Beam me up, Scotty

Pani puris, known as phuchkas in Kolkata, can be found on many street corners. I can eat many, many, many of these. And I will. Soon.


Dreaming of warm, dry winter days, pishi, pani puris on the street, a wedding, speaking Bengali and dear friends.

Wishing today were Saturday.

Wishing I could be across the world in an instant. Beam me up, Scotty.


It’s done.

The flat in the building called Balaka (which means swan in Bengali) at 68 B Ballygunj Circular Road is no longer my home. After nine-and-a half years of caring for it from across the globe, I completed the final act of an arduous sales process in Kolkata.

I’ve posted a photo taken out front this week. With me are Kalu and Bimal, two men who have done menial jobs at the building for most of the years my parents lived there.

In that flat, simple and not so large by American standards, I laughed, loved and lost. It was home for so many years.

It was there that my mother regained her verve for life after a massive stroke nearly took her life in 1982. She gained freedom in her small way, learning to wheel herself around the rooms and hallways with ease, poking her head into the kitchen and instructing the housekeeper how to make perfect Bengali fish curry.

Some evenings, she arranged for musicians to come to the flat. We’d sit on rugs on the floor and sing the songs of Tagore. My mother’s voice was gone when she was left half paralyzed, but she belted it out anyway. I sometimes caught her eyes watering. She lamented little after the stroke but I knew she yearned to play again the harmonium and sing the songs she loved most.

In the morning, after she had her third round of Darjeeling tea, she picked up the phone and called our relatives and friends to learn news of their lives. My mother was the glue that held our family together. When she died, I stopped knowing details about my aunts and uncles, cousins and friends.

It was there in that flat that my father sat at the dining room table for hours pruning his bansai plants. He filled the verandahs with greenery. The dahlias bloomed with fierce, spreading hues of reds, pinks and oranges across the view.

Or he sat with his magnifying glass struggling to read newspapers when the macular degeneration in his eyes began to blur his world. He often worked out his mathematical and statistical theories in his head, his hands moving in the air as though there was a chalkboard before him. He had made a name for himself in probability theory. Later in life, when Alzheimer’s began winning the battle, my father could not add two plus two.

Everything changed today when I signed over the final documents to the man who purchased our flat earlier this year. I waited in the West Bengal registration office for a long time, sandwiched between a zillion people in a British-era building now filled with cobwebs and dust.

My friend Vijay (on the right in the registration office photo) made it all happen for us. Without him, my brother and I might have still be mired in West Bengal bureaucracy. I really don’t know how to ever thank him.

But for a moment, after I signed the final document, I felt as though I had wronged my parents somehow. As though I had given away the place where they had found solace. I asked the new owner if I could take the brass nameplate on the door that carried my father’s name. (photo)

Then I descended down the long British Raj era staircase, its terrazo warped by footsteps from many decades. I turned back only once. And left with my memories, brilliant like diamonds.

Coming home

The taxi refused to take the Eastern Bypass — too dangerous in the wee hours of the morning before the sun comes up and lights up the despair of Kolkata. Instead, we took the old route from the airport in the northeastern part of the city to the south.

I had not taken these old roads in a while. But as a little girl, when life was harder, but oh, so much simpler, we traveled to the airport this way and stood on the “viewing deck” to see planes take off and land. It was a rarity then. Flying seemed so exotic, so other-worldly. Now, all I do is complain about sitting in cramped seats as we pass over oceans and continents.

At 3 in the morning, the city is finally quiet.

The thousands and thousands of street stalls and stores (like the ones in this photo of a shopping area near my house) are shuttered. Those who can afford it are sleeping soundly in the comfort of air-conditioning. Most are under whirring ceiling fans that bandy the humidity about — or nothing at all.

The heat has fallen after months of the monsoon, but after the glorious autumn weather in Atlanta, I feel hot. Restless.

I had not expected to pass by the flat my parents called home for so many years. I have returned to Kolkata this time to finalize its sale.I thought I would not have to see it until later.

But instead, we pass by the front gate, the taxi driver unknowing of the burst of emotions within me. I try hard to hold back the tears. I feel them welling. I don’t know whether to look or not. But I cannot control my glance.

I peer at the gate through which the taxi might have driven had Ma and Baba still been here. Ma always stayed up for me, no matter how late. I’d walk in through the front door and see her in her wheelchair, her eyes heavy with sleep would light up instantly at the sight of her only daughter.

She’d have tea ready for me. Maybe a snack. My bed would be made up with fresh sheets, a clean towel hanging in the bathroom.

There is no one waiting for me now.

The taxi driver carries me away from that moment of intimate familiarity to another place. A friend’s flat, perfectly comfortable but with the sting of loneliness. Daylight breaks early here; by 5:30 the city is springing to life again. But for me, today, everything is dark.