4 February 2024

’21 Dec India

  1. One more trip back to “mother”land Dec 15, 2021

    This one is going to be special. It was Dec 18th last year, around 6PM in India, when my mother had suddenly collapsed and died. Dad, who witnessed it (and lived only for a few weeks after that himself) had yelled for help. The domestic help rushed over in seconds but by then mom was on the floor foaming around her mouth and with no perceivable heart beat.

    I was not there.

    A few weeks back, over drinks with Sharmila, we decided that I will try to be at the same spot where mom had died. At that very moment – exactly one year later. And that is what I am attempting to do today. All this omicron variant and new travel regulations from India, the state of West Bengal and US itself is going to make the trip interesting. But I am hoping to make it all the way there.

    I may not be able to see the siblings much (they are busy with their things) but the goal is to try and visit the homes in different towns and places mom had spent her life in. There is that village called Uplati where she was born, the town called Kalna where she went to school and college and, of course, Durgapur where she moved after getting married and finally Kalyani where she spent the last few years of her life.

    Also, hoping to spend some time with my mother in law (only surviving parent from Sharmila and my side).

  2. Does anybody have a clue? Dec 16, 2021

    We were sailing smoothly towards New Delhi from Newark on United Airlines 801. Towards the end of the trip, just as we were around the air space over where Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan meet, we took a rather convoluted anti clockwise circular approach before getting back to what appears to be our original path.

    It cannot be any landscape issue – we were comfortably high to clear the Hindukush.

    Was it for any geopolitical air space reasons? Does anybody have an idea? Some of you who gave taken this route frequently, have you seen this before?

  3. There goes all my will power!! Dec 16, 2021

    What 36 hours (and counting) of the journey – including a 16 hour long flight and long waits at three airports (and one more segment left) could not do to my steely resolve, the first aroma of Indian food wafting thru the Delhi airport after security did it to me. That rich aroma – harbinger of some really delectable taste – hit my olfactory nerves with vengeance unseen hitherto and I folded like an old lawn chair in the yard.

    Even for a non-foodie like me, I could not resist delving into some signature dishes from the West (Pav Baji) and the South (Idli) post haste.

  4. Almost there… Dec 17, 2021

    Fairly impressive translations done for the commonly seen English words. The Bengali words are not as commonly used. After all that effort why they let the word “bin” slip by, I do not know.

    As my dad would have said – “বাবা, এতো কষ্ট করে খটোমটো ইংরেজি word গুলোর সুন্দর সুন্দর বাংলা শব্দ বার করলি – আর ছোট্ট “বিন” কথাটা যেমন আছে তেমনি রেখে দিলি? ও কি দোষ করেছিলো? ”

  5. Following in my mother’s footsteps – chapter 3 Dec 17, 2021

    After moving from Upalati to Kalna for her school and college, my mom’s next stop was Debipur. Back to village life from town life. She got married at the age of 20 to my dad who lived in Debipur with his brother and mother. It was one small compound with two huts – one for my uncle and his family and one for my parents. Grandma stayed in the same room as we. This is where I was born!!

    Debipur was our third stop too! The hut is not there anymore – but you can see a picture of it in the small image below that I had taken in 2012 when I visited it after forty years. It subsequently got burnt down. Only the back wall remains.

    I have a lot of memories of the very first few years there and the annual trips to go see grandma during the Puja times.

    My mom stayed in this hut for about half a dozen years. Dad had already revolted against his family and moved away from farming. Got a day job in a steel factory that was being built about 100 km away. Eventually, he pulled my mom and me too to Durgapur once he was allotted a permanent job and a living quarter there. That would have been around 1970 or so.

  6. Following in my mother’s footsteps – chapter 1 Dec 17, 2021

    “Upalati gram to kon dikey?”

    After 3 hours of driving – mostly weaving thru village roads (long live Google Maps), my brother and I arrived at a place that we thought should be very close to my mother’s birthplace. We saw a few elderly people gathered around the road and enquired where the village called Upalati was.

    We were obviously very close since instead of giving directions, one of the gentleman asked us

    “Whose house are you looking for?”

    “Well, my grandfather – Harendranath Pan – used to live there. But I do not think it belongs to his family any more”.

    Realizing that I was not making any good connection in his head, I rattled off my mom’s name and and then all her five siblings’ names. With each name, the head nodding became more vigorous. He knew what I was talking about!!

    But instead of giving me directions, he told me that of course, he knew the house. But none of them live there any more.

    In my mind, I was going “No s***, Sherlock. I belong to that family”. But I told him that I just wanted to visit my grandpa’s house.

    Soon enough, I was standing outside the humble abode that my mom was born in – circa 1944. It was surreal to realize that this is exactly where my mom came to this world. Four fifth of a century later, there is still a goat tied to the pillar in the house and the poster on the wall advertises a mobile number to call to clean out (“pressure wash” is what it says) the latrine.

    Sometimes I let myself forget my own humble beginnings and how much I owe back to this world.

  7. Ran into an old bartender friend Dec 17, 2021

    My brother and I had just checked in and then settled down at the restaurant in Westin Kolkata. The idea was to grab a quick lunch and then head out to explore all the places my mother had spent time in.

    After we had placed our order, a young gentleman caught my eye. He was looking towards me. I had the feeling I must have met him before. From behind the mask, I could not recognize the face at all.

    He stepped up – “How are you, sir? Everything okay?”

    “Yes, yes!”, I said as I focused on his name tag. Tathagata. I feverishly ran thru in my mind the dozen or so staff members’ names that I knew in the Westin but could not still place him. The name rang familiar but I could not see the face.

    I think he sensed my struggle. “I was at the JW Marriott, sir!!”

    Immediately, the memories came back to me!! Of course! This is Tathagata – the bartender at the lobby level bar in JW. He diligently fixed me with a Hendricks and tonic followed by a glass of wine every evening in March when I stayed there with my siblings and their families for a few days.

    “What are you doing here?”

    I learnt that he had moved to Chennai (the Sheraton, I think) and then had to move back to Kolkata since his mom fell ill.

    I promised to see him in the evening at his bar.

    He fixed me with one of his signature cocktails. And I picked up some wisdom around “blue peas” and how to make a gin change its colors with it (and again with the tonic water). I have to try this at home.

    It was good to see Tathagata after almost nine months and learn aa few things about his trade.

  8. Posting this for a special friend of mine Dec 18, 2021

    This stretch of road that marks the entry into the village Jirat has a special meaning to a friend of mine back in Atlanta whose dad grew up (part of his life) here. No doubt he walked around this area (Jirat market). Of course, one can assume that there were no concrete roads then.

    I will let the person self-identify!!

  9. Following in my mother’s footsteps – chapter 2 Dec 18, 2021

    When my mom reached sixth grade, my grandfather decided to move his family from the village of Upalati to a nearby town called Kalna. He figured that it would be good for the education of his four kids. (He had 2 more later).

    This is the house in Kalna that I have great memories of. This is truly a Bengali’s “mamabaari”. The last time I had visited this place was in the 1970s. It took me about half an hour of phone call with my uncle (mom’s brother) to try and pinpoint the house in Google Maps.

    Turned out that once I was nearby, I recognized all the small markers – the two ponds, the left and right turn in the alley – in spite of the fact that modern civilizations had penetrated even this town – at least in terms of asphalt roads instead of dirt roads and covered drains instead of open ones.

    Introducing ourselves to the current residents wsa less of an issue. They are the descendants of the original owner of the house. My grandpa had rented the house from him. And we are somehow related to them – multiple times removed, I am sure. I found out that the original owner’s name was Haradhan Pan. Which reminded me why my dad always made me write “C/O Haradhan Pan” (Care Of Haradhan Pan) every time I wrote a letter to my grandpa and put his name first in the address line.

    I was amazed how much of the house has remained the same. The owners invited us to go around the whole house and take pictures. Which I did. Every step brought back a flood of memories… remembering the excitement when my aunt (mom’s sister) was getting married, the running to the rooftop to wave my grandfather goodbye as he hurried thru the alleys for his 7:55 train, the sleepy dinners sitting on the floor by grandmother’s kitchen under the watchful eyes of the pet cats. There was no electricity those days. It was all lanterns lit by kerosene lamps and hand fans!

    As of today, I marveled at the idea that this dilapidated house is where my mom spent her time as a teenager. While I had the chance to take my mom to her birthplace once, I never had brought her back to this house!!!

    This will remain, unfortunately, in my wish list for ever.

  10. My mom’s high school Dec 18, 2021

    Since my grandfather had moved the family from Upalati village to the town of Kalna so that his kids would get better education, I had to go find out where is it that my mom got her education…

    Once I got the name of the school from her elder sister, locating it on Google Map was fairly easy. When I reached there, I had no issue getting inside and taking pictures. School was not in session. I am sure the building did not have such fresh new paint those days but I was impressed with the fact that it was established in 1901 !!

    To put the inception year in perspective, most people in the world did not bathe daily, the world just got to know about the Nobel prize and Australia became a new born country!!

  11. My mom’s college Dec 18, 2021

    The last stop in Kalna was to visit my mom’s college. I am not sure how it looked in those days (certainly it was not as bright looking with the fresh coat of paint and the marble entrance now) but I do know how my college going mom looked from this old picture of hers that I have.

    She did Political Science and Economics as I recollect in a degree that is called B.A. Honors, I think. If I am not very mistaken, it was a 3 year course. She got married right when she was finishing her last year.

  12. Following in my mother’s footsteps – chapter 5 Dec 18, 2021

    This is my mom’s final home – B 10/101 Pannalal Road. You would have seen a lot of pictures of this house in my posts over the last decade or more as I have tried to stitch together the anthologies of my four times a year trips here.

    After leaving home at the age of 16, this is the place I made more trips to see her than any other place on this earth!

  13. Daily routine… interrupted (1) Dec 18, 2021

    The clothesline clips have been sitting there for a full year without being used. Mom was finicky about hand washing clothes everyday and putting them out to dry. Which caused dad a heartburn of no small measure since they would obstruct his clean view to the outside world!!

    In fact, during my daily phone calls, I could accurately gauge the weather in Kalyani from my mother’s response to my innocuous question about how had the day been. “Good” means the sun was up and the clothes had dried up. “Not good” means the clothes could not be put out due to rains outside and she was worried how were they going to dry.

    There was a third response “dhoor dhoor dhoor“, which can be roughly translated to “Terrible”. That would undoubtedly mean that the sun was up but the rains suddenly came in rendering all her clothes wet all over again!!

  14. Daily routine… interrupted (2) Dec 18, 2021

    The picture marks the last time the calendar page was flipped. It has been sitting there idle ever since – a reminder of the month and year mom passed away.

  15. Daily routine… interrupted (3) Dec 18, 2021

    Every morning when I used to call her on my way to office, invariably the answer to my question of “What were you doing?” would be “jop-e bosechhilam”. (doing her prayers).

    That was her evening routine. Lighting an incense stick, sitting down on the floor and doing her meditative prayers. Till dad asked for another cup of tea or her elder son’s phone call came from the US.

    That last matchbox and incense stick pack is still sitting there… untouched for a year.

  16. Daily routine… interrupted (4) Dec 18, 2021

    “Alta and sindoor” – the veritable decorative items of a married Bengali woman. By the way, what is “alta” called in English? I believe “sindoor” is called vermillion.

    She wore it for the first time when she got married in 1964. The last application was on her lifeless body before they carried her away. The “alta and sindoor” has been sitting there ever since…

  17. A reflective moment in recursion Dec 18, 2021

    An annual routine for me has been to print 5 large calendars and bring them to India during my December trip. One for either set of parents, one for each of the siblings and one for my brother-in-law. The calendar served two purposes. It was filled with pictures of Sharmila, Natasha, Nikita, Jay Jay and myself. So they got to see some new pictures of us every month. I also marked all the birthdays and anniversaries in the family – so nobody would be surprised (of course, my dad never read the fine print and would always ask – “Today is my birthday?” every Aug 28th).

    Last year, after losing mom, I did not have the energy to make calendars.

    This year, though, I have restarted the tradition. There were two different formats for this year. One was for my siblings – filled with our parents’ pictures over the years and one for my mother-in-law and brother-in-law in the original format.

    As my brother was flipping thru the pages… I caught a poignant moment on my iPhone where he was staring at a picture of dad in the calendar. The picture reflects upon itself recursively once you realize that the picture of my dad in that page is actually of him looking at a calendar I had just brought him during that trip that year!!!

  18. Like old times… well, almost! Dec 18, 2021

    Evening “adda” or more aptly “gojola” among the siblings at parents’ place. The frown on my face making a point intensely, my brother’s Italian-esque talking with hands, sister quietly listening… everything reminds me of the good old days.

    Of course, this time the bed on the other end is empty and mom is not constantly badgering us for yet another cup of tea. Without her fresh fritters, there was no bottle of wine either. Neither was the customary ordering of dinner from Dhakeswari – with the mandatory “misti pulaao” for mom (her most favorite item in the whole world).

    One thing for sure – the quarterly gatherings around the parents every time I came to visit them created a strong bond between the siblings and certainly between the nephews and niece and me. Hope those relationships will go from strength to strength in future…

  19. Colorful dusk in Kalyani skies Dec 18, 2021

  20. This day… that year. Dec 18, 2021

    Precisely at this moment a year back, at this very spot, my mom had collapsed and died.

    I picked up a few more details today about that moment. She had entered the room and was approaching dad when she came to a sudden end. My dad saw it with his own eyes. What I was not aware was that there was no domestic help that day.

    Actually, I knew and I had heard about the details that I am going to tell you now but the fact the realization that my mom passed away had fogged up my memory. Hearing the description from my siblings and people around reminded me of the facts.

    So, my dad kept yelling my mom’s name without any success. He then managed to get down from the bed (remember he was almost an invalid barely getting out of bed other than being carried out for his dialysis three times a week). He actually slipped and let himself fall from the bed. And then dragged himself on the floor past his dead wife to the main door. While on the floor, he reached up to the handle, opened the door and started yelling out my sister and brother-in-law’s names. It was my niece who ran up and saw my mom first. By now, already dead for a few minutes…

    Sitting still at that exact spot at that exact time today, I closed my eyes and tried to play in my mind blow by blow every scene.

    Those moments came and went thru my mind remarkably quietly and imperceptibly … like every life does… But intensely, very personal… like all relationships are.

  21. Following in my mother’s footsteps – chapter 4 Dec 20, 2021

    Somewhere around very early 70s, dad brought mom to Durgapur. With me in tow. We lived in three different houses. These were quarters allotted by the steel plant to my dad. Today, they are completely transformed. During the doldrum days of the steel industry, the company sold many of the quarters away. The new owners modified them to the hilt.

    The quarters used to be very dull and drab. Each looked like the other. The only difference used to be that one row would have yellow color walls outside and the next row would have red. The inside walls were always the same bluish white.

    Now they are the brightest of colors adjoining each other – reminding me of the houses in the island of Burano in Italy. The top house in the picture – 6/2 North Avenue – used to be 350 sq ft when we lived there. Now, with all the buildups, the owner has made it five times that size!!! By the way, I had a great time chatting with the owner today and telling him the history of our times there!!

    Mom lived there till 1979 Dec. Then we moved to the house in the middle. It was distinctly rectangular-ish then. Now it has an imposing circular structure. Incidentally, the owner’s daughter lives about 10 miles from me in Atlanta!! She was my mom’s student! Mom lived in this house – 9/4 Ranapratap – till 1995.

    The last house – 26 St. Paul’s – is where she spent 17 years in till 2012. Again, the house is completely different from what Nikita and Natasha will remember from their visits to grandparents.

    Durgapur is where mom spent most of her life and would probably call her “home”. I know for my siblings, that is how we think.

  22. Following in my mother’s footsteps – epilogue Dec 20, 2021

    And this is where she returned to her true “home”. The crematorium in Halisahar near Kalyani.

  23. What a great couple! Dec 20, 2021

    During this trip to India and the previous one, I have been generally avoiding meeting people like I normally do due to pandemic concerns. Exception of course being my immediate family and in a couple of rare cases a couple of very elderly folks since I am not sure if I will ever get a chance to see them again.

    While in Durgapur, I received a request from a gentleman called Manojit to meet just for a few minutes. Not sure why, I agreed to do so. I had never met this gentleman before. We became Facebook friends sometime back when he had introduced himself as a batch mate of my brother. About three years back, I got a FB friend request from Parikshit who introduced himself as Manojit’s son.

    Manojit showed up at the hotel with his wife Paramita. A 30 minutes meeting rolled into over an hour. The big reason was that we kept on finding newer and newer connections between us. Here are a few samples:

    Manojit and my brother, as I mentioned, was taught by the same teacher. Manojit is also great friends with my brother-in-law’s best friend. Manojit and Paramita – who has lived in Muscat – are friends with Sharmila’s college classmate Tapas. In a weird connection, Tapas’s son interned in the company I work in in Chicago.

    Manojit’s sister Swati, we realized, is an old classmate of my sister Tanusree. In fact, next day, when I told this story to her, she demanded that I immediately call back Manojit and get Swati’s number. Apparently, she and a few of her classmates had been trying to track Swati down for some time.

    Paramita – wouldn’t you know – was in the same class as my sister-in-law during elementary school. I was impressed that my sister in law immediately recognized the face when I showed her the picture. Paramita Ray is also a friend of another Paromita (also a Roy) – Sharmila and my close friend in New York.

    Paramita’s sister is a batch mate of mine. Different schools but with a lot of common close friends – like Mausumi – who I went to school with from first grade to fourth grade!

    Proceeding further, my mother in law, as it turns out, was Paramita’s teacher in High School! As was my friend from Dallas – Pratyush’s mother!!

    I can go on and on like this – but you get an idea how excited we all were as we found out yet another set of connections!

    We agreed that our next meeting had to be in Doha when Sharmila and I fly to Kolkata next to completely unentangle all the connections we have!

    Manojit and Paramita, it was great to see you! We should have met long time back!!! Also, Paramita, I found out from Chaitali that you are a great singer. We have to have a session some time soon!

  24. “What is a cappuccino?” Dec 21, 2021

    The siblings, their families and myself – we all settled down in one far corner of the JW Marriott lounge. Of course, this being a Bengali group, the first order of business had to be a cup of tea. Satyabrata – one of the most helpful folks around (I had made friends with him during my last trip here) – materialized from nowhere.

    Ki neben, sir?” (What do you want?)

    We then went thru a now familiar routine. My brother, sister, sister-in-law and brother-in-law all looked at each other waiting for somebody to make a decision, then discussed quite a few options and finally got to the exact same order that they ALWAYS order.

    First my brother went “Masala Chai”.

    My sister follow ed”Amaro” (me too)

    Ditto for my sister-in-law.

    My brother-in-law did not even bother opening his mouth. He just nodded his head to signal “Amaro“.

    Why we go thru this rigmarole every single time, I do not know.

    In any case, I said “Ekta cappuccino”.

    With that, Satyabrata was on his way to the coffee/tea station at the bar.

    My sister suddenly demanded to know “Cappuccino-t ki?” (What is a cappuccino?). I think that was preceded by a flash in her head “Dada jeta khachche ota miss hoye gelo na to?” (she was perhaps wondering if she was missing out on something).

    Now I do not know about you, but I am not entirely equipped to explain the nuances of cappuccino. If I made short shrift of it “coffee and milk with foam”, I was afraid she would come up with “like in South India?” (if you have not seen this, you should watch some Youtube videos of how filter coffee is mixed with milk and sugar in two metal tumblers in places like Tamil Nadu – it is quite a sight).

    “Satyabrata?”, I called my friend back.

    “Yes, sir?”

    “Take my sister to the bar and show her how a cappuccino is made.”

    Say what you may, but intellectual curiosity runs deep in the Roy siblings. My sister followed him and observed every step as the three members of staff – all enthusiastically explained… “Cappuccino – ki ebong keno” 🙂

  25. You will not see this often! Dec 21, 2021

    I am not the one who cares much about clothes – certainly not traditional Bengali clothes. I still attend Durga Pujas in shorts or motorbike attire. Somehow clothes just do not appeal to me.

    Recently, I had pulled out the one kurta I had (My sister in law Chaitali had given it to me in 2011 or 2012) and surprised Nikita. I had noticed that the color of the Indian clothes she was wearing that evening was a perfect match to that of my only kurta. You can see us here.

    This trip in India, my inventory of kurtas doubled, thanks to the generosity of Manojit and Paramita. I had forgotten how comfortable kurtas are. Also it helps that it is fairly forgiving to my girth that is threatening to go in a growth mode 🙂

    This summer I will try using these two kurtas and see how it pans out. I already have a shirt in mind that I will give up to stay with the minimalist theme.

  26. At long last Dec 23, 2021

    the mask comes off… 33 hours later!!