Vanda, Ms Joaquim

IMG_0178

 

First there was a name. Then there was a flower. Then there was a story… and a new story.

In the garden stood a maiden, a young woman in the first bloom of her youth… olive skin, dark-eyed, with a soft fringe and a pert nose. She wore a red dress and had red lips…then came a tall stranger from beyond the seas and swept her off in a whirlwind of romance…

That is how the story should have gone, but it did not. There was a garden and in the garden were many flowers. There was a young woman and she had scratches and cuts all over her knees, which she ignored. She was walking through the bushes and the thorns and twigs had left harsh imprints on her soft flesh. She was wearing a pair of shorts and a blue t-shirt. On her head was a straw hat. She was dusky, short and had hazel hair and eyes.   She was looking for something…

As she peered into the bushes, a football came and hit her, hard on the back. She fell. A group of boys playing football nearby had sent the ball flying into the bushes, unintentionally. But the young lady was angry, her dignity being injured. She started getting up from amid the bushes and shouting, “How dare you?! You vandals! You nitwits!”

A strong arm came and helped her up and a deep voice said, “Come! Come! It was not intentional… what were you doing in the bushes anyway?”

“ I had a keychain. It had orchids in it. I was taking my landlord’s dog, Chester, for a walk and had a ball in my hand too. As I flung the ball for Chester to fetch, the keychain with it’s bundle of keys flew out too and I could not find the keychain anymore. I dropped Chester back and came to look for my keychain. It has the national orchid of Singapore in it, Vanda Ms Joachim, but actually, of the Papilionanthe family.” She nodded her head fiercely trying hard to look dignified and offended.

The owner of the strong arm and deep voice started to smile and almost laughed for the spectacle she provided was funny. She had a smut of dirt on her nose of which she was oblivious and dry leaves from the bushes in her hair. He threw back the ball at the group of boys playing football and dug his hands into his pockets.

“Would this be it?” said the deep voice dangling a keychain in front of her. “I found it lying under a bench near these bushes and had picked it up hoping to drop it off at the nearest police post.”

“Yes. Thank God. Thank you so much!” said the owner of the keychain.

She smiled and stretched out her arms to get it. The owner of the deep voice was a young man in his late twenties. He gave her the chain and smiled.

“ My name is Michael,” he said.

“I am Madhu. I am a botanist and have come to research orchid hybrids in Singapore. This keychain holds my favourite. It is pretty and the flowers are resilient and sturdy. I love the colour. So, this was very important to me.”

“How long have you lived here?” asked Michael.

“Oh! For almost a year…”

“And do you like it?”

“Well. Yes. I miss my family though…”

“I live in the houses across the road,” said Michael.

“I need to run home now. Bye,” said Madhu. She had become a bit wary… a stranger in Botanical Gardens. He did make her feel shy though.

Michael looked at her receding figure, shook his head and smiled. She disappeared.

The next day he saw her at the bus stop. She was waiting for a bus. Michael was driving past, returning from work. He slowed down but the bus came before he could halt and she was gone. He smiled when he thought of her. She was like a whiff of fresh  spring breeze.

Michael had grown up in Singapore. His family was an old Pernakan one. Pernakans were Chinese immigrants who had intermingled with the local population of the Malay Archipelago during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Over the decades they had developed a Westernised culture and converted to Christianity. Michael’s family had a few Indians and Westerners too. They celebrated every festival and were culturally very open. They accepted all people, all customs. They were rich traders who had the money to acquire the best in the world. They owned real estate firms in Singapore and China and gold mines in South Africa.

Michael had studied in Singapore and USA. He was a businessman too, like his father, and contributed to the family business. He was in the habit of getting what he wanted but always with a smile and graciously. So, now when he found himself thinking more than necessary of the hazel-eyed girl who popped out of a hedge in Botanical Gardens, he really wanted to know her better.

Every now and then he saw her at the bus stop in the evening but could never catch her. One day, he returned home early and went walking to the bus stop at the time he normally returned home. He saw her coming at a distance and pretended to look at his mobile. When Madhu reached the stop, Michael felt very nervous.

With his heart in his hand, he said, “Hi! Do you recognize me?”

Madhu looked at him surprised, “Oh! You are the one who found my keychain! I did not know you came to this stop.”

“Yes. I live very close. Do you research at the Botany Centre in the Botanical Gardens? ” Michael asked.

“I do. What about you? Where do you work?” Asked Madhu.

“I am a businessman. My head office is in Clark Quay.”

Madhu saw her bus coming, “My bus is here. Bye!”

She got onto the bus and so did Michael.

“So, where are you going?” asked Michael taking the seat next to her.

“I am going to the national library at Bras Basah. I normally get a book from there and have dinner and return to my room every night.”

“What a coincidence, I am going there too…I want to pick some reading material too…”said Michael.

They chatted on the way to the library. They talked like old friends. Somehow, Madhu felt she could trust him and liked him.

Madhu borrowed a couple o Agatha Christies and Michael borrowed a Dan Brown. They ate dinner at the cafe outside the library and took the bus back home. Madhu had rented a room in a bungalow at a little distance from the Botanical Gardens.

The next day Michael was there again. Madhu accepted his presence naturally. This went on for almost a couple of months with a few breaks on weekends. Then one day, Michael invited her home to meet his family.

It seemed the most natural thing to do. Madhu bought some chocolates and flowers and went over one Saturday afternoon. The family was very nice to her. Aliya, Michael’s mother, gifted her a hand painted white silk scarf with Vanda Ms Joachim on it. Madhu loved it. They even had the hybrid in their garden. Michael’s father, Alvin, was very nice to talk to. He knew many things about plants because he loved collecting rare ones. Michael’s younger brother, Melvin, came in for lunch and went back to study. He was a final year student in medicine and had exams to face. They had Nonya chicken curry in honour of Madhu for lunch. The food was really nice. Madhu loved it. She ate with gusto.

The next Monday, Michael took her to the library in his car. Madhu was gracious about it. Then, they walked to an Italian restaurant for dinner. And as they waited for the food to arrive, Michael took out a tiny box from his pocket and opened it. In it was a beautiful ring with an orchid holding a cluster of diamonds. The orchid was of pink and purple gold. It was beautiful and exotic!

He held the ring up to Madhu and said, “Marry me!” in a pleading whisper…

“What?!” exclaimed Madhu.

“Will you marry me?” asked Michael.

“I have not thought about it at all,” said Madhu. “Can you give me some time, please?”

Michael nodded and tried to look understanding. Then he said, “You mean, you did not figure out even when I invited you home?”

“I have not thought about marriage as yet because I have my work and I am away from home. I know my parents want me to marry … an Indian boy and settle down in India… I have been running away from this whole thing… just give me some time… and then I will have to break it to my parents too… Can we just continue friends for some time…I do not want to lose you…”

“All right. I will wait and we will continue as before. Will you keep the ring?”

“No. I will accept it after I work out things with my parents. In India, marriages are between families,” said Madhu.

“I got the ring made for you. I ordered it at the jewelers a month ago and I received it yesterday… It is also a Vanda Ms Joaquim… only for you… no one else can wear it…”said Michael.

“I promise you I will wear it… but give me a little time. I have to go for a cousin’s wedding in a fortnight. We will talk after I return again. I will be back in ten days,” said Madhu. “I will be leaving in a week.”

Michael and Madhu met everyday of the week and tried to continue like old friends but there was an element of conciousness in their interactions. On Friday, Madhu told Michael she would be taking a flight on Sunday. Michael insisted on seeing her off at the airport. He took her address in New Delhi from her. She told him she would not be wirelessly connected outside her home… and during the wedding she might be unreachable… Michael felt a little apprehensive but he had to let her go to get her back…

Ten days turned to a fortnight, Madhu was still not back. Michael was now really anxious. He called but no one answered. After the first few days, Madhu had stopped responding to his messages. She was not active on Facebook… When he contacted the botany institute, they said that Madhu had extended her leave and would return at some point. They did not know when.

Enough was enough. Michael flew down to New Delhi. He had booked into Taj Mansingh Hotel. He took a car from the hotel and drove down to the address Madhu had given. He got off outside the bungalow in Hauz Khas and walked in through the gate. There was a lawn outside the front door. A little child of about eight was playing in the garden bouncing a ball. Michael rang the bell. The door was opened by a plump, middle-aged woman in a sari. Michael asked if Madhu lived there.

The woman cocked her head to one side.

“Who are you to enquire?” she asked in a gruff manner.

“I am Michael, Madhu’s friend from Singapore,” he answered. He could hear voices inside.

“Why can’t you leave her alone? She will be married to a nice Indian boy. His family is visiting. Go now. I don’t want them to see you,” saying this, she banged the door shut on his face.

Michael’s head was reeling. He had to see Madhu once at least and hear from her that she was marrying another man. He sat on the steps of the front porch. After sometime, the little boy with the ball came to him.

“Who are you and why are you sitting here?” he asked.

“I am Michael. I want to see Madhu. I have a present for her,” he said. Michael had decided that he would in any case give her the ring as a keepsake… it was only for her, for his lover of Vanda…

“Oh! I see,” said the little boy. “You want to meet Madhu and she is not at home. But don’t feel sad for that. She has just gone to the Rose Garden with the man with huge moustaches. She is my cousin. And that was my mother! You can go there in your car.”

Michael thanked the little boy and asked his driver if he knew the way to the Rose Garden. The driver said, “It is very close.” And took him there.

Michael saw a huge garden full of roses and bordered by tall, slender Eucayptus trees. It crowded with people. He got off… how would he find Madhu? There were so many people. Groups of picknickers and then, there was an avenue going into a wooded area. What if she had gone off to the wooded area? What if he missed her? Suddenly, at a distance, he saw a scarf. The scarf was white and spread in a triangle on the woman’s back. It had the orchid Vanda painted on it… Madhu’s scarf! He had found her…She was sitting on a bench with her back to Michael with a muscular owner of fine moustaches… Her voice floated to him, “….my favourite orchid…Ms Vanda, is resilient and a hybrid… it is very unique because…” Her companion seemed a little restive and tried to put his arms around her shoulder and sidled closer on the bench. Madhu moved away. “I love orchids and my work.”

Moustaches and Muscles said, “You can have a garden to grow your flowers in our new home.”

“But I want to be back in Singapore… I can’t marry you,” said Madhu.

“Your parents said you could. Girls are shy, they say and always run away initially. So, I understand,” said her companion and sidled closer. Madhu jumped off the bench.

“Don’t you understand? I don’t want to marry,” said Madhu in a loud voice.

Michael felt it was time to announce his presence. He cleared his throat and put his hand on Madhu’s shoulder. She jumped up with a scream. Muscles and moustaches also jumped up and said, “Hey Mister! What do you think you are doing? That is my fiancee!”

Michael said, “Sounded more like she does not want you…”

Madhu turned towards Michael and hugged him, “Oh! I am so glad to see you!”

Michael held her to his bosom and said, “I will never let you go, Ms Vanda.”

He kissed her on her face, on her lips. He poured all his love into that hug and Madhu clung to him.

Moustaches and Muscles was angry, “You shameless girl, I will never marry you. Fancy, having a boy friend! Shame on you!” And he went off…

But never was a shamed woman happier than Madhu!

The owner of the Vanda Ms Joaquim scarf had accepted the exquisite orchid ring of pink and purple gold.

 

 

 

 

 

The Journey

img_0162

Sushma sat facing the ocean from her balcony on the thirtieth floor in Singapore. Her whole family, her two son and their offsprings, had gathered to celebrate her eighty-fifth birthday. She was now the grand old matriarch. Her grand children were just returning. She could hear their voices as the front door closed.

“Oh! Where is granny?” her fourteen-year-old grand daughter, Sheila, was asking her mother.

“I think she is in the balcony,” her mother replied.

“Alone?” asked Ron, her seventeen-year-old grandson.

“Yes,” and a discussion followed in muted voices.

Sushma knew her sons, their wives and children were planning something big… but she did not know what… no one would tell her. She played along.

The balcony door slid open and her two grandchildren stepped out. They were her younger son’s children. The elder one’s son was married and expecting a baby. He was posted in Singapore with his wife. They lived in a separate apartment and would be joining the rest of the family later.

Ron and Sheila plunked on chairs near her.

“How was your jog?” asked Sushma.

“Great!” replied Sheila as she sipped a cold apple juice from a tall glass.

“We saw a komodo dragon!” exclaimed Ron. He was really excited, as they had grown up in California where such creatures were unusual. “And Sheila was screaming with fear.”

“I was not. I was shocked seeing it cross our path so casually.”

“It was running too,” said Ron. “Obviously, it was scared of us too.”

Sushma smiled and intervened, “Good. I always love to hear of your discoveries.”

“Grandma, today you will tell us your stories. Will you again tell us the story of how you and your mother moved here?” asked Sheila. “I always love to hear it. Maybe, someday I will write it down.”

Sushma smiled affectionately and said, “I also love recalling my past. It rekindles my sense of hope and happiness.”

“I was born in an army cantonment in a city called Kanpur in India in 2014. My father was a soldier in the Indian army. When I was six-months-old, he was killed in a terrorist attack in his border camp. He died fighting and was declared a hero. My mother was only twenty-four and heartbroken. My grandmother was inconsolable. Medals were given to my father posthumously. But medals did not bring food to our plates or gladness in our hearts.

My mother was always sad. I do not recall much of the early phase in my life except everyone seemed dark and gloomy. There was no laughter, no sense of hope.

We were poor. We had to leave the army cantonment. My grandparents moved in with their second son, who lived in Bombay and my mother went back to her parents in New Delhi.

My mother’s in-laws did not want her and the baby as they said we had brought bad luck on the family. More than the terrorists, they blamed us for losing their beloved son.

I do not remember much of that time but, I believe, my mother’s family let her to go back to studies. My mother had been a bright student and had married at twenty under family pressure. She had not been allowed to complete her graduation by her family or that of her husband’s. There had been no time after all the housekeeping in her husband’s home. Her parents-in-law also lived with them and expected her to serve them, do all the cleaning, cooking and laundry.

Now that she was widowed and had no home to service, my mother went back to her studies. She bloomed, studied economics, got a fellowship to Singapore and we moved.

This time, her parents did not halt her progress despite criticisms from relatives and friends. My mother said they probably realized the pleasure she got from it was necessary for her survival. Also, her fellowship brought her so much money that her parents, who had come from a small town called Pilani to the capital New Delhi to seek their fortunes, were amazed. It sounded like a small fortune to them! Her father had been a clerk in the Indian Railways. He had three daughters, the eldest being my mother. The other two were married by the time we came to Singapore. So, he had very less left in his pocket after giving his daughters ample gifts and spending on the functions.

I was six-years-old when we moved to Singapore.

My grandparents did not come with us. They had been my main caregivers in India as my mother spent her time studying. For my mother, it was a very big and bold step. She had never travelled on her own. Even during her journey back to Delhi, her father had gone to pick her up. This was not just a trip. It was her first trip on plane and that too to the first country outside her own!”

“Amazing! Isn’t it? Imagine not having flown at all till the age of…how old was she grandma?” observed Sheila.

“It was not unusual for lower middle income families in India then. My mother was thirty. She was a strong woman and over a period of time had become quite an outstanding person. She was tall, fair and beautiful with grey eyes. Over the years, she had learnt to speak English well.”

“My mother had taught me the basics of English at home but my first language at the age of six was still Hindi. I did pick up English fast, though, as no one in the campus understood Hindi, not even the Indians as their ancestors were mainly from Tamil Nadu and they spoke Tamil,” continued Sushma. “ I remember we rented a room in a house in Buona Vista. There was a double bed and an attached bathroom.

My mother took me with her to the university the first day. People were very kind to us. Initially, she put me in the university childcare. Then she moved me to an international school. The university paid for it, I believe. Eventually, my mother was absorbed into the university faculty. We moved into our own home in the campus. The school bus would pick me up at eight and drop me home at four-thirty. My mother saw me off and was home when I returned. If I fell sick, she would take leave but then, eventually she kept a full-time Indonesian lady to help her out.

I had a good childhood from then on…fun, frolic, work and home…

When my grandparents came to visit us, they found it hard to adjust, especially to the fact that their daughter wore trousers, mixed with many races and ate all kinds of food. I remember how my grandmother harangued at my mother for an hour one day for abandoning what she called her ‘culture’. They also did not want a Muslim helper in the house. They did not want to eat food prepared by her as they were strict Hindu vegetarians. When they came, they would cook their own food. We also ate vegetarian and did not tell my grandparents that we did consume non-vegetarian food when they were not around, which was the larger part of the year. They very much disapproved of non-vegetarianism.

During their last trip, they left after a couple of weeks in a huff and never returned or entertained us. They never saw our faces again.

It all started when I invited my best friend, Lydia, home to surprise my grandparents. Lydia  loved chicken rendang . I loved chicken too. I had requested our Indonesian aunty to make chicken rendang, thinking my grandparents would be okay with it as long as they did not need to eat it. Also, as they were always indulgent to me, I thought they would not mind. When my grandmother found chicken meat in the kitchen, she questioned the help and me. She told my grandfather. They neither wanted to have Lydia home nor wanted meat in the house. My grandparents were really angry. They called up my mother in a huff. My mother was teaching and could not attend to them. They were even more upset when I tried to reason with them. I cancelled Lydia’s visit looking at the situation at home. They tried to lock me up but could not as all locks in Singapore opened from the inside. The helper, who I called aunty, texted a message to my mother about the uproar in the house. They told aunty to leave. Aunty went and stood downstairs, waiting for my mother. My mother had to take leave and come while my grandparents stood guard over their errant grand daughter. I was thirteen then. Aunty came up with my mother. My grandparents did not want aunty to enter. I was more attached to aunty than to my grandparents by then. My grandparents asked us to choose. They also would have us return with them then it self. My mother refused. My grandparents would not listen to reason. There were laws about foreign workers in Singapore. We were not allowed to violate them, my mother tried to convey that to them. They packed their bags and left for the airport. My mother was driving then. But they would not go in her car. They left in a taxi and that is the last we saw or heard from them.

That is how all my ties with India ended.

Initially, my mother wept but she would not have them treat me as they did. She wanted me to grow open and strong, able to take on the world. It had been a struggle for her to come this far and she was not going to give up!

Her sisters kept her informed through letters … they did not know how to email at all. They could not also afford air travel to Singapore!

After about four-five years, she heard from her sisters her father had passed away and, subsequently, her mother. Her parents had left express instructions that she was not allowed to visit or mourn them with the rest of the family. I know my mother mourned many years privately shedding tears. She turned at times to a friend called Major Diwan who consoled her and helped her get over her sense of rejection from her parents. She was sure of one thing … she did not want herself or me to return to the earlier life she had.

For our vacations, we explored the world. We walked the Great Wall together. We visited Disney Land. My mother even took me to India as she felt I should be in touch with my roots. My grandparents were living the first time. They refused to see us. We stayed in a hotel and had a grand time. My aunts did not live in New Delhi. And we were doing New Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay that holiday.

My mother’s sisters lived in Daulatabad and Bhopal. When we went to see Ajanta and Ellora, she did try to arrange a meeting with her sister in Daulatabad, but somehow it never happened. I think my mother’s family had cut her off as an errant one.

Anyway, we had a good life though my mother was every now and then sad about her family. She did have a strong friendship with Major Diwan. He was like an anchor for her. He was a widower and an orthopaedic surgeon. He used to visit us often. Sometimes, he even accompanied us on our trips overseas… He was very sad when my mother passed on… and in a year or two, he passed on too… Sometimes, I wondered if I had not been around, would my mother have taken the plunge with him… not that I would have minded if they did… you see, I had no memories of my father…

Life was smooth for me here. I did well in school and started university here where I met your grandfather. He was my professor, young and dashing. We married after I graduated. I continued with my studies and then you know the rest of it….”

“Thus, ended my childhood ,” said Sushma with a smile.

“Our great grandmother was really a brave and outstanding woman,” said Sheila. “I love to hear her story, how she made it despite all the ties that would hold back most people. She must have been a very strong woman!”

“That she was,” said Sushma. “ And she never let me feel left out. You know, the aunty who my grandparents wanted us to send back, stayed with us for twenty years! She only left when I married Paul. Then, we insisted my mother move in with us. I was lucky in Paul because he was so kind to my mother… and having her was an asset as she helped look after your father and uncle. She also loved Paul very much. She looked on him as a son she never had. Yes, our later years were filled with happiness … all for the one step my brave mother took!”

Ron looked away and wondered, “ Grandma why were they so rigid in India in those days? Why were the social norms for women so restrictive? Are they still that rigid?”

“I couldnot say my dear… in any case after the regionalization of the world, things have changed very much. Perhaps, you can go back to India again at some point and check out what it is like now….” replied Sushma.

On the Fatness of Being

IMG_0129

Over the years, I have collected a wealth of wisdom, which has translated itself into layers of adipose that rest on my formerly frail frame, gently insulating me from low temperatures and hard surfaces. People envy me my layers of adipose for whenever I walk into shops, salesgirls come forward with slimming teas and creams. I find their behaviour a trifle peculiar as they try to persuade me to get rid of the layers of carefully nurtured wisdom. It is the same wisdom you can see in the laughing Buddha, the symbol of happiness and contentment.

One of the things that most people nowadays find difficult to comprehend is that necessarily a well-proportioned individual may not be a sick individual. They take it for granted that everyone needs to be of a certain weight-height ratio…something they call the Body Mass Index. This is all a matter of statistics. I used to fall sick every month when I had a slim and svelte figure…twenty years and two kids down the lane, my weight has almost doubled but I rarely fall sick. Earlier, doctors called me underweight. Now, they call me overweight. Will they ever be satisfied?

Recently, a friend who is slim and was an exercise freak had a major bypass. She had shooting chest pains. And, now, she is not allowed to exercise or travel or eat as she likes despite her lack of adipose. Whereas I am allowed to exercise (or not exercise as a matter of choice), travel and eat what I like despite my layers of wisdom. Doctors keep nagging but it is their nature to nag, exercise and diet. I have heard of a few cases where people died while exercising and some even developed anorexia nervosa while dieting.

I do not want to take risks and feel happy the way I am. I want a long life to enjoy the wonders of the universe. I want to read all the fascinating books I find around me. I want to travel to different places…Egypt…on camel back to the pyramids; Easter Island…to stand in the middle of the circle of rocks like an ancient druid and feel the rays of the rising sun bathe my portly being; the golden fort of Jaisalmer …on camel back again wearing a ghagra like a Rajasthani princess. Here, I must pause to let people know that riding on a camel back is not a hobby as you might think. Camel rides are bumpy and, as I learnt from my experiences in China and India, these creatures can make you feel your innards are all dislocated when they start to jog or run. Never underestimate a camel!

The reason I want to be on a camel is to savour the flavour of the locale.

One of the major advantages of accepting my ample proportions and not fearing life-threatening illnesses is that I can enjoy the world around me. If I go for a walk, it is to enjoy the good weather or the scenery around me. If I see a butterfly or an exquisite sunrise, I feel relaxed. When I hear waves lapping or the breeze whispering through trees, it is like soothing music to my ears. The span of a human life is less than a dot in the lifespan of the universe. Is it worthwhile to spend ones life worrying over our BMI or fearing illnesses?

I wonder if Shakespeare, Tagore or Khayyam ever jogged for fitness or worried about their BMI index. Yet they have left behind a heritage of writing which trancends their lives and times. They have eternalised their existence in the history of mankind.  Shakespeare lived a little over half a century. The other two were octogenarians. Reading their works makes me happy and content.

Finding happiness to me has become synonymous with enjoying the wonders of the universe, including my family and children and mankind’s fantastic existence. I want to live life to the full. Perhaps this quatrain of Khayyam’s best sums up my stance towards the fatness of being…

 

Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring,

The Winter Garment of Repentance fling

The Bird of Time has but a little way 

To fly — and Lo! the Bird is on it’s Wing.

 

 

 

 

 

Oh Calcutta!

image

The Calcutta I Love

I have never lived in Calcutta but I love the city.

What I love about Calcutta is not the places to visit but the spirit of the city. I love it’s people, it’s history, it’s antiquity, it’s culture, it’s flavors, fabulous cuisines and it’s multi-culturalism. People are passionate about what they feel and do. Life feels vibrant!

The first time I visited Calcutta was in the late 1970s. I was a teenager, had just completed my grade ten, and was on the way to a sleepy village in Assam, Rajapra, with my parents who were visiting the village to help set up medical care. Calcutta was a direct contrast to Rajapara in certain senses.

Rajapara was like a beautiful green gem beside a lake which yielded the tastiest Chitol ( Indian featherback) fish I have had in my life! It was a tiny village a few hours drive from Guwahati. I remember how darkness descended suddenly in Rajapara the first evening. We had just arrived. It was daylight and then it was pitch black. You could see the stars glimmering like diamonds in the night sky. My eyes had grown up with city lights in New Delhi and here, there was no electricity. There was no dusk in Rajapara. Day and night…a sudden transition! The sudden onset of darkness scared and surprised me. I started to cry.

Calcutta never instilled a sense of surprise or fear in me. The only strange and likeable thing, I found was that everybody used my mother-tongue, Bengali. Women were also more respected than in Delhi, where I was growing up. I liked that too. Of course, I do not know if that is more an East Indian thing. In Rajapara, I remember women played a pivotal role in the village and were involved in the decision making. I remember one funny thing. Married women were not allowed to ride elephants. So, I could take a tour of the village on an elephant but my mother couldnot. My father preferred to keep off the ride as he is always apprehensive of animals and their reactions.

In Calcutta, the most unique ride we had was in the tram. It chugs along slowly and you can pretty much get on and get off as you please. My father loved the tram ride. It reminded him of his university life in Calcutta in the 1950s and 60s. What I found unique about buses and trams in Calcutta was not just the way they accomodated women, children and old people and catered to their needs but also the political and cultural discussions among passengers who didnot know each other and would probably never meet again.

My father also spoke highly of the Esplanade. He compared it to the speaker’s corner in Hyde Park, London. I had not been to London as yet and, to me, Esplanade seemed like an overcrowded field. In retrospect, I think he was referring to the spirit of the places. Hyde Park and Esplanade both have an interesting ambience of antiquity. The last time we were in Calcutta in December 2014, I remember there was a political rally in Esplanade. That was the day we decided to visit our favorite landmark in Calcutta near that area, the Victoria Memorial. Our friends and relatives advised us against it but we went ahead. Not only was the traffic very well managed but there were no disruptions or delays faced by us. The only thing that we did experience was that the museum and the grounds were more crowded than usual but, it was a well-organised crowd.

Victoria Memorial, I feel, is one of the most emblamatic places in Calcutta. It has the old and new merged in it’s essence. The exhibits are really antique and fabulous, including the manuscripts on the first floor but the crowds are new and vibrant. The gardens surrounding the museum are beautifully laid out and very well maintained still. I have been there thrice in the last three years, twice in February and once in December, and each time I was impressed by the vibrancy of the flowers, the people and the museum.

The Victoria Memorial is about a century old and was paid for by the Indian princes and members of the British Raj. It was proposed by Lord Curzon as a memorial to the dead Queen Victoria. Despite the freedom movement in India which was aiming at independence and nationhood by Indians, people did pay their respects to the monarch as a ruler and a historical figure by coughing up generous amounts of cash to build the museum. The contribution by the monied people of India at that point is a unique characteristic of what builds great civilizations. They could think in terms of mankind and not of boundaries that are being drawn all the time in the name of nation, culture and religion.

A visit to Victoria memorial calls for a lunch at either Peter Cat or Mocambo. Every time I think of Peter Cat, I dream of their scrumptious Chelo kebab. They serve chicken and lamb kebabs with butter rice and a poached egg. It is the most mouth-watering dish I have ever eaten in my life. When I think of it, my mouth starts salivating automatically and I experience throws of hunger pangs! Last year, we visited Peter Cat on New Year’s eve at lunch time. There was a huge queue. My hungry sons agreed to wait two hours for lunch… An unheard of occurrence in any other restaurant in the world! And when the Chelo kebabs came, it was like manna from heaven…Peter Cat with it’s lurid red interiors has an ambience of the nineteen sixties, when it came into being. Interestingly, it was named after a cat that prowled the Lords’ cricket grounds in London from 1952 to 1964 and Calcutta is cricket crazy!

Mocambo is famous for it’s bhetki fish( sea bass) steak. The bhetki is domicile of the Bay of Bengal and is plattered into fantastic recipes in Bengal. Mocambo has adopted local foods and given them a twist of the multicultural society of Calcutta. The restuarant started in 1956 and featured European managers and crooners. Now, what remains are the fabulous recipes, a mixture of Bengali and western food. Calcutta is historically known to have hosted not just the British but also the Armenian, Dutch and French among it’s vast plethora of conquistadors with their specific areas of interest.

Calcutta came into existence as a city when the East India company began to use it as their trade outpost. Earlier, it existed as three villages till it was united into one city for trade purposes. The name of the legendary Job Charnock who lived and worked for the East India Company in the 1600s comes into ones mind when one thinks of Calcutta. However, in 2003, his name was wiped off as the founder of Calcutta by a High Court ruling and Calcutta was respelled as Kolkata.

I have never been able to figure out the need for a compulsive national identity. My identity lies in being a human being, and hopefully a good one. Even if they spell Calcutta as Kolkata, the flavour of the city continues multicultural.

Calcutta was the home to many illustrious nobel laureates, like CV Raman, Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen. I visited the home of one in Jorasankho, Rabindranath Tagore. My mother-in-law who was with us and is an avid admirer of Tagore’s songs and poetry, sang his lyrics sitting in his courtyard. It was really a very inspiring experience. This was where he wrote in his early years and Santiniketan University was the product of his later years.

There are so many places to visit in Calcutta that despite making half-a-dozen trips, I have a vast number of things that I would still love to see. This time at last my sons had a glimpse of the famous Hooghly river on the way to Botanical Gardens to see a Banyan tree that is more than 250 years old and has lived through the rise of Calcutta. The river Hooghly is a tributary of Ganges in it’s lower reaches. We crossed on the famed Hooghly bridge. This is something I had wanted to do with my sons for many years. I was sad to see the disrepair the utilities in the Botanical Garden have fallen to. The bathroom was disgusting and unusable.

It is also heart wrenching to see the way some live as one approaches the Tagore mansion in Jorasankho. The poor in this area live in tiny tenements on the drains. They do not seem sad about it. I wonder if they lived in the same squalid state in Tagore’s times. Looking at the dirt and the tiny hovels, I can figure out why many would react badly to Calcutta, or for that matter, to any city in India. Perhaps, over the years, having lived in a diverse variety of cultures and countries, I find the calm acceptance of poverty and filth by people who are wealthy a little alarming. It is great to have. But, it is a happier experience to be able to give and to make ones surroundings clean and pleasant.

Despite the sombre notes of the city, I love the happiness and optimism one sees among the rich and poor in the city. Everybody has a smile for you. I would go as far as to say that it is one of my favorite cities in the world!