Certainly not here anymore…


calcutta pigeon

That’s it. It’s done. We’re wrapping things up and moving on. Our time in Calcutta is coming to a close very, very soon, by the end of the month in fact.

This, then, is my final blog post from Calcutta. Next stop Hyderabad and then…who knows.

I think, like all surprises, it’s unexpected but not completely, if that makes any sense at all. We knew that Calcutta was not the right place for us and so, I suppose, the universe decided to give us a kick up the backside and make up our minds for us.

Calcutta has been an interesting experience, let’s say. It’s been infuriating at times but it’s been gentle too, calm enough to allow me just enough space to try out this writing lark for some time. I was able to hang out with literary heroes, write a first draft of a novel, get a couple of poems published in an actual book, have my views count for something, where people read my writing and listened to what I had to say. I can’t complain.

I think in all honesty this phase of our lives has been the part where we’ve done the most growing. We’ve met people who have inspired us and guided us and we’ve seen the best and the worst of the human condition. We’ve lost a heck of a lot of our naiveté but that could also have come with age.

Personally, I’ve become more laid back and patient. I don’t have a panic attack every time I see that I won’t be arriving ten minutes early. Health and Safety have taken a back seat too, considering we’ve gotten used to travelling without seat belts and car seats. Is that so bad? The average Calcuttan probably risks their lives every time they turn on a light switch, if truth be told, not to mention breathing in all that polluted air is probably reducing life expectancy by half with every breath…

My children have become fluent in two more languages, Bengali and Hindi. My daughter’s also learning French and is loving it. I just hope I can keep on building on those foundations because a language is always an asset, I’ve found. Thank goodness for my own floundering Bengali in Calcutta, otherwise I fear the city may not have been so kind.

I’ve come to love Calcutta. I’m an ‘almost local’ and I’ve learned to take it for granted, all of it, from the waving green banana fronds outside my window to the warm toothless smile of my cleaning lady. The total acceptance that life is a certain way and will continue to be so until something forces one to change direction, is very Calcutta. A niggling dissatisfaction is never quite enough to spur on action in most people here, it has to be something big. So this must be something big!

But until we actually move, Arsalan’s have just opened up another biriyani joint on the EM Bypass, it’s almost mango season, the last of the Nolen Gurer Shondesh is being rushed off the shelves, India are playing a warm up with the ‘Windies’ at Eden Gardens and there’s always Tagore.

 

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Misty Mornings


I’m not sure if any of you remember Nibbles. Nibbles was the best cat in the world. He was noble, playful and most importantly, a doddle to litter train. He and I had a connection, he was meant to come into our lives and turn it upside down and inside out. I will always be indebted to the little feline who nibbled away at a small part of my heart, before plunging to his death from our balcony, whilst trying to catch an evil pigeon, who probably had no idea she was being stalked by an over ambitious cat who believed he could fly! Deep breath… Ah, well!

Now we have Misty. Misty was a whim, once again. But this time I was determined to do it properly. No strays, no cats, as they can jump out of balconies and no disagreements. If we were going to welcome another animal into the home, my husband would have to agree on it. And he did. Reluctantly, I must admit, but he did!

So I asked a trusted friend about her pug and how she acquired him and she passed on numbers. I made contact and the man showed me pictures. I’ll be honest here: in my enthusiasm to gain a new furry best friend, I skipped a few research points, trusting implicitly in the judgement of my very wise friend. And this is where I went wrong…

One Friday evening, a day or two after contacting the pet shop owner who would provide us with our dream pup, we were sent a picture of a fluffy, healthy looking snowy cocker spaniel. My daughter fell in love. I was determined; we were going to settle on this one, if she was healthy, of course. And so a pick up time was set for the following day at 5pm.

I was at a meeting during that morning, for women with International passports, residing in Calcutta, but my mind was elsewhere. I was watching the clock and shuffling impatiently on my seat. I simply could not concentrate while the polished and coiffured septuagenarian demonstrated intricate flower display after flower display, in oases of varying designs.

I was receiving updates from the pet shop man, confirming the health of our future pup. We were negotiating meeting places, as his original plan included me travelling for 2 hours there and back and I needed to know exactly what it was that I needed to make the transition from non-pet owner to pet owner, as smooth as possible.

Finally I was set free, I rushed out of the luxury hotel and tottered into the car, I still had another appointment to make before we picked up the pup and I considered whether the annual meeting with the International Ladies was really necessary for me this busy Calcutta morning. It was done, though, so I continued on my way. I picked up my daughter, who had been complaining of earache, and took her to the doctors. As predicted, there was a lot of dry wax build up and a course of drops was prescribed.

It was now 3.45pm. There was just enough time to make it home, eat a very quick lunch and head out to the middle of Calcutta Nowhere to pick up the newest member of our family. Travelling anywhere in Calcutta can take a minimum of 45 minutes and so we had to leave at 4, if were to make it for 5.

It was 3.55pm and my husband suddenly decided that he would also like to come along for the ride, check out the pet shop and handle the cash.

We complied and at 4.11pm exactly, we were in the car and on our way! My children and I could barely contain our excitement in the car and when we finally arrived, at 5pm on the dot, we almost collapsed into the anti-climax of realising the pup had not arrived yet. (Noone is ever on time, in Calcutta!)

Half an hour later, the wait was over.

What can I say! A floppy, fluffy little butterball of cuteness fell on the floor in front of us. We were told she was completely healthy, we went through her feeding, we held her and watched her walk, and flop and toddle and flop and then we held her and took her home.

Misty

Just before, however, I noticed lots of little insects coming off the pup. They crawled up to the surface of her coat and onto my arm. On her light fur, they were very noticeable. I brought it up with the pet shop owner and was assured they were completely normal and harmless and would be gone very soon.

Yes! They were gone and had turned into monstrous, evil brown ticks. Poor Misty was completely infested and so was our house. 1 and a half months on and we’re still finding them.

So I complained and I ranted and in my bid to do justice to my new little ‘furbaby’, I called for help. I was given numbers and introduced to various ‘pet experts’. These people come to your home, take your dog for walks, bathe and groom them, administer vaccinations and deliver food and toys on demand. They can offer to train your pet too and offer advice on a whole host of issues, including what to do with ticks when they invade a puppy too young for medication.

The answer is, ‘nothing’ apparently. All I could do was pick them out and drown them in alcohol. And this is what I have been doing ever since.

Misty though, in that time, has grown into a beautiful, sweet tempered, affectionate little pup. Ticks will be removed, I am certain.

She enjoys her walks and she can sit and fetch and drop and play tug. She knows how to handle each and every one of us in the household, including my husband, who seems to have softened slightly.

Our only concern is toilet training her. We need to get her out and about, now that her vaccinations are over and so I do. I take her out in the mornings and we walk up and down the gravel path allocated for ‘doggy business’ and invariably she’ll do it in a spot I’ll have to scoop that poop! I don’t mind though.

I like the way she wants to run around and sniff anyone who comes her way. I enjoy the feeling of camaraderie amongst the other dog walkers and sometimes I enjoy the music.

Every morning, we pass a neighbouring block of flats. From the third floor, or there about, behind shuttered windows and yellowing walls, behind the rags hung out to dry and the heavy whir of the AC, I hear someone beginning to play the piano; a few strained single notes and then some scales and then some chords. Very occasionally, if we are patient, we get to hear the beginnings of a melody.

The notes waft into the wind, carried away and mingle with bicycles bells and the rickshaw wheels upon the gravel. The chatter of the maid-servants on their way into work, in their many coloured saris, the drivers, the milkmen, the newspaper boys, the footsteps and the security guards. They all assemble into a morning concerto of activity, all before 7am.

If it wasn’t for Misty, I’d still be in bed dreading the alarm, drifting in and out of rage against the Laughing Club (another story). If it wasn’t for Misty, I’d miss the music.

Back from the Dead, to Work


The thought of writing a post seemed exhausting until now. I’ve been caught up and run down. It’s been a long, long time since I last wrote for myself and I’ve really missed it!

I have exciting news, though: I’ve only gone and got myself a job! I’m assistant editor for a national magazine, here in India. I love the magazine. I love being a part of it and somehow, I dreamed it and it happened.

I’ve also had some freelancing work come my way, I mean genuine, paid freelancing work and I loved doing that too. It’s been a little bit of a revolution. I’m a teacher, turned writer and soon, if I work hard enough, wish hard enough, I’ll be a novelist too.

The down side is, that my head is buzzing but my brain needs to catch up. I’m feeling my age, I’m feeling rusty. I’m creaking when I’m supposed to be a well oiled efficiency machine. Not good. I’m getting there though and the children are getting used to me not being at home until late. I must be getting used to it too, otherwise, I would not have had the energy to sit and write the post.

Calcutta is a different place, when you’re working. I’ve had to do the morning commute on a local bus, and when I got on the wrong bus (wrong route) I realised that it was not as simple as just catching the right bus the next time. You’ve got to be stubborn to catch a bus. You’ve got to be able to stand in the Calcutta sun, braving the dust and the pollution and the strange looks as you wield an umbrella, a stylish laptop bag and a bottle of water (the bottle of water won’t fit in the bag). Then you’ve actually got to get on the bus. Quickly. You do all this as the conductor assures you you’re heading the right direction, “just hurry up, madam and close that bloomin’ umbrella!” he says.

Then you’ve got to be prepared be pushed and cajoled to move up until you cannot move up any more. If you’re unlucky enough not to get a seat, as I was TWICE, you’ve got to be prepared to play that awful game of sardines. (The conductor just won’t say no to anyone wanting to catch a bus, ANY BUS!) The scent of the freshly showered does not last long and soon you are assaulted with the odour of the commute; sweat and heat, frustration and boredom (in my case, FEAR)

Catching a yellow cab is the next best option or your ‘other’ option. But be prepared to sometimes be ripped off. The drivers are supposed to go on the meter and they’re not supposed to refuse a fare. However, I found that sometimes, if it’s in the evening and they sense desperation, they’ll ask for a fare that’s over the normal fare, saying that they’ll have to travel back with an empty cab from where I want to be dropped off.

Yes, I’m experiencing Calcutta a little differently now. The shops could do with opening a little earlier, so I can get things done and it would be handy if I had my own transport, instead of having to car share (or face the challenge of public transport) with my husband. But all in all, it’s been pretty great so far!

kolkata_20061029_0018 man bus 800 pixels

The Third Kind


Inequality exists everywhere, not more so, than right here in Calcutta. There’s rich and poor, there’s the educated and the not, there’s man and woman. In every walk of life, for every step I take outside of my front door, I am confronted by a different reality where everyone certainly is not born equal.

But we all have somewhere to go, people who can help us, rights which would stand up in court, I was told the other day. If you are a man and you’re being denied a place in a hospital you can complain. If you are a woman and you are being denied a driving licence, you can complain. If you are of a third gender and you have been raped, you cannot complain. Who will you complain to?

As I travel in my comfortable air-conditioned vehicle, towards the many malls the city has, I notice the huge amount of people who are not actually travelling anywhere, yet are still on the road. I notice men selling peanuts, blinds for car windows, random red blankets and chewing tobacco. I see women begging, old and hunch-backed, leaning on a stick. I see women begging with a baby precariously balanced on their hips and I see a third kind…clapping, demanding, tapping on my window. I ignore them all but the third kind are the most persistent; calling out to me, cajoling and then insulting in the same breath; “Pretty Didi, go on, surely you can spare some change.” And then, “tight-arse stuck-up bitch!”

I’m intrigued by this, slightly amused so I look back but she has moved on to another car. This time the window is wound down and a hand holds out a ten-rupee note. I wonder why. I’ve heard stories told of the third gender, or ‘hijra’, as they are popularly known here. They can bless your new-born, your home and your business. Spurn them, however and they will curse you. And as everyone knows, around here, you do not want a hijra’s curse upon you. Stories are handed down through myth and superstition and capitalized fully by some of the ‘hijra community’. What else can they do? Getting a job when you’re seen as ‘different’ is not easy anywhere, especially when you dropped out of school because of abusive peers and teachers with little sympathy.

I compare the hijra’s situation to the standing of the transgender community in the UK. Over there, equality is the buzzword. I suppose everything else has been taken care of, such as food, health and education. Every child, no matter what their preference of clothing will be given an education and parents will be prosecuted if found guilty of abuse. The United Kingdom is such a small place, almost totally homogenized from coast to coast, like a bottle of delicious multi-flavoured milk; everyone seems to know their rights and know what is and isn’t acceptable. Every child has a right to a loving home and a good education. It is not acceptable to mistreat anyone…ANYONE! There may be pockets of the country where people are still discriminated against, for almost anything especially the colour of their skin or their sexual orientation, but by and large, it’s a safe place to grow up.

Here, on the other hand, I learn from Ranjita, who runs a Community Based Organisation (CBO) called, Gokhale Road Bandhan, that not all children in West Bengal share the same rights as in other parts of the world. Her organisation is primarily working with HIV intervention amongst the people of the community. They are THE go-to organisation for the MTH community (Men who have sex with men, Transgenders and Hijras), I learn. However they do a vast amount of work just sensitising the population who are not so aware of the possibility of all grey tones in our lives. Ranjita also runs the network, Association of Transgender/Hijra in Bengal(ATHB), which is the first registered network in the country to focus exclusively with the issues of the transgender and hijra community. Currently there are twelve CBOs who are the partners and associates of ATHB and located at various districts of West Bengal.

Ranjita, a transgender herself, lives with her partner and works, literally 24/7 for the cause. The other day she received a call from a distraught teenager who was having his hair forcibly cut off because his father wanted him to be more masculine. Late at night, the child was screaming down the phone as Ranjita could only listen helplessly, but for some, that is all that is needed. She tells me, as she serves me fresh lemonade and a bowl of spicy pasta, that the transgender community is not so badly off in the metropolises. Exposure is high and life is relatively simple, though hard. However, jobs and health treatment are harder to come by; one must be manly if you are male and one must be a woman if one is feminine. There can be no blurring of the lines. She wants the MTH community to be visible, accepted and given the same rights as everyone else.

Recently the Supreme Court of India ruled that the third gender be legally recognised. It has directed the government to provide equal opportunities to the socially and economically deprived transgender population, including that of health care. Getting a driving license, however is much more of a challenge, according to Ranjita. She does not want to be issued a licence saying she is male, because, in her mind, she is not, so she sits at home with a shiny new car unable to legally drive it. Bigger issues include adoption, getting a loan, separate washroom facilities and hospital wards…where do you go if you’re not actually acknowledged for who you are? The paper work Ranjita, is told, has not quite caught up with the law and society as a whole, which leaves the transgender community in a bit of a quandary.

Meanwhile, out in the villages of West Bengal, things are worse; a fourteen year-old boy is sexually abused and tortured for being effeminate. Children as young as eight or nine, are being castrated by ‘quacks’, unqualified surgeons, so they might be initiated into the ‘hijra community’for pursuing the ‘hijra profession’, whether or not they actually choose it. Castration is not something all transgenders seek, yet are sometimes forced into it at an early age because in many cases they have been trafficked by gangsand forced into the sex trade.

Ranjita also mentions that even today, after the Supreme Court Order giving recognition to the third gender, there is not much of scope for those in the transgender community of finding a job in the mainstream workplace, so in order to ensure survival they are forced to get into the sex industry. She also adds that most of the community based projects are intervention based and primarily aimed at, and used as a tool to, fight contamination of HIV/AIDS etc. But there is also a need to have projects, which are income generating from where the people belonging to the third gender can earn some money.

The problem lies in the lack of exposure and education, I think. It’s also a lack of empathy and the ability to see people for who they really are, rather what their genitalia says they are. However the world is getting smaller. Every day one is learning something new. I know a few people who will read this and will still be scratching their heads…surely you’re either a man or a woman, everything else is just a choice.

Wrong!

You do not get to choose who you fall in love with, you do not get to choose who you are. We’re all born with a certain longing to belong…that is the only thing that makes me the same as you. It is about time people saw people as people. I’m sick of labels…I’m sick of the world dishing out more to the people who have had it easy their whole lives and taking away, from the people who have everything to lose, on a daily basis. I think poverty is also to blame. People can’t fill their bellies here, let alone care about the Supreme Court’s ruling on a bunch of ‘messed up lady boys’. I’m not sure what the solution is, except education. Throw away the superstition. Throw away the stigma. Start giving people the tools to compete with the rest of the world, because when I look around this vast country and overcrowded city, I see a world as was, 200 years ago.

Success and progress is not measured by how tall your buildings are, it’s measured by whether EVERYONE can say they are healthy and happy and free to be who they want to be.

From google images. A popular image depicting Lord Krishna and Radha as one...essentially the masculine and feminine in one being.

From google images. A popular image depicting Lord Krishna and Radha as one…essentially the masculine and feminine in one being.

 

Being Back Here


I’m back in Coventry. I hesitate to say I’m back at home, because I’m not sure it is anymore. There’s no angst about it though…just a shift in perspectives. I’m in my parents’ house. We arrived here on the 1st of May and surprised them on their doorstep. They were over the moon! We were exhausted because we had just come via 5 days in Paris. (Another post for another day)

I’m enjoying being back in the town of my childhood. I love the English springtime, although we experienced only rain for the first couple of weeks. I love the fact that you can step out of your front door and take a walk without the fear of pollution and waste and traffic and a basic lack of footpaths. I love being able to drive a car! Needless to say, I’m too scared in Calcutta to even attempt it. (Maybe, one day). I love the fact that I can pop to the library and pick out children’s books with my children and have them beg me to stay for longer. And then, walk to the charity shops and look for, yet more books, as we stop to feed the ducks in the park, by our house!

I loved meeting my old colleagues to the point I almost wanted to go back to work and I loved meeting old friends and seeing their little ones who have grown up so much it’s silly, but completely understandable! (Child time works differently compared to adult time).

I haven’t even mentioned food yet. During my first week here I found a full block of mature English Cheddar in the fridge. Then I saw the fresh strawberries! I have been feasting on cheese and strawberries ever since, in between real meals, of course!

I love the flowers too.  Apricot roses nodded in greeting and rhubard and custard tulips stood to attention, as we arrived through the big white gates to my parents’ house. Everything was comfortingly familiar.

Being back here though, has had a negative effect on me and my attitude. I was calmer in Calcutta, I had learned to go with the flow, to be less angry. I find actually, that it was Calcutta which had that effect on me, not so much a shift in my personality…because being back here is turning me slowly into that angry, frustrated, grumpy person I was before I left. Or perhaps it’s just being in close proximity to my parents and my little brother, all of whom I love more than words can express but who also succeed in driving me crazy in equal measure. I also seemed to have lost a lot of time during the day, even though the sun does not deem fit to set until around 8.30-ish in the evening. I’m washing dishes, I’m cooking (a little), I’m actually looking after the children and by the time I go to bed, I’m shattered. I was spoiled in Calcutta! I had time to read and write. I’m not really doing that here! (Which explains why I haven’t posted anything for such a long time!) And that’s making me feel a little out of sorts too.

I don’t know…I’m overthinking things. I need to chill out, as they say and calm down and breathe. I need to sit with my grandmother and listen to her stories because they are wonderfully entertaining. And I need to watch my children play games with each other and their grandparents who conspire to help them steal sweets from their great-grandmother’s room when she nips to the bathroom and I need to breathe in the spring sunshine whenever it appears, as I hang out the washing on the line, in the back garden that grows runner-beans and peas and tomatoes and tats.

(Photos next time, I promise!)

Faith or Luck or a Way of Mind?


Faith

What is it? Why is it?

I’m going through stuff at home at the moment. It’s best not to elaborate…it’s private! But it’s stuff, nonetheless.

I thought I was dealing with it quite well, I thought I could handle the ‘either or’ of the situation but last night I was bowled a bit of a ‘googly’, as they say in cricket. There’s a third option or to be more precise, an infinity of options. Now, having worked out and mastered my reactions to the eventualities I thought were going to be upon us, I found it a bit difficult to remain composed during the whole situation when I find that there are other likely outcomes and not so easy, comfortable ones, either. But just at the right time, a friend appeared, pretty much like an angel and is leading me to something new, a revolution of the mind…’faith in something more than I’. It’s happened completely by accident, but at exactly the right time! And I find myself wondering how did I get here?

I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual. A friend described me to someone as agnostic. I suppose I could be that too. I believe in a higher power, but I don’t believe it’s quite God. I believe in the right time for things and that everything has a reason that we may not fully understand. The only reason I believe these things, is that time and time again, I have experienced it.

When I have sat back and waited for things to play out, believe it or not, they have played out beautifully. I have been happy and fulfilled. When I have been stuck in a rut and have looked for change without success, I have stopped and suddenly change came and dragged me into a situation I would not have even contemplated. I admit; I have been lucky. Or have I? Am I one of those people who have just simply accepted that things always happen for the best and then have adapted to it, consciously looking for the positive? What would have happened if I decided that I was the unluckiest person in the world? Would that shape my experiences in the opposite direction?

Is it age? I’m in my early thirties (yuck!) and I have reached a stage in my life when I say, some things cannot be changed and we should be grateful for what we have, because not so long ago, we did not have all this. And it is true, I have accrued a husband, two children and more laughter and amusement following these acquisitions than I ever thought possible.

Perhaps it is where I am. I’m in Calcutta or Kolkata. It’s a city where people amble nonchalantly, rather than stride with direction. “Hoi jabe” is a phrase you hear often, meaning, it will happen, when it needs to. But then you also hear, “Hobe na,” with a doleful shake of the head, meaning, it will not happen, no matter how much of a bribe you offer. It’s as if in Calcutta, you resign yourself to a fate that cannot be changed…it has happened this way and will continue to happen this way, because broken as it seems, it still works. Your will has nothing to do with it. So I suppose I have resigned myself to that too. It was easier than getting stressed every time something was not happening in the way I envisaged, which was a lot!

Faith is a funny thing. I need it to survive. It’s arrived at the right moment in a form I can deal with. It is in the form of something logical and rational and resonates with vibrations, in a way I never thought possible. I just need to cultivate it, like a garden. The soil is finally soft and fertile enough to allow that to happen and flowers, I am sure, will bloom.Image