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Thwarted Escape

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By Lopa Banerjee

I don’t know how these empty years have passed slowly, in evanescence.

I want to swim the deep waters of a shady past

Of my rainy day caresses with you.

Here I spread out my arms and light the flame,

Look back at quick stings, ruckus, and impending doom,

Screams and murmurs alive in a hazy sleep.

Fighting away the memories to free myself,

I am bound up tight in ropes– surrendered to your flames.

All my bags have been packed, and I am finally leaving Calcutta. I’ve carefully scrutinized my passport, visa, itinerary, and all the essentials I will require for this journey overseas. Looking at the cloudy June sky from the damp terrace of my parent’s home, I hug my silently weeping mother as she turns to hug and kiss my two-year old daughter and me. The day of my departure has always been like this – the air moist from tears, occasional outbursts of anger and conflict, and words left unsaid, moments brimming with love, and the inevitability of my departure.

The uncle, aunt, brothers, sisters, and neighborhood friends, who had dropped by to carry my bags to the cab, take turns carrying my little one in their arms and play with her, till she sits snugly in my lap in the backseat. I look out of the window of the cab at the visitors exploding at the front door of our house and verandah – the uncle ready to escort me to the airport, the curious cousin brothers and sisters, the inquisitive neighborhood kid accompanied by his single-toothed, funny grandmother. They smile and look at me with silky soft dreams in their eyes, dreams that see me fade into an exquisite world of cherry blossoms and butterflies, a painted carnival of unspoken joy, emotion, and bewilderment of crossing oceans and fleeing to a wonderland. My toddler, awakened from her slumber, gazes at them with her large bright eyes as they plant soft, tender caresses on her cherubic cheeks and mouth. The trust and love showered on her by her mommy’s folks in Calcutta will soon disappear from her mind like a phantom of her dreams. We will find our way to the United States once again, after a series of transit stops.

Our cab works its way through the dust, wind, rain, and the chaotic traffic to reach the airport just in time for our departure. My father, a nervous wreck by the time our cab reaches the main gateway, goes up to my father-in-law, who is eagerly waiting at the farthest corner of the departure lounge with his Bengali sweets. A few steps away, my mother-in-law, an indulgent grandmother, reaches out to hug and pet her granddaughter, to shower her son waiting in another corner with sweets, gifts, and clothes that will last him  a couple of years. Going back to our self-chosen exile ten thousand miles away, the fifth time in a span of six years, I see myself as an expert in farewells. All these years, I have yearned for the most painful goodbyes, to see the tears of wistful longing in their faces as I walk past them in a wordless, cold departure. Whenever I’ve turned to look back, I’ve seen them loitering clumsily inside the airport lounge until they can’t see me anymore.

My luggage, tucked inside the cart, over-burdened with the worldly wonders and vestiges of the forlorn city, waits at the long serpentine queue at the international airlines counter. In a day or two, all of it will be unzipped and unfolded in childlike rapture: the silk saris and richly embroidered kurtas, the milk white and saffron colored pajamas for my husband, the pretty little lehenga-cholis I got for my little girl, the gold bangles and the stainless steel glass, the exotic silver utensils, the aromatic Bengali spices, the herbal cough syrup and the turmeric cream my mother lovingly wrapped in layers of brown paper, kept in between the folds of newly bought saris, Bengali film DVDs, cosmetics, baby food, and the junk jewelry. For days, even for a month or two, they will carry a delinquent dream space in my heart, as I will try stuffing them into cabinets and closets of my cozy little Nebraska home.

During fleeting moments at home, tucked away in a quiet new neighborhood in Omaha, I will cherish the wistful melancholy and nostalgia of roaming endlessly, alone, through uncertain miles of Calcutta streets, procuring bits and pieces of endless little delights, which I have carried with me across the miles. I have learned to recognize these little things as charms. I will periodically bring them out of their dens and listen to the stir of their breath as they accommodate themselves, unassumingly, amidst the imposing presence of clothes in the closets, imported toiletries in bathrooms, and supermarket groceries in the kitchen cabinets.

***

I am here at the departure lounge of the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, Calcutta, a space redolent with goodbyes. I have finished the last minute ritual of touching the feet of elders. Here at the departure lounge, all my worlds have collided and I wait for a few departing smiles like lightning flashes across the sky. All these years have taught me to see myself destined to trade old memories, old belongings, old identities, and old scars for the overwhelming comfort and sanctity of new ones. Passing through the long concourses, elevators, and crowded hallways of the airport lounge, I think of this life of mine, moving between terminals in a never-ending loop of hope and energy of accommodation. I tear up the pages of my Calcutta past, carrying in her womb my old, forsaken love poems, the dizzy memories of loves lost and sorrows endured. I blow them away into pieces to be crushed by the smothering traffic of the city I am leaving once again.

I pause at the gray, cold edge of a life that gazes down on the faraway lights of Park Street in Downtown Calcutta; the aroma of rich caffeine and candid smiles inside the twilight haze of the Coffee House; the white, puffy clouds towering the smoky winter skies of the city. I clasp with my sweaty hands the edges of the scarlet red stroller, where my little one sits blissfully oblivious, sipping Mango Frooti with a plastic straw from a tiny white container she has been given by mommy’s folks as a parting gift. I see myself drifting slowly into yet another series of months and years with my husband and kids in faraway Nebraska.

For an hour or so I wait to fill up the emigration forms, cuddled inside a long queue of multitudes of unknown, unseen faces, which appear like a dreamscape on the brink of another life. I try to look for faces of bright-eyed dreamers, faces of the young and old filled with emotion and bewilderment as they bid farewell to their folks standing outside the barricades of the customs area, for eyes gleaming with unexpected encounters with their past as they drift out in haste, dreading the bitterness of loss and separation. I look at all these faces as characters etched in the transcendental canvass of the city which they have been destined to leave. In a sudden spark of lightning, all these faces, in bits, pieces, and splinters, become my own.

***

Dear Calcutta,

As I write to you today, I am at a loss where to start. I consciously refuse to call you by your rechristened name, ‘Kolkata’. For me, you are the good old Calcutta, alluring me in my little-girl-days, when I used to look expectantly with my curious eyes at your towering office buildings, hand-pulled rickshaws, your crowded hawkers’ corners, emaciated ice-cream sellers pulling their crumbled carts on your dingy footpaths. As a girl living the most common, unassuming life with parents on the outskirts of the city, I don’t remember, when, unknowingly, those very streets, footpaths, buildings, and the endless persuading calls from the street-hawkers started haunting my days, in the form of a rhythmic chanting. And you began to consume my entire being. It wasn’t your soil where my cradle was rocked. Yet, I knew my entire being had been consumed by you, as on my journey to womanhood, I’ve met and befriended many, who have been born, raised in the city. As a child, I saw, felt, and smelt grandeur while passing by your streets, lit up with neon lights. The shops, buildings, the vast expanse of Park Street, Esplanade, Golf Course, and Rabindra Sadan unfolded happy dreams and hopes in my heart. I fostered those dreams silently and ardently all through the days of my battered youth, as I pursued studies in English literature, acted in amateur plays, and took music lessons in  the profound, mystic songs of Tagore that still hover in my mind, unfazed by our distance. It is in your soil that I’ve treasured the welcoming world of friends – get-together sessions in coffee shops and in auditoriums, where we enjoyed eclectic Rabindra Sangeet, Bengali rock bands, and thought-provoking Bengali theatrical performances. In my own private world, filled with books and music, by the silent anger and desolation of being with parents, who have almost always lived in their own worlds, I had looked forward to the world of easy banter with friends. I fooled myself into thinking of them as tending, nourishing, mending, wrapping warmth and love around me like a warm cloak, until the day I saw their changing faces in the wounded light of the dusk.

Your memories are of a mad day’s mirth, of grief deepening in darkened rooms, of birthday parties and New Year Eve celebrations, when passion and sheer ecstasy ran in my veins to the beating of drums, memories of me singing all by myself to the strumming of guitar in a candle-lit room, of me weeping sheepishly, silently in the forbidden corners of your old buildings, feeling utterly stupid and insane at loves lost, grades ruined, disgrace and an awful loneliness overpowering me as I had seen the splendor of life slipping away from me like a fistful of sand.  As I leave you today, I am a soul trapped in a glass that carries the remnants of the days and nights burnt out, with classmates, buddies, old colleagues at work, with boys I had turned to – in my quest for love and acceptance. As I leave you today, it is a moment in time, when I know I am going back with the agony and the hope of change, when I know I have left behind a wardrobe of favorite clothes and drafts of unfinished poems, when I know I can never regain the innocence of my very young years and start all over again, with you.

Today, I leave you again, with the sudden ambush of faded memories of being bullied, blamed, ridiculed, kissed, and tempted with love and desire. I look back and think how I, a candle in the wind, roaming your city streets have flickered and blazed, sustaining my flame even as the rains set in.

Will write to you again, as my folks say, ‘across the seven oceans and thirteen rivers.’

An old pal.

***

Love and life seemed a scrumptious feast six years back, when I had pined for the sheltered silence of a faraway home and had ultimately found one. The tyranny of nostalgia has been deadly and smothering, recurring in bits and pieces of undefined dreams, as I have swam through the suffocating waters of my first friendships, first betrayals, first love, first heartbreak, first exploits with fun, sin, glory, and rejection in the hidden nooks and corners of my forsaken city. It took me two long years to contemplate leaving my city, my home, my parents, and the silently brewing complaints of the life I had thought about leaving, for good. For two more years, I had given in to the unseen delights of a foreign land with deceptive ease. The thought of leaving the heartbreaks, friendships, and betrayals of Calcutta gave me comfort and sustenance. All I could do during those days was to speak long-distance to the man I would marry in the coming winter or spring. Chatting with him endlessly on the Internet and over the phone, I wanted to be beautiful all over again; I wanted to hang on to the world of virtual correspondence. There was relief in the thought that I no longer wanted to curse false friends and lovers, who were once part of my world, whose amateurish promises of loving and togetherness lay trampled and dead in cold sleep.

We got married in haste and a host of ceremonies followed. I had to fly alone and reach him across the sunlit skies, seeking to melt with the scented breeze of a life that was steadily, stealthily luring me towards the west. I remember now, how I left my mother working with a pious concentration in our big dark kitchen, how I left old neighbors and friends, rummaged books, clothes, and my old harmonium in the deep green twilight of oblivion. Moving away, then, felt like a complete solution, an end to a life of claustrophobic familiarity where every move, every step for a girl in a middle class family was predicted, pronounced, clichéd. Moving away, back then, was a prepared, rehearsed role of integration as I mingled with the crowd of immigrants at the John F. Kennedy airport, a wonderland that remained largely unexplored in my first visit to the country.

Omaha, for that matter, was not the first home where I had sought to build a sanctuary with my husband. We began our days as man and wife amidst the mighty spring, in the early morning blush of upstate New York. Soon after, the green blades of grass brought with them winds of a warmer hue as we toured parts of the north-east, Niagara Falls, parts of Pennsylvania, the sublime hilly terrains of Western New York. Our destiny was roaming in the infinite sky, when winter spoke to us in hushed silence, bringing us to the land of the prairies in Nebraska.

All these years I have worked to make Omaha my home with its long, tiring winter days of endless snowfall and mist, its sunlit days of solitude, its dark clouded summer evenings breaking out into violent storms and tornadoes. It is nowhere near the grandeur of experience of friends, who have been lured by the luxury and ambiance of big American cities and the dreams fostered there. It is all about unknowingly embracing the unassuming simplicity and plainness of a quiet Midwestern state, where my heart had never thought of settling down.

There have been days of which I never speak, when I have hummed the tunes of the wood thrush, of the cascading Missouri waters, of the canyon walls and plain ranches, of the boundless prairies that have stretched their way into the faraway west. Our nuptial ties that brought us together to live in the plains, have blossomed and faded away like the perennial flowers planted in our porch, as we have seen ourselves changing apartments, shivering at the thought of the deadly west winds from the windows of our compressed living room, and eventually buying a small house in a quiet, unassuming West Omaha neighborhood nestled by the quietude of a quaint old lake. I have smelt the landscape and light, the morning of the prairie grasses. The land that has finally filled my man’s face with the soft, twilight satisfaction of a nice workplace and friends, has seen me evolve from a loner brimming with wilderness and rage, to a woman embracing the fragrances of a home in the most unlikely of places, and a mother caressing the light and refreshing scent of our baby. With her birth in the lavish surgery room of the Methodist Hospital, ten thousand miles away from her Bengali parents’ place of origin, she has unknowingly scribbled a significant part of the script of our destiny in the city.

All these years, I’ve smiled sunshine while walking through the bitter frost and gray smoke of the sullen winter sky of the American Midwest. I have embraced shadows of solitude in the furnished rooms of our love-nest. I have surrendered to this life of unknown twists and turns, of freedom and anonymity which has surrounded and sheltered me, yet not consumed me. I have lied to myself prudently into a home and adored the echoes of barrenness with a focused, diligent oblivion. I have internalized the very quiet, suburban Midwestern life in all these years. Yes, I had once lied myself into believing the modern fairytale of a Western life, when I didn’t actually know what would lie ahead. Strangest of all, I have carried on, and am still carrying on, in a home ten thousand miles away from my verdant childhood home. Sometimes, in distant dreams, when tired footsteps echo down the corridors of time, I feel disembodied, living as if I belonged to an earlier place, not to my present existence in the small Midwestern city of America, not even to my childhood and youth in the far eastern city of India, but to a different welcoming earth where nobody knows or remembers how I was before I reached my present. I have sought the existence of such an earth that waits eagerly, to tell me a tale of ordinary human longings left to be explored, walking together with thought and pain, humanity and grace.

Six years back, I had left the silly old streets of Calcutta in the haste and with the allure of discovery. I do not know what it is that makes me return to all those glories and sins like a childhood misery. I am the burnt out candle that strives to return to old flames and bruises, to the silent rage and vengeance of the city and its people. I keep coming back, to walk in the smothering traffic of Downtown Calcutta, to melt with the daily sweat and toil of subways and local trains, like the days when I used to commute to my office, to gaze from the window of my cab at the curled clouds, the dust, and the soot of a city that had once blown me to near-death with her betrayals.

I return to the insane chaos and bickering inside the confines of my parents’ home in the uneventful suburbs of the city to see a broken fragment of my own being, still lurking behind the dark corners of the rooms I had left behind. I return as the dutiful daughter-in-law to a lifeless home of dispassionate, non-accepting in-laws emerging in my life time and again, as a river with secret tides I am obliged to navigate. I return, time and again, to the absurdities and pretenses of a Bengali household I had so despised and escaped years back. The fifth time in a span of six years, I had come back to them, not as a fiery child-woman, who used to question the legitimacy of acceptances and discrimination, not as a demure bride who didn’t understand shameless traditions of adaptation in a strange family of people, who spoke less, felt less. I no longer look at every face in a new house, anticipating recognition and warmth as I have done in the past; I no longer look for a resurrection. I come back, as a traveler in time, to smell and feel the bruises, the decadence and fragility of years woven into the city of my birth that still bristle, breathe, and sleep outside the windows of my Omaha home.

I am an ordinary, commonplace immigrant in North America, and like many others of my ilk, I have embedded myself in a family, far-flung from what is called ‘original home’. Like many others, I am striving to gain the status of the coveted Non-resident Indian, a legitimate work permit to survive in a distant land, while my heart continues to ache with the desire to be rocked in the bosom of my mother and to revisit the havens of my childhood.

My luggage checked in, the forms filled in unerringly, I trudge past the long queue waiting to climb the stairs leading to the departure lounge. I try to look back for one last moment at inconstantly waving hands, the multitudes of faces in the crowd sinking away in cold departure. For a month or two, I had returned, barefoot, to the rocks, thorns, and stings of the city that has been my first crush, my first impatient lover, my first betrayer, my first tormentor, and my first barging intruder. An 18-hour flight booked to Chicago via Frankfurt will bring me and my baby to the eagerly waiting arms of my husband. I am returning to the once cherished anonymity, freedom and worldly comforts of an organized, unperturbed western life. I know in my dreams I will return, endlessly, to uncertain miles of a burnt-out life I had supposedly escaped long ago.

***

You cherish me, limp and crazy

The constant cold departures, the sinking away

While you know I would come back again to your dingy streets and undo ‘ME’.                                         

We are driving through the interstate all the way past the vast stretches of Illinois, the wide array of the corn fields of Iowa, as I watch the strong gust of the Midwestern winds lashes wave after wave of rain against the car windows. Upon reaching the city limits of Omaha, my girl cries out impatiently from her car seat as we see the last fading rays of the twilight sky. My husband hurries to take us home, where he says some little surprises are awaiting us.  He stealthily looks at my bulging belly as we both look curtly into each other’s eyes. I had conceived our second baby by the time I left for Calcutta. As I approach our home in anticipation and anxiety to see how the rooms, the furniture, the kitchen, and the orchids have fared during my long absence, I gradually begin to feel the rhythm and nuances of a new life born out of the hope and energy of accommodation. I feel a sacred sense of redemption within myself as I give in to an inevitable oscillation. Here I am at home again, feeling the constant stings of a life left behind that zooms headlong past my senses. Here I feel the tiny heartbeats of a life which is born in time, like an invisible, secretly growing sapling in the hidden corners of a far-flung home, which I embrace yet again.

[This is another chapter of the author’s yet unpublished memoir. You may read one more excerpt from her memoir here.]

Photo-credit: here

Author:

Lopa Banerjee is a freelance writer, poet, and mother of two beautiful girls. She is also in her final year of studying creative nonfiction writing at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. She has just completed her memoir, a book-length collection of personal essays and stories on her childhood and her internal journey titled, Thwarted Escape: A Journey of Migrant Trails and Returns. Her poetry, essays, articles, and book reviews have appeared and are forthcoming at Prairie Fire13th Floor Magazine, LinesYahoo VoicesThe Mind CreativeIncredible Women of India, and Ampersand Review.

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Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.

***

Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Lucknow’s Many Muslims”. Edited by Prof. Nadeem Hasnain & Aseem Hasnain. The rich array of essays explores various facets of Lucknow, a ‘Muslim city par excellence.’

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13 Responses to “Thwarted Escape”

  1. Bhaswati Ghosh

    You write with such beauty, grace and sweep of emotions. Just sublime. Always a joy to read your work.

    Reply
  2. lopu123

    Thank you, Bhaswati! I am planning to write a suquel of it once I reach Kolkata this year in August, for my mother’s one year death anniversary. Let’s see what unfolds in that new journey 🙂

    Reply
  3. Joyce Yarrow

    Lopa Banerjee transports us into her world of overpowering memories, where we experience the sights, sounds, and textures of her childhood and adolescence in Calcutta, threaded by the family ties that both bind and torment her. An exquisite portrayal of bittersweet transition and the conflict between embracing change and holding on to the past – as she puts it: “fighting away the memories to free myself.” Her writing speaks to our need for continuity and most of all love, wherever we roam.

    Reply
  4. lopu123

    Thank you, Joyce Yarrow. Each of your words resonate so much with me, I wanted to portray these very aspects that you mention 🙂

    Reply
  5. anitadesai70

    Overwhelming piece on emotions and memories. Congratulations Lopa 🙂

    Reply
  6. BUTTERFLIES OF TIME

    How beautifully you describe the scenes! I am in awe at the fluidity and grace of your narrative. Very well written indeed. The people and places come alive as I read each line of it.

    Reply
  7. lopu123

    I take it as a huge compliment from you, Reena @Butterflies Of Time! It really means a lot to me 🙂

    Reply
  8. rhitibose

    Lopadi, the forever beautiful writer, you have such power in your words which is beyond my imagination. Absolutely loved this piece.

    Reply
  9. JAWAID DANISH

    Jigar Lopa…..your writing flows like a wild spring, and compel the reader to sit and finish the chapter withno excuses….Love it…..congrats…..khushbash.

    Reply

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