Gifts I received

by Archana Datta

I have been a city girl all my life. I was born and raised in the city of Calcutta, now spelled Kolkata, which was in the state of Bengal in undivided India. The subcontinent became free in1947 but paid the price by dividing Bengal into two parts, West Bengal and East Pakistan. Calcutta remained in West Bengal. My family, and all extended families born and brought up in the east, lost their birth land forever.

Later, the Calcutta I experienced on visits home though was not of my liking. There were visits when Kolkata’s air was so smoky from burning coal for cooking and crude oil for transports that breathing was difficult. Travel by train was a nightmare for me because there was plastic strewn around by the tracks, miles after miles. Some streets had piles of waste and emanated unbearable stench.

On later visits I experienced much cleaner air because cooking coal had been replaced by natural gas; plastic bags were replaced by jute or reusable and more durable shopping bags; streets were cleaned more often; more trees have been planted. I could hear chirping of birds when I woke up mornings. Yet, I feel the city’s character changed. In my mind, Calcutta had lost its uniqueness. Bengal had a distinct identity in literature, language, way of living and thinking, art and culture that made me feel grateful and anchored. But that Calcutta has changed to the culture of consumers and unhealthy consumption of fast foods imitating American way. Ironically, North Americans are now trying to do exactly opposites. Calcutta, in my mind, lost her naturalness under the pressure of demands to raise the standard of living by finding resources to make money.

But I have no right to comment in a negative way because I did not follow the path of evolution of the country the way it is now. So I am going back to my original intent, that is, my memories of 50s and part of 60s before I left without knowing where my life experience will take me. I am going to write the way I remembered my city.

Now I live in Canada, one of the richest countries in the world, and in its most beautiful city, Vancouver. This city is blessed with majestic views of mountains; city beaches enjoy the intimacy of Pacific Ocean. Comparing their ‘natural’ beauty, my Calcutta never stood anywhere near Vancouver. But I do have beautiful memories. Memories of ‘nature’ around me in many forms and in people I grew up with. In my late years I changed my job to the profession of childhood educator. I observed their behavior and reflected it, learning a lot about myself. I realized in true sense, how important the childhood experiences are in shaping our character in later years. I realized then what valuable gifts I have inherited from my city of birth and the people who were my role models as I was growing up.

The Calcutta that I remember was a very livable city in that we could differentiate six seasons. The changes on the calendar we felt in so many ways. All around the year through six seasons, we enjoyed different flowers, different fruits or vegetables or fish, and different way of preparing foods suitable for health and wellbeing.

We knew it was summer (Grishmo) not on from the scorching hot days only but also by watching riots of colors in the sky radiating from flowering trees; or by relaxing in the aroma of white bel or juthi (jasmine) or in the evening gandhoraj (gardenia)—which means ‘aroma king’ in Bengali. In summer we ate a lot of bitter and sour stuff like bitter melon, neem leaves, tamarind or baked green mango drinks or coconut water. Some of those, like neem and bitter melon kept our body cool by working on bile secretion, we were told.

The second season was the Monsoon (Baursha). The sky became covered with low and heavy black clouds. Frighteningly beautiful jagged lightning bolts snaked across the sky followed by ear-piercing thunders. Then came the big drops and after that, water was poured over us from the sky as if someone had opened the floodgates. At the beginning of the rainy season we welcomed rain by getting drenched, drinking rain drops, singing or reciting poems, collected one or two kadambo flowers from a nearby tree on our way home. The pale yellow flowers looked like pompoms. As the season progressed, our spirits were deflated. Our everyday clothing did not dry crisp. We had to walk home in muddy water because buses are unable to run on the water-clogged streets. If we stayed home, we played board games (carom), ludo, or snakes and ladders, which usually were followed by plates of piping hot khichuri with all kinds of vegetables in it and fish fries. This was the season when we felt cold, and malaria was a real threat.

Then like magic, one day the sky would turn deep blue. The air became clean and the sunlight felt so welcoming. Pure white clouds, like fluffed up cotton bails, floated way up in the clear sky. On the ground, the kash grass grew tall, their crowns of white blossoms waved in the breeze as if calling us to go and play with them. The shiuli blossoms filled morning air with sweet scent. We knew it is the season of Saurot, our most cherished season. It is the season to welcome mother Durga and her entourage. Once a year she comes to assure her children on earth that she will protect them from all evils, which were personified as a buffalo demon.

I remember vividly the year we moved to a new home. My little brother and I went almost everyday, and watched the making of images of mother Durga and her entourage. Bamboo was split and tied with jute chord to make the structural forms of the images. Heaps of clay, dug out from riverbanks, formed the bodies. As the images dried, the finer transformative works started. Helpers became busy in making various items like ornaments with shola (the white pith of certain reeds, extremely light, and valuable for craft). Colours were extracted from fruits or vegetables or rocks and mixed with tree oils. Right in front of our eyes the whole entourage was assembled. Each image was bejeweled with what looked like real gold; painted folds of the clay looked like folds of a real sari. A board behind the images was transformed into an exquisite white lotus garden. The white shola, as if by magic, seemed to turn itself to white marble.

Hemonto was the pre winter month. The city would sleep a little longer under a blanket of fog. As the sun rose on the eastern sky, early risers could see the lifting of the thick fog which rose up in the sky. Marigolds of different shades of yellow, orange and red made the mornings bright. Dewdrops shone on the grass, on the flowers and on the green leaves and sparkled like hundreds of pearls. Nights were perceptively longer. This is the month we celebrated Dewali. Almost every household in the city or in the village, according to their capacity, decorated every possible corners of their dwellings with light. Many families kept an earthen oil lamp tied on a bamboo pole on the rooftop for whole month.

My uncle bought hundreds of small oval earthen lamps. All of us made wicks from soft, clean, used old cotton sarees torn into small squares. The pieces were moistened with minimum amount of water then rolled on the shins of our legs. It was so much fun. The slightly wet wicks needed about a day to dry. On the day of new moon we started to place the wicks in the lamps and poured mustard oil in them. Mustard oil was the cooking medium at that time and we also used it as body oil when our skin felt dry. By the evening the whole city shone like a lighted fresco against a dark canvas.

The day beddings were spread wide on large mats to soak the warmth of sun and I with my two little brothers would play ‘fort’ under the sun soaked warm blankets. Soon we knew that the season had changed. Sheet (winter) had arrived. Our second floor verandah would become a colorful gallery of flowers—the result of my mother’s labor of love now to be enjoyed by everyone. The house would become a busy beehive. Some time, neighbour ladies would join in an afternoon party and sit on a couple of charpoi (a low multipurpose, easy to store bed, with four wooden legs).

My initiation in knitting occurred during one of such parties with two pieces of dry but strong twigs that my uncle shaped and polished for easy use. I remember especially this time because my aunt was designing a pattern. I asked her what she was doing and what she will be doing with it. She said, “You will see.” I still remember that pink organdy frock conch shell pattern in shadow work adorning the lower edge and bodice of the frock.

I don’t recall until I started wearing a saree that I had ever had any ready-made frocks or sweaters or cardigans. They were always made by hand by my mother or somebody in the family. I watched my grandmother always busy and being helped by other aunts. They were either hand stitching a blanket made from old cotton sarees and dhotis, or shelling the pumpkin seeds to make snacks for later, or whipping up some finely blended ground dal (mainly dicotyledonous seeds of many colors) mixed with water. When the satisfactory consistency was reached, like a true artist Didima (Grandma) would put a dollop of the batter on lightly oiled brass or clay or rattan plates to dry in the sun. In Bengali these sun-dried blobs were called bori. This was one way of preserving food to be used for later time in varieties of vegetable dishes. Winter was a cheerful season with colors in gardens, on sweaters, cardigans, pullovers, shawls—the colors were fantastic. Winter also brought mouthwatering spicy dishes, a vacation out of Calcutta, the excitement of watching cricket matches.

Bausonto or spring would be the last season when air would start to warm up after ‘sheet’ (winter). We were aware that chicken pox might break out again and were regularly immunized. The herb neem became important. We used neem soap and ate buttered rice with crisply fried neem leaves. When my brother and I did get chicken pox, we were washed every day in warm water which had been boiled with neem leaves in it.

Then it was time to calm down. The year had rotated a full circle following the sun and the moon, the flowing winds in the air, the changing crops and vegetation on the land, the enduring life cycles of fish and animals. Nature produced a bounty that we felt deeply–body and mind was constantly renewed and much was recycled and reused. I learned to use only what I needed to keep myself healthy.

Looking back, I think I was naturally a part of nature in Calcutta. I came to a wealthy country and was dazzled by the abundance of everything—including the extent of waste. I was blinded by the power of advertising and purchased more ‘things’ than I needed to satisfy my ego—but luckily not for long. Some inner voice frequently whispered that I have a ‘lot’ to learn and did not know yet what that ‘lot’ was. I think I have touched part of that ‘lot’ through my childhood memories. The meaning of ‘less is more’ is becoming clearer. My poor country, my not so beautiful city, my family and friends, really gave me the best gifts that I could have.

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