now. WhatsApp must have been a twinkle in the eyes of Jan Koum and Brian Acton and Facebook didn’t have Messenger. We had at our disposal a dying Orkut (which I, as a Brit, simply did not ‘get’; all those testimonials were far too earnest and lacking irony for my taste), Facebook (which hadn’t really gripped India’s imagination) , AirTel Call Home and these weird, dinky little call cards which cost a fiver a pop. In spite of all the telecom challenges that peppered our way and other hurdles in between, we decided to go for it. Moving across continents seemed like the most natural, most obvious thing to do. We didn’t think twice.

Whenever we are asked what it is that bowled us over about the other, we’re both at a loss. We don’t actually know at all because we could not be more unalike. I’m the bookish geek and he’s always been ‘one of the lads’. We can bicker to the moon and back, we can ‘debate’ and ‘discuss’ until the cows come home, neither of us is ever willing to back down on anything without a fight and we hardly ever see eye to eye on anything. Yet, to me, he’s always the one person who makes the most ‘sense’, whose company I miss when I’m not with him and if I see something interesting, he’s the first person I want to tell about it. Along the way, we’ve been given the gifts of two truly amazing children and I’ve seen my husband grow into a brilliant, brilliant father. Neither of us play it by the book and I can’t imagine anyone else that I would rather make up the rules with as I go along. I’ve never seen Arindam look doe-eyed at me, and I’ve never consciously looked doe-eyed at Arindam. Whenever  we’ve been captured in photos and are not smiling rictus grins straight-at-camera, we look like as if we were sharing some sort of in-joke, which we are…We just haven’t figured out what that joke is, quite yet!

Arindam and I can disagree about virtually everything. In fact, Arindam had, once upon a time, saved my number in his phone as ‘Jhogra Partner’! We once fought (in rainy, sleety, Edinburgh and on our honeymoon, no less) because we both wanted the other person to wear both gloves because we didn’t want the other person to catch a cold. Neither of us was content to share because we both doubted each other’s immunities. Yes, we are that ridiculous.

We are two of the most laid-back people to have ever walked the earth. We are often left wondering if the fates are laughing with us or at us! Hilarity is par of the course, whether it is because one of us is always legging it back helter-skelter because they’ve forgotten their phone/keys or because we are totally up for whatever scatterbrained idea has entered the other person’s head (ever tried backpacking around Europe with a three-year old, thrice, in the course of one year? We have…Would we advise it? Only if you’re feeling brave!). Our best experiences together have been in the operating theatre believe it or not. Our son was born by emergency c-section and our second child by a planned one. The enormity of hearing your firstborn’s defiant wail is quite something and I remember both of us grinning from ear to ear. In spite of lying there, anaesthetised to within an inch of my life, it was the most wonderful and most fun thing to have ever happened to me and having the love of my life share that with me was an experience beyond words. Nothing could top it…Until it happened again. This time, though, there was a difference. Throughout what proved to be a turbulent pregnancy, we had been told time and time again that we would be having another little boy. The thing is, both of us were rather wishing for a little girl this time. However the pregnancy was such that by the end of it, neither of us actually cared about gender at all and we would have given an arm and a leg just to hold a healthy baby in our arms. As fate would have it, as soon as she was born, the surgeons congratulated us on the arrival of our “beautiful baby girl” while the other people in the OT (there are so many people in the OT!) congratulated us on the arrival of our “beautiful baby boy”. We looked at each other, flabbergasted and also, at the same time, totally cracking up. This was very typically ‘us’. It was only when Arindam returned with little Aryahi (who at the time remained nameless) in his arms, and reassured me that indeed, we had the daughter of our dreams, that I allowed myself to believe it. It doesn’t matter how many times we tell it, that story will never get old for us.

When we first met, Arindam and I were both quite young. He was and is my first love and I approached this relationship thinking that life and love would be like something out of a novel that I had read or a film that I had watched. It’s taken seven years for us to appreciate that actually, it’s a lot more tenacious and much more elastic than that. In these last seven years, we’ve also done some major growing up and we’ve both grown more securely into our own skins. It’s made our relationship a much more comfortable place to be,  we are each other’s warm homes to return to at the end of the day.

Dadubhai #nonfiction#paperboats

Everytime I see my hand I think of my grandfather. I can’t help it. Some stories from childhood are woven so tightly into the heartstrings that one can’t help but look at certain things through that fiter, that latticework of memory and familial mythmaking. So, what story is this? Well, my great-grandmother lost her eldest son too early, my mother lost her father, my beloved grandmother, her husband. Fighters that they are and were, they battled on through even while their loss baffled them. It removed the ground from beneath their feet until they fought and fought and then again, fought some more to regain it.

I came along. Far too late, some might say but that’s another story, for another day. I came along, and while holding me in her arms, my great-grandmother found some trace of her child in his grandaughter. Where did she look? At my fingers. Of all the things to inherit, she believed that I had inherited my Dadubhai’s fingers. So specific and so particular, the kind of thing that only a mother could notice. How often he must have lain in her lap, and how she must have pored over him, studying every line of this body which her’s had made and what a loss it must have been to know that in her own lifetime, she would see that body resting not on earth but in heaven. How peculiar it must have been to then find – so many years later-  echoes of her child in his descendant, to know then that in spite of ourselves, we go on and on. So I look at my hands now, and I see the grandfather that I never saw. I explain away the peculiarity of my middle finger my ‘mummy finger’, to my son. I show him the crookedness of it, the way that the nailbed lies askew and I tell him that I have inherited it from the grandfather that I never knew but whose presence loomed large over my childhood.

My grandfather’s presence literally loomed large over my childhood. Not just in the metaphorical sense but in the literal sense. You see, my grandfather was the subject of a portrait which remains, to this day, the best portrait that I’ve ever seen from that time. It is a tight shot, capturing him almost exactly or so I’m told. Bespectacled and be-shawled, he is the very image of the bengali bhadrolok. In my eyes, he looks positively regal. This portrait hung over the bed in our old flat in Picnic Garden. Every summer I would come and sit beneath it again.  I would look out of the window at the pond and the old garage, look towards my aunt’s home and there he would be too, above my head, arming my gaze. Flawless and faultless, my grandfather became, to me, the stuff of legend. His love of food, his fairness (I am talking of his judgement here), his love for his daughter, his wife, his family. He was the perfect grandfather in every sense, the only problem was that he was not here.

Letter To an Unknown Soldier #ƒirstworldwar#weweretheretoo#firkitales#thepinwheelproject

My dearest Babu,

We are here, as we were before, waiting for you to return home. Your father, brother, sister, grandmother and I miss you and wish for you always. You are the sum and sun of the yearning in our hearts. Kajol has declared that he will not shave until you are returned home to us. The furry caterpillar that is currently crowning his upper lip is at once heart breaking and hilarious. How you would laugh to see it! You would mock him into shaving. In a rather perverse, rather Kajol-like manner, I believe he means to goad you into returning so that you two can fight once more. In the meantime, Bela, our little bidushini, our would-be blue-stocking has taken to keeping a diary. She says it is for you to read when you return. She means for it to be a very comprehensive catalogue of the minutiae of our lives like the time, two weeks ago, a stray cat birthed its kittens behind the room on the roof, next to where your grandmother keeps the old rags for selling. She kept padding up and down our stairwell and skulking desperately in the shadows. I am not sure who she was more afraid of, us the fearsome householders or the toms. Toms eat kittens, did you know? Did I ever tell you? Anyeay, Bela, Leena, Kajol and I suspected that something was afoot immediately but we had to keep it a secret from your Thakuma. The thought of strays nesting on her roof, above her beloved Puja room would have led, well, to her having kittens, if you will pardon my terrible pun. The cat, which Leena named Shiuli, kept her litter in our trust for more than a week before moving them on. Leena misses them. She would put a bowl of milk out for Shiuli whenever she could. I think she was summing up the courage to ask me if she could keep at least one. Without Shiuli and the prospect of gambolling kittens to play with, little Leena has now turned her attention to feeding a crow after our own lunch is over. She keeps the fish bones and the sparse fistful of rice that she has secreted away, on the parapet of the back-verandah and there the crow comes while she waits for it to finish eating. She whispers to it constantly but I can never hear what she says.

Your father, it will not surprise you to know, has fallen very quiet at home. His mind is no longer on the business and your Thakuma worries that his uncles will use this distraction -if you,away at war can be called that- to cheat him. She would rather that the nefarious ropes of the mill and it’s consequent worries tie him in place until such time that you can be brought back to take his place.

The thakurmoshai comes every morning and evening, as he has always done, to put our Narayan to bed but nowadays he has been relegated to the role of an assistant, a sous-priest if you will. It is your Baba who does everything now, from cleaning the Puja room to arranging the flowers to performing the prayers, while your Thakuma looks on. I know that they would like me to participate more, but I cannot Babu, I cannot. I cannot think of any God while you are not here. Let her call me godless, let her call me a stone-hearted mother. Let them all call me anything and everything that they wish but I will not waste my moments thinking about a god when I should be thinking of you or looking at an idol when I can be looking at your picture.

In truth, Babu, I cannot enter the Puja room without thinking of the time when you picked up our Narayan-shila, thinking it was a ball. Your Thakuma came running as did your Pishi and in their hysterical cacophony you threw the Narayan-shila into a corner where it landed on a discarded pile of your Thakuma’s stale clothes, perfectly intact and unharmed. This is not a God, you said, it is a ball. You were crying and they held you in their arms until you were quiet and they were too.

Your Thakuma misses you too but she shows it differently than we do. If you are wondering at this, know this: I only achieve this clarity in my letters to you. I am as devilish a harridan as I ever was. I inspect Kajol’s moustache a smidgen too long, read Bela’s diary (you must have suspected already, do you remember how angry you were with me when you discovered that I had been reading your’s?) and eavesdrop on my youngest’s conversations with a crow, jealously guard our mornings and evenings from visitors so that your father can do all that he feels he needs to do in order to pray you safe, all in the hope that by spreading my senses out acutely, I will bring you closer to all of us.

Who holds you in their arms now, my love? My little Babu, this house would not feel so big with you here. You are off, fighting somebody else’s war and I fear for you so. That somebody doesn’t care for us much. We must not venture where those somebodies go in civilian life yet they would have you fight their war for them, with them even. The only equality you can ever hope to achieve might be on the battlefield, but is that even the case? Will they look after you once the war is done? Will you be remembered?

I fear for you there and I fear for you here. You are a moth drawn to a cause and the world is now a restless place. Or, was it always this way and I simply had not noticed? I don’t how how you have found your place amongst it all. Do they understand you? Do they realise how much we have given up in letting you go so far away from us? However, it is clear to all of us, that you are the still, quiet, strong, centre of our universe at home.

How strange it is to know every pore of your child, to know the precise angle at which their fingers curl in sleep, to be aware of their particular scent at different times of the day, to be party to all their woes and joys, to sneak peeks at their diary as they grow up and away from you and then suddenly, with the final brutal evaporation of time, to not know them at all and to be deprived of all opportunities to do so. I have worry now, numberless worries that bleed morning into night. Are they good to you Babu? I, your stone-hearted mother, pray that they are. You must come back home for me, and for all of us here.

Mothers in our part of the world never say this until their sons marry (what a hoot that will be! You bringing back a sweet little bou back for me!) but I am going to break with tradition my darling, because the times are changing and I cannot find my way amongst the currents, so here it is… I am proud of you, my son. Wherever you are and from whichever theatre of war they have placed you in, come back home to me,

Your loving Ma

Ps: Drink water, plenty of water. I do not want to have to remind you here about why that is important. You are old enough to know.

Oh My Ghosh! #firkitales#thepinwheelproject#snapshotsofaprobashipujaexperience

Shoshti and London is steaming chaos. The Northern Line is out of action. As is the District and there’s some work being done on the Piccadilly. Again. Anamika Ghosh mutters darkly to herself before turning back on her heel, mentally scanning through her inner Tube map. Out of luck, she heads over to the escalators and takes the rolling steps two at a time. Outside, the air is muggy. Splendidly overcast, the clouds have trapped in a particularly bothersome humidity. It is autumn. It ought to be fresh, but it is not. Dressed as she is for the wind and falling leaves in a rust coloured coat and a chocolate brown scarf, Anamika feels overwhelmed by a soupy, swampy warmth.  Peeling off layers and stuffing them into her Primark tote, she sets off at a pace. As ever, with the odds stacked against her, she is surprisingly fleet-footed and today is no different. She makes it onto the 9 with seconds to spare. There’s a seat going free and Anamika sinks into it gratefully.

As London rolls past majestically – if haltingly, courtesy of the customary Thursday morning traffic – Anamika leans back into her seat, plugs in her earphones and scans her phone. WhatsApp    is aflame. Apart from a few messages here and there from friends and colleagues, it’s all the  handiwork of the families Ghosh and Mukherjee. She scrolls through the family group-chats.  There are many of them and she has muted them all. But now, she looks through them. One for the Mukherjees. One for the Ghoshes. One for the Ray cousins. One for the Ghosh cousins. One for the Mukherjee ‘Gurls’ and one for the Ghosh ‘Gals’. There are three hundred and seventy-six messages in all.  Over the last few days, as their count has slowly mounted, Anamika has held herself back from reading them. To open a family group chat, she thinks, is to head down a wormhole of forwards, jokes, warnings (about nutrition, corrupt MLAs collapsing flyovers and radiation from mobile phones), memes and family lore. To open a family group chat, while sitting in a flat-share, in a council estate is to well and truly admit to yourself that you are lonely. It is to admit to youself that your late twenties are not really panning out in the way that you had imagined when you set yourself off to university at eighteen, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to earn yourself what ultimately proved to be an entirely demoralising degree in History. It is a despair almost singularly cured by two and a half tubs of Ben and Jerry’s Cookie Dough and three 500 ml bottles of full fat Coke. The drink and not the drug.  But as Anamika has her Puja finery to fit into, a Tagore opera to be a ‘shokhi’ in and because there was a warning about Cookie Dough maybe, possibly, being contaminated by shards of glass, she has been holding herself back from the wormhole. Until now. Today, helped by Birendra Kishore Bhadra and a YouTube hack,  and by an old Twix that she has fished out of the bottom of her tote, Anamika  allows the floodgates to open.

On days when TFL has forced her hand and forced her onto the number 9, Anamika takes it as a message from the gods to do nothing but sit back, plug into her playlist on Spotify and watch London go by. The 9 offers, in her opinion, the best tour of London that money can buy, taking in everything from Somerset House on The Strand to the Ritz and beyond. But today, by the time, the bus has pulled up at the traffic lights on High Street Kensington (when she would ordinarily have been ogling the houses and cars of the rich and famous) Anamika is lost in Kolkata. Or, to be more precise, Puja in Kolkata. The chats follow a similar pattern. First come the memes, each wishing everyone a very ‘Shubho Shoshti’. Then come the pandal-hopping photographs. Anamika learns that this year, everyone is scandalised that pandal-hopping has begun on Treetiya, upping the ante on the start of last year’s celebrations which began on the now staid Chaturthi…The groups are filled with selfies galore; selfies at midnight to selfies at dawn. Beaming with sweaty faces, accessorised by Cornettos ,candy floss and DSLRs in hand and looped around necks, all her uncles, aunts, cousins line up with umpteen realisations and approximations of the Devi and her merry rabble of four in the background. Interspersed with these ‘clicks’ are arty close ups of diyas and sculptures of sugar cane, or terracotta, or repurposed light bulbs or pencil shavings!

Her families are live and loose in Kolkata, they are taking in the world’s greatest city-wide art installation and documenting each event, detail by pulsating detail; from ‘notun-jama’ excitement to searing seventy-foot statue, from midnight feasts of egg rolls to sips of sweet,milky tea served in matir-khuri by rosy-fingered sun’s rise. Then, come the wistful ‘wish I was there’ messages from those who have spread further afield and have not accumulated enough holidays to warrant a visit ‘home’. They wish those at ‘home’ well and promise to join them next year. Puja has barely begun and already the battle cry of all Puja-going aficionados have begun: ‘asche bochor abar hobe’.

It doesn’t end there of course. Just as the bus begins its final loop towards Hammersmith and Anamika readies herself to disembark, tucking the phone into her pocket, it buzzes into life once more.

Wear smthng new.

# shoshti2day

It is her mother. Her words are followed by several brown, politically correct, ‘dancing girl’ emojis. Mrinalini Ghosh has taken to smart phones and social media like a duck takes to water. Unlike her children, both of whom who insist on long form, punctuation and paragraphs and view Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and now, the perplexing yet seductive pithiness of Snapchat as guilty pleasures, Mrinalini Ghosh prefers text-speak and the hashtag. While she does have a propensity to leave a space between the hashtag and the tag itself, thereby not always fulfilling her tagging intention, she nevertheless gives it a good shot. She is the veritable queen of the Emoji and she rarely leaves an Emoji unturned in order to get her point across. Anamika smiles to herself, her mood lifted by the messages from her mother which continue to vibrate and buzz into her hand. Having not yet received a reply, the detail of Mrinalini’s directive only continue to escalate.

Wr da brwn scarf. Baba gt 4 u. Dakshinapan?

Lost it? Alrdy?

There is nothing to do but to send her mother proof. Words alone will never suffice. Anamika unravels the scarf. Tucking her hair behind her ears, licking her lips in lieu of gloss, self-consciously glancing around to see whether she is being observed, she fumbles with the phone and hastily takes a picture of herself and shares it with Mrinalini. She hopes for relative peace for the rest of the day.

It is only when she has greeted her colleagues, put the Venti Macchiato (there’s a reason that she can only afford a bedsit, Anamika’s tastes run high; glossy, gossipy magazines and coffee from international conglomerates notch up a fair bill) down on her desk and fired up the desktop to read  and respond to the day’s first round of emails, that she realises what she has done. Warm fear laced with a sweat-scented embarrassment prickles her skin and she reaches for the phone. She checks WhatsApp again and there it is, proof that she has royally set herself up. The ‘Ki re, notun jama?’ messages have already started flooding in, followed, close at heel by messages of  the ‘Hey, long time no see’ type. She has sent her selfie to the Indian Family Mukherjee from whence her mother, Mrinalini Ghosh nee Mukherjee has forwarded it on to the Ghosh ‘Gamily’.

Thanks, Ma.

White #firkitale#thepinwheelproject


“Din, am I touching you? Am I? Am I? I’m not touching you”, Shahana asks. “See”. As always, she is emphatic, convinced that she cannot be wrong.  Shahana is six and three quarters. Sujata has learnt the difficult way that these three quarters of a year are very important to her granddaughter, as much a part of herself as her name, HiIamshahanaIamsixandthreequarters.

There is a table nearby, and there are chairs but Sujata has spent a small lifetime forgoing them in favour of the piri on which she and Shahana now sit-squat together, with Sujata holding her stainless steel plate in her hand. The piri’s stubby little legs hug the floor, it holds grandmother and granddaughter close, somehow containing them against the combined armies of physics and gravity. There is not a millimetre to be had between them, a single hair would not be able to shimmy through. They are touching.

“Na shona, you are not”, Sujata says.

Shahana and Sujata have been left alone together for lunch. And, as is the custom for whenever they are alone, Shahana has had her’s and now she waits for her grandmother to finish so that they might take their siestas together. As far back as she can remember, Shahana has been told by her parents (well, Madhumita is punctilious to a fault but Siddhartha always feels the need to insist that he doesn’t “believe in all these superstitions”) that she mustn’t touch Din when she is eating otherwise Din’s meal will be spoilt and Din will remain hungry all day.

In the darkened dining room, with its high ceiling, its old, cracked, red, cement floors, its dark, pistachio green walls, its peeling, flaking cowlicks of paint, its polka-dotted vitiligo of exposed plaster of paris, its rickety shutters closed against hungry tomcats and the brazen burn of the noonday sun, Sujata relaxes the rules which she has steeled herself to live by. The presence of Shahana allows her to step outside herself for a little bit, ponder the world as it might otherwise have been had Adarsha not been taken from her so soon, had she not been plunged into untimely widowhood and unexpected poverty, had not been faced with the challenge of raising two daughters by herself, had not been forced to depend on the occasional breeze of goodwill blown her way by the wishes, whims and occasional fancies of her two brothers and their wives.

Throwing herself into a life whose objectives where survival and existence, Sujata had learnt to play a part. At first that part had been played out of anger, its props had been carried in protest: the stark white borderless sari; the bare forehead (so striking on one who had always matched her teep to her sari); the interminable fasts; the strict and sudden vegetarian diet for one who had always relished her chhoto-macher-jhol and whose maacher-matha-diye-moong-dal had been unanimously celebrated, the near-fanatical avoidance of etho… Over time, she began to accept it all, she would wrap the white about her,  taking as much care over this new business as she had once done over her taants and Assamese silks, and as she wrapped, she would beg for the serenity of the white to enter her soul.  You are all the colours, she would tell herself, you are all the colours.

Shahana smiles. “Good”, she says.

“Wouldn’t it be easier to do your colouring on the bed?”


“Well, then, keep the colours inside the lines. Your sketch pens are flying everywhere”.

“No! Mrs Adlam told us to colour-in outside the lines and make a bigger picture so that’s exactly what I’m doing. It’s pretty, right? It’s pretty.”

“Yes, didibhai, it is”.


Sujata wakes with a start. The squawks and concertinas of impatient rickshawallahs and autowallahs and minibus drivers sounding their horns in an impatient orchestra tell Sujata, without ceremony, that she has slept for much longer than she had intended.  Eyes groggy with sleep, limbs heavy as if weighted down, Sujata brings the edge of her sari and dabs at her eyes. They water ceaselessly these days… That’s when she sees it.

In the gathering dusk, she is able to see colours blooming where nothing has bloomed for eons. Sujata fumbles for her glasses and with their assistance, she is able to decipher a trail of flowers blossoming on her aanchal. Drawn by an untrained hand, they lead to a little uneven collection of rivers and mountains, little mud huts and squat little palm trees. There is a rocketship, there are stars and three moons.

“Do you like it?” A small voice asks, through the darkness.

Sujata’s mouth trembles. What can she say?

One #thatpaperboatgirl

Now that I’m here, my mind has drawn a blank. Classic, really, isn’t it?

I’ve wondered long and hard over what my first blog post would be. I’ve started and stopped so many that I’ve actually lost count.

A few years ago, a friend and I were walking from Uetliberg to Felsenegg. Uetliberg is a viewpoint on the outskirts of Zurich. It offers splendid views over the city and the lake. It is really quite something and it’s somewhere where we take all the people who come to visit us out here.  We talked about the potential idea of blogging and yet we were both paralysed by the same question, what do we want to put out there, that is us? Uniquely us and something that we would not later feel embarrassed by?

Coming to the point, who is really interested in reading the witterings of a 32 year old mother of two? So, I tried to be interesting. I tried to wait until I became more interesting. But I did not. My life centred on the children, the experience of having them, the experience of raising them, of reading in solitary moments, of writing in yet more quiet ones…So, I did not blog. Until I did, today. It feels kind of ludicrous to stop yourself from doing something because you are worried about your legacy. You aren’t going to bloody well have a legacy if you do nothing (not that raising children is nothing) are you?

So here is me, and here I go.