Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Bong Connection

Nope, I am not daring to write a review on Anjan Dutta's movie titled the same - it is finally the vacation post you have all been so eagerly waiting for - ya right! As I savor the stillness around the house with Evani napping and me not engaged in the vicious cycle of loading and unloading the dishwasher, I finally descend upon my journey to start blogging again. What I enjoy most is however my throat giving me a break from the life wrenching coughing spasms that I've been living with for the past week. My voice still seems to not have found me.

As I lay in bed last night with the eternal feeling of something being stuck to my throat, I craved the sour taste of the tamarind water that goes oh so well with 'puchka' or 'golgappa' or 'panipuri' as all you non-bongs would like to call it. There is however a distinct difference between 'puchka' and 'golgappa'. puchka tastes way better than the non-bong golgappa. There I've said it. Last time I had asked the puchkawallah at the Victoria grounds, while devouring his puchkas like there was no tomorrow, whether the water he used came from the neighboring container from which the ponies were quenching their thirst after having tugged along the very healthy uncles, aunties and their healthier Chotus or Pappus from the Marwari clan of Kolkata sightseers. I had gotten no answers. That did not stop me then and it definitely did not make me the 'Bisleri water in my puchka eating in stainless steel plates at an air-conditioned joint' kind of puchka faker. This time however, I went to my favorite puchka and chaat joint at Vivekananda Park to devour a greater number of puchkas after a 2 year break. Now you see, I am the true puchka connoisseur. I like mine from street vendors, who use their 'who knows where they've been' hands to mash the potatoes and chole. I think THAT is what brings out the flavor. For those who know me, know very well the spice level I can handle - which is like none at all. So, I like a little sweet chutney along with the regular puchka water and my puchka escapades always end with a round of 'churmur'..ummmm....This time my pseudo-umrican hubby was bold enough to join me on this venture. His request for a spicy filling had him visiting the bathroom more often that he would have liked. I on the other hand was really impressed that U.S.A. had still not played havoc with my immune system.

The immune system part did not hold true overall. I had a severe allergy attack which lasted me my entire Kolkata trip. I seemed to have lost control over my itchy and watering eyes and nose and I had to do something that I used to loathe every NRI (Non Resident Indian) for - cover my nose and mouth when out on the streets. Now my friends can finally mock me as being one of 'them.'

Vacationing back home is all about friends and family and being stuffed with food till you're ready to burst or literally throw up, is the typical Bong custom of love and affection. It always amazes me on how much things change between our trips. Sometimes I do not even recognize my nieces or nephews as they've grown so much. Its always a treat catching up with everyones lives. There is one thing in common between all though - they all seem to think we have better lives than them based on our location and vice versa. How I crave to have someone cook, clean and drive me everywhere. My friends crib about how it is so hard on them when their maids have conflicting schedules - the audacity I say!

And it is not only people, but the place in general that has changed so much. Kolkata is no longer the place where I was born and grew up in. I'm sure it is the case with all major Indian cities these days due to the economic boom that's taking place there. But my overall study of Kolkata proved quite disheartening. On taking a closer look I realized the majority of Kolkata's economic growth was coming from call centers and not from real industries. In fact the infrastructure in Kolkata does not encourage big companies to open their offices there. Road conditions are still bad. Even the new ones are crumbling down. Law and order is actually chaos and the pollution has reached new levels. Civic sense is remote. The new upper-end housing developments that are coming up are already stained with 'paan' residue. The talk of development has all Calcuttans pointing towards the glitz of the malls or nightclubs. On visiting a few of both, I wondered what percentage of the real Bengal population could really afford that stuff. The IT sector of Kolakta, Salt Lake, is piling up with call centers which has become recent hubs for sex and drugs. People find it hard to remain healthy with ongoing night shifts and education takes a back seat.

On the brighter side, Kolkata is still the cultural capital of India hosting the pioneers of creative arts. Fine and performing arts have reached a new peak and Kolkata continues on its trend to encourage both traditional and contemporary artists from all over. I was honored to spend some time with Sutapa Talukdar, the famous Odissi dancer and Sudarshan Chakravorty of Sapphire Dance Creations. At the latter meeting, my path also crossed that of one of India's leading fashion photographers, Ranjit Sinha. I'm glad I had taken Shomeek along with me. Both Ranjit and Shomeek spent most of their time talking about cameras while I enjoyed the sun and rhythm watching Sudarshan teach his new dance class geared towards stay-home moms.

This trip was special for many reasons. It was of course our first trip back home with Evani. But it was also kind of a first trip together for both me and Shomeek. During our stay there I hooked Shomeek up with a photographer friend of mine, who is now a photographer for Times of India and Shomeek did something he had always longed for. He went out with his new-found friend, once during the wee hours of morning and the other into the darkness of the night to capture some special heart-felt moments of the city. At the end, one of his morning shots got published in Times of India and and the ecstasy on Shomeek's face made my trip worthwhile.

What moved Evani however was totally different. Windows that looked out into the streets which in turn were filled with people, cars, rickshaws and of course cows. Evani would hold on to the window 'grill' and shout out 'bhow bhow' and/or 'kaak' at the crows dominating the smog filled sky. She loved the taste of fish which in turn filled my Bong heart with joy and bonded very well with our maid Manju.

And I come to the other special part of Cal. Its people, especially the ones that form the core. Not the snooty upper middle class, so called educated and wanna be 'goras' like us. Manju di has been our maid for the longest time. She had started off with being an 'aaya'/nurse taking care of my grandfather when he fell very ill. She stayed on long after he passed away to make sure my dad was taken care of. She takes care of everything for us there - the cooking, cleaning, laundry and almost everything as I mentioned. She was also the best friend my daughter had during her stay there. Manju di left no stones unturned to take care of Evani allowing for me to enjoy my vacation any way I pleased. She not only took care of Evani but made sure all family members needs got met. The best part however is she did all of this out of love more than money. That reason however stems from my dad and how he looks after her family in times of need. Baba has placed all her children in careers and given them a roof above their heads. He continues to guide them through every aspect of life just like he would do for me and my brother. I will admit sometimes it makes me feel jealous. But when I look back, I haven't done half as much for him as they do. In that respect, 'Kite Runner'. will always be a very special book as I'm sure all of us would relate to it in some way.

Having said all and so much more left unsaid, Kolkata/Calcutta remains to have a special place in my heart. Its every nook and cranny has some sort of memory that has made me what I am today.

This post ends with Shomeek's eye of the city which I feel really captures the heart and soul of the City of Joy.


Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Moi first to comment! Gold... yayyy!! :)

Thank you for such a lovely post! The transition is indeed remarkable, and you've very well described the old that persists and the new that is coming in. Thanks... am linking to this post from Blogbharti.

Sudipta Chatterjee said...

Pingback from Blogbharti: [...] And don’t miss the wonderful pictures her hubby took at Kolkata at the end of the post! One of them was featured in the Times of India. These Bongs, I say! :) [...]

Mala said...

Thanks Sudipta...I'm really honored.

TravelVixen said...

Oh dear, I have to say I worried a bit when I read "Bong" in your post title. But now I'm over it. I still don't know what it means to you but at least it doesn't involve consuming beer or illegal substances.

It sounds like you had a wonderful time. The opportunity to see your home town through the different lenses of your new daughter's eyes and your husband's camera was a wonderful theme for this post. I think we all appreciate our homes differently, and experience it's joys all over again, when looking through the eyes of someone we love.

Thanks for sharing.

Mala said...

MC: I should have explained the meaning...'Bong' is colloquial for 'Bengali' who is a native of the state West Bengal in India. Calcutta is the capital city of West Bengal. Hey, I wouldn't mind the beer or illegal substance anyways..ha..ha..

Linh and Yogi said...

What a beautiful entry Mala! We had similar feelings when we visited China last year, many times difficult to express in words but you did it nicely.

marcy wacker said...

Your descriptions are so vivid and honest. You need to give yourself more credit for your writing, my dear!