Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Oh Calcutta!

Kolkata has to be my most favourite arrival in the whole wide world. Not the clammy weather, neither the crowd, the terrible civic amenities nor pollution can change that. The legend 'Kolkata', 'Kolikata' in English and Bengali atop the airport building has never failed to thrill me. But this time I was in for a surprise as well, when I landed in Kolkata one night couple of weeks ago. Everything was quiet and the rain had washed everything down and the air was deliciously cool. And the ride home was the usual catching up on family gossip with Ma and R. and so rapt we were that it was only when the interiors filled in with steam and I thought we were all going to die of exhaust fumes, that I noticed that our old rickety Amby was now fitted with an AC! Ah possibly that is why Calcutta felt so cool and comfortable! (Turned out the AC was too much for the old radiator and heat up frequently).

In the clear of day I realized it was not a dream after all. Calcutta looked and felt cleaner, neater, spruced up. In the past two weeks, I have been noting with pride the enormous improvements in places. To a visitor it would still look dingy and crowded. But a seasoned Calcuttan like me can appreciate the finer nuances of an entire footpath or one pothole less. The roads under the newly constructed highways are all clean and functional; most roads have large and prominent signboards as do houses of famous people. In case you are wondering what is so great about all this, well I’d have to say you have never been to Calcutta ever or lived here for any stretch of time. If you had, then you would have understood! The New Hooghly Bridge and the maze of roads which led up to and ran down from it all have large boards showing the different directions. It had led many a motorist, a merry dance up and down those roads before they found themselves half way down the GT road and down to Bangladesh! Because when the spanking new bridge was inaugurated, the signs were not up!

I am both delighted as well as apprehensive about all these improvements: What if the person responsible for all this be replaced or retired.

There are other changes too. New shopping arcades, multiplexes, restaurants and popular hangouts. Wonder if anyone goes to the century old 'New Market' anymore. Cal is studded with some beautiful old houses, a hodge podge of colonial and Bengali style. Most are coming down to be replaced with more practical but ugly modern apartment blocks. Some however manage to resist the temptation to modernify.

And that's not all. Apart from the new architecture, the city seems to have been taken over by young, smart things strutting about, hanging about in new sprung up places discussing new stars, new idols and in the process making me feel outdated. Afterall I was strutting about myself out here a few years ago. Was it really 4 years ago? Feels like 40.

A few things however remain the same. The wonderful feeling of waking up in my old room, swapping ghost stories (ma and R are big fans) with them, solving Bengali crossword of the The Statesman with baba.

Being away has made me appreciate my family and home much more than I ever did. I always took the whole comfort factor for granted. I am relishing in it, relaxing, savouring and lapping it all up. What? Just being around them doing the mundane things that families do. Get on with their daily lives. But with one difference. My parents and R alongside. Of course they are constantly surprised that I am actually around and not running off to some adda session with my friends or somewhere else.

I am home. Kolkata. I still think of it as my home and not my parents! Its still feels great to be back home...even if for a short while.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Not quite objets des arts

I am terribly envious of people who manage to, during their stays abroad, pick up souvenirs that they later display in their salons. I have seen many collections – African, Egyptian, Indonesian, Indian …and had mentally resolved to, god willing, one day, have a collection of my own.

Well, three years and umpteen trips later, I too have a collection of my own but not quite the one I had envisaged.

A print of an old map of France with the various nobilities marked out, so creased and dented from being in a suitcase that I suspect it quite looks like the real thing instead of a mere print!

A lamb wool carpet from Crete (or so the lady selling it said and I have to take her word for it since I cant distinguish between goat or lamb wool), which I have rarely used for fear of it becoming dirty. Once I took it out when a friend came for lunch and promptly stepped on it and left black shoe polish streaks. A was highly amused since I didn’t let him step on it making him tiptoe on the edges (the big carpet swallowed up our tiny floor space leaving very little room around to tiptoe on).

Wrapped up in the carpet is a terracotta plaque of a fresco from the Palace of King Minos at Knossos, too delicate, I am paranoid it will break before I find some place to hang it...which doesn’t seem to be a possibility in the near future. Then there is the coin box shaped like the house of Claude Monet but frankly I could pass it off as the house of anyone - Marie Antoinette or Napolean and no one will be wiser out here. 2 paintings - the first a large old advertisement of Chocolat meunier with a bright eyed young girl staring...very chic and tres french but no place to hang it up, as yet. Same problem with a Chinese painting on a some sort of a leaf with a very heavy frame, which I very happily bought but now, am not so sure about it. Whoever heard of anyone buying a mass-produced Chinese painting bought in France?

And to finish, the coup de grace! An umbrella but not just any old umbrella! A bright yellow, hundred percent original tour de France umbrella which I picked up not at any store selling tour de France memorabilia but at the tour itself last year when it came to my town for the first (and I suspect the last) time. A in one of his expansive moods, nearly gifted it away to a relative and I had to summon up all my guts to intervene. No, no, not that please. Take anything else...but not that umbrella. It’s very precious to me. But having said all that (and felt very bad for being possessive about an umbrella for heavens sake), I am like the dog in the manger. I haven’t been able to use it yet although I never forget to carry an umbrella every time I step out of the house. It’s a very large umbrella (a tad smaller than a golf umbrella). I have these horrific visions of me striding down the road with it with little kids yelling and trailing after me (like when a circus comes to town) followed by stray dogs nipping at my heels and barking their heads off!

And if the past trend is a sign of things to come, then it foretells more shifting and living out of suitcases for us.

After my French sejour, I don’t own a single "Chat Noir" poster or the Jane Avril posters by Toulous Lautrec, although my gifts grace the homes of a few friends and relatives. I don’t even have the Claude Monet / Van Gogh coasters, not a single Eiffel tower key chain or I love Paris T-shirt. But I do have my umbrella, the old print and the French advertisement which I occasionally take out of my suitcase and stare and put it back like some art collectors who keep their art works in vaults and stare at them in secret?

I live in the hope that perhaps one day in the future, some one will discover these 'relics' of a bygone age from a dusty suitcase and marvel and fight over great grandma's wonderful, if a bit strange collection!

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Living Mindfully

I am a great fan of all those books which tell us to slow down, live mindfully, how to live life the zen way etc. How many times have I chanced upon such a book convinced that within its pages was the answer to all the problems in my life. "Open your eyes to the wonder all around you", "101 ways to eat a mangoes" (not in the culinary sense), "illuminate your corner of the world", :highway to heaven" to name a few!

But I have been too busy to actually apply any of it to my life. And infact am not very sure it is applicable. Things always turn out nice and neat in books don't they?! Not in my life. For example, I read somewhere that while cooking, I should pay deep attention to what I was doing; I should notice the shape, the texture, the colour of the food, draw pleasure from their variety, their aroma. I tried to, while cooking bhindi (okra). I was convinced that it would be delicious. It turned out as usual...with A complaining at the blandness of it. Yet another book instructed me to rub grains of rice in my palm and feel their texture and think about the goodness of it while washing it before cooking. All it did was to increase the time I spent in cooking it. Can't say it tasted any different! And yet another book told me to repeat a word of thanks while cooking! I did (felt a bit silly to mutter over my pots and pans). But perhaps in my case the thanks was not so much for the food we received as much for my cooking skills! Then there have been other instructions on how to get up in the morning (slowly, and not jumping out at the last minute and three page full of other stuff to do), how to sweep and clean, how to take a walk.....The message I guess was 'There is magic in everything, slow down to see it, experience it". I somehow got too much caught up in the 'how to' of it to see the end result.

And now out here, without even intending to, I have slowed down. The lack of options, the daily domestic routine, reduced mobility are responsible. I find myself doing all sorts of 'zen' things. My life revolves around the comings and goings of the water supply, the maid, meal times and of course the power. I am not free to move around as I would do if I were in France or in dear old Kolkata.

So I have taken to plucking yellowed leaves, watching the wax and wane of the flora, the antics of the fauna, the children flying kites, the women walkers.

The pink blossoms curl into tight buds every evening and unfurl in the morning. The orange blossoms were coming along very nicely when all of a sudden, a hoard of black beetle or is it a variety of wasps, with red wings striped in black, desecnded on them and literally are sucking the life out of them. And when these wasps fly, their wings whirr around making them look like tiny helicopters.

There is a crow with a very long upper beak which curls down under the lower beak. The monkey chief is lame. There are thick brown slugs inching across the narrow path in the park looking curiously like brown leaves, so slow is their movement and more often than not, end up in a pulp.

So am I not taking life each moment by moment? I am living life mindfully and slowing down to really notice my surroundings, ...as compared to my earlier lifestyle when I didnt have time to breathe. But instead of overflowing with bliss and contentment, all this slowing down is making me feel sorry for myself! Living unmindfully was better. It was so much fun being out of breath!!

Read if you will

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