We live in the world when we love it


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Category: Diaspora 21 Nov 10

In the women’s room in the Kolkata airport, a well heeled woman holding a baby sends her young daughter to the “Indian” bathroom as the Western ones are in use. Inside, the girl and I confront the same thing. The little girls scream feels like an extension of my gasp. She is wailing what I’m thinking. “Mummy, I can’t do soo soo here. I won’t!” The toilet is a hole in the ground with white marble imprints of two enormous feet at the side. It’s spotless but intimidating. I gasp, laugh, then take a photo and encourage her through the wall while trying not to breathe. “It’s not that bad. Try it.” Her mother gives me a grateful smile as I emerge and asks me to hold her baby boy so she can deal with her daughter. “My ayah got sick in the last minute” she offers by way of explanation. “Priya is not used to such toilets in Delhi.” I think of the absolute trust with which she thrust her baby in my arms and the many India’s that co-exist.


Since my arrival in India, my mother has taken to calling me “baby” to salesmen, drivers, waiters and the like which is not unusual in an Indian family with their children until they go off and get married, and even then. But it is especially embarrassing in the sari shop we visit in Calcutta (now Kolkata).” Baby ko yai sari dihkao,” she imperiously asks a salesmen, a mere boy, who piles yet another billowing six yards of silk on the table for her perusal. I knew by now to keep my mouth shut. “As soon as you open your mouth and they hear your terrible Hindi they will know you are a foreigner and hitch up the prices.” This is the new India where bargaining is useless in many places. My mother ignores this.


This Divali eve, Calcutta, lit up by fairy lights, shot with the sound of firecrackers, is a full-on assault on the senses: Bollywood emanates from its pores: on posters, on the radio and TV as stars advertise gifts jewels, appliances, holidays, saris and cars. Across the road brisk call centers service America round the clock, girls in the ubiquitous uniform of tight jeans and Converse sneakers laugh with boisterous college students, lovers hold hands. Thousands of tableaus, each revealing a jumble of history, tradition, globalisations and civilisations. Many centuries co exist here. My parents point out the landmarks of Calcutta, a former British trading port. In the Victorian age, this city was, after London, the second city of the Empire, and the Capital of British India. 


The Divali lights bring heavy the gilded wrought iron gates of the former Viceregal palace, St Paul’s Cathedral and the Victoria Memorial into focus, a resplendent if ghostly reminder of the former splendor of the Raj. We drive around for ages searching for a “superb” kebab place (50 years ago it was the best!) looking for clubs my parents frequented for cocktails, dancing and card parties of the 60’s. In the morning my father, without an appointment or ID, tells the driver to take us to the officers mess, (formerly the Governor Generals and Lord Kitcheners residence) where he served as assistant Garrison Engineer, 50 years ago.


He is saluted and we are ushered into the high security army base on Fort William built along clean colonial lines. We stop at the building my parents were housed as newlyweds, and where my brother Varun was brought after his birth in the army hospital. The verandah where my mother played with him in the dappled sunlight as a newborn was the same. We have lunch at the officers mess, complete with its resplendent 20 foot table (finally women were allowed into the men’s dining room) chandeliers, trophies, stuffed tigers in glass cages, silver and other colonial relics abound. My husband is still in shock saying “The India of my imagination no longer exists.” He is still taking in the Manhattan skyline, the 63 tower blocks he counted from the airport to the city, designer shops, the taxi driver’s blackberry, the girls in jeans who have begun to outnumber the saris, the multi lane highways, the bookshops, theatres, and poverty that “didn’t look so poor anymore.


Excited he says the GDP of the country with growth of 9 per cent will double over the next five years. “Calcutta used to epitomise for me, the otherness of India, known for its extreme poverty, phenomenal intellectual capacity, and almost violent image in the religious symbol of Durga. As it increasingly resembles the developed world it loses some of its exotic appeal.” In short, he wishes more women in cities wore saris. He had to throw out old images, and “start over.” To me, the Mother Theresa, a selfless nun who migrated from Albania, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979, is the epitome of Calcutta, and an icon of India. With a thrill I spot nuns with their signature white saris and blue borders crossing the street outside in the plain two-storey Missionaries of Charity headquarters where she lived and died.


To sit beside her tomb, which bears St John’s Biblical saying: “Love One Another As I Have Loved You,” is to be awash in a pool of peace. Like millions of visitors I reflect that so many of us want to make our mark on the world. By thinking of the poor, the rejected, the ill and forgotten she left a lasting legacy. At the time of her death, Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity had over 4,000 sisters, and an associated brotherhood of 300 members, operating 610 missions (hospices, homes for people with HIV/AIDS, leprosy and tuberculosis, soup kitchens, orphanages, and schools) in 123 countries.) A stunning nun from Kerala tells me she hasn’t seen her family for ten years (she joined the order at 19).


She writes to them once a month. There is a twinkle in her eye and equanimity in her face which comes from serving the vulnerable. It’s the state that drives millions worldwide to India for spiritual fulfillment. I could not leave Kolkata visiting the vast and stately ancestral home of Rabindranath Tagore, winner of Nobel Prize for literature in1913. “Jorasanko” now a part of the Rabindra Bharati University and is a reminder of this towering poet and intellectual of India. As I marveled at this old world of leafy courtyards, intricately carved balconies and literary life, I thought of Tagore’s words “We live in the world when we love it.”


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur