Ladies of Calcutta

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  • Published 5.09.04
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WRITERS’ BLOC: (Clockwise from left) Mitali Perkins, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Bharati Mukherjee

A San Francisco summer can be bitterly cold as the swirling grey fog swallows up the Golden Gate Bridge and the chilly wind slices down the hills. But this is really an Indian summer, or to be more precise, a Calcutta summer, even in the foggy heart of San Francisco. Three writers, all with roots in San Francisco and Calcutta, have come out with three new books, all with enough Calcutta connections to make one smell the ilish and mustard oil — Bharati Mukherjee with The Tree Bride, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni with Queen of Dreams and Mitali Perkins with Monsoon Summer.

Bharati Mukherjee always thought her first published book would be “a cycle of stories about Calcutta life, inspired by James Joyce’s Dubliners”. Seven novels, two collections of short stories and two books of non-fiction later, she still hasn’t written ‘The Calcuttans’. But as her latest book The Tree Bride shows, her protagonist Tara Chatterjee switches between life in post dotcom San Francisco and the mansion of her great aunt Taralata amidst the mangroves of pre-Independence Bengal.

Much of immigrant fiction deals with that phantom umbilical cord tying one to desh, the dual sense of home — desh, the homeland and bari, the place of residence. Mukherjee says for her desh was always Faridpur in Bangladesh though she never set foot there till the 1990s when she was researching her book Desirable Daughters, where the reader first meets Tara.

In Divakaruni’s Queen of Dreams all the main characters are Bengali but desh is now America. She says after books like Mistress of Spices, Sister of My Heart, her characters are finally settling down in America. This is her first novel about three generations — Rakhi, a single mother in Berkeley who has grown up in the US, her immigrant mother and her unquestionably American daughter. “The third generation will have strong, not necessarily logical, but deeply emotional connections with India,” says Divakaruni. The kind there are between a grandmother and a granddaughter.”

Unlike Mukherjee and Divakaruni, Mitali Perkins did not grow up in Calcutta. But she was born there at Seva Sadan Hospital. Her mother already had two daughters — Sonali and Rupali. Her cousins were Barnali and Piali. The whole family was waiting with bated breath on the verandah for the first grandson. Instead her uncle, coming back from the hospital, held up five fingers to indicate five girls. Everyone went inside.

It’s a feeling Bharati Mukherjee can empathise with. She is also one of three daughters. Mukherjee remembers her mother was the subject of constant taunts for producing three girls. When she decided to enrol her daughters in the best school in town, the jibes intensified. “I realise now that English for her was looking outwards. The fight for English was about getting away from social conventions,” says Mukherjee.

But it was a Faustian bargain in the heady Fifties. Mukherjee had grown up at home hearing stories about freedom fighters from the ancestral villages. As a small girl she’d watched the funeral processions of young people killed fighting the British. “But at my very British school, the Irish nuns continued to display colonial attitudes,” she says.

A generation later, Divakaruni had the same schizophrenic existence at Loreto Convent and her very traditional home. “We were punished if we spoke Bangla in school. I was uncomfortable in the Anglicised world but at the same time I knew my family was making a lot of sacrifices to send me there,” remembers Divakaruni. For her freedom came when she went to Presidency College and “felt I could be intellectual and Bengali at the same time and study English literature”. It is in fact her favourite Calcutta memory — “the high-ceilinged classrooms, the Coffee House, the political discussions, cutting class and going to movies.”

For Mukherjee the liberation came after a longer journey. She says it was her discomfort with the colonial hangover that made her go to America instead of Britain for higher studies. “The discarding of the British English we were forced to respect and copy in Calcutta and adopting the much looser make-up-your-own-grammar-rules and pronounce-it-the-way-you-want freedom that was in American English was very liberating,” says Mukherjee.

Perkins didn’t quite feel that colonial tug-of-war in India. Her father moved the family to Ghana and Cameroon when she was a toddler. Eventually they ended up in the San Francisco bay area suburb of Martinez. “Forget panch phoron. I was the only Bengali, no Indian, kid for miles around,” remembers Perkins. “The gang of bully girls in school left me alone because they had heard I was Asian and were afraid I might know a secret weapon like judo or karate.”

Her first real memory of going back to Calcutta was when she was 14. In fact, Monsoon Summer is about 15-year-old Indian-American Jasmine going back to India for the summer. Perkins remembers that trip vividly. “It was a wonderful shock. I had 22 first cousins and I could really feel that extended family’s love.” As an adult she went back to India with her minister husband and really soaked it all in.

These days you can get panch phoron in Martinez and the Internet and cheap long distance calls have made Calcutta accessible in a way it has never been before. “Growing up, we regarded a probashi Bengali as a sorry creature, cut off from true Bengali culture,” says Mukherjee. Not any more. “There are Bangla papers on the Internet, Bengali classes, Saraswati Puja and you can even find a Bengali spouse at the Banga Sammelan,” laughs Divakaruni.

But there is still a residual nervousness about Bengali culture losing its way in American McCulture. Writers like Divakaruni and Mukherjee can often find themselves suddenly turned into cultural ambassadors. Both reject that role emphatically. “There is a pressure to show only good things about the community,” admits Divakaruni, remembering how the organisers of one Banga Sammelan didn’t want to do a panel about divorce. “People see me as a troublemaker sometimes, but we are not just about Rabindrasangeet and sandesh. We have our prejudices too.”

Yet they all trace their storytelling roots to their Bengali heritage. Mitali Perkins grew up relishing books like The Secret Garden till she realised how one of the characters is outraged when she is mistaken for Indian. She says that is why she started writing fiction for young adults because that’s a genre that had few desi images. “I wanted to write about being caught between two cultures,” says Perkins. When her grandfather first came to visit them, she remembers cringing when he would show up at her school in a dhoti. But at the same time she really connected with him and her book Sunita is based on that experience.

Divakaruni too says her family storyteller was her grandfather. When he retired to Barddhaman to run a free dispensary she would spend the summers there, fishing in the ponds and swimming and listening to his folk tales. “After he died, I felt the need to write about him. That’s when I really started to write because I felt I was forgetting him,” says Divakaruni.

But like a favourite grandfather, no matter when you leave, Calcutta cannot be quite forgotten. “There’s nothing like going to Calcutta,” says Perkins. “It’s a faraway place that feels exactly like home.” When she goes to her mamar bari in Behala, she takes her snaan, puts on her choti and settles down with some chanachur. But she tries not to write as a Calcuttan, no matter how at home she feels. As a writer she is careful to write from the diasporic perspective about a “place that isn’t home, but feels like home”.

In fact, for all the love that surrounds her in Calcutta, she still finds her American self sometimes needing to be alone, which is hard “when you sleep under the mosquito net with your aunt”.

For writers like Mukherjee, the burden is somewhat different. Immigrants often preserve their Indias in the year they left the country — a sort of unchanging India pickled in memory with nostalgia. “Frozen memory is the burden/blessing of diasporic Indian writers,” says Mukherjee who visits India at least once a year to keep up with the Chatterjees and Gangulys. But she says she values fluidity. “Having married outside my community and settled in North America, I have had to improvise concepts of ‘belonging’ all my adult life.”

Mukherjee says even after decades her mouth still waters at the memory of the Sunday family reunion at her mamar bari. “I would put in my request for kochu-bata, posto-bata, neem-begun and tok. After lunch came the siesta hour on beds cluttered with over-sized kolbalish. I don’t think I have ever slept as soundly or as peacefully as on those girlhood Sundays.”