Of Current

It has been weeks since it last rained, but, as usual, the entire city is flooded. One of the world’s most densely populated urban centers, Kolkata always seems to be on the verge of dissolving under the strain of a perpetual deluge; not the water kind.

Wave after wave began pouring in a few days ago. They came to celebrate the biggest festival in Hinduism in the largest city in the region and pay tribute to the most important gods in their pantheon.

I was told Hindus believe rivers and streams are divine sources of life. From down here in the crush of flowing masses, I could use some divine intervention to prevent from being swept away.

I look up and in the distance I catch a glimpse of the illuminated paper-mache spires that line the colorful entrance to one of the city’s many puja pandals. Like giant ocean liners, these elegant makeshift temples float high above the dark tangle of narrow alleys that throb and undulate with colorful swells of humanity. Eddies of lit candles, neon trinkets, and sparkling tinsel shimmer atop the viscous torrent of heads. Slowly, they percolate through the towering, ribbon-laced archways that tentatively dam the relentless flow of admirers. Inside the enormous cardboard palaces, giant clay idols of the goddess, Durga, and her four children, welcome adoring subjects like benevolent monarchs holding court.

As we near the shrine, the street narrows and the storefront walls begin to constrict around us. The pressure builds. On all sides, I am squeezed by a vice of multi-hued saris, dazzling bangles and sinuous limbs.

Like a fish rising for a gulp of air, I thrust my head upward in an effort to pierce the hot surface of bobbing heads. Above me, I catch surreal glimpses of a giant feathery tail attached to a dhaki’s pulsating drum. With his rhythmic dance he carves out a hollow space in the mass of elbows, hands and knees beside me. I selfishly try to claim that bubble of space as my own but the vacuum quickly fills with a surge of gyrating hips.

“Excuse me. Are we almost there?” I yell into the ear of an overweight man resting his meaty arm on my shoulders in what I can only assume is a friendly intimation.

He turns his head; grazing his nose on mine. His biryani scented breath mixes with the peppery smells of incense smoke, fresh garlands, and spice-infused sweat. A brilliant smile slices the dark silhouette of his round face as he answers my question with a quick, graceful cock of the head. The foreign gesture leaves me confused and I begin to repeat myself, but his bellowing laughter interrupts me. “Oh! You are not Indian,” he merrily announces. “Yes! We are very almost inside one of Kolkata’s much most beautiful pandals.”

Tonight, tides of devotees ebb around these altars. Tomorrow, thousands of idols will be immersed in rivers symbolizing Durga’s return home.

Hindus believe rivers are divine sources of life. That life itself can only be understood in the ephemeral, the transitional. That the answers to the world’s mysteries are in liquiform.

Maybe they are right. I don’t know. For now, I simply want to go with the flow.

An Imperfectly Perfect Thanksgiving

I had never felt homesick in the eleven months that I had been on the road, at least not until Thanksgiving Day approached. Aboard the crowded train headed to the city of Siliguri in northern India, my nostalgic pangs worsened as I watched mothers play with their children, fathers cheerfully point out passing landmarks to their family, and groups of friends laughing at jokes made in languages I did not understand.

To distract myself, I struck up a conversation with a small, elderly gentleman sitting next to me. As tends to happen in India to lone travelers, within a few minutes of chatting I was invited to spend a few days with his family in Siliguri. He said his wife was a miracle worker in the kitchen and that taking on the challenge of reproducing an American Thanksgiving dinner would be an honor.

I accepted the invitation and despite my objections, the gentleman and his wife moved into their son’s house, next door, so that I would have my own room in their home. For the next couple of days I was treated like royalty from the time I woke up to the time I went to bed.

On Thanksgiving Day I woke up to a loud frenzy of activity coming from the kitchen. While I slept, my adopted grandmother had spent the dawn hours trying to duplicate a Thanksgiving meal from a picture on one of the pages of her grandson’s English class textbooks. With boisterous laughter she quickly shooed me out and told me things were not ready yet.

As I was leaving the kitchen I bumped into one of the boys in the family who seized the opportunity to quiz me about Thanksgiving traditions. I mentioned that many Americans watch football. Within minutes he had gathered up all the men and boys in the family for a game of cricket. “Cricket is India’s football,” he explained.

After I thoroughly embarrassed myself on the cricket field, we all dusted ourselves off and gathered in the small kitchen. While nervously wringing her hands, my host grandmother confessed that she was not entirely sure what a turkey was since she had never actually seen one. “I think a bird is a bird. I told them to give me the biggest chicken they had at the market and I would take care of turning it into a turkey.” She pointed to the turkey stuffing pictured in the English textbook she had been using as a reference and said, “This was tricky but I think I got it. It’s biryani, right?”

In front of me was the most beautiful turkey chicken and biryani stuffing I had ever seen, along with a feast of other delectables that I wish were part of our Thanksgiving mainstays. We laughed, shared stories and for a wonderful afternoon, I forgot that I was so far away from home.

The holidays are a time to surround ourselves with those we love and reflect on one’s good fortune. It is also a time when our expectations for perfect reunions can set us up for disappointment, but maybe the true holiday magic comes from being able to appreciate the beauty of imperfection. It took a foreign family to teach me that our American traditions can, and must, be adapted to our own circumstances. After all, there’s more than one way to carve a turkey…or chicken.

Men Like Ike

From the hut’s window I could see the cluster of brown, Lego-shaped buildings in the middle of the Great Indian Desert. For most of the year, these hollow earthen blocks are comfortable shelters from the scorching sun. Eventually, though, the rains do come, and villagers find themselves having to rebuild the life-size sandcastles after they dissolve into shapeless mounds.

I heard a knock at my door and swung the wooden slat open to find a skinny, bearded man staring at me. He, too, looked like he was made of earth. His honey-colored eyes reflected the desert’s highlights so vividly that for a moment I thought they were glowing. The effect diminished as he squinted and raised his hand to his forehead to get a better look at me. He smiled and introduced himself as Dinesh, my neighbor. 

Let’s take some chai,” he invited in surprisingly clear English.

As we walked on the dirt road toward the chai stand, he took my hand in his. In these parts, this is an innocent display of fraternal affection, but I saw it as an affront to my independence. Even as a child I hated the feeling of being tethered when forced to hold an adult hand to cross a busy street.

I worked his grip loose and crouched down to pick up a rock, pretended to examine it, and put it in my pocket where I kept my hand out of his reach. Satisfied with my manoeuvring around a cultural slight, I relaxed as we continued our stroll. A few moments later, though, my new friend interlaced his arm through mine. I sighed and resigned myself to walk bromantically arm in arm with my new buddy.

Why do you put rocks in your pocket?” He asked.

The habit had certainly not originated from an aversion to hand holding. A few weeks before, I had been attacked by feral dogs in a crowded street. People around here do not fear dogs, and as an aspiring intrepid traveler I was ashamed that I did. “I like to practice my juggling with stones,” I lied unconvincingly.

Oh, I thought it was because you were afraid of dogs,” he said as he squeezed my arm a little tighter.

Maybe it was the uncomfortable novelty of having a man hugging my bicep, or maybe deep down inside I was disturbed that I did not find the novelty particularly discomforting. All of a sudden I had an uncontrollable urge to confess. “Yeah,” I said, “I’m terrified of dogs. Take a look.” With my free hand I picked up the hem of my shorts to reveal the nasty wounds the sharp teeth left behind.

Wow, that’s bad!” Dinesh chuckled. “Did you get the six injections?”

It’s the question everyone here asks when you tell them you were attacked by dogs. Even children are aware of the anti-rabies prescription.

I’m on my third one,” I replied. I then told him how I used to ignore the dogs like everyone else, but now launched rocks at them at the slightest hint of a growl. 

Dinesh’s glowing eyes narrowed as he shook his head. “But my friend, you cannot beat all dogs simply because one bit you. It is wrong and cruel!” He exclaimed indignantly. “Last year, my wife flirted with my cousin, and I did not beat every woman around me. I only beat my own wife.”

Oh,” I said uneasily. “You’re a wise man, Dinesh. Like…Ike Turner.”

Who is that? He asked. “A famous wise man?”

I think in some circles he probably is,” I replied.

Then let us be wise men of peace,” he concluded, “let us be men like Ike.”