Pictures of success

Like most kids born in the fag-end before globalization entered India, I've been lucky to have had a set-and-a-half of grandparents in the wonder years. One of the earliest memories of my grandfather from my father's side (my mother's father passed away in the 1960s I've grown up remembering him only as a yellowed photograph) was him telling us stories by the light of a kerosine lamp. Dadu was a wonderful storyteller, a fantastic teacher, and a completely self-sufficient man who spent his entire life looking out for others.

On afternoons dadu tenderly propped up pumpkin plants in one of his garden patches. He was a bit of a green thumb. I remember the day he was there no more. He died in the drawing room of our rented house in a south Calcutta suburb after lunch. I was in school. When I climbed the stairs, I saw him lying on a cot, eyes closed, with incense sticks lit all around the bed posts. During the ceremonies on the eleventh day, a deluge of relatives had gathered in the house with the pumpkin patch. A cousin of mine, child of an uncle who had relocated abroad in his twenties, wondered who the old man on the newly-framed photograph was. She wanted french fries, hated the heat and the mosquitoes, and did not know who her grandfather was. 

An expatriate Bengali, my uncle raised his kids on a Canadian diet. Unsurprisingly, like most children of partition, my uncle wanted to forget his past, scarred with hunger and stigma of being a refugee. When I realised how little his kids knew of us, I was angry. Only much later in life, I began to realize how we the ones who remained back home are eager to cut the umbilical cord of our past as well, only perhaps for slightly different reasons. 

Barely fifteen years back, we were making our first mixtapes. Today, as I plug in to the phone on the commute, I cannot remember the my last audio cassette.  Many of you might remember waking up to the early morning Prasar Bharati broadcast on AM radio. A few others may even remember vinyl LPs, and the whole family (and neighbours) crowding around the black-and-white television set to watch Chitrahaaar. And as I see the college kid standing nearby on the train effortlessly swiping through her tablet pc, I'm strangely not surprised. 

Nostalgia, of course, is a sort of vanity. As we grow older, we gloss over many inconveniences of the past. I can recall how eagerly we waited on the expatriate uncle, who might get us imported chocolates and stationary. Now I see my nearly-septuagenarian father struggle with the computer keyboard, and think of the way the world changed in the last 20 years. And of the way we've managed to jump in with the tide. 

We are too tired of hearing about our parents' struggles, of one-anna tramcar rides, and of putting extra chillies in the curry to "thin it out" among hungry mouths. We, the top ten-percentile in this country of six billion, the sum-total of middle class success, don't know what hunger is. 

We're too eager to stretch out, to get our degrees, and pop in the EMIs in time. The truth is, we want to forget about any ties we might have had with lower-middle-struggling India. Sometimes I think of the folks in their 50s and 60s today, and the kinds of lives they lived. Almost everybody responsible enough had mouths to feed, families to fend for, hard choices to make, dreams to sweep away. Today, I know very few people in their 20s and 30s (people like us, of course. I'd shudder to get out of my social comfort zone) who have to place others before themselves. 

Cut back to the train, and I feel a buildup of guilt as I start fidgeting with my new Android phone. But it passes. We're Catholic-school brats, you see; guilt would eventually get washed away from our English-thinking, English-speaking brains on Friday nights. 

I look back at the girl with her tablet computer, and spot a bunch of dog-eared books in her satchel. As I swipe my card at the metro turnstile on my way out, I realize I don't remember my great-grandparents' names. The irony cuts a full circle. I smile, check the twitter update blinking on the phone, and get back to humming the tune on the earphone. Five more days to Friday night.


Anonymous said...

true that :) Nicely put.

Sohini said...

like the tale of the handkerchief-seller, this, too, has that certain nostalgic emotionality that differentiates this 20-something from a number of others who are also counting their days to friday. . . wonderfully written

myriadmind said...
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Jinxed said...

Had read it before. For some reason came back to it again. read it. Loved it, especially the way it is written. Wonderful.