Oh! Calcutta

The first time I went to Calcutta, I must have been 6 or 7 years old. You would think I wouldn’t remember much about the trip but I do. My father tells me I have an elephant’s memory. To a child though, Calcutta was just a holiday. What does a child understand about exploring roots or your own culture?

My family moved from Delhi to Bombay when I was 11 years old. I didn’t give Calcutta a second thought till I was at least 18. Since neither of my parents are from Calcutta and we are what we call ‘Probashi Bengalis’, meaning Bengalis who live outside of Calcutta, I grew up in a different setting. I didn’t grow up with a lot of Bengali friends, and from my observations, none of my Probashi Bengali friends liked interacting with each other in Bengali. Evidently, I didn’t pay much attention to what it means to be a Bengali. Over the years, I have endured a lot of taunts from other Bengalis on social media about how I am less of a Bengali because I don’t listen to Bengali music or muddle up Bengali words and mix up Hindi and English seamlessly into my mother tongue. Something I assure you annoys me immensely. Since when did identifying or belonging to a culture become a competition?

Who are the Bengalis? 

A quick Wikipedia search tells me that Bengalis are the third largest ethnic group in the world, after Han Chinese and Arabs. If you are familiar with Bengalis, you too might hold some much loved stereotypes about us. For example, if you believe all Bengalis can sing well or are artistically inclined in some manner, I would be more than happy to introduce you to my brother who has absolutely no drop of artistic talent. If you believe all Bengalis are highly intellectual, please acquaint yourself with Mamta Banerjee. Do all of us worship Rabindranath Tagore and Satyajit Ray? I have only ever watched two movies by Ray and read two books of Tagore. Granted, I did try to learn Rabindra Sangeet like a good Bengali girl and do know two of his songs by heart. Also, not all of us eat sweets every single day, especially not Rosogolla. I don’t even like Rosogolla! My point is, Bengalis are not the sum equivalent of your generalisations.

Let me acquaint you to a few things I have observed about my own community of people.

  1. Lethargee demands to be a surname– Bengalis are notoriously lazy. A point I want to elaborate upon when I talk more about Calcutta.
  2. We like to sit on our high horse– Elderly Bengalis will miss no chance to tell you how ours is a community more superior and intellectually blessed than the rest. Never-mind that they themselves might not have read a single book in their lives or uttered a single intelligent word in their entire lifetimes.
  3. Look, we are so cultured!– Bengalis will miss no chance in keeping up appearances about being ‘cultured’. If culture is wearing saris and rustic jewellery and a giant-sized bindi, then yes, we are all very cultured.

I know it seems like I do not like Bengalis at all. On the contrary, I revel in being a Bengali. This is why I also believe that I have the licence to critique and question a culture I belong to, in order to understand it better.

Long story short, I have been thirsting to travel to Calcutta since the moment this need to explore my roots hit me. This year in February, I finally flew to the city of joy. Was it everything I had hoped for? Did I find what it was I was looking for? I will blog about how I experienced Calcutta in the new few posts.

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I backpacked across Europe as a brown person and this is what it was really like – Part 1

To be fair, I went backpacking in July and it has taken me two months to really collect my thoughts and sit down to pen them. Since I am crippled with this mind-numbing disease called overthinking, I spent weeks going over all the monumental experiences I had and analysed each and every one of them through my brown girl lenses. The next few series of blog posts are the end lab results straight outta my head.

I want to try and detail everything as much as I can, starting from my visa nightmare to the places I went to, the people I met, etc. So, here goes nothing.

You are going to go backpacking by yourself? Whaat?

Indian parents are known for a lot of meme worthy qualities but letting their children breathe and giving them enough freedom to do so is not one of them. Enter, my parents. I do not mean to brag but I truly do believe that my parents are uber cool. My mother is clearly descendant from a tigress and has zero patience for the world’s shit and my father is an oasis of tranquillity who reminds me everyday that being ambitious is not a disease I need to be cured of. My parents have done their fair share of struggle. My father has been travelling across continents since I was born, sometimes staying away from us for months because work calls. He has always encouraged me to travel, always telling me how important it is to soak your feet in different cultures and meet different people. So talking to them about how I wanted to travel was not an argument or a nervousness-induced conversation, it was a discussion.

I did not mean this to be a solo backpacking trip, but as is the fickle nature of the best laid plans, travelling with my friends did not work out. As I was trying to gather the broken pieces of my Parisian dreams, my baba suggested I go anyway, with a travel group and with some supervision of course. So I signed myself up with The Backpacker Co. which is a travel company based out of Mumbai. They specialise in arranging backpacking tours and they had a 10 day Europe tour chalked out. Only 4 people signed up for this one though, me being one of them. Relatives called, concerned if my baba had his wits about him.
“You are spending all this money so that she can…travel?”
“Are you sure you want her to go by herself?”
Granted, I was privileged enough that my baba agreed to finance this but that was no reason for my extended family to have their panties in a bunch. He brushed it off carelessly. July had 10 days of trapezing through Paris, Barcelona and Rome for me.

My not so humorous attempt at procuring a tourist visa

Well, that is if my visa were to be accepted. Lo and behold the horrors of trying to procure a visa if you happen to be a POC from a country considered to belong to the third-world. Yes, getting a visa is not that big of a deal. But it is when you happen to fluently speak the language of a country you are visiting. Haha you thought learning a foreign language would make you cultured and intellectually fascinating? No, my man.

The first time I applied for a visa, it got rejected. I wanted to believe that it was because the universe did not intend me to go; My (second) travel agent was convinced it was because I could speak French, and was 23 and unmarried. *cough* discrimination *cough* sexism. That is the day I realized just how highly countries in power think of themselves. Don’t get me wrong, I do understand that there are a bunch of security protocols in place and every country has to look out for themselves but for a country to assume that you, an unmarried young girl who can speak French would disappear in France and become an immigrant even though she clearly has the financial means to support herself in her country of origin as well as in the one she intends to visit is mind boggling.

Why would I willingly choose to disappear in a country or in Europe in general when I am aware that I would be treated with racial taunts and assume a third-grade citizen role? While I had blind rage coursing through my body and helplessness threatening to brim over in the form of salty moisture, my baba nudged me to try once again. All I could think about was the amount of money that would be wasted if it were to be rejected again and for what? My parents wouldn’t have any of it. To them, my bruised heart meant a lot more than the money. (Yes, I know how privileged I sound and no, I am not proud of it)

So, I applied again. I applied again with a mountain of documents proving my identity and my intent to come back to my country (Hi Europe you were great but apna desh toh apna desh hota hai ok). For someone who is terrified and overwhelmed by paperwork, I managed to sail through it. I was getting through my work days with frayed nerves and abject helplessness, holding onto whatever optimism I could gather. I was called to the French consulate for an interview and guess what? I got the visa the very next day. I could breathe easily.

That is also the day I learned that maybe, just maybe the universe intends for things to happen in a certain manner so that you can learn a few things along the way. I learned that patience is an art form I am good at when I try really hard, and also that helplessness is a disease I wish to avoid like the plague. Helplessness has a way of tying up your insides with a rope coated in jagged pieces of glass and boy does it cut you up. I also learned a thing or two about time and how you cannot pick up arms against the way it flows. Nowadays when I find my hyperness rising, I find a comfortable looking rock and position myself there as I let time do its thing. Que sera sera, right?

Anyhoo, I am going to write about what the trip actually was like in the next couple of posts. I am not sure how many people are going to read this or bother but hey, I have got a lot to say and I am going to put it out there anyway.

“Have You Found God?”

“Have you found God?

“Yes, and lost him too”

We cast rings of smoke around us,

Pretend that we are important,

Pretend that we know God.

He calls himself a sadhu; he embraces death,

He says he has found God,

Where I ask; In death, he says.

We argue, he discusses,

“Where is he, where is God?”

“Wherever you want him to be”

“Do you believe?”

“Do I? I find and lose him”

“So you have found him”

“I lost him too. He moves like the gypsies”

“He shuffles fate, he owns the cards”,

Ashes of the dead, he rubs them on his body.

“He made the believers and the non-believers”

“The last time I found God,

“I kept him in a safe-place and forgot about him”

“He is still safe then; Look for him”

“What if he has left; What if he didn’t wait?”

His yellow eyes crinkle as he laughs,

“He made us, he knows our foolhardiness, he will wait”

He passes me the pipe; I take a long drag,

We watch the waves lap up the past,

The sea, it makes an intellectual out of everyone.