28 December 2021

A funny incident from way back when…

You probably remember from last week that to celebrate my mom’s life, I went and visited every single house she had ever lived in. Three of them were in Durgapur.

You probably saw them as very big houses with colorful walls. Which is what they are now. When we lived there, they all looked the same. They were the living quarters given by the steel factory that my dad worked in. Eventually, they let the residents buy out their quarters and then add their own improvements.

Growing up, they all looked the same. And the walls would come in only one of two colors – yellow or red. Now, for us, who lived in Durgapur, finding a house was very easy. All we needed was the address. It being a planned town, the roads usually ran in the cardinal directions and intersected in roundabouts.

The very first house we lived in was 6/2 North Avenue. All you needed to figure out was where was North Avenue. Once you found that, it was very systematic. The streets came off the road like a fish bone. Odd streets sequentially from 1 on the left and even streets sequentially from 2 on the right. Once you were in the street, similarly, houses in the left would be odd numbered and on the right, even numbered. So, once you got to North Avenue, the third street on the right would be our street (6th) and the first house on the right would be our house (6/2). In case you had any doubt, there were helpful markers at the beginning of every street and every house.

By the way – and this is relevant for the story – where our road started from, about a hundred yards offset from that were the only two cemeteries in Durgapur. One for the Muslims and one for the Christians.

You would think that would make finding a house to be a breeze, right? Yes, if you were from Durgapur. No, if you were not. Our relatives who would visit us from the big city of Kolkata or the small village of Debipur were more used to instructions like “oi saamner do-tola bareer paas diye je gali taa jachche – oi galitey – laal baaritar porer baaarita”. (“That two story house you see? Take the lane next to it and you are looking for the house next to the red house in that lane”).

This would lead to some hilarious situations. Like the one in 1974 or so. My grandmother and my great aunt were visiting us to attend a wedding (my dad’s mentor’s – Sen jethu – daughter – Kasturidi – was getting married). Both of them wore white sarees like you see in the picture. My grandmother of course wore it due to prevailing social customs (she was a widow). Not sure why but I had never seen my great aunt in any other color but white.

One of those evenings, they had gone out for a walk together and managed to get themselves completely lost. It was getting dark and a sense of helplessness was drawing upon them. It did not help that every house looked exactly like the next one. They were truly lost.

My grandmother apparently asked a couple of passers by if they knew the house of “Damu”. Now Damu is my dad’s pet name at home. Nobody calls him by that name other than in the village. But in that intense moment of being lost, my grandmother completely lost sight of the fact that she had to give his real name.

According to my great aunt, my grandmother was on the verge of crying. Which my grandmother completely denied. My great aunt had a brain wave. The one anchoring point she knew was a the cemetery. From there she knew how to get to our house.

Both of them approached a bunch of young kids who were still playing in that last bit of dusk – “Babara, amaader ektu kabarkhanay pnouchhe debey?” They pleaded the kids to accompany them to the cemetery.

You have to imagine the situation. It was getting dark. One small street light thirty yards away was offering some respite from total darkness. And there are these two characters completely dressed in white asking to go to the cemetery…

It took only one kid to ask the question that was at everyone’s tip of the tongue “Bhoot naki re?” (“Are these ghosts?”). And before you could cry Uncle (or great aunt for that matter), each had high tailed like their life depended on breaking the then Olympic sprint records. I understand the kids waited till daybreak to come back and retrieve their danda-guli (play paraphernila) that had been unceremoniously dumped the previous evening.

Eventually, the two old ladies entered a nearby house and asked if they knew the house of a school teacher called Manju. They were escorted dutifully and reached home in a matter of minutes.

That evening, as they narrated the story to us, the peals of laughter that roared from our house could be heard from a long distance. Even from the cemetery, I am sure.

21 December 2021

“What is a cappuccino?”

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” 🙂

20 December 2021

Following in my mother’s footsteps – chapter 4

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.

18 December 2021

This day… that year.

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.

18 December 2021

Like old times… well, almost!

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…

18 December 2021

A reflective moment in recursion

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 December 2021

Daily routine… interrupted (4)

“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…

18 December 2021

Daily routine… interrupted (3)

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.