The exquisitely crafted envelope arrived from
Vikramjit's aunt in Calcutta. Inside, the
unfamiliar script read, "I am extending an
invitation to you to come to this 'wretched' land
of ours to spend your honeymoon. I can assure
that you will be amply rewarded for your
My friends were excited and curious. Three years ago I had asked the same questions: Vik's parents don't mind that you're not Indian? Will you have to wear a veil? Women aren't treated well over there, are they? Will you have to wear a red dot? What does the red dot mean? Do his parents speak English? Will you have to convert to Hinduism? Will you see the Taj Mahal? And finally, almost everyone warned me about the poverty. I quickly grew tired of "Calcutta" and "poverty" being used in the same sentence, as if they were synonymous. Surely Calcutta had more to offer than what we saw photographed behind Mother Teresa. Some Indian co-workers seemed to cast their eyes downward when they learned I was bound for Calcutta. Perhaps they feared Calcutta might be too much for me -- that an American might find Banglore or Mumbai more forgiving. Or maybe they were wondering what that spot was on their shoe.
I was overanalyzing everything in my search for insight. Then 'wretched' arrived from Calcutta. I was increasingly anxious.
With our parents' blessings we were married in the U.S. in October 1999 and planned our Calcutta trip for January 2000. I had spent three years learning as much as I could about India, Calcutta and Bengali culture. I had tortured myself with worry; I had nightmares I would commit an unforgivable cultural blunder. The time had come. As long as I did nothing to fall from his parent's grace, I would consider our trip to India a success.
The pilot announced our descent into Calcutta. Peering out the window, I wondered if there had been a mistake: there were palm trees as far as the eye could see. I did not expect Calcutta to be so GREEN.
When I stood after touching Baba's feet, he hugged me. It was a warm, genuine hug, and by no means an obligatory one. Here stood the father of my husband. I could not find the right words. There were more hugs from a teary-eyed bon (sister) and cousins. All at once I was presented with several bouquets, hugs, kisses, everyone talking at once, "oh we're so happy you're finally here, we love you!" Suddenly I felt dizzy.
Taking the bypass to Jadavpur, they were relieved when I suggested we turn off the AC and roll down the windows. Then we came to a stop in a very economically deprived neighborhood. There we sat in a private car, in a large city, wearing expensive clothing and jewelry, windows down at a stop light, with hundreds of distressed looking people around. The American in me panicked, but I was the only one who appeared to be concerned. Culture shock is right! This would never happen in America.
I heard what sounded like a loud horn as I ascended the stairs to my in-laws' flat. There she stood, the woman who had given birth to and nurtured my husband. She held a large conch shell to her mouth, delivering strong, measured blows. I touched her feet. She took me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and then embraced me as if I was her long lost daughter. My anxieties vanished.
People came out of nowhere, all bearing jewelry befitting a queen. Why did they do all this? I only wanted their acceptance. I could not keep track of who was putting jewelry on me or with whom I was being photographed. All offered sincerest congratulations on our marriage, and in their eyes I saw joy in its purest form, the type of joy one might see in the eyes of parents as they watch their baby take its first steps. Imagine how startled I was to learn they were the neighbors.
I awoke the following morning to very unusual sounds. I heard Hindi songs in the distance, conch shells at puja, an occasional dog bark, and what sounded like beautiful chants that I later learned were the street vendors. How could I forget the Calcutta crows? The aroma of Darjeeling cha (tea) was more appealing than the Starbuck's we brought along. In January, the sun was already high in the sky, the air already warming. To my surprise, my back felt better than it had in years. I spent $1,000 on a special "top of the line" pillowtop orthopedic doctor-recommended mattress and box spring set that has yet to deliver a sound night's sleep.
Every morning was glorious. Rested and peaceful, I sipped cha on the veranda with my new family, watched the vendors go by, waved at the neighbors, and tossed biscuits to the dogs below.
I came to realize that Ma and Baba truly regarded me as their daughter. Many American brides hear their in-laws say, "Well honey, looks like you're our daughter now!" Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. This pleasantry is usually uttered to keep the peace. Knowing that 50% of marriages end in divorce within seven years, both families mobilize to protect their interests. The "air hugs" say what their words do not: you are an outsider. Maybe not all Indian families are as open and loving as mine, but I have never seen such instant and unconditional acceptance before.
Outside the happy walls of my Indian home, every day was an adventure chock full of fantastic sights, sounds and unexpected surprises. Yes, there is extreme poverty; there is extreme poverty everywhere. Yet Calcutta's poor did not evoke fear in me. In America there seems to be a prevailing notion of entitlement. If you want something, you should have it by any means, even if you haven't earned it. Steal it. Kill for it. In India, if you don't have something you want, you simply don't have it. Maybe you will have it later, maybe not, and that's that.
The people in Calcutta are very resourceful. What we discard they could turn into profit in ways we could not fathom. They find ways to survive. They will dive into a squalid pond, carry baskets of rocks on their heads, and run barefoot through the streets pulling a cart weighed down with people to feed themselves and their families. I thought of Americans back home who are "too good" to work for $8 an hour, opting to live off welfare or those who abandon their children altogether.
I met dutiful, responsible and remarkably well-mannered teenagers. Yes, teenagers. These teenagers addressed me only as "auntie", never even as Mrs. Burman or God-forbid Renea. The Indian teens I met are so well adjusted. When I asked three 15-ish girls in Bihar their top goals in life, they responded, "to be good people", "to be of service to others." I have this in writing; otherwise most people might not believe me.
I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to see Agra and Delhi, but I grew homesick for the people of Calcutta. In Calcutta, people think; people talk; people enjoy the company of others. I met poets, dancers and artists. I met people who have never been outside India but whose bookshelves contain great literary works by western novelists and philosophers. I wonder how many Americans have even heard of Rabindranath Tagore, let alone read his works in Bangla.
In heavily congested streets, drivers always swerved to avoid other living beings. It was my impression that horns are used to make one's presence known, not to show aggression. People moved over, making allowances for others to fit in. I never saw an unkind gesture or a verbal, much less physical, confrontation in public. People exhibit uncanny patience. By contrast, here "road rage" justifies a man throwing a dog into oncoming traffic, to his death, because the dog's owner rear-ended him.
I am fortunate that I married into an impeccable family who made me feel as outrageously blissful as an Indian bride in a popular Hindi film. I did not have to endure the unimaginable atrocities and flagrant civil rights violations which newspapers reported from distant villages with alarming regularity. I did not know people could be violated and not have any legal recourse.
I returned home to the news that a 6-year old student shot and killed another in a Michigan classroom. An Oprah Show that week featured "behaviorally challenged" children who beat their parents. What has happened to this country?
I cried on the way to work my first day back. I'm back to being a number now, a cog in the wheel, an entry in a day timer and I feel empty. My heart aches for the love of my extended family and community in Calcutta. There, I was a part of something.
I have no right to complain. I have my health, a perfect husband, a loving family, and a challenging and rewarding career that pays well. I have an American passport and I have choices. Still, every now and again, I find myself drifting off during a weekly status meeting. This can't be all there is to life. I find myself devising a way to return to Calcutta, the place where I came to fully appreciate the meaning of the infinitive "to live."
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For those of you who enjoy a good non-fiction read now and then, Shashi Tharoor's India: From Midnight to the Millenium (New York, Harper Perennial, 1997) provides a thought-provoking and engaging discussion of India's history, and its many challenges and triumphs since Independence. A New York Times Notable Book, Tharoor's text investigates an India that is much more than "the sum of its contradictions." Part of a larger public discourse about Indian politics, Tharoor's book draws on anecdotal personal experiences, as well as a capacious amount of analysis and research, to pursue topics such as caste integration, a flourishing democracy, poverty versus prosperity, an economy that has alternately thrived and faltered through protectionism, and India's political leaders and their ideologies -- to name a few. Tharoor's knowledge of his subject is nearly encyclopedic, and his understanding of "India at forty nine" is as compassionate as it is critical. Under Tharoor's observant eye, the reader is treated to an extremely incisive and sweeping analysis of a plural India, in which he explores four globally relevant questions: the "bread-versus-freedom" debate, the "centralization-versus-feudalism" debate, the "pluralism-versus-fundamentalism" debate, and the "Coca-colonization debate" or "globalization-versus-self reliance." Through it all, he never allows us or himself to forget the enormous diversity that characterizes India's even more enormous populace-a country that is ultimately "greater than the sum of its parts." Shashi Tharoor was born in Calcutta in 1956 and in 1978 he joined the UN High Commission for Refugees. He received his doctorate from Tufts University and is the executive assistant to the secretary-general at the United Nations headquarters in New York. He is also the author of The Great Indian Novel, (New York: Arcade, 1989, 1993). For non-fiction readers interested in social anthropology, Manisha Roy's Bengali Women (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, 1975, 1993) chronicles one fascinating case study after another. This book is an exposition about Bengali women who reside within a specific socio-economic background in urban Bengal. Roy conducted research for over a decade, concentrating on a particular age group: between thirty and fifty. She then went on to interview dozens of women; her efforts have resulted in a text that offers a depiction of the behavioral roles and life cycles of upper and upper middle class Bengali women. The hundreds of varied testimonials printed here makes for the most fascinating reading, with women describing their sense of and feelings toward their childhood, their parents, their husbands, their children, their grandchildren, their in-laws, their education and so on. From these testimonials, Roy culls a portrayal of the roles inhabited by Bengali women. A unique book, Bengali Women furnishes an enlightening study on social topics not commonly disclosed for public consumption. Manisha Roy has been an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado and visiting professor of anthropology at Zurich University. She received her postgraduate diploma in analytical psychology from the C. G. Jung Institute in Zurich and is currently in a private practice in Boston. Manisha Roy is also the author of The Reckoning Heart: An Anthropologist Looks at Her World, (Muse Press: Portland, OR, 1996).