On one of our earlier visits to Calcutta, we met her at a dinner party. She was sitting in a corner somewhat aloof. As we entered, the party was in full swing with whisky flowing freely. After we were duly introduced the party got back to its boisterous self and everybody went back to loudly vocalizing their opinion on all subjects under the sun and in the process ignoring everybody else’s, Bengali style. The forlorn looking lady in the corner unobtrusively got up and stood behind us. "Do you live outside the country?” She asked. She knew the answer; for that she did not have to be clairvoyant. We just arrived a few days ago, not long enough for the sun and dust to work on our faces. She pulled a chair and sat down next to us. First thing I noticed that she was not at ease with the environment, but not because of other people around her were not accepting her or were not friendly. The detachment appeared to be by choice on her part, but her marked openness with us also was hard not to be noticed. We talked about the amazing varieties of fish in Gariahat market , about sarees in Park Street, about a couple of common acquaintances we discovered we shared; subjects of America did not come up at all.
She was waiting to tell us her story outside the earshot of others in the party, at the dinner time when we congregated in small groups. After having lived in the United States for twenty-seven years she and her husband returned to India with the intention of living here permanently, about six months ago. Both of them had their parents in Calcutta and they wanted to be closer to the family.
It didn’t work out quite that way.
The lady did not particularly miss the comfort and amenities of living in the United States, at least so she said. That was fine with her. What made her depressed was the company of the people she was made to keep. “I feel suffocated, can’t adjust and as a result I am resented and that in turn makes me nostalgic about my life back in America.” She got teary eyed. I inquired what was bothering her. Was it the traffic, the filth, the pollution, health care issues? “Not so much, only if I have had people to talk to. Sister-in laws suddenly arrive at the doorstep unannounced and when they come they walk right into my bedroom. And I do not know what to talk to them about in the intimate setting of the bedroom.” It appeared that she was living with relatives in Calcutta, she could not relate to; and it was amusing that she had been living among the people whose collective passion was to talk and argue endlessly but she had no one to talk to. With us she was behaving like at long last she found other humanoids in the planet Krypton.
We exchanged telephone numbers with a promise to keep in touch.
We, here in the United States and possibly in other Diasporas around the world have relationship between us, which defies the conventional definition of family, if not linguistically but emotively. But I will keep my narrative here confined to us, we Bengalees, because I am not sure, the people with different cultural and social disposition feel the same way.
It is interesting if not perplexing how we act with our friends and acquaintances in the new world and react with our relatives and old friends from our past. Family in a conventional sense is collection of set of relatives. “A person who is connected with another or others by blood or marriage” this is how the Random House dictionary defines the word “relative”. Samsad Bangla Abhidan and Chalantika (of Rajsekhar Bosu) define the Bengali word “Atmiya” (literally: relative) more broadly: “one’s own person or a person close to another-self (Atman).”
Etymologically, the English dictionary definition is too restrictive; the word relative is derived from the word relate, and should mean a person you can relate to. On the other hand, whatever the derivative definition of Atmiya is, use-wise, it means relation by birth or marriage. But the words in both languages have same connotation. By extension, we may choose to define family as a collection of a set of people who we can relate to and who are close to our “self” by birth, marriage, proximity or mentality.
My musings ceased to be an abstraction and hit home when a week later a friend from America called soon after he landed in Calcutta. “Come over or I can come.” We just saw each other a month ago in USA, indeed there we did not meet that often, so what was the rush and really what was the point? But curiously it dawned on me that I was eager to meet him too. To talk about what? Weather in New Jersey, Sarah Palin? Not really, indeed the subject of America may not come up in our talk when we meet.
I realized that it’s not the word; it’s the vibe that mattered. Communication is not only words, it has nuances too. I doubt that the bonding or relationship is solely a matter of love or blood. It is more to do with our personal comfort level and need to be understood in our daily lives.
Then, during our last visit, there was this woman one morning on Tara TV program where renowned singers were invited to sing and be interviewed. She was splendid, indeed equal or better than any of the locally famous singers I had watched on this daily morning show. My cousin who was sitting next to me was impressed and indeed surprised. “Does she really live in America?” That was how he expressed his amazement, “Of course she does. Her name is Mitali Bhawmik, a friend”, I gloated. . My claim of friendship was a little stretch; I hardly had ever spoken to her. She made me proud and I wanted to add a personal touch to it. But the feeling of kinship was genuine at that moment.
The lady in the party did not quite know why she had a feeling of closeness to us either and why she was feeling like an alien in her own home. She did not think it was the absence of the material stuff, but in a way it was, at least partly. It was not only her relatives and friends that got under her skin, I surmised; unbeknown to her, the traffic, the pollution, the decaying infrastructure and the uncertain health care were factors too contributing to her aversion towards life in India. But at the same time, for many returnees the cultural and family ties that draw them back may feel strained by local human dynamics that may feel foreign and may be frustrating. The general absence of ethical behavior and lack of openness in daily interaction do not help in establishing meaningful relationship, or even reviving the old ones.
Chandra Ghosh of London who I met in a record store was a case in point. “Do you feel people; your friends; your relatives are a little strange here?” Chandra Babu inquired at one point. “My brother has a big house. I put up with him for a couple of days. My brother and his family were very nice and quite caring. I had no complaint. But I felt I was intruding. More importantly we were uncomfortable, an uneasy and unfamiliar environment really. But now I find it more relaxing and enjoyable in Ramakrishna Mission Institute at Golpark. We have met a family from Manchester who are staying here and we are having fun time together.” It sounded like his brother had no problem; the problem was with Chandra Babu, the NRI. “So who is strange here?” I interjected “You or your brother?”
Is this alienation due to a long absence; has the attitude towards our relatives in India and our old friends changed for losing touch over a period of time? But that cannot explain the bond and fondness we feel for our Diaspora-friends and the affinity we have developed between us. The fact of the matter is that we have adopted the foreign land as our home and adapted ourselves to that society while we have been exiled from our birth country. We have chosen soul over blood, which surfaces in stark relief when we are back in our old country. We discover that we have a new family.
Indeed Chandra Babu had not known his new found friend back in England and the relationship I had with my friend who wanted to meet me promptly after his arrival could hardly be called close or Mitali Bhawmik was not a friend in a real sense of the word. What has brought us together is the backdrop of our “Desh”, a now- alien land and its now-alien culture.
P.S. Six months after we had met her, back home in USA, we received a call from Boston; the lady at the party and her husband were back, with no plans of returning to India to live there, in foreseeable future.