I hopped out of the E Line train I had boarded in midtown Manhattan. Stepping out of the Jackson Heights Subway Station in Queens I was transfixed. It was as if I made the trip across thousands to miles to Sealdah Station in Kolkata. I was in the community of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis in New York City known as Little India – the narrow strip of packed shops on 74th and 73rd streets between 37th and Roosevelt avenues.
Like many men and women of my generation, I left India and crossed the kalapaani on a jumbo jet with only two pieces of baggage (not exceeding 60 kilograms). Over the years, like a long-separated acquaintance, India moved on while I spent my days in self-imposed exile. The television channels rotated. The names of the cricket-players and film-stars changed. Salaries and the prices of commodities rose. Cousins grew up, married, and had children. Relatives tied through invisible bonds passed away while I adamantly refused to acknowledge their passing until the sheer physical emptiness on short trips to the birthland caused a sudden aching release of emotions.
But I felt like a forgotten guest in my own birthland too. No one in my former college knew I had walked down the corridors with the wanton arrogance that befitted youth. When I tried to order in Bangla at a posh Kolkata restaurant, I was replied to in English by the waiter, who was also a Bengali. When I persisted in responding in the language of the non-convent educated second-class citizenry, I was ignored. Had it always been this way?
I changed too, but avoided looking into the mirror.
In America, I found new friends many who shared the experience of the Great Voyage. While in graduate school, on Friday nights, I’d laugh myself silly watching ludicrous Hindi films with Indian and American friends wolfing down carryout from a Bangladeshi-run Indian Chinese restaurant. We would eat the Chicken Manchurian with Pakistani basmati rice boiled in a cheap rice-cooker.
But I still longed for a home.
On 74th Street, I walked past 22-carat gold jewelers, music stores blaring songs in Hindi, aunties selling calling cards in dingy kiosks, and large grocery stores smelling of cardamom and garam masala.
I walked down 37th and crossed into 73rd Street, the Bangladeshi corner of the neighborhood. The shops all had signs in Bangla, my native language. I entered a bookstore and glanced at a couple of festive editions of literary magazines shipped in from Kolkata for Durga Puja and from Dhaka for Eid. I chatted with the owner about the recent writings of Sunil Gangopadhyay, a Bengali Indian writer and Humayun Ahmed, a Bengali Bangladeshi writer.
After buying a few books which had crossed the oceans in a similar journey to mine, I stepped outside. On the pavement, I saw a rickshaw painted with the bright art so common across so many of our birthlands. It could have been a rickshaw that I had sat on while going to school in my own hometown in India.
By now I was hungry, so I stepped into a crowded Bangladeshi restaurant on 73rd. A chirpy woman greeted me in a Dhakai Bangla accent. I sat down at a table and ordered a number of unknown Bangladeshi dishes most of which were not common in the part of West Bengal I hail from. One was a ilish polao a fragrant pilaf made with hilsa – the fish that Bengalis from both countries swear by. I had never heard of this particular dish, but as I sat at the table and ate, I relished every morsel. It was foreign to me, but not entirely unfamiliar.
A number of Bangladeshis sat at the next table and smiled at me and I smiled back. Perhaps, at some point in the past, in an undivided India the lives of our ancestors had intersected as ours briefly did through pure accident now. But over sixty years our divergent political, religious, and social legacies were at conflict with some of our culinary, linguistic, and geographic commonalities so that invisible walls separated our tables.
The threats of cross-border militancy, illegal immigration, water disputes, and cultural hegemony that divide our countries of origin are not irrelevant. But the cruelest joke is that they result from a border which was created artificially. If only our countries had been on separate islands!
But I didn’t want to think about that then. As I walked down 73rd Street, I thought I finally understood what Jibanananda Das meant in his poem Banalata Sen about walking the earth for a thousand years.
Not having a home doesn’t have to be a curse.
I suddenly felt buoyant…
Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where. And we don’t know where
…the only living boy in New York.
© Text, 2010-2012, Anirban