Nonfiction by Shreya Ganguly
No one stays in Calcutta, India, forever. Scan the headlines of the nearest copy of Calcutta Times or The Telegraph and you’ll almost certainly find an op-ed lamenting the brain drain. The education minister’s desperation is palpable in the title: “Why are our kids leaving?” His words are probably next to the headline about the journalist who posted a controversial political cartoon to Facebook and then promptly disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Below that article is the week’s corruption scandal or whatever the government’s latest human rights infringement is.
There’s a common understanding that if you’re going to make something of yourself, it’s not going to happen here.
Calcutta’s not for the young. It’s an old city. It isn’t old in terms of the average age of its population, or the relative length of its existence, as much as it is old in its affectation. Like when someone listens to the Beatles on vinyl and tells you they’re an old soul. Like when I drape myself in dusty vintage scarves from thrift stores, indulging in garish prints to read stories onto them. Like the feeling of walking past the estate sale of someone’s dead grandfather.
Calcutta persists despite itself, its skin sagging from its bones. Coffee shops, hospitals, schools and grocery stores are museums rather than living spaces, steeped in past glories. Splotches of grime cover every edifice, complementing their cracked concrete and peeling paint. The city is nothing but a collection of cemeteries making the presence of the absence known.
My favorite of these cemeteries is College Street Coffee House, my grandfather’s favorite place in the city. The nerve center of the Indian intelligentsia in the 18th century, it has shrunk to the margins in the 21st. Today the walls that bore witness to them are a dingy yellow, grease-stained from cheap, unpalatable chow mein that gets cheaper every year. But the proprietor refuses to renovate or shut down. Black and white photographs of the old revolutionaries still hang on the walls of the joint, no doubt accompanied by their ghosts.
Through all this, Calcutta hasn’t lost its pride in its intellectual bent. The city single-handedly produced six Nobel laureates, a feat it can’t stop bragging about. It’s inspiring to picture them all nourished by the same burning chai, sultry air, and cigarette smoke, molded into something greater than the sum of their parts. Despite their diverse accomplishments, they all had something in common: they all left Calcutta.
When I moved to Calcutta at the age of twelve, I unpacked my suitcases with the intention to re-pack them and leave as soon as I possibly could. I resented having to live in this city, even though my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents all grew up there. I’d had many homes all around India and left most of them without any semblance of closure, given 24-hour notices each time. I wasn’t particularly inclined to build a new home from scratch yet again.
In my private rebellion against my new, unwanted surroundings, I lived in a self-imposed lexical exile. Why would I ever need to learn the local language if I wasn’t going to stay? I never learned Bengali at school, picking up no more than a few childish words and phrases. I didn’t learn to read or write it. I learned English instead. It was all I’d ever need.
For years, I couldn’t decipher billboard advertisements on the streets, comprehend the daily gossip of the vegetable vendors, or feel the weight of words in Bengali movies in the way that subtitles can’t quite convey. Calcutta hummed to me like a restless theatre audience before the start of the show, a white noise that I could have understood if I’d paid just a little more attention, listened just a bit more closely. But I floated above the sounds. I wanted nothing more than to sit in their incoherence, alone.
We had moved to Calcutta because my grandfather had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He wanted to spend his last days drinking too-hot chai, eating cheap chow mein, breathing in sultry air, and smoking forbidden cigarettes.
My grandfather’s name is Shibaprasad Chakraborty, but I’ll forgive you if your tongue stumbles over those syllables. Mine does too. In my clearest memories of him, he tells the stories of a homeland he had to flee with a nonchalance that only survivors of genocidal violence can muster. He regrets that his mother forced him to leave his model train set behind in Bangladesh, her admonitions punctuated by the sound of gunshots coming from the house of a neighbor he never met again. They had to throw his favorite sweater overboard when their makeshift boat struggled to carry the burden of a family of four. Their dog didn’t make it onto the boat, either. Charlie valiantly swam behind them for hours, inching further and further away until he was nothing but a speck in the distance, and then he was nothing at all. My grandfather hopes he reached shore somewhere with better weather. Shibaprasad doesn’t like the humidity in Calcutta but turned it into his home all the same. He had no choice.
Every year on my birthday, he’d write me a poem in Bengali on a Hallmark greeting card, nestled underneath the cheesy English print. I’d read the English part out loud to him, and never the Bengali. He’d sigh. Every certificate I brought home from English class, he’d remind me that I was learning my colonizer’s language. I inhabited a rented house and borrowed another’s clothes.
English is a global language today. It belongs to no one and yet it belongs to everyone. My grandfather pitied that I’d call English mine; he wanted Bengali to be my mother tongue, the linguistic home that I went back to and called my own. But this linguistic home didn’t have a roof. Every summer, I purchased a new Bengali alphabet book to work on, whose brightly colored illustrations served as constant reminders that their target audience was three-year-olds. Every January, my New Year’s resolutions would be to read a children’s book in Bengali and to write a letter to my grandfather. That’s it. Every year, I failed.
By the time I was seventeen, I still hadn’t achieved those resolutions. By then, the opportunity to re-pack my suitcases and leave Calcutta for good had arrived, in the form of college. I picked the option that would take me the furthest away and let me try on different homes for size. Two years in France followed by two years in New York.
“Just remember,” my grandfather said, on my last day in Calcutta. “I left my home behind because I had to. You don’t.”
I was in my first year of college. It was an uncharacteristically sunny day in the town of Le Havre, France. It was also a Saturday in the midst of August, so naturally every store in the vicinity was closed. There was hope for me yet because the farmer’s market down at Quai George V was open. I headed on down. The summer squash called my name, perfect for a lasagna but equally open to a simple garlic roast. To make conversation more than anything, I asked the vendors if there were preservatives in the vegetables. Except I didn’t. I asked if there were préservatifs dans les légumes, which translates to condoms and not preservatives. An honest mistake, really, but everyone was too busy laughing to sympathize. I shrunk away slowly. Dinner that night was cheap takeout chow mein.
French is littered with faux amis, or false friends—words that bear a deceptive resemblance to English. They’re inconvenient, embarrassing, and sometimes hilarious. Perhaps they’re a reminder that French itself was a faux ami to me. Something I got too comfortable with too fast. Somewhere I got too comfortable too fast, forgetting that I was an unwelcome outsider.
The first French class I took didn’t teach me the alphabet or give me a head start on the convoluted French numbering system. The first words I learned were, “L’homme m’a volé mon sac.” The only thing Monsieur Ronzier-Joly wanted us to take away from the class, even if we didn’t remember a single verb conjugate, was to know how to yell out, “The man stole my bag!” when we were pickpocketed in Paris. “When you get pickpocketed in Paris,” he said. “Not if.”
I like to think I went from a beginner French speaker to an intermediate one in a single car ride, hitchhiking with strangers from Paris to Le Havre when strikes shut down the train lines. I probably made the jump from intermediate to advanced in one telephone conversation with my housing agency, close to tears while begging for my security deposit back, meekly reminding them that regular tenant laws still applied to international students, powerless to do anything else. And I know my understanding of French was perfect the day I was told to go back to my own country on the tram at 4 a.m. alone.
French got easier. But France was never home.
Two years later, New York felt like home the day I arrived. In my third year of college, home was a small cluster of blocks: the admittedly mediocre bagel shop across the street that I’d die defending, the dollar pizza I was partial to, and the wafting smells of the halal cart on the corner. Large cosmopolitan cities belong to everyone, and yet they belong to no one. It was perfect for me.
People vehemently informed me that I was going to fall in love with New York—and so I did. I built a home from scratch and decided to belong in it. This took time and conscious effort, and the MTA service and the rats didn’t always make it easy, but it was worth it all the same.
Homes are built not as a result of familiarity but dogged determination, after all.
Illuminated by pink neon, Shelby leaned against a cow-print booth and joked about driving straight people out by making out right in front of their faces. I was tempted to take her up on the offer. We were at a gay bar in the East Village that claimed it “welcomed anyone and everyone of every sexual orientation,” but as Shelby yelled at a straight couple, “Come on, this is all we have!”
The couple frowned and scampered away. Shelby laughed. It was our first weekend hanging out, and we were both high on each other’s novelty. She’d just moved to New York from Connecticut after film school and told me about her upcoming documentary that she was sure would kill it on the film circuit. The documentary was about—wait, the bar was too loud, and I couldn’t hear most of what she was saying.
“Sorry, what?” I asked.
She leaned in close. “I said, you’re, like, really good at English,” she whispered. “Where did you learn it?”
I froze. I was reminded that I inhabited a rented house and borrowed another’s clothes. My colonizer’s language was not my own. I didn’t belong there.
I left the bar, only to find eighteen missed calls and a voicemail from my mother on my phone. Her voice was shaking on the other end.
My grandfather had died. But you don’t have to worry about that—he was old, and he was a religious man, anyway. He said death was like changing clothes, so you can picture him reincarnated as something fun and get on with your day. It’s atheists you have to worry about. It’s those guys that cling onto their self-righteous rationality when they live and then leave you to reckon with the meaninglessness of their bones in the dirt when they die. How inconsiderate. No, my grandfather would never be that imposing. Even as his lungs gave way, he’d insist on tying his own mosquito net to his bedpost every night and take it down every morning with diligence. He continued to do it until the day he was reduced to lying down and wheezing. And then it was time for a change of clothes.
The thing about people like him is that they never consider themselves important enough to voice their stories. They consider memoirs too egotistical. They carry secret pieces of gruesome histories with them but fold them up and store them away because they have to keep on living. I can’t blame him. I don’t know what that’s like.
I’ll never know what that’s like because I couldn’t learn Bengali in time. I lost out on his entire world because of my refusal to accept Calcutta as home and Bengali as a linguistic home. Ironically, in the years following his death, the sole focus of my life had been to travel, learn new languages, discover new worlds, and build new homes. And yet, I exiled myself from the home closest to my heart when it mattered the most, and for that I’ll always feel guilty.
But at least I have his Hallmark greeting cards. And at least he’d filled up lazy evenings at the hospital with mindless scribbles into a moleskin diary that I chanced upon at the bottom of his bedside drawer, three days after his funeral. I wiped off the dust and invaded the sacred space. I found pages and pages of telephone numbers of long-gone friends. What looked like a passable sketch of my late grandmother. Lines upon lines of notes in an expert hand. I couldn’t understand what they meant but took it upon myself to translate them anyway.
First, I had to learn Bengali.
Bengali is an inherently inefficient language. There’s three “sh” sounds with no discernible differences between them. I thought I was done after I memorized the alphabet, but then came the never-ending list of consonant conjuncts. The sinuous curves of the letters eluded me for weeks, and I know my blocky, amateurish tracings will never come close to the graceful symmetry of my grandfather’s handwriting. On the sultriest days of summer in Calcutta, where I’ve returned, I spend hours in College Street Coffee House on a single page of the diary, painstakingly looking up every other word in the dictionary. I’m still piecing together parts of the puzzle and have yet to find out more about the enigma that Shibaprasad was, but sitting with his diary in his favorite coffee house is the closest to home I’ll ever get.
One day I’ll write him a letter in Bengali that he’ll never read, but today I’ll commit the hypocrisy of filling these silences in English. Bengali will never feel as natural as breathing because it was a link I had to forge all on my own. But love is labor, and language is nothing if not the receptacle of unspent love.
Christina Kotchemidova, a professor of emotion culture and communication, uses diminutives more often when she speaks Russian because they’re more typical of the language—calling a dog a “doggy”, for example. She worries about whether this is a misrepresentation of her true self; is it a lie to present herself as more emotional and sentimental than she really is? But here’s the thing: she does feel more emotional and sentimental when she speaks Russian. She had the capacity to be emotional within her all along. On the other side of the spectrum, when Eva Hoffman, writer of Lost in Translation, emigrated from Poland to Canada with her family, her mother told her she was becoming “English.” Right away, she knew what this meant. She was becoming cold.
These days, my mother and I speak in English when our conversations are light and airy. We ask the other person how their day was, give perfunctory, shallow replies and end with the customary “I love you, goodnight!” But we speak Bengali when she’s teaching me how to cook because she doesn’t know the names of the spices in English. We speak Bengali when she’s giving me the week’s gossip about our relatives. She delivers bad news in Bengali and calms me down in Bengali. I’ve never used the Bengali word for “love” in conversation. I’ve never had to.