Kolkata: commute, homecoming, rooftop.

photo by Courtney Patch

It happens to be the bleak, hard part of winter. Memory can be warmer place, a different life, even.

Kolkata: commute, homecoming, rooftop.

And if you went back to another time and another place, it would be a rickety rackety swaying bus. Jammed full of people, creaking, blowing its horn. Inside a hot close collection of women in bright colors holding the overhead handles, everyone staring and no one making eye contact. Outside whooshing past the deep green of dusk, of day finished. A million thoughts and images and smells swirling you into a dizzy fit as the bus clatters along, full throttle, careening this way and that as the tall, shockless wheels hit pot hole after pot hole. Your frame fairly rattled, your forehead breaking out into a sweat, you duck to look out the barred window and see how close you are to your stop.  Getting close.

Disembarking as the bus pauses briefly and then speeds on.  Leaping down there is a small nameless shop for coke and biscuits, there is the seller of the single cigarettes. Distant neighbors talking over one of many tiny cups of tea. Disposable clay cups thrown down and shattered to make an orange soil by the tea shop, crunching underfoot as you duck into an alley that is barely visible from the road. It probably has a name but you don’t know it. Pass one room homes, hear clattering of pots and pans. Rivulets of water flow down the trench at the edge of the alley. A right at the butcher, goat heads displayed in the window, smell of blood. Stop for a kilo of tomatoes and two kilos of rice at the almost hidden vegetable market. On down the lane, more and more narrow, home.

Up one, two, three flights of stairs. Stop only to ditch your filthy shoes on the mat by the door, heavy bag set down. Up another flight of stairs, circular this time, up and up. To the roof. And you can breathe, and the diesel fumes seem somehow less close. Instead it is mustard oil and garlic. Smell the basmati boiling away. Now fully dark. Cigarette behind your ear, the wooden match making the only close light on the rooftop garden. City lights twinkling about you, someone singing a Bengali love song as they wash dinner dishes. Take a deep breath, quiet above the din of the city. You and the stars and the crows, sleek black and silhouetted against the open sky. In your memory it is beautiful, but then, as now, you had anxiety, you had work, you had burdens, you had hopes.

Home in another country, another decade, another life.



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  1. I had to think about commenting on this, not because it is not rather remarkable, weaving a magical spell that transports one through time and space, but because it does it all rather too well. My experience in Pakistan was not the same as your living amongst the people in Kolkata and yet there are deep resonances, to the atmosphere, to the sensory overload, to the sense of being on one’s on in a different land. Moreover, the exercise of imagining oneself, in another time and place is one which I rather do to often, but which is somehow hard for me to do with Pakistan. Such reflection awakens emotion and a duality in me that is rather hard to face. Of course, much of this has to do with the history of my and my family’s life there, but that is also intrinsically linked with memories of the place. Maybe one day I will work it all out and get back to that part of the world. Thanks for writing.

  2. thank you for sharing your thoughts and admitting the turbulence certain periods of life and memories of place bring up. i don’t know what yours are, but oddly, that is one of the reasons i’m doing the practical work of remembering and processing lately. this might be a bit much for out here on the blog, but here goes. i’ve been thinking on this lately. there was a lot that was beautiful, magical and simply life changing in india for me. there was also a lot that was also somewhat shattering–a lot of constant exposure to suffering, working at a hospice, working with the destitute poor. so much so that it seems ridiculous to write about a bus ride and sitting on a rooftop–because, really?! it’s so darjeeling limited. but i read somewhere that it can be beneficial and healing to reimagine scenarios and remember pleasant sensory experiences and sights, and remember who else was present there and other such things. basically sometimes such difficult experiences get frozen in your brain as sort of a picture along with the very strong and confusing emotions that come with them, and they get divorced from the words to explain the horror or terror or great sadness of the experience. but if we can come to terms with other aspects of the scene, so to speak, it can change our internal experience of the memory as we uncover new layers of memory that include moments of joy or peace, or whatever.

    i have enjoy hearing what i have about your “other life” in pakistan and yes, very much hope that you will get back there some day.

  3. Here are some of my thoughts after my last trip to Pakistan some 21 years ago. Mind you the language is pretty abstract especially in the fist few sections but the last section gets a little at what I was trying to describe above:


  4. All around lovely, Angela and Neil. I am still chewing on both of your pieces, there’s a lot to savor. Ange, your comment in response to Neil is almost a third piece of its own. I somehow rebel at the idea of remembering the good bits or even the non-shameful bits, but they were there (in my own memories). And they’re still there.
    I wonder where we will all be in a year or a decade — emotionally, geographically, aspirationally, spiritually, socially. There’s so much I don’t understand; I do understand when I think of each of this blog’s contributors, I find I miss you and your families. Expect some food writing from me soon, and actual food.
    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    • Having written an article today, I have been re-reading some of the pieces and comments from this blog. And here you write, “I wonder where we will all be in a year or a decade — emotionally, geographically, aspirationally, spiritually, socially. There’s so much I don’t understand; I do understand when I think of each of this blog’s contributors, I find I miss you and your families.” And now you are half a continent away. I miss you, my friend.

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