So there we were at home on a midweek evening, my wife, my daughter and I, each sipping his/her own drink and turning the pages of a massive — and massively attractive — picture book titled 1000 Wonders of the World. (I’m on leave, you see. Oh, the delicious sinfulness of being blissfully drunk at 9 pm on a weekday.)
Oishi is enthusiastically ticking off the wonders that she has visited, yelping with delight as she knocks off another one like an archer at target practice: the Duomo in Florence; the harbour in Monte Carlo; the Opera House in Sydney; La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona; any London sight at all.
“So which cities have you lived in?” I asked her. She knows my definition of living in a place: you need to have rented a flat there; and you need to know the cheapest local grocery store. “I have in five: Kolkata, London, Delhi, Sydney and Mumbai,” I tell her in no particular order.
She looks at me, thinking of why she can’t put all those in her own list. “Okay," she says in the end, probably feeling a trifle outdone for once, “Kolkata, Sydney and Mumbai.”
I thoroughly enjoy living in different places, getting to see how (and if or when) different cities grow on me, how I respond to them. We have been in Mumbai for three-and-a-half years now.
In that time, Oishi’s spoken English has acquired a faint Mumbai inflection: her ‘d’ is hard; the ‘b’ and ‘r’ are unwarrantedly stressed, so that she says “What rubbish” or “ddrrrink”. (Well, that’s somewhat exaggerated, but I suspect you’ll know what I mean.)
She speaks a smattering of Marathi. Justifiably appalled at my brave but faltering attempts at spoken Hindi, she coaches me in it. She celebrates Diwali with diyas and rangoli (not quite the custom in her — and my — hometown, Kolkata). And this past Ganesh festival, she had me take her around several particularly uninspiring pandals in the neighbourhood.
(In fact, I tend to feel a little sorry for people who have lived their childhoods and adolescences — often their whole lives — in pretty much one city. It engenders a blinkered insularity.)
At the same time, I think, it’s good for Oishi to keep in touch with the culture she comes from. (Although “comes from”, for peripatetic childhoods, becomes a dubious definition. In this instance, I merely mean the place where all her extended family is.)
We try and speak only Bengali at home. I read her a lot of Bengali: Sukumar Ray’s work; Rabindranath Tagore’s children’s literature; Dakshinaranjan Majumdar’s fairy tales; and Upendrikishore Roychowdury’s renderings of fables and the epics.
But she can’t read Bengali herself. She has not learnt the script either. We have neither the time nor the patience, and it sometimes worries me that she might grow up without learning to read Bengali. (Not a great loss, you might say. Perhaps she will read Kafka in the original. Perhaps. But I still think it’s rather a loss.)
We visit Kolkata only once every year. And she terrifically enjoys herself there, being pampered by her grandparents, eating luchis, fluffy and white, made from flour, watching a certain Bengali game show on TV, swimming at the club, picking up new books, CDs and DVDs.
By the time you read this, we shall be in Kolkata for a few days. There, I sometimes feel like the narrator in Bruce Springsteen’s song, My Hometown: “I’m 35, we got a boy of our own now/Last night I sat him up behind the wheel/And said, ‘Son take a good look around/This is your hometown.”
We both love the song. And I particularly enjoy watching Oishi trying to reclaim her roots.