I discriminate too

A short while ago I wrote about my experiences with being discriminated against on public transport in Zurich and how it left me feeling unhomed.

Further things have happened since then which remind me that this country will continue to surprise me, both in good ways and in bad.

For every elderly gentleman who suddenly apparates on steep hillsides and teaches us to take the pram zig-zagging down rather than straight down so that our child does plunge straight down a hillside (the thought of what could have been still creeps me out), or every suited-booted Zurich version of a City bro who helps me heft the pram onto trains because I stood in the wrong spot and missed the easy access doors or every amazing woman, man, child who has waved hello to my children and wittered away with them in Swiss German and taught me a random assortment of affectionate words in Schweizer Deutsch…

…There will sadly be a complete douchebag who can completely ruin my day, week or month, whose obstinacy can wreak havoc on not only my physical health but mental too. Sadly those guys can apparate anywhere too, sometimes in the places where you least expect it. Unfortunately, teleportation powers are not just reserved for the good.

But, what is good? And what does Switzerland have to do with it? Douchebags exist everywhere. It’s time for me to admit that at times I can be a douchebag too or if I am being kind to myself, I have the potential to be a douchebag as well.

I think of myself, as we all do (unless you are Baddison from OISTNB) as a good person. A few days ago, I did something today that I certainly would classify as ‘bad’. And by doing something, I mean I thought something and that thought wasn’t great either. What was especially not great is that I’ve never questioned myself about this before. After a doctor made an unkind comment and an unkind gesture about my child’s weight (which reminds me, we really need to talk about and work on ways we can talk about weight, body image and body positivity to our children, to our boys as well as to our girls) my immediate reaction was ‘Gah these doctors really need to brush up their bedside manners’. Fortunately the reaction was in my head. The thought lingered and festered and I grew angrier and angrier that I had not spoken up then more strongly than I did (I did speak up, so tiny pat on the back for me because I find confrontations incredibly hard).

But here is the thing, if her words were rough then so was my reaction entirely uncalled for and it was completely unfair. It was discriminatory.

For the last five years my children have been almost exclusively been treated by these doctors. My daughter’s life was effectively saved by these doctors . These nurses have stood with me for the best part of an hour to reassure me that they would everything they could to sustain what looked like an unsustainable pregnancy and entire teams of these professionals have stood at attention ready to whizz my dramatically inclined second born to intensive care should she need it and not to mention that for the last few years every single vaccination or prescription has been administered by these doctors. I should be the last person to even think for a millisecond that ‘these doctors really need to brush up on their bedside manner’. For the last five years, these doctors have been keeping my family and myself safe, healthy and alive. These doctors and these nurses have been kind to us, they have been good. But, in the heat of the moment, all those memories of goodness and kindness vanished and I discriminated against a whole people, a community simply because I was upset. It was an individual thing but I made it a community thing. Why is it that when we are keen to praise an individual, we praise the individual but when we have one bad experience with one person who may or may not be having the best day of their lives, we condemn an entire community or a profession? Perhaps the lady who was rude to me had a bad experience with an Indian? Perhaps she condemned me as a consequence?

It’s time for me to admit that I have been that lady too. Maybe I haven’t acted like her but I’ve shared similar thoughts. Maybe?

What haunts me is that thought of mine is now in the world and I have to admit to myself that just as others discriminate and some have discriminated against me, I discriminate too. There’s no point in preaching from the pulpit about discrimination if I don’t admit that the problem lies with me too, in a sense, it begins with me too. If we are to actually work towards a less discriminatory society, let’s first look inwards and audit ourselves before laying the blame at other people’s doors.

Discrimination is socially conditioned into us. Growing up in the gap between England and India, I experienced the ironies of it throughout my childhood and young adulthood. Derogatory comments were made about both sides of my heart. If someone assumed I had been married at age nine to a man five times my age, someone else would assume that all Westerners stank because apparently ‘Britishers’ don’t bathe. Sigh.

Or clean their bottoms properly. Double sigh.

Someone else would assume that I smelt of curry while yet another person cautioned my mother to keep me under lock and key to ensure that I didn’t wind up as another teenage pregnancy statistic… I learnt to pick my battles because otherwise I wouldn’t have coped. I did not lead the revolution but as I sat on the fence between two distinctly different cultures, it was clear that discrimination lay everywhere.

People in circle would think nothing of and still think nothing of making comments that were regional(ist), casteist, parochial, elitist and discriminatory about race and/or religion.

(I’m consciously making the decision not to talk about caste any further here because I think I need to educate myself on this topic. I need to check my privilege and I understand that I don’t yet have the knowledge to discuss a topic which deserves sensitivity and an understanding of the full range of nuances. When I do talk about it I want to do it justice rather than add insult to centuries of injury. But of course, suffice to say, caste discrimination is everywhere and we are kidding ourselves if we believe that it doesn’t endanger lives and livelihoods anymore. But have I spoken up enough when comments have been passed within my earshot? No, I’m very sorry to say that I have not. I’m a douchebag and I will try to do better.)

Then, of course there’s colour. Not just black, white, brown. Thanks to a colonial hangover that very few are willing to get rid of, the shades of brown remain a battlefield in themselves. But have I revolted when someone said something about ‘she’s dark but a nice person ‘ as if the two were someone mutually incompatible. Nope. In fact I’ve brought and used Fair and Lovely myself in a bid to look conventionally attractive.

I haven’t led the revolution when people have spoken horribly about people from African countries living and working in India today in spite of feeling sick at the words I was hearing, I haven’t said anything in defense of the Marwari community living and working in Kolkata or the Tamil, Telugu, Kannadiga communities- all of whom have just as much right to call Kolkata their home as my family do.

I’ve let discrimination run riot in my life. People I respect and otherwise look up to have come out with gobsmacking diatribes and I’ve remained silent. So how can I expect that I should not be discriminated against myself? If I discriminate, if practically everyone I know discriminates, what gives me the right to believe that I should be treated any differently?

So my point is, to work against discrimination let us first begin with ourselves. When we categorize and draw distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’, the ‘discriminators’ versus the ‘discriminated against’ then we relinquish control. If we remind ourselves that we do it too, that we are all part of the problem, we allow ourselves to be in control of making positive change. If we are able to state that we do it too and we are working hard not to do it more, we can also discourage the whataboutery that invariably starts whenever someone feels accused by something that we or someone else we know and love has said. We want to start a conversation and not shut it down.

Let us embrace the fact that we are all works in progress and rather than rant and rave about the other and the injustices that the ‘Other’ has meted out to us, let us recall (in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s words) more than a single story. If only I had been mindful of all the help and kindness and trained myself to remember that I have received from German and German-speaking doctors and nurses, I wouldn’t have brushed off an entire country and it’s people. It is a thought that I will feel eternally sorry for. But also grateful for, because it has taught me to recognize that discrimination is not the sole realm of ‘baddies’ but by people like you and me.

No brainer but it really shouldn’t be.

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Six: I’m British so let’s talk pretend that I’m talking about the weather #paperboats

On the way home, I make it a point to check the temperature and the time. There’s a digital thingamigic that hangs on the face of a car dealership. Seeing it, I know I’m home. I love it because it’s one of the few things in life that vindicates how I feel. I love a good old bit of vindication. Recently it’s been confirming what I’ve long suspected. Zurich, city and beyond, has upped sticks and moved itself onto the surface of the sun. My skin is burning and I have so many body image issues that I’m never not in jeans and my arms and legs are never not covered…Zurich has taken up residence on the sun and I’ve become a swamp monster or perhaps, at long last, I’m finally being true to my own self. Whatever it might be, this summer, in Europe, things are getting mighty ratty and everyone is feeling a little frayed around the edges. Given that the Arctic Circle is on fire, it’s probably no surprise. It is hot and people are feeling it.

So it’s the weather, it has to be the weather, right? Otherwise why would a perfectly nice looking, well-dressed, elderly woman carrying a lovely designer bag absolutely lose the plot with me on the tram today? Lose the plot? No, that’s much too polite and not quite accurate. She utterly lost her shit.

This is how it all began.

We got on the tram from my favorite part of town, Bellevue. We were also on my favorite tram, the number 11. I’ve always loved trams. Summers in Kolkata bred that into me or perhaps they are written into my genetic code. Trams, no matter where they are and where they are going, are my happy place. And the number 11 is the happiest of them all. From Bellevue, the 11 crosses the lake and on most days, you can see the Alps shining bright and on most days, I think how lucky I am. No matter how morose I might actually be, mountains manage to beam through the darkness and shine a light, however briefly. Today was no different. The 11 then proceeds down Bahnhofstrasse with its ridiculous assortment of shops. Once we are at Rennweg, I come into my own a bit. From there onwards it’s the high street and of course the English ‘book floor’ which once used to be a whole shop but I’ll take whatever I can get. The 11 then trundles assuredly towards Oerlikon and real life. With the 11, you get a little bit of everything. Just in case, you didn’t get it, I love trams and I love the 11. Nowadays I feel like a Zürcherin on it.

Today I was in my non-work mode. I was in my ‘mother of two’ avatar, with a fully kitted-out pram, carrying the snacks that all the other Zurich mummies carry and all the books that they ferry around. I looked just as harassed as any other thirty-something in the city, I felt quite myself. Things were going well, or so I thought. My daughter was asleep and given how hot it was (have I mentioned how hot it is?) I was grateful that she wasn’t screaming. My son was reading the names of the footballers on his newly acquired paninis (Sorry, that’s me, guilty as charged) and I was leaning against the window by the pram bay, scrolling on my phone and reading a book on the Kindle app. I was feeling content. Shortly beforehand, a lady in a wheelchair and I exchanged some pleasantries and I was pleased that I had managed to more or less camouflage my pigeon German with tonnes of smiles and ‘genaus’.

As the tram pulled out of Bahnhofquai, I realized that there was no reason for me to remain standing. There was an individual seat which had just become free. As The Mum who never gets the window seat anymore and as the only child who never ever questioned her privilege, my relationship with the window seat is, shall we say, a little intense? I love them. Heart-shaped Love. Bottom had just made contact with seat when the well-dressed, elderly lady in front of me screamed at me that I made her ill and that I should leave her alone. My knee-jerk reaction is to say sorry. I said sorry in English and ‘what’ in German. She screamed at me again (my son had dropped his paninis and was looking on open-mouthed) to go and learn German. Here’s the thing, when it comes to German I’m semi-literate. I can understand almost everything but I really struggle with putting a sentence together. I might have looked on like a goldfish but I understood everything that she said. She flounced off, up the aisle and sat down next to a German speaking couple. She said something to them, they turned around, looked at me and laughed. I felt about a millimeter small. Honestly, I had no idea what had just happened. My son came to try and explain everything that she had said and when I asked him if he had felt scared, he said that he had felt a little scared. I was embarrassed and humiliated. Everybody else on the tram had turned a blind eye. For the rest of the journey, I sat questioning myself and wondering what had happened.

What had I done wrong?

Was it my clothes?

My hair?

My children?

My silent children?

My brownness?

My otherness?

Was I threatening?

Did I smell?

What was it about me,

Me,

that had set her off? In case you were wondering, this is the photo I took shortly afterwards to send my husband and ask him what it was about me that had wound her up so much? My ratty eyebrows?

When the lady got off the tram, she fixed me with a steely gaze. For her, I was clearly in the wrong. Or simply wrong. For a while I wondered if I should approach her and her new companions and ask for an explanation? But then I thought better of it. Had I been by myself I would have not hesitated but with my children, I felt less anonymous and more vulnerable.

I lost my equilibrium for the rest of the day. I realized once again that while Zurich has been home for five years now, it will never be home-home. And, when it came to it, my home-home or my other home-home might reject me too. Zurich has definitely been a learning experience but it never ceases to surprise me how easily it can remind me that I’m not to consider myself at home here even when I try my utmost to fit in. I might be doing all the ‘right’ things but I will still not be accepted wholly for whom I am or what I once was or who I could be. The word ‘auslander’ (outsider) is too easily bandied about as if difference was not enriching but a bad thing. And then of course, I opened the news and saw once again that this was not a Zurich problem but a world problem. When I was a teenager, multiculturalism was well regarded, now it is regarded as a cesspool.

So this is why I’m writing again. Not just because not writing is the only thing worse than writing (I read this somewhere) but because I feel that I need to document this feeling and to add, in my own way, to the chorus of voices who insistently remind people that we are here too, that there are women, men, children, families, singletons, couples who move about and that we have been moving about for centuries because moving about is the most natural thing. And yes we are different, and if we have done something that has offended you, please talk to us, don’t yell at us.

Chances are we are trying to fit in but why should that mean that we are abandoning our own? I’m giving the designer bag lady the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there’s a rule that I voided? But how I wish she had spoken to me rather than humiliated me and scared my child.

And my goodness, all those people and her, weren’t they lucky that my fierce little girl had been asleep? Had she been awake that would have been like poking a tiger with a stick.

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

White

“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?”

“No”.

“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?