For expatriates, visiting home after long periods of time reveals slow changes imperceptible to those who live close by. The changes most noticeable are those in the old and the young.
The Old Man sits on the same seat on the couch everyday lost in his own thoughts. There’s a din around him consisting of the cook’s angry exclamations on the dearth of red-pepper powder (the lack of which jars against her professional perfectionism), the washer-woman’s insistent tramplings carrying heavy wet clothes to the balcony to hang, the all-purpose domestic’s comings and goings looking for mosquito nets to fold or to look out the verandah to see who has been pressing the “calling” bell for the thousandth time.
Despite all the din, The Old Man’s world is quite silent. He sits with the unfurled newspaper most days or just with his thoughts. He has grown a little frailer, lost a little weight, grown a white beard to complement his white hair. Yet, when there’s a soft discussion in the background between the domestic and The Old Lady that there’s no fish in the house for The Boy, he stirs from his seat as though to go to the market in the burning heat. When I pull up my huge American suitcase up the stairs, quite out of scale in this Calcutta apartment, he gets a grip on it pulling it up (looking as though he shouldn’t be), while all us ladies look on with concern trying to persuade him with words to let go but not daring to touch the handle to take it away from him.
The Old Lady works all day at work that has no retirement. She picks a potato for the cook from the vegetable basket explaining the exact size it has to be diced into for the green jackfruit curry. She keeps complaining that all the vegetable sellers pull a fast one on The Old Man when they see him approach. The greenness of the jackfruit is quite gone for a proper curry at this time of summer. It has almost become kaathal, the sweet fruit with hard seeds to be eaten raw as a fruit, not as a vegetable, that no one in this household will hear of bringing into the house because of its overpowering smell but is a part of The Old Lady’s memories of childhood. Yet, I know she will get it cooked because The Old Man likes it with his rice.
The Old Man has developed remarkable prowess over the years to make his ears impervious to such critiques of his market-going acumen. No matter what time of the day, The Old Man will still turn up with his pumpkin flowers (a rare find, he will say, at this time of year!), his country eggs, his neem leaves, his drumstick flowers and The Old Lady will still fry them in batter or clean and select and store them all the while asserting loudly that she will let such oddities go bad next time rather than go through such effort at this time of day. And The Old Man will continue to stare in the direction he was staring at seemingly not hearing a word.
It isn’t easy nowadays though to make out what he has or hasn’t heard in the mornings.
The Old Lady continues her designation of tasks to the cook picking out pieces of green bananas, potatoes, brinjals, ladies’ fingers, green papayas from the refrigerator tray with an expression of calculating concentration on her face for the fish broth or maacher jhol suitable for the stomach in this heat and humidity.
I note that this expression on her countenance used to be only fleeting, almost imperceptible even a few years ago.
Now time has slowed and as she pauses with a green papaya in her hand, the expression reminds me of the sand clock on an older computer screen as it processes a task. I know when The Old Lady is mentally going through how many pieces of each vegetable is going to be given to whom, from the eight-year-old boy to the man in his seventies to the domestic who often has lunch. She is also considering who is going to refuse to eat what vegetable and who is going to give in to her coaxing and eat a piece as she calculates.
The Godrej refrigerator too is equipped for such tasks. When the door is left open for too long as now, it breaks into a warning tune, in this case that of “Jingle bells, Jingle bells. . . ,“ prompting the user to close the door, a rather bizarre Christmas tune in this summer heat wave in Calcutta.
Suddenly, another jingle pipes up from somewhere close and blends in with the refrigerator’s out-of-time Christmas sleigh song. An old Bollywood classic.
At first, no one moves. Neither The Old Lady nor The Old Man has heard anything. They continue their respective staring into space and vegetable picking.
The chime continues. A few seconds later a thin, childish voice is heard from the other room.
“Phone”! “Phone”! “Phone’s ringing! Phone’s ringing.”
This is followed by a bewildered expression on The Old Lady’s face.
“What?” says the Old Man.
“What”! says The Old Lady. “Are you saying something? This jackfruit is too ripe.”
“Phone!” says the childish voice.
“What does Babu have to spell now”? says The Old Man.
I see that no matter what his name, The Boy has now finally been designated the generic endearment worthy only of all Bengali boys that have ever lived and breathed in Calcutta. Babu. Yet, Babu is not as young as he used to be. He does not reply in a baby tone anymore when spoken to like a baby. In fact, he is fascinated with his toothbrush in the mornings because he has finally received one which is like that of grown ups.
Babu comes rushing. “Phone,” he says with equanimity.
“Phone!” says The Old Lady.
“Phone!” says The Old Man.
Both are quite agitated and look around trying to remember where that infernal piece of disturbing modern equipment could be.
In comes pattering feet into the room extremely pleased at even a moment’s respite from the spellings exercise. The Boy rushes out to get the phone. He is not allowed to answer phones yet but considers it an immense privilege to handle any electronic device and will not let go of a single chance to do so.
On his way out, to my puzzlement, he rushes towards the main door.
Now even I am bewildered for I have heard nothing.
He’s heard though. He’s heard footsteps outside the door, imperceptible even to me, and anticipates the doorbell even before it is pressed. Because he is not allowed to open the main door on his own, he stops right in front of it and starts making all kinds of enquiries of the person outside who turns out to be the cobbler.
The Boy’s energy is sometimes overwhelming. Most days, it is hard to keep up with his barrage of questions. His concerns almost always center around things I have never given a second thought to–lights, fans, switches, rechargeable flashlights, air conditioners, plug points, screen locks, draw and paint applications– most of which the domestic helps and I can only answer with platitudes, truisms and tautologies. “How many blades do most fans have”? “Why is the surface of my glass of water bulging?” ”Do the plug points in America look the same as here?” “What do inverters look like in America?” When I tell him I’ve never had an inverter in the US, he asks me “What do you do when you have loadshedding (powercuts) there?” It is hard for me to explain to an eight-year-old, used to daily powercuts in Calcutta, that you don’t have them in some places regularly and so you don’t need that device to run the fans and lights when the electricity is gone for hours.
And now, in his enthusiasm to show me the inverter, we approach the danger zone where he reaches the inverter to open it up to show me the battery and to see himself if the battery looks the same as the battery in his dad’s car that he was shown in the morning. He is clever. This way, he has the cover of a seemingly legitimate purpose and an accompanying adult (who doesn’t know better) to perform a task he knows he will almost certainly not be allowed to do in the presence of others.
The Boy’s mother has to intervene now and pull him away from that machine by force. The mother’s patience is not infinite, especially because it’s tried often and The Boy’s expression of maternal love also sends mixed signals. Just a couple of evenings earlier The Boy’s mother had had the dubious distinction of having had her face replaced on a Boy-Mom picture (where The Boy hung lovingly from his mother’s neck) via a graphics application on the computer by Bollywood actress Rani Mukherjee’s smiling face. The replacement had been graphically almost flawless although the desired pat on the back had almost become more than a pat for The Boy.
As for me, a rolling stone gathers no moss, I think. Yet, as the stone rolls down the hillside, it is able to see changes imperceptible to those who see them everyday. The overgrown moss, the new growth, the changes in light and shade, even the storms about to come.
The absentee’s return to her place of origin is always fraught with tension between what had been, what is and perhaps what ought to be. Of all things, what the immigrant absentee’s perception takes great effort to adjust to are changes in people and places at home fixed in memory like a still shot of life.
With time, the child becomes a man, the man becomes older, roads grow overpasses and people stop caring for old haunts as young people gravitate towards the new. The absentee keeps looking for the child in the Little Man, strength that was in those that are old, open skies where now there are concrete fly-overs, “pure” foods where now there is only fusion. Respect for the old teeters dangerously on the edge of suspicion of change, love for tradition borders on loss of hope in growth.
Nostalgia and regret for what had been and what can never be is an inevitable part of the return of the native to the old city. With time though, even the rolling stone must find dignity in change that is inevitable and hope in what the future will bring for some at least.
Such have been the changes Bottledworder has seen this summer in Calcutta. And in acknowledgement of that change, BW should have said Kolkata.