Living with Aleika: Calcutta and Pune

In 99-00, I spent a year in India. This is a chapter in the journal of my adventures there.

First days in Calcutta

The flight to Calcutta went smoothly (I’m not mentioning the unavoidable plane delays). We must have looked quite a weird party: two foreigners, one wearing a light brown baby, the other one a salwaar kameez, and a small maharashtrian woman in a nine-yard sari (the type that comes up between your legs at the back and that you cover your head with). Aleika’s in-laws were at the airport to greet us.

We had a room in one of the four blocks occupied by the very large joint family, scattered on the different floors in different rooms. The Durga Puja festival in Calcutta is the occasion for the whole family to get together during four or five days – so there were even more people than usual staying in the house.

The day after our arrival I went sari shopping for the first time. After having eaten a couple of Chinese chicken rolls (both Aleika and I had trouble with the sweet Bengali daal and nasty rice served at her in-laws) we sat in a sari shop and had a certain number of saris unfolded for us – until the moment when I looked at the pile aside of me and decided I absolutely had to stop buying. I got a ready-made blouse and a petticoat to be able to wear the more expensive sari I had bought that morning for the evening gathering. I loved it!

Calcutta; October 22

The four or five first days were those of the Durga Puja. Big family gatherings (“family” in a very wide sense), deafening drumming and numerous pujas.

The food we were served in the house was unfortunately very bland. Add to that the general lack of cleanliness of the kitchen as well as the plates, the 1998 butter we once found on the breakfast table, the blackening fruit covered by a net that simply prevented the flies from escaping, and you will easily understand why we took on a habit of sneaking out to eat delicious chicken rolls, street food and other “momos” (a kind of Asian ravioli), drinking chay in small earthen disposable cups.

I tasted the joys of travelling by taxi (almost no rickshaws in Calcutta), going sari shopping (which means usually staring mouth-open at very expensive and very beautiful saris, in most cases without buying them) and “parading” about draped in pretty cloth.

One day as we went out, we were stopped by a flooded junction. The rainy season was not yet quite finished in Calcutta. We went as far as we could without dipping our saris in the muddy-coloured, knee-deep water and finally hired a man-pulled rickshaw (the only “vehicle” available). If I am not mistaken, Calcutta is one of the only places where they still exist.

There ricksaws are made for two people. Aleika and I could barely squeeze inand we managed to balance the baby as well as Taramai on our knees. Of course, when we got off about fifty metres later, the rickshawallah asked us for Rs. 300, a bit sheepishly, though. We gave him Rs. 60, which I now believe was the correct price.

During this stay, for the first time in my life, I had a glimpse of the life of a one-year-old baby. It was an instructive experience (I’m not even mentioning that Akirno is the most adorable little person…). Nurse, sleep, crawl around, stick fingers into people’s noses, grab the same noses, put hand in mouths, spread biscuits and different kinds of food gleefully on the bed (and on Mummy’s clothes, of course), clear surfaces by chucking down on the floor everything within reach, and play “psycho baby” at night, when everybody wants to sleep. The “psycho baby” mode means speed-crawling around the bed while making various gurgling laughing noises, as well as pinching, tasting, pulling and testing various parts of the various bodies lying in the same bed.

Pune, October 31

Glimpses of Calcutta life

My stay in Calcutta has not much of a story to it. Nothing really “happened” there. It was more a case of catching a little of the flavour of everyday life in a context I am not used to, as well as getting to know three people (Aleika, Taramai and Akirno) who were going to play an important part in my “Indian adventure”, although I did not suspect it then.

I mentioned the poor quality of the food served at Aleika’s in-laws. The rice was bland and bad, the daal watery but chilly-hot, and the fish or veg served with it not much more exciting.

Needless to say the helpings were all but generous. Aleika’s mother-in-law had the disastrous habit of arriving at the beginning of our meal to ask “More? You want more?” in a pressing tone. A “yes, please” would add a tiny spoonful of rice or veg to the plate, followed by another helping of “More? You want more?” two minutes later. So if we wanted more in our plates, it had to be gained by lots and lots of “Yes, please”… We gave up and ate chicken rolls.

Taramai once counted that the daal had lasted five days. No wonder it wasn’t very tasty in the end! We had chicken once, spread upon three days. After a week, I could hardly swallow anything in the house.

We ate piles of Bengali sweets. I must have put on weight, even if the family diet didn’t seem to encourage that. We also lived on Britannia Digestive biscuits and Cadbury’s Picnics. I bought a bunch of those one day, and they turned out to be inhabited by little six-legged beasts – luckily I had been greedy and the problem was discovered before we left the shop.

While sari shopping, we encountered the “first customer” syndrome a couple of times. For most shopkeepers, it is inauspicious if the first person to enter the shop leaves without buying anything, so the lucky “first customer” is provided a fair amount of pressure by the sales staff. One morning, we were “first customer” in one shop after the other, and as we were not in a buying mood, we left a row of angry shopkeepers behind us (we were quite irritated too, and decided to put the shopping on hold to give others a chance to be “first customers” in the next shops).

Another irritating phenomenon we encountered when sari shopping is the concept of “same” in the average Indian mind. Ask for the same sari but a different colour, or the same colour with a different pattern, and see what you get. I was simply amazed that people could point at two things so blatantly different and say “Same, Madam, same”. I almost went nuts.

The house we were staying in was nothing near to baby-proof, and it was really not clean enough to have Akirno crawling around everywhere. So one day, Aleika and I started to do some spring-cleaning, to Ma’s great dismay, and to the great amusement of Baba. We even cleaned some black windows which became transparent once again, and changed the water filter (the inside of it had some resemblance to a pond – fauna, flora and all). We did something similar in the train on the way back to Pune, Aleika scrubbing on her hands and knees to make a portion of the corridor “crawlable” for Akirno.

I liked the wide streets of Calcutta, the old English buildings with coloured walls, the trees and the men going around in dhotis and lungis.

There were lots of street dogs, as in most Indian towns. Just next to our house there was a mother dog with eight little puppies. When we left, only one had survived – all the others had died.

Journey home and nasty fainting

For the journey home we had AC train tickets. It took us nearly forty-eight hours to get to Pune. I asked for the AC to be switched off at least twice, as we were freezing. Aleika and Akirno were falling ill, I was just getting better, and Taramai seemed as if she was simply going to die of cold.

In the morning of the last night, I suddenly woke up with the feeling I was about to be sick. I got down from my bunk, vaguely told Aleika I was sick, put on my chappal, fainted, got up and rushed in direction of the toilets.

I fainted again at the end of the corridor, and must have bumped my head quite badly. I woke up to see an unknown and concerned face above me, and had the presence of mind to say in Hindi that I was sick. Aleika arrived, helped me get up.

I fainted again two metres later, and when I regained my senses I was feeling simply awful and sitting in a puddle. After a few minutes my mind had cleared up a bit and I convinced Aleika to help me get into the toilets.

I got up, fainted instantly, and when I woke up I was in such pain that I screamed in terror for a few seconds. Aleika told me I had been in spasms while I was unconscious.

In less than a minute I was suddenly feeling much better, not sick anymore, but very weak.

We later figured out that I had probably woken up because I was a little sick, but that the big problem was most certainly that I had bashed my head against something when I fainted for the second time. I realized that a few hours later. when I discovered I had quite a painful bump on my head.

Markal; December 22

Living in IUCAA

I haven’t written in ages – on the one hand I was waiting to find a place to rehost my site, and on the other my life here has started to be less adventurous.

Since I came back from Calcutta, I have been staying in IUCAA with Aleika – and a little routine of shopping, reading, TV, sleeping, Sanskrit lessons, baby-entertaining and chatting away settled down. Urgency and stress had left – and the material side of life was suddenly not a problem any more.

But most of all, I wasn’t alone anymore. Being able to live with a friend of western culture was very welcome. I vaguely tried to move back into my flat after coming back from Calcutta. I considered buying some household items (fridge, TV, washing-machine) but finally decided it was not worth the expense, considering the short time I would be living here – especially as I had the possibility to use Aleika’s facilities if I needed them.

I also considered buying or renting a scooter. But again, even if rickshaws are not cheap, a scooter would be even more expensive. It is of course more practical. But what mainly made me give up the idea was the risk.

Pune roads are dangerous. I have noticed that Indians face risk everyday that we do not accept as part of life in the west. From here, it could seem as if westerners wanted to rule out any chance of accidental death (or even injury; but most injuries heal one day – death doesn’t). I have yet to see somebody here alter a behaviour for safety reasons. If one wears a helmet, it is most certainly to protect oneself from pollution or rain. And a lot of the responsibility to avoid accidents is left in others’ hands.

All this to say that I wasn’t ready to increase my chances of dying on Pune roads. Especially as my western driving habits could turn out to be very dangerous here.

My attempts at shifting back to my flat was unsuccessful. It was definitely nicer to be living at Aleika’s with all facilities, including a friendly cat (Bagha) and a neurotic three-legged dog (Cali – equally friendly). And as Aleika was alone too – with the baby of course – we kept each other company.

Weeks sped by like days, and before I knew it, December was there. I had got to know a few of Aleika’s friends in the IUCAA campus – and especially two of them: Nisha and Shinde, happy owners of two big licky dogs.

I learnt to go with the flow. Fighting against the rhythm of life here is a hopeless battle. You have to accept that your plans will change, that your dinners will be cancelled at the last minute, and that you go to sleep without knowing what you are going to do the next day. You also have to accept to make your “urgent stuff” wait, and do it when an occasion comes up. You become more dependent on outside circumstances for the way you lead your life. In fact, you let yourself be lead instead of leading. Understanding that made life much easier for me.

I spent a lot of time reading – about things that did not necessarily directly pertain to my studies. I discovered an author I liked a lot: Oliver Sacks. His book on the Deaf and Sign language is fascinating (“Hearing Voices”).

We went shopping for cloth – I had to get blouses done for my saris, and Aleika needed some clothes to wear in England. We went to look at a couple of old wardrobes and settees for Aleika’s home. We ate in and ate out. It was something that very much resembled a normal life to me.

As I had already mentioned about the trip to Calcutta, living with a soon toddling baby was quite a new experience to me. And actually, I loved it. Seeing Akirno discover the world around him is of course quite intense – and he is actually real fun to play with.

One evening we went shopping with Aleika’s car. As we came back late and Aleika had to drive, I ended up with a sleeping Akirno in my arms. As he was sleeping on my right shoulder, my right arm went completely numb. But that didn’t matter a bit. It was great to be holding him. I was to walk or dance him to sleep quite regularly after that (he is quite easy to dance to sleep), and Aleika says he must find me comfortable.

Maybe an equivalent to Christmas in the west, Diwali takes place in the beginning of November. It didn’t mean much to Aleika and me, but the poor animals were scared stiff by the huge amount of firecrackers. I can’t say I liked it much either. And I had yet another occasion to note the little concern most people seemed to have about safety (children playing with big crackers…). A wonder I didn’t see any accidents!

I had the chance to attend the Tulsi Vivaha (celebration of the wedding between Krishna and the Tulsi plant). For that occasion I wore one of my saris – the first time in Pune. The people organizing the Tulsi Vivaha felt honoured at my presence and of course I can’t help feeling embarrassed about that. I’m slowly getting used to the fact that I am at times a bit of an attraction, particularly for people who are not used to receiving the attention of foreigners (in this case, the Tulsi Vivaha was taking place in the IUCAA servant quarters), but I am still not comfortable about it – and in a way, I’m glad I am not.

I went to my first wedding (my research subject). I enjoyed it (and it was a nice excuse for me to wear one of my pretty saris) although it was quite stressful to be taking photographs, listening to explanations, taking notes and watching what was going on all at the same time.

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