On Thanksgiving

newalipurI’m at work today, on Thanksgiving, surrounded by news that projects mankind in the worst sort of way — war, murder, rape. But I am also heartened by the best of humanity.

I was especially reminded of that as I wrote a CNN story about a Holocaust survivor who met his Polish Catholic rescuer for the first time since the war ended. The survivor told me how grateful he was to the family who hid hid from the Nazis. Because of them, he was able to continue his family.

I am not with my family today but I am thinking of them. Some are still here in this world; others, including my mother and father, have passed away. They remain in my heart and fill it with love.

I am thinking today of two dear friends who each lost a parent this year, Valerie Boyd and Jan Winburn. I know this holiday season will be especially tough for them. But I know their mother and father’s spirit will warm their gatherings.

I looked through an old album last night and found this photograph of my father’s family. It was taken at my grandfather’s house, in the backyard, in Kolkata in 1970. I’m sitting in the front row, my parents, brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and great aunt around me.

I wish we could all be together today. I am thankful for each and every one of them being a part of my life.


meandma2I turned 51 today.

Last year was the milestone year. The big 50. I felt OK about it. 50 is the new 40, my older friends told me. I celebrated with a big party. My brother came from Canada, my cousin from New York. My sisters-in-law traveled great distances, too. Then everyone went home and life resumed, no different, really, than before.

Today is different.

Not that suddenly, I feel old. Or that there is no hoopla this year.

Today is different for one very important reason.

My mother suffered a massive stroke in 1982. On my birthday. She was 51.

That day changed our lives in so many ways. You can imagine all the obvious ways: my mother was in a coma for days in the Intensive Care Unit at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital and when she regained her senses, the left side of her body no longer worked. There were months and months of physical therapy for my mother. And even more months of adjustment for me and my family while we learned how to take care of an invalid, infirm woman.

She’d also lost a lot of her cognitive abilities and the mother I adored was suddenly gone. She was there in person, physically. But the woman I knew died on that day.

Over the next 19 years that she lived, I learned to relate to my mother on a whole new level. In the end, when my father also cruelly lost his cognitive abilities to Alzheimer’s, my mother became like my daughter. She’d ask me what she should wear, what she could eat. If anyone asked her a difficult question, she’d consult me before answering publicly. We exchanged roles.

My mother died in May 2001. I had to deal with her dying all over again. Except this time, there was nothing left of her at all. She was gone.

I’ve always feared turning 51. I feared it even more after I learned I was prone to hypertension — my mother’s blood pressure had soared to obscene levels before the stroke.

So on this day, I contemplate my mortality. And want desperately to make time stop so that I can have the opportunities to accomplish all that is left on my long, long list of things to do, places to see. It’s not that I want to be young again — I greatly value the wisdom time and experience have given me. Just that I feel the days whizzing past like speeding bullets.

Like everyone else, I want to feel that I did something good for this world. Now there are fewer days left for me to achieve that.

Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani

One reason I miss India terribly: my pishi (aunt).

One reason I miss India terribly: my pishi (aunt).

“When did you get home?” a friend asked me yesterday.

“Last night,” I replied.

“It must feel good to be back,” she said.

The pause on the phone was long enough to be awkward.

“Yes,” I said. I wanted the conversation to end.

But what was home? That word has always been problematic for me. I have always straddled two continents, two cultures, a feat that becomes hard at times like this.

My closest friend Eugene in Kolkata and I used to discuss for long hours what being home meant. Was it in Atlanta, where I have lived for 23 years, where I work, where I laugh and love? Or is it in my native India, where I am not an “other” or a minority, where I can bask in my Indianness, where I am in my element like I can never be in America?

After my parents died in 2001, going “home” to India became emotionally exhausting. Kolkata was not the same without my Ma and Baba waiting for me at our flat on Ballygunj Circular Road. Some of my trips after that were short — I was but a tourist on a fleeting journey. Others were punctuated by weddings and funerals and other events that made them extraordinary.

This time, it was different.

Another reason I miss home: the incredible food.

Another reason I miss home: the incredible food. This is Sunday lunch at my aunt’s house in Delhi.

I spent a lot of time with my father’s sister, my pishi, in Kolkata and his brother and his wife in Delhi. My uncle and aunt are the only two of my father’s seven siblings who are still living. Three of my aunts and uncles died in painfully rapid succession in the last year and a half.

I felt a need to soak up my family as much as I could.

I was also on assignment for CNN for part of the time I was home. I found it refreshing to report on my own people for a change and to work alongside Indian journalists.

Now, I am back at my desk at CNN Center in Atlanta. I look at the sun and think that it also shone over India today, many hours earlier. I smell India in my notebooks and clothes and long to make that long plane journey back.

I am an American by nationality and in many ways, by identity. Yet my heart remains Indian. Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani. 


Shonakaka with me,  (from right), my cousin Jayanta, my brother, Shantanu,
my cousins Sudip and Suman at our grandfather’s house  in Kolkata. Circa, 1968.
The last time I saw Shonakaka, I knew he was ill.
Gone was the mirth; his enormous zest for life reduced to a meager smile. At a family gathering in New Delhi last December, he could hardly eat a thing.
Shonakaka was suffering from renal failure and had to be most careful about what he put in his belly, especially foods high in phosphorous. His son — and my cousin — Ronny was not pleased his father had put a heaping spoon of daal on his plate.
If you knew Shonakaka at another time in his life, you would hardly believe my words.
He was always the boisterous one; the one who loved to eat, drink and make merry. “Live life king size,” he always said. At my cousin Suman’s wedding in California, Shonakaka danced atop Suman’s brand new Acura Integra.  We laughed, amazed at Shonakaka’s energy, though, perhaps, Suman was a tad worried about dents and scratches on his shiny car.
Shonakaka as a young man.
Unfair then that at a fairly young age, Shonakaka was forced to adopt a curtailed regimen and give up things that he loved. Cruel even.
He was my father’s youngest sibling. Kaka means father’s younger brother in Bengali. And Shona means gold or someone very precious. It used to be the norm to have a naming convention so as to avoid calling elders by their first names. That was considered disrespectful.
Shonakaka was born Ranjan Kumar Basu on July 8, 1942 in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. He was 18 years younger than my father and grew up as the baby in a family of five boys and three girls.
Now, within the span of a few months, that generation of my father’s family is down to just a brother and sister still living. Everyone else, including my father, is gone.
Many of my friends in America may not understand the pull of an uncle or aunt.
I was raised in an extended family system in which my grandfather’s house was occupied at various times by various members of the family. That meant Shonakaka often stayed in one of the many bedrooms in the house.
Shonakaka holding me. I was about a year old.
When I was a baby, he made me cry and took a photograph of me wailing. Just to be contrary, he said. Why should I be happy in every shot?
From his travels abroad, he brought us back chocolates and other goodies that were non-existent in India in the 1960s and early ‘70s. He regaled us with stories of his travels – each adventure made grander with Shonakaka’s unique infusion of enthusiasm and zeal.
Once, he started growing chickens on the roof. My brother and I raced up the stairwell every morning to see how many eggs we could retrieve. And in the backyard, he built a tank to farm tilapia so we’d have the freshest fish.
Shonakaka (center) at a dinner at my parents’ house
in Kolkata in the late 1990s.
It was understood that Shonakaka would fix the menu for family weddings and other festive events. I’ll always have images in my head of my two youngest uncles breaking into a pot of syrupy sweets before they even made it into the kitchen.
After he married my aunt, they lived for a while on the ground floor of the family house. It was there that my cousin Bideesha — Ronny’s elder sister — was born. I often babysat her with my brother and our housekeeper, Shantidi, when Shonakaka and Kakima went out with friends.
Shonakaka was not far from home when he was attacked on the streets with acid and lived the rest of his life with scars. But he always rose above his woes. He never let anything interfere with living life to its fullest.
Until recently, when his health began to fail him.
Shonakaka with his daughter, Bideesha, in Delhi last
December. That was the last time I saw him.
I’d not seen him in a couple of years when we met last December. He was not even 70 yet but looked frail. He’d lost weight and suddenly, he appeared to me just like my grandfather. At the time, my aunt in California was in her last days of battle with cancer. It was then that I realized how those I loved in India were going away, how I was losing the links that kept drawing me back all these years.
The finality of death brings with it a host of regrets. I always hear people say, I wish I had done this and I wish I had done that. Yes, I have my regrets regarding Shonakaka. I wish I had visited more in recent years. I wish we had talked more on the phone. But I am glad for what I had with him. Glad that I made the trip to Delhi to see him in what turned out to be the very last time.
And that he was still smiling then.