The first night we brought our baby home from the hospital, my husband and I slept with a light on all night. Sky, our brand new newborn, small and wrinkly, was swaddled in a hospital blanket but constantly wriggling out of it because, no matter how many times we tried, we just couldn’t swaddle her the way they had taught us in the hospital or the prenatal classes we had optimistically taken three months ago, when I was pregnant and glowing and feeling smug that I was organized enough to sign us up for prenatal classes and my hands and feet weren’t as swollen as the pregnant woman next to me and surely if pregnancy was proving so easy for me, what lay ahead couldn’t possibly be challenging. And then I was handed a tiny baby and told to go home and protect her and raise her and go on with life as if any semblance of the life I once knew still existed. I was told to live as if a certain fear that goes hand in hand with a certain love hadn’t been planted deep inside me. And so we came home, and we slowly took the baby out of the car, my husband and I already snapping at each other in terror—watch her head, hold her carefully, support her neck, her toe is catching on the blanket, watch out for the water dripping off the awning. It was nearly 7 p.m. by the time we got home that night. We had hoped to get home earlier but it turns out that being discharged from a hospital is rarely in the patient’s hands—there was paperwork to fill out, a lactation class to attend, a terrifying video on the dangers of shaking a baby to watch, a wheelchair to wait for—new mothers, no matter how they’re feeling, are not allowed to pick up their baby and simply walk out of the labor and delivery floor—they must wait for a wheelchair and an orderly to wheel them, like a sick person, out of the hospital grounds. But the minute you’re out of the hospital, no more wheelchairs, no more nurses, no more doctors, no more medical support or advice—you’re on your own. Get off the wheelchair and figure this out. The hospital no longer cares. We couldn’t bring ourselves to place her in her independent crib that night—even though that swivels over our bed, it felt too far away from us so we put the travel crib we’d bought on our bed and gently placed her on it. “Keep a hand on her, keep a hand on her. They startle easily if they don’t feel held. I read that somewhere. Just keep a hand on her while I quickly go pee and then I’ll keep a hand on her while you get ready for bed,” I whispered to my husband. He nodded and sat down next to her and kept a hand on her and continued staring down at her face in disbelief. Our bed isn’t big enough for her crib and two adults so my husband and I slept on our sides, not moving, and with no sheets or pillows to cover us because we were too afraid of errant adult bedsheets falling on her face and obstructing her nose. We didn’t need bedsheets or pillows anyway because there was no chance of either of us falling asleep. The fear and shock that gripped us would make sleep difficult—something that proved convenient given our daughter’s lack of sleep schedule. That same fear also made us, two fully-functioning adults, scared of the dark in those early days and so we left the bathroom light on with the door open so that light would trickle into our room and let us see the outlines of furniture and the tiny face of our new baby. The last time I remembered sleeping with the light on in the room was when my grandfather died and a similar fear and love enveloped my family. I remember spending the night in the same room as my parents and brother on the night that we got the news, the bathroom light on, light coming in to make it easier for us to wander to the bathroom or to the kitchen in search of a glass of water. I lived in New Delhi then and my grandparents lived in the building next door to us in the same housing complex. My parents worked full time and my grandparents helped raise us and the day my grandfather died, our home filled with neighbors and friends who brought food and love and support and held us while we cried and then at night our home emptied but we couldn’t bring ourselves to go back to our own rooms. All four of us huddled on my parents’ bed and I have blurry memories of seeing my mother, sleepless, walking around, in and out of the bedroom. I slipped in and out of sleep while my father followed my mother out of the bedroom so they could mourn the way adults mourn without disturbing me and my brother. And I remember very little else of that day and night. With our new baby lying in between us on that first night, those same thoughts of life and death and the terrifying and exhilarating space in between, made us leave the bathroom light on. We had to see this little fully-formed human, eyelashes and all, in order to believe it had really happened. I didn’t understand how, in less than 48 hours, I had fallen so madly in love with someone that I was terrified of. I couldn’t see how life could possibly continue under this new and crushing love. How would I ever again face darkness, how would I ever again sleep comfortably? The thoughts, though outlined with happiness this time, were eerily similar to the thoughts I had on the night my grandfather died. The start of life and the end of life felt parallel in that way—how could I go on when human life begins and ends? How could I go on with such a clear idea of the finiteness of existence? How could I do something as simple as brushing my teeth and climbing into bed in a cool, dark room knowing that babies are born and people die? What else could possibly be relevant? But the difference this time was that in 45 minutes, our daughter started screaming and we had to get up to feed her and change her diaper and soothe her back to sleep before we returned to our positions on two sides of her, one hand gently on her for comfort (more my comfort than hers, I realize in retrospect), bathroom light still on. And then we did that over and over again before natural morning light started to come in from the edges of the curtains and we realized we had made it through night one and we felt a surge of joy. As the skies outside got brighter, the fear lifted. I got up and put coffee on and thought to myself, maybe I don’t need sleep after all. But when my grandfather died, I vaguely recall, as the morning light appeared, the fear and the sadness intensified. I must have drifted off to sleep eventually that night because it took a moment in the morning to remember that my grandfather was no longer alive but life still had to go on. Being awake was not fun. This time being awake was great fun. And life was in front of me asking to have her diaper changed. Because, it turns out, life does go on even though babies are born and people die. Those of us in the middle still have to brush our teeth and have something to eat and carry on conversations and watch the days turn into nights that eventually again become days. There’s no escaping that but for now I’m too tired to give it much thought. And our daughter now sleeps in her own independent crib, without the annoyance of having my hand on her all night. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Last week, my husband and I rented a car and drove up to the Catskills for a weekend with nature. On our drive we did what everyone must do while driving in America—we stopped at a McDonald’s. I haven’t been inside a McDonald’s in the United States in years. They now have touch screens on which you can order. Other than that, not much seems to have changed, not even the prices, and I was filled with a sense of nostalgia as I entered. In 1994, my family and I moved from New Delhi, India, to Ithaca, N.Y. Twice every year, we would go back to New Delhi for long stretches during the academic holidays and I would quickly fall back into my life there. In the middle of August, in time for the fall semester to begin in America, my family of four would get back on a plane and fly west to return to Ithaca. We’d land at JFK and rent a car to make the four-hour drive back to Ithaca. As we left the bustle of New York City behind, I would drift in and out of sleep for the rest of the ride. The silence would grow louder as we headed further into New York State and the greenery around the highways would grow denser as the number of lanes decreased. The road, while so familiar, always felt alien after three months of navigating the crowded streets of New Delhi. The silence of upstate New York was deafening and I remember those car rides being so disorienting. There I was, not yet a teenager, coming home from home, leaving home to go home, leaving my friends behind to reunite with my friends. All of this confusion under a haze of jet lag and the exhaustion from an 18-hour flight. And then, somewhere near Binghamton or Scranton, we’d pull off the highway and into the parking lot of a McDonald’s to stretch our legs and refuel for the last stretch of the drive, allowing my father to have a cup of coffee and get reenergized to keep driving and get us home safely. Half-asleep, at first I’d hate feeling the car slow down on the exit ramp because it meant I’d have to get up, and I would have to be awake, and I wouldn’t be in New Delhi anymore. But then we’d walk into a McDonald’s—I doubt it was ever the same one but it always felt like the same one and I suppose that’s half the charm of those golden arches—and smell the familiar fried food and order the same burger and French fries and I'd taste the idea of home on my tongue. I would awake to the realization that this taste could be home, every bit as much as the fried dough dusted with sugar was home—left by our cook in New Delhi on the dining table for when we arrived late at night and equally exhausted at the end of this same journey in the opposite direction. The distinct flavors of America, handed to us on red trays lined with paper, reminded me that I had felt the same disorientation just three months ago when I entered our apartment in New Delhi and everything felt smaller than I remembered it and I already missed my best friend in Ithaca. In New Delhi, when we returned in the middle of the night, the crowds at the airport jostling and waiting for their loved ones always felt alien at first. The children running around at 2 a.m., no concept of a bedtime, were loud and boisterous, jarring. We would load our luggage into the trunk of a black and yellow taxi and speed through the roads of New Delhi to get to our apartment. The roads of New Delhi are never empty, not even at 2 in the morning. Lives are lived outdoors in a way that would never work in upstate New York—people sleeping on sidewalks, young men smoking cigarettes and chatting while leaning against their parked motorcycles. New Delhi never sleeps; parts of upstate New York feel forever asleep. In New Delhi, too, I would let the tiredness take over and eventually fall asleep against my mother’s shoulder, waking only when I felt the speed decrease and the familiar turns into our neighborhood in the eastern part of the city. I wouldn’t want to be woken up to go upstairs and change and brush my teeth and fall asleep in bed. Like on the exit ramp in upstate New York, I’d want to stay asleep in the car, suspended between two countries and two homes with my family, my constants. But eventually the car would come to a stop and we’d have to get out and take our bags and go up to our fourth-floor apartment. We lived in a housing complex, and a guard and some other workers, who would inevitably be awake at that time, would help us get all of our luggage upstairs. We would enter the quiet of an apartment left untouched for four months, and downstairs we’d hear the guard walking around the periphery of the housing complex, hitting his stick against the ground to ward off intruders. That was a sound I initially missed in Ithaca—the comfort of knowing someone was outside and awake. But back in Ithaca, I would gradually forget the sound and get accustomed to the silence and then when I returned to Delhi, that same sound always unsettled me at first. And while listening to his stick hitting the ground, I would reach into a metal box filled with the fried dough left on the dining table for our arrival—the crispy flakes and powdered sugar spilling down the front of my shirt and those mouthfuls would ground me back in New Delhi, the same way the fries would ground me back in America at the end of the summer, the global comfort food of the heavy traveler. Image Credit: Flickr/Mike Mozart.
I am currently at a writing residency in a small town in Vermont. It has been raining for most of the day but it’s slowed down so I thought I’d leave my studio, take a short walk, and have a cup of tea before returning to my laptop. I stepped out and found myself hit by a wave of nostalgia for Kolkata, a city I’ve never lived in. My father is Bengali and lived in Kolkata until he was 17 years old, my paternal grandmother lived there until her death in 2010, and three of my aunts are there still. But the city has always felt alien to me; I don’t know the streets and I’ve never used any form of public transport. Memories of childhood trips involve being force-fed sandesh and lukewarm coca-cola in the homes of distant relatives. I’m the youngest in a long line of cousins and never knew anyone in my age group. It isn’t difficult for a five-, 10-, 15-year-old to get bored listening to old relatives talk about even older relatives and their various illnesses and ailments. And then in 2010 my grandmother passed away and I simply stopped going to Kolkata. In the summer of 2014, feeling a blend of guilt, obligation, and hope, I decided it was time to claim the city for myself. I wanted to discover it and love it the way I had discovered and fallen in love with Delhi and Mumbai. I wanted my own relationship with it, independent of my family. I wanted to wander the streets and find the people and places that would make the city mine. My brother Karna spent a year in Kolkata working as an assistant director to the film maker Rituparno Ghosh, and I was envious of his changed dynamic with the city. Even after our grandmother’s death, he continues to visit twice a year and has friends in the city and knows streets and lanes that even our father doesn’t know. His Kolkata is his own. That summer I arrived hoping to discover the same, but all I seemed to find was a city weighed down by its own past. The first day I thought I would get a sense of central Kolkata with the help of a guidebook. In all my years of exploring cities through guidebooks, I have never come across such a disparity between book and reality. Everything described in the guidebook was about what a building or corner or street once was. The pictures in the guidebook spoke to largeness, grandeur, and beauty, but the reality was messy, small, and crowded. As much as I was disappointed by Kolkata, I was disappointed also by myself. Why was I unable to see what writers I admire so obviously see? What do Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, and Amit Chaudhuri see that I don’t -- that I can’t? I went to visit a distant family friend. The front of the building was covered with blue tarp and large bamboo poles. “Are they re-doing the entrance?” I asked. She looked up to see what I was looking at and then, confused, said, “No.” I was annoyed that she wasn’t annoyed that the entrance to her home looked permanently like a construction site. I was annoyed that the citizens of Kolkata, these Bengalis that I so identify with, were all okay with the maddening traffic and the one-way streets that change direction in the middle of the day. Several narrow one-way streets in Kolkata change direction at 1 p.m., with only very small signs to inform the driver. As a result, around 1:05 p.m. every day, in small lanes around the city, taxis and rickshaws and cars face a standoff. The first day, in my aunt’s air-conditioned car, it made me laugh. The second day, in a hot, humid taxi, it made me angry. One early morning, I went to wander the narrow lanes of Kumartulli, a neighborhood in North Kolkata, on the banks of the Ganges, where idols are made. With Durga Puja approaching in October, at 7 a.m. Kumartulli was already up and active. It was a nice sight -- men of all ages and paunch sizes working to mold straw and mud and clay into the busts of Durga or the trunks of Ganesha or the bellies of Buddha. I felt, briefly, like I was wandering through the set of a Satyajit Ray film, and isn’t that what most of us go to Kolkata in search of? But then I turned the corner and saw two young men sifting through a huge heap of garbage and sewage to salvage decent looking discarded marigold flowers that they tossed to a third man, who strung them on to garlands that would presumably be used for prayers at some point. I walked down Gariahat, an average shopping street in Kolkata, comparable, perhaps to Colaba Causeway in Mumbai or Janpath in Delhi except that the most popular item on sale in Gariahat is women’s nighties. There are endless racks of these shapeless, floor length mummus in various colors and the occasional lace trim. Housewives across the city spend their days in these outfits that leave everything to the imagination. I left the city that summer feeling disconnected, disappointed, sad, and angry -- the way one does when expectations are not met. And then, the way one forgets about things, I forgot about Kolkata and my dashed dreams and disappointments. Life continued and filled in the spaces that I imagined Kolkata had left empty. I found and fell in love with other cities and other worlds. I went back for a few nights last winter to have a reception to celebrate my wedding, which had taken place elsewhere. The trip was short and hectic and Kolkata provided only the backdrop, but something felt different. In my brief glimpses of the city, I loved it. The city hadn’t changed but I had missed it. In the few moments of solitude I had during those days I recognized that I was appreciating the city finally for what it was, not for what I felt it should be. But since those moments were only moments, I had little time to process it all and left the city and forgot about it. Until now, when I stepped out into the post-rain dusk of a small town in Vermont. In many ways I am further away from it than I’ve ever been before, but it found me tonight -- something about the way the earth smelled made me miss Kolkata the way I’ve only ever missed people. I gave up on Kolkata, but it didn’t give up on me. For that I’m grateful. Image Credit: Flickr/Abhijit Kar Gupta.