Trip to Calcutta: A Chiaroscuro
I could hardly see her, behind the pile of sarees stacked on the shop counter; nevertheless, I recognized her and was pleasantly surprised to see Gouri of New Jersey at the Gariahat ladies tailoring shop. I confess that although not a customer, I am a frequent visitor to this place during my not so long stays in Calcutta. My wife always carries a big order of blouses from her friends during our annual trip to Calcutta and then she has her own stuff. That calls for more than a few visits. From logistical considerations we found that we save time and gasoline if we could drop-in at the tailor shop on our way to other destinations.
I inquired about Gouriâ€™s stay and travel plans. She is in India for a total of three weeks, she discloses; she has already been one week in Calcutta and three days each in Bombay and Bangalore. She does not have many relatives, her both parents are deceased, and she has a sister in Bangalore and a first cousin in Bombay. She informed that she was at the tailoring shop for hemming, attaching fall and netting of the 25 sarees she purchased, not to mention stitching 25 blouses matching each of them. I could see where the pile of sarees on the counter came from.
On our way back from the shop I was wondering aloud how could she manage to buy 25 sarees during her one weekâ€™s stay in Calcutta? My wife explained that these sarees had been purchased from three cities all resplendent with saree shops. I conjectured how could she not buy 8 and one third sarees per city, especially when each of the sarees was unique, one of a kind and at dirt cheap price of not more than100-150 dollars each? My wife was clearly indignant at my insensitivity. Sure, I immediately relented; I should have understood the obvious reason behind the purchase of 25 sarees. Pleased with my remorse, my wife confided, Gouri bought five more, which were not at the tailoring shop. Gouri did not like them after she brought them home. But never mind, she will take them back to America and sell them to her friends at cost, which will most likely include a reasonably hefty profit for herself, call it service charge. And she can rightly recover her marketing and selling expenses which will include a dinner at her place. I made a mental note to excuse us from any dinner invitation from Gouri when we return.
What brought Gouri to India? Why do we keep on coming back? Ostensively to see relatives or buy sarees more than Gouri can conceivably wear in a year or two. That could not be the major reason for many of us. It was not true for Gouri either and only partly true for the rest of us. I know of many amongst us who take the grueling 20 hours trip to Calcutta and stay in a hotel or a guest house or are sequestered in Ramkrishna Mission Institute of Culture at Golpark. They do not even have a place to stay with friends or relatives. A stay in Calcutta is arguably unpleasant. The place is polluted, pot-holed, noisy and not a pristine tourist attraction by any stretch of imagination.
But donâ€™t we feel good? Feel good about what? Feel good about ourselves, our inflated selves; our larger than life selves. It seems like a power trip to establish and proclaim our new found power and self esteem for our old country to see. We grew up in a place where money, muscle and connection mattered. Unless you were rich or Daoud Ibrahimâ€™s brother or Jyoti Babuâ€™s son you had no chance and you had no power. We have now found a way to the power; we have adequate money, adequacy measured by Indian yardstick. We expect that people, at least, back in our old country will be awestruck and will respect us for that.
So why not flaunt our money or our power here in the United States, where we live in our Diaspora? But it is difficult to get noticed here by our compatriots who look at the mirror and only like what they see. It is easier in India where there is an aura of â€˜American mystiqueâ€™ around you. From being a no body when we have left our country we are somebody now and we want our old country to take note. Why otherwise do we call press conferences in Calcutta to announce upcoming events staged solely for the audience in the United States? It could as well be held in Baghdad or Timbuktu; cultural aficionados or the drama reviewers in Calcutta could not care less. It hardly will attract an audience or sell a ticket or even engender a mention in Calcutta press.
I suspect lurking in our mindsâ€™ shadows is the urge to claim fifteen minutes of glory back in our homeland from which we are voluntarily severed; yet we want to impose our glorified and often unreal images, desperately seeking to be noticed.
On another thought, do we revisit our old country in search of happiness? Are we unhappy here? We ought to be by â€œMahabharatianâ€ definition. When Dharma asked Judhistir as to who were considered happy in life, Judhistir answered that a happy person was the one who did not live away from home and who was not indebted. (Think about our huge mortgage and credit card debts). By that yardstick we are probably unhappy.
In the end, some would relate to me when I say that I always feel happy as soon as the aircraft touches down at DumDum and I walk in to the dirty, dusty and chaotic immigration hallway. I look around and discover that I am amongst my own people, they look like me and act like me. It is not even a feeling which reflects looking forward to meeting many relatives or friends. Neither do I have plans to buy a saree or a punjabi. Why do I feel so much at home? Is it all about getting touchy-feely? I ask myself. Do I feel slight or less of a person in the midst of white folks, back â€œHomeâ€? Am I happy to leave it all behind? Suddenly, I am very comfortable fitting-in; I am completely home.
You have asked some fundamental questions in your article. First of all, why do we still want to go back to Kolkata even when we do not have a place to stay there? Secondly, why do we seek recognition from the people whom we have deserted in search of a better life? And finally, what is happiness. I’ll try to share my thoughts on these issues and maybe we can attempt to search for a common answer.
Roots have an uncanny power to attract. We may try hard to uproot ourselves from our land, people, traditions, culture, but it still keeps on pulling us back. West Bengal and Kolkata is our roots; this is where our social and cultural being took its form. We will cease to exist as we are if Kolkata and Bengal leaves us. We need to go back again and again to replenish ourselves, to justify and vindicate our existence. And that is why we search for recognition from our roots – maybe just to check, are we still Bengali enough? Is our cultural being still intact and hasn’t lost its purity and integrity? It is their approval which matters to us the most, it is their recognition which makes us feel that we have not lost everything. Hence it is not the ticket sales in USA that we look forward to when we have those press conferences and shows. It is our attempt to cry out and plead, “Brothers, please do not forget us. We still exist, and we keep on our stuggle to exist as a Bengali in different parts of the World.”
As for your question on happiness, it is a question of perspective. Yudhisthir, one of the most unhappy man of Mahabharata, had his point of view. So did Duryodhan, “Sukh chaai naai Maharaaj, Joy Joy cheyechhinu – Joyee aami aaj”. We, in this country, follow the Charbaak doctrine, “Rinan Kritwa Ghritang Pibet” (or something like that). Drinking ghee may have its ill effects, but who cares as long as you keep on enjoying!
The falling US Dollar and rising inflation in India may change this dynamics.
On another note, the discussion on the exotic saree was interesting. I just cannot understand the tremendous urge to acquire something that has no practical usage in the US (for work or casual wear) except for once every 10 years in some occasion (where everyone is busy admiring their own costumes) and with practically no salvage value as a collectable(loses 99% of the value after single usage). I don’t know of any legal poduct that can be compared to this.