India is all about the magic of standing in an ancestral home and thinking about who your mother was before you even existed.


My mother’s family is from a town about 30 kilometers from Kolkata called Chandannagar—once a French colony, it retains some of its architecture, especially at the promenade near the shore of the Ganges. The family home—a one story, three room building next to an open playing field, or maat—has been remodeled into a three story apartment building with flats for my mother, her three brothers and sister. It’s a common solution now to the often-contentious issue of real estate inheritance.

The old home was crumbling and dark, the blue walls water stained and peeling, but it holds some of my strongest childhood memories. Strange, since I visited only a handful of times as a child. I remember playing on the wide cement windowsills, the bright sun streaming in and striping the enormous beds through the metal bars on the windows. Whereas in America, beds were a private, solitary piece of furniture—at my mother’s home, the beds were large islands where my whole family slept together at night under the mosquito net, then again transformed during the day to be where other relatives or my mother’s childhood friends or the neighbors came to visit—tucking their legs up under their saris and balancing cups of tea and biscuits on the wide cushiony surface. It seemed so intimate—nothing like the formal living room where we entertained guests at home. Otherwise, it was where my brother and reclined most days, reading the exotic array of Indian reading material. We got by those trips on Amar Chitra Katha, TinTin, Asterisk and Archie comics. Occasionally reading some other British children’s books mostly by Enid Blyton. (When I got older, I brought my cousin V.C. Andrews’ books in exchange for Mills and Boon and Shoba De.) The only room in the old house which was brightly lit and sunny was a front sitting room, with dusty sofas that I loved and in later years, often found time to sit there and read or listen to the sounds of the busy market in front. My cousins and I would also escape to the roof, or chath, which in my memories seemed gigantic and the location for gossip and games of badminton and where I would be sent to dry my hair in the strong tropical sun. There used to be a guava tree next door and they would save the pink ones for me, since everyone here likes them when they are slightly harder. And there was the time in 1996, during a bad mango season, when two monkeys crept down the stairs from the roof and stole the mangoes off the table right in front of me after showing me their teeth in the classic monkey face. I swore loudly bringing people coming from all directions and my mother’s admonishment from the front room.


Now, my mother’s older sister has a two-bedroom apartment with a large sitting/dining area. Before, you could only enjoy the view of the sports field from the roof, but she has made one whole wall of the dining area into a sliding window, which allows you to watch the endless matches of cricket and football while eating breakfast or lunch. The field is next to a Bangladeshi refugee colony and I always watch as a woman hangs saris or lets her children run around naked. One morning, I watched a small boy trying to teach himself to ride a bike three times his size—his perseverance inspiring. A beautiful rainbow colored woodpecker jumped from tree to tree, and a large Brahma bull scratched his hump again a bamboo pole. Against the far wall there are the remains of the Jagadhatri Puja, held in November, during which the town floods with people. The room-sized beds still exist, and Robin spent an evening serenading my aunt and my cousin-in-law with tabla, while I sprawled on the bed and picked through old Mills and Boon romances for old times sake.

My mother’s apartment is equally as nice, with a large bedroom, small kitchen and large dining/sitting room. It is new and sunny and both Robin and I were eyeing it for future writing/tabla retreats. It actually gets a lot more sun than our apartment in Kolkata, though the dogs in Chandannagore have a more riotous nightlife than in the city—with ample moon-howling and other escapades.

My aunt Anubha made me regional sweets: sweetened wheat filled crepes or mishti doi (sweet yogurt) or dood pulley (steamed rice-flour pastries in a sweet milk sauce). We discuss family and loneliness, and for the first time I really asked her about her husband who died of a blood disease 12 years after they were married. She told me when I came to visit India when I was only two years old, I would play with a ring he wore on his finger. She also told me amazing stories of fighting back against sexual harassment or eve teasing, a major problem in India (and the world). Once, in 1964, in Delhi, she slapped a Sikh man in Chadni Chowk with her shoe, and again—near Howrah Station in Kolkata—when she was in her 50s, a man “misbehaved with her”, by which I think she means he grabbed her or touched her while walking by, and then got onto a tram car. She was waiting for a bus at the time. She said she stood there for some time and felt bad, that feeling of shame and helplessness, but then didn’t want to feel that way and saw that the tram was still waiting there. So, she marched onto the tram and slapped him across the face, then marched off. How heroic! (It reminded me of my experiences with Blank Noise when I was here in 2007. It looks like they are still going strong.)


I also got to spend time with my cousin Sayanti and her husband Anindya, who just had fraternal twins Titir and Titan—this past March—adding to the amazing parade of babies that the universe was blessed with in 2010. Sayanti and Anindya are both physicians and they are exceptionally hard-working, with Anindya commuting several hours to Burdwan a few days a week. But, being India, they also have lots of help: my aunt Anubha when she can come to Uttapara from Chandannagore, Sayanti’s in-laws, who live with them, a night nanny and a day nanny. But still, with twins it can never be enough. It definitely makes me think about how raising a child in the US is a barren, expensive, sterile experience. The twins are teething and starting to walk – which means sticking everything in their mouths and being able to reach dusty, dirty corners. This is when that whole building up your immunity thing happens for Indian kids. All of these (literally billions) of Indian kids are raised without child-proofing and car seats and they seem to be doing okay.


On a final vain note, Anindya is an eye doctor and he saw me wearing glasses while using my laptop and told me I needed to wear them 24-7. I first got glasses when I went to college and realized I couldn’t see the board from the back of the room, and since then have only used them for using the computer, going to movies and driving. He informed me that if I don’t wear them all the time, my eyesight is going to get progressively worse and that I could be in bad shape by the time I’m 50. So, I’m giving it my best shot to wear my glasses all the time, which is totally weird—mostly because the ground seems all wobbly and far away, but apparently I will adjust to that. Of course, it is also weird because when “wearing glasses”, one becomes a whole different category of person, almost. Will people think I am smarter? More intellectual? Nerdy? A four-eyed freak? If glasses were so prohibitively expensive, I would get a few new pairs to match my moods. Ever since seeing David Bowie get his contacts melted onto his eyes in The Man Who Fell to Earth, I’ve been terrified of contacts, so that’s not an option. Let’s see how well I do with my 2011 New Year’s Resolution of wearing my glasses every day.