Last Days and First Days

Our last day in Calcutta coincided with the Vivekananda Road Flyover disaster. The bridge collapsed and crushed over 20 people, injuring many more. Two days after the event, people are still trapped under rubble. Friends are marking each other and themselves as safe on Facebook and politicians in power are blaming one another.

On a more personal note, we were packed up and ready to go. Earlier that day, we said goodbye to Misty. And then we said goodbye to Kajol and Sudha, our staff.

Kajol came to us three years ago, to look after my son and quickly made herself indispensable in every way. She cooked for us and managed packed lunches, laundry and everything in between. Sudha, we had only known for a very short time, an elderly lady with gappy gums and a warm smile, who cleaned.

Kajol cried and cried. I hugged her and told her to look after herself. Sudha asked whether she could take the vegetable rack. I said no, it belonged to the landlord.

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Eventually we took our 17 pieces of luggage 3 years worth of essentials? (not including the tennis racquets) and headed towards the airport and completed all airport security formalities. Tired and impatient, we finally arrived in Hyderabad and fell into a fitful dreamless sleep.

The next morning, foggy headed and unsure of what we had actually done, I went through the motions. I let my sister-in-law and mother-in-law take over with the children. Ambiguous to the emotions of gladness or relief or something else. I found clothes and toothbrushes and surrendered to the situation.

Limbo is what you make of it, though. And after a cup of coffee, I was determined to make it count. I started researching and planning and forging an imaginary future and then, somehow, just after breakfast, I collapsed. I shutdown mentally and found it difficult to swallow anything much. By the evening, I was lost.

With the setting sun, and the KVR Park closed, we headed to the Jagannath Temple in Banjara Hills. The dark marble floors were hot and gingerly we made our way to various shrines. A mini pilgrimage.

The temple priests were conducting their evening ritual of banging their brass gongs in the hope of frightening away any unwanted energies and creating holy vibrations only for the most ardent and faithful. For the rest of us, the temple steps were close enough to feel the benefits of piety and prayer.

There is something comforting in the space created for the gods. Calm and clean, unrushed in prayer, people emit only light. Priests were unbothered, going about their daily duties and the gods waited patiently to be noticed. The rest of the world continued to spin while inside the temple we sat and moved only as if in slow motion. It was as if we were cocooned and cushioned from what we perceived to be our realities.

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I can see why faith is so powerful. Right now, I wish I could borrow some. I wish I could sit with folded palms and ask the gods to provide us with the best fit solutions for our forthcoming journey. But I can’t. Not quite. I can only look up to the skies beyond the temple roof and hope that in our insignificant microcosm, the answers will reveal themselves in time; that we possess enough strength and stamina and ‘chutzpah’ to carry ourselves through the coming weeks. A different type of faith.

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Certainly not here anymore…

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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.


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.


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!

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Our neighbour’s daughter-in-law has Cancer. They found a lump a few months ago and they decided to cut it out and treat with chemo and all that stuff. I don’t know the ins and outs. My neighbour is an old woman and her social skills need working on, but she’s nice enough. I don’t think she knows how to express herself so that people understand her. She told me it was very sad that her daughter-in-law was ill because now it means that she’ll have to deal with the maids herself, when previously her daughter-in-law did it and managed it so well. Obviously she’s going through more than that but she can’t open up to a virtual stranger about the fear and dread and sleeplessness she’s experiencing on behalf of her son and her grandson. 

We live in our tiny worlds, these four walls that separate us from one tragedy to the next. I have no idea about these people, about the woman across the corridor and her newborn or the woman who tutors in the flat opposite. What dramas must they be experiencing? I’ve only met them all once and that was to gauge their opinion about the ‘muzac’ the building authorities decided to play at full volume through the PA system every morning. I’m a very grumpy person without sleep and the previous night I had very little sleep! So the theme from Titanic playing over and over again (a whining instrumental version) just grated on my nerves. I needed to find out what the neighbours thought and they were ok with it, actually. It was only me who had a problem. It didn’t occur to me that they probably had much bigger, troubling issues to tackle, like whether their newborn would sleep enough in the day to allow them enough time to prepare dinner and take a shower. Or whether their grandson’s mother would live to see her own grandchildren.

We’ve lost the art of being neighbourly. I’m the worst for it. I hide away in my room, typing and reading and judging. I wish I was brave enough to meet the people who live only a few feet away. I wish I could be bothered to visit and offer help. But everytime I pluck up the courage to do that, I’m met with suspicion and the firm assurance that ‘no…everything is absolutely fine.’ Relationships and trust need to be built  over time, not through a disingenuous one off query of concern. 

But we need to ask ourselves…do we want be involved through all the heartache and dirty diapers? We’ve experienced enough of that already, right? But the bigger question is, in order to live a life that means something do we NEED to be involved through the heartache and the dirty diapers of our neighbours? I think perhaps we do.

Otherwise what’s the point?


Babu Ghat

Kolkata is such a magical place. It really is. Its meandering pace is just right for me. Oh my goodness, what would I do, who would I be, were I in some bustling metropolis with no time to think of words to place in lines of poetry and prose? 

On Saturday evening, around 4, O’Clock we set off towards Babu Ghat. Through the centre we drove in stop start traffic, towards an oasis of calm and tranquility. On the banks of the Ganges we were blessed with the golden light of a setting sun and in her arms, we were borne safely to a new kind of peace







A Shift

I’m not who I used to be. Or I’m more of who I am than I ever was before. Does that make sense?

When you’re part of the rat race, when you’re rushing about worrying about how to pay the bills or what time to pick up the children, or what to cook for dinner, when you have the bare minimum of ingredients and no budget, you have no time to be yourself. When you leave the race, it’s easier to see the beauty of a pepper pot or the perfect symmetry of the view outside your kitchen window, or wonder at the robin with his red breast atop a bare branch, making a picture worth taking. It is for this reason I am blessed.

There may come a time, very soon when I will have to go back to the race, to start running again. But I hope that this time I’ll be able to take time out of every day to watch the colours in the sky with my children and to watch the rise and fall of their chests as they sleep. I hope I take the time out to treasure their hugs and the light in their faces. Because as you know, Kolkata has brought about a shift in me and I so dread going back to the way things used to be.

Here are some images I have taken the time to see. Every day is beautiful here. Everyday holds a jewel.