Crossing the River

Initially published in The Indian Express.

When I was 25, I consigned my grandmother to flames on the banks of the Kangsabati River. A few months later, I left that town, with my belongings in two suitcases. I crossed the bridge over the river, leaving behind my ageing parents, the home where I had planted trees and footprints, and the woman I loved, for a country on the other side of the planet.

Over the years, I have crossed that bridge many times. When I crossed the river six years ago, I did not know that I would be seeing my father for the last time. When I returned two years later, a profound emptiness greeted me instead of him.

In my office in Washington DC, I have a framed photo of a giant peepul tree with the Kangsabati in the background. As a child, I used to ride a rusty bicycle to this place just outside of town. As a grown man, I fantasise about returning, to turn back into the boy who had no calendar reminders and flagged emails.

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I can relate to the sentiment of Jibanananda Das pining to return to the banks of the Dhanshiri river, perhaps in another life and as another form, in his poem, Abar ashibo phire. I nod in agreement with Rabindranath Tagore gazing by the Padma River: “Humanity, with all its confluent streams, big and small, flows on and on, just as does the river, from its source in birth to its sea of death — two dark mysteries at either end, and between them various play and work and chatter unceasing” (Glimpses of Bengal: Selected From the Letters of Sir Rabindranath Tagore, 1885 to 1895).

Early on in Ritwik Ghatak’s masterful Subarnarekha (1965), an itinerant minstrel’s plaintive voice floats above an overcrowded post-Partition refugee camp, “Dehotori dilam chariya, guru tomari naame. (The boat of my body I have let afloat, Guru, in your name).” Like a boat on a river, I, too, have floated from one country to another, a willing exile, unsure of where I would finally tie myself to a riverbank. “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river,” declared Borges.

The river is my metaphor for love, sorrow, longing, and death. I was born in the metropolis by the Yamuna, I live in a suburb by the Potomac, and in the intervening years, I have lived almost my entire life near one river or another.

If the Kangsabati is my river of familiarity, then the Subarnarekha is my river of rejuvenation. Over the years, I have traveled to many places in different countries, but the river immortalised by Ghatak is where I find solace. It is the river of the land of my ancestors; it has changed course over centuries.

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What is it about this river that sets it apart from others? Subarnarekha, which means “golden line”, threads through Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha. Goethe asked for more light on his deathbed, to which Tagore added the aesthetic requirement for more space. Imagine then, an expansive river shimmering like a precious metal, flanked on both sides by wide sandy banks with tiny specks of gold. Here there is both light and space. This is the Subarnarekha as it reveals itself to me.

When I was in high school, acting on an impulse, my father decided that our family would go to Ghatshila for Durga Puja. We took a local train that same day, and arrived later that evening. It was the day of Nabami, and no hotel rooms were available. On that trip, we stayed as a guest in a stranger’s house. Early the next morning, we visited the home of Bibhutibhusan Bandopadhyay, right next to the Subarnarekha, from where he must have watched many sunsets. That was my first sighting of the river.

The river widens as it flows east, and soon its rocky features are interspersed with wide banks of golden sand. It continues flowing eastward to the point where Jharkhand, Odisha and West Bengal converge. In this frontier country, signs are in Hindi, Odia, Bengali and English, and a large portion of the locals speak Santhali.

Tired from transcontinental travel, I came here with my family a few years ago. After passing over roads indistinguishable from soil, we arrived at an inconspicuous village straddling the Odisha-Bengal border. We checked a map and started walking in the direction of the river. We passed a forested area and then reached a clearing. Suddenly, the wide river was visible all the way to the horizon. Cranes pierced the sky. The landscape was achingly pretty, and desolate. We promised to return.

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Downstream of the Jharkhand-Odisha-Bengal border, the sandy banks of the Subarnarekha widen. Extending from the banks and as far as the eyes can see are verdant forests. Villagers celebrate Makar Sankranti melas by the river, much as they have for centuries. The wide, sandy banks are perfect for picnics; villagers carry rice, vegetables, spices, large pots and pans, poultry, glasses made of clay, plates made of sal leaves, and loudspeakers for music. In the month of Poush, unmarried Santhal women sing folk songs. Steamed pithe, made of rice flour, coconut, and jaggery are prepared and devoured.

During the rainy season, a combination of dark clouds, bright green forests, linear sandbanks, and a well-fed river instills a sense of awe. Near the village of Rohini, the only way to cross the wide river is over a fair-weather bridge made of wood and bamboo. When monsoon rain washes the bridge away, the river must be crossed by boat, packed together with other passengers, livestock and bicycles.

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When I last visited the Subarnarekha, there were dark silhouettes of boats against the shiny backdrop of the water. I asked a fisherman, “Khuro, did you catch anything today?” Without looking up, he shook his head before casting his net in the water with one graceful swoop. I sat by the edge of the water and reflected, until it was time to go.

The Subarnarekha renews me because it connects me to an idyllic world that I will never know. I live in a city. I jostle with people to get on trains that take me to work. I wolf down fast food from drive-ins. Where I live near Washington, there are no paddy fields and boats. Stars are seldom visible in the sky.

Nietzsche wrote, “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life.” This is true, but once a bridge is built, a river can be crossed many times. I return to the Kangsabati and the Subarnarekha to cross back into the realm of memory and imagination. As I lie in bed, I imagine that I am on a boat. I am listening to the lapping of water. The ceiling of my room swirls with black clouds. Awake until the early hours of dawn, I cross to the shore of the morning.

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The joy of exploring local markets

(This appeared today in The Indian Express).

Frequenting local markets has been one of the joys of my life. When I think of Istanbul, I think of stacks of colorful lokum coated with powdered sugar in the Grand Bazaar. Paris in spring conjures rain-drenched strawberries bursting with flavour in the 12th Arrondissement. Beijing is a hutong market with customers lining up for grilled snakes-on-a-stick. Lucknow will always be the fragrance of ripe dasheri mangoes from a vendor’s heap.

My fascination with markets goes back to my childhood in Medinipur, a small town in West Bengal. Every day, rain or shine, my father would go to the local market with synthetic striped bazaar bags in hand. He would return with the day’s bounty– more fresh vegetables and fish than we could possibly eat ourselves.

In the United States, where I have lived for nearly two decades, supermarkets are ubiquitous. I appreciate their convenience. I have also grown wary of them. Globalisation has led to greater availability of products, but, paradoxically, to fewer variations. Mangoes from Ecuador are available in the off-season, but they are of one type. Tomatoes selected for long shelf-life and visual appeal taste insipid. Salmon farmed in Chile is available year-around, but there are genuine concerns they are competing for resources and depleting other fish stocks.

And so, local markets are important, not just as centres of commerce, but also because they counterbalance the homogeneity created through the scale of operations of giant corporations. Supermarkets from Shanghai to Seattle stock the ubiquitous Cavendish banana, but look deeper in local markets in south India, and you will still find a dozen or more other varieties of bananas. The potato was first cultivated in the Andean highlands of Peru, from where it spread globally. Centuries later, in a market in Urubamba, you will see dozens of varieties grown and sold by indigenous farmers. In a market in Mexico close to where the chili pepper originated, your nostrils will tingle from the aroma of bushels of hundreds of different kinds of dried peppers. In Bogotá and Lima, you may see over a dozen fruits you have never seen or eaten before, including one called lúcuma, whose flavour can be described as a cross between a chikoo and a sweet potato. Variability in crops is not only pleasing to the palate, but it is a bulwark against global diseases that might wipe out an entire variant.

In my travels, I have found greater enjoyment in seeing what is on offer in markets and interacting with people in them, than I have in visiting famous monuments such as the Eiffel Tower, Machu Picchu, or Hagia Sophia. Families enjoying food from stalls at markets – whether it is charcuterie in France or tacos in Mexico or fried pakoras in India- remind me of the commonalties among different people.

The haat in Enayetpur, a small village in West Bengal, and the markets in Oaxaca, Mexico are continents apart, but serve as important meeting points for indigenous communities. You could take vendors of knock-off brands of clothing, pirated movie-DVDs, mounds of spices, wooden rolling pins, and cloth bags from one to the other, and at first glance, no one would know the difference.

Apart from the occasional standoff between wild elephants and villagers, Enayetpur is never in the news. No tourists ever come here. Every Friday (haat-day) though, this villages buzzes with activity. A haat is an open-air market in rural Bengal, which in many ways has remained unchanged for centuries. My father grew up in a village at a time when there was neither electricity, nor running water, but every week, there was a haat. These markets have been surprisingly impervious to the winds of time.

At the haat, there are vendors selling items such as bulk spices, clothes, knives, plastic toys, mobile-phone covers, vegetables, fish, meat, sweets, and fried comestibles. There are also items uncommon in genteel Bengali markets, such as fresh-water mussels and snails, which serve as cheap sources of protein for villagers. Every week there are also rooster-fights. These jousts are illegal, but no one here seems particularly bothered. Money changes hands openly. After fights, triumphant roosters go home, and the losers end up as meals.

Thousands of kilometers away, with over a dozen indigenous communities and as many languages, the state of Oaxaca is the most diverse in predominantly Spanish-speaking Mexico. Landscapes in parts of the state resemble those in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which are also populated by many indigenous communities.

The oldest continuously run market in North America is in Tlacolula, a village just outside the city of Oaxaca. In its markets, one can encounter exciting new food like edible grasshoppers. But I also found recognizable elements like squash flowers and tortillas, grilled chapatis cooked on Mexican tawas called comals. And just as at the Enayetpur haat, Santal women sell hanriya, an illicit, fermented-rice hooch from kerosene jerrycans, at the markets of Oaxaca, you will find Zapotec women pouring bowls of tejate, a drink made from maize flour and cacao. 

I learned very quickly that it helps to know a few words of the local language while shopping in such marts. At a shop in a market in Mexico, I eyed a calavera, a painted decorative ceramic skull, which symbolizes the Day of The Dead, one of Mexico’s signature holidays.

“What’s the price?” I asked, pointing to the skull. The shopkeeper, who knew English, responded, “Modi price, señor. Very cheap.”

I’d been correctly marked as a different kind of brown, from India. I left to do a survey of the market. At another shop, I spotted the same item. “¿Cuál es el precio?” I asked in my beginner’s Spanish. The shopkeeper responded with the price. It was significantly cheaper.

Books as the last refuge.

When I’m at home you’re most likely to find me sitting on a sofa in a windowless room in my basement, barricaded behind shelves and stacks of books. This is my refuge. This is where I come after fighting against the world. Without knowing it, in this respect I’ve turned into my father. He had set up part of the house where I grew as a personal library.

Many of the conversations with my father that I remember most vividly were around books– not only their content, but in which distant city he had bought them and for how much; the marginalia and the editions. I never had much small talk with him. But he would share his excitement whenever he found a rare book. He was a consummate collector and a voracious reader, up most nights reading.

As my father got older, his eyesight began to fail him. He would keep a magnifying glass on his table next to the table lamp. His recurring nightmare was no one would take care of his books. This was his “Après moi, le déluge“. I brought over to the United States some of the books he had collected- the moth-eaten copy of Tagore’s “Hungry Stones” he won as a prize in school, the yellow-paged “Kobita Shomogro” of Bishnu Dey he bought from the Kolkata Book Fair.

Instinctively, I understood. When my basement flooded a few years ago, my first concern was “what will happen to my books?” Fortunately, the damage was minimal, though the concern remains.

What is a home anyway? Home where your books are safe and have space. Home is the permanent address for your books.

When I visit the house where I grew up, I still find my bearings. The books on the shelf are exactly as I had placed them decades ago, their pages slightly dusty and worn. And it is comforting. In a world where nothing exists and no one can be relied on anymore, books offer a sense of security and escape, false perhaps, but much needed.

Oh, the luxuries of traveling by car!

Travel by car is relatively comfortable in India these days. The roads are improved and the cars are modern. That was not always the case, and certainly not when I was growing up. There were two kinds of cars- the Hindustan Motors Ambassador and the Premier Padmini- and neither had been updated with creature comforts in decades. The seats were reasonably utilitarian but sofa-like. But you hardly ever enjoyed the seats. The cars were always loaded with more people than there were seats, so you sat on someone’s lap or someone sat on yours. Few cars had air-conditioning. No matter. We were all lucky when we were in a car instead of inside an infernally hot and crowded local bus.

Of course, there was no certainty in traveling by car back then. Hovering over your head to be uttered by the driver at any time were the three magic words- “gaari jabe na” (car won’t go). There was never any point asking why. It could be any number of reasons. Maybe the shoddy car had lost a part on the road. Or maybe the car had overheated. Or maybe the road had washed away in the rain. Or perhaps the road never actually existed anywhere except in someone’s imagination. It was something you accepted as an Absolute Truth.

If the car did go, you could not take for granted that you would arrive where you wanted to when you wanted to, since you were completely at the mercy of the driver. No Indian man has ever admitted that he does not know the way to get somewhere. The driver is too proud, and the villager is too keen to not offend. If the driver stops to get information, it is rarely reliable. Left may be right. Five minutes may be fifty. Time and space are elastic concepts in the expansive worldview of my people.

Just like the parable of blind men describing an elephant, you could ask five people for directions to a place and get five different answers. It does not really matter that that none of them know the answer or have been there: one had heard that the road was closed. Another had heard of dacoits stopping people. Yet another has heard about a new bypass. Someone else might stop you with a log across the road until you pay up for the local puja. Destination? What is a destination? Everything is maya.

Drivers also made it a habit of not telling you about problems with cars, or when they were running critically fumes until it was too late to do anything. I remember one time I was riding in an Ambassador that was so low on fuel that it stopped mid-river on a wood and bamboo fair-weather bridge. We had to gather villagers to help us push the car across the bridge- which fortunately did not collapse under the weight of the car and the mob pushing it- after which went then went with jerry-cans to fetch petrol.

Time was a flexible concept also. One time, we were going to a wedding in Kharagpur. As we arrived at the destination, we realized that we had arrived before the bridegroom and his party. There was a jubilant mob that approached up with “bor esheche! bor esheche!” (The bridegroom has arrived! The bridegroom has arrived). Thinking on his feet, my father immediately summoned us to get in the car and barked at the driver to drive off. Running a recon mission later, from a distance, once we observed that the actual bridegroom’s retinue had indeed arrived by bus and that the coast was clear, we headed back. It was a narrow escape. 

Things are much different these days. Everyone knows exactly where he or she is just from looking at a phone. You can call or text to say how long it will take you to arrive. There were no such facilities back then. Certainly, there was a lot more guesswork, especially at night. After a long bumpy journey, many a time I was relieved to think I had finally arrived at my destination, only to find that the taciturn driver had only stopped by the road to relieve himself.

Learning

Open the door of the closet you have been hiding in and take a look. There is sunlight streaming into the room. The monsters are gone. It is now safe to come outside and learn the stories behind the dry facts and formulae you were forced to commit to memory as a child.

Leaving your assumptions at the door, you enter.

A fact presented as a fait accompli is not a truth. A theory that has no predictive value is useless. If you cannot get an answer to “why?” you keep exploring. This is the classroom you deserved as a child, but have discovered as an adult.

“I need an answer now.” The impatient world rudely intervenes.

“Make up your mind. We have no time.”

“Time is not ours to own,” you want to say. Instead, you smile.

The order is repeated. “Make up your mind.”

You look at a slurry of dreams and memories. You mix in experiences and aspirations. You are taking your own sweet time. You making up your mind on your own terms.

You are finally learning.

On kindness

The Buddha did not answer questions about the existence of God because these questions are irrelevant to the challenges of day to day life. In the morning, more relevant than the question, “does God exist?” is the question, “which toothbrush is mine?”

Everything that brings you joy will also make you vulnerable. Seasons change. Generations are forgotten. Our place in the world is small and we are insignificant except to the few people for whom we matter. Our personal joys are only a small drop of water rolling on a lotus leaf beside the immense pond of human suffering.

In this ephemeral world, the fleeting conversations and the tiny interactions of kindness matter as much as anything else.

Of all the stories and parables in the life of Buddha that can inspire us– and indeed there are many– there the one I wanted to share with you. Siddhartha had starved himself to the point of death in search of enlightenment. Returning from his bath in the river Niranjana, he collapsed. At that moment, a stranger, Sujata came to him and offered him a bowl of kheer that saved his life.

Who knows, maybe your act of random kindness today will save the next Buddha?

On why I travel

I have a peculiar relationship with travel. I complain when I am on the road, but I am listless when I am back at home. I daydream about heading out when I’m in one place for too long. The Germans call it wanderlust; others say there is a travel bug. A Bengali proverb mischievously describes someone like me with a rhetorical question- “have you come here with your horse still saddled up?”

I have crisscrossed the planet many times and each time I have felt a sense of restlessness and paradoxically, of peace. Each time I have been away, I have been reminded of why I yearned to be back. Each time I was back, I reminisced about the parts of me I left in places far away. I have lost count of how many flights I have fallen asleep on, and of how many hotel beds I have woken up in- dissolving in the hallucinogenic intervals of lost bags, smudged entry stamps in passports, and midnight chats in taxis flashing by half-built buildings and bright neon hoardings.

Sometimes, being jet-lagged is waking up and not knowing where you are, what time it is, or how long you have slept. In hotel rooms, I have been awakened by the noise of the bathing of strangers in adjacent rooms, their laughter in hallways in the middle of their night, or their quarrels on balconies in languages I do not know. Travel enough and you collect so many of these snap audio tales.

Each trip taken connects me with other people. As Andrew Solomon observes: “you cannot understand the otherness of places you have not encountered.” Paris is not just the Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower: it is the city where Eastern European migrants play classical violin in Metro stations. Oaxaca is that child full of promise coloring pictures of azul mountains on a curbside. Cusco is that blind indigenous old woman with a wizened face selling scarves at San Pedro on Easter Sunday.

I do not travel to simply see places, as I once did. I travel to remind myself of my insignificance, to feel gratitude for the light and the air, to be hypersensitive to the strange and wonderful human race, and to rage and sob softly against indifference and cruelty wherever I see it. So often, it is the case that other people make travel interesting and the places themselves are just stages for their presence. 

Ultimately then, travel is form of disciplined self-negation. When you travel, your own problems do not matter in the face of the pressing need to find food, shelter, or a working internet connection. These are not theoretical abstract concerns. Even when you are lying on a beach staring at the waves or impatiently waiting for a train that will not come, you are waiting for something.

And so, travel is a form of hyperawareness- of finding yourself looking for patterns that are familiar. In strange lands, I search for a warm smile, a kind word, and a shared meal. For ultimately, you do not acutely miss the people you are with, until you are separated from them and forced to wander among strangers.