Thursday, February 4, 2016

The American Rock

By Ananya Mukherjee
I was introduced to the word “America” (pronounced Aymayrika in most Bong households) from the moment I was born. “Aymayrika” is a common punctuation mark in most family discussions where at least one good son or “bhalo chhele”, after having completed his Engineering from IIT and diligently scoring a crazy count on GRE has finally settled down in a suburban town on the eastern coastline of the continent. In many homes, it is also where the proverbial “lokkhi meye” or the good girl who again sits ready with post graduate degrees and other bridal competencies relocates after being suitably evaluated by the Paatro-Paatri (matrimonial) section of Ananda Bazaar Patrika and eventually wedded to the bespectacled “bhalo chhle”. However, it was always different for me. Being neither a “lokkhi meye” nor the kinds to be swept off the floor by the quintessential “bhalo chheles”, the name America meant nothing aspirational but something closer at home.
To me, in my growing up years, it signified a blue airmail the postman dropped in our mailbox once a month that instantly made my mom happy. It also meant long distance trunk calls in nights of excitements and emergencies in the family. And of course, it brought memories of blue leather suitcases filled with sweaters, denims, highland boots, Kit Kat chocolates, Granola wafers, dresses and dolls, perfumes and lipsticks, every summer and one person behind it all; the Santa Claus of my childhood, my maternal aunt. So enamoured was I by her charm and generosity that very early in life, I had seemingly concluded that all good and rare things in life originated in a land far far away and could only be shipped to me by an Air India flight.
My mother fondly remembers an evening in Kashmir when I was a toddler and had barely began to speak sentences in full. She recalls we were walking up a hill. A two-year- old me had picked up a shiny pebble stone from the curb, and very gloriously announced that I had found an “Amrikarer Pathhor” (The American Rock) on a roadside in Riasi.
America was a “brand” we found in every nook and corner of the house, despite living in the heart of India. My Grandma, who was tutored at home in the days of the British Raj made her first solo trip to the US in 1980. Needless to say, it was also her first flight. In hindsight, she not only surprises me with her unusual independent streak and Columbus- like approach, I am fascinated by the fact that she actually flew across three continents, from Mumbai to London and then to New York City speaking a single line in an immaculate British accent: “I do not speak English”. I am told she forgot to get her visa stamped and hence had to disembark in Heathrow and was detained in London, where she managed to charm a whole team of immigration officers , sorted her visa and after a day tour of the Queen’s palaces took an onward Pan Am flight to JFK. When the very concerned family on either side of the ports enquired of what they assumed to be a “harrowing experience”, her response was epic. “Ei shujoge England dekha hoye gelo. Heathrow airport e janish koto Sardarji” (Got an opportunity to see England. Do you know how many Sardars I saw at Heathrow?) Her first US vacation lasted eight months. My phoren-returned Grandma came back prettier, fairer, a few kilos heavier, smelling of Chanel and her hand bag was full of Kit Kat chocolates and candies they served on the flight. Of course, she was full of stories. Anecdotes of how first generation immigrant Bengalies in the eastern coast of the US were the most delightful, social and culturally rich clan of Non Resident Indians ever to be found, how every weekend meant a long drive to another state and an eight course dinner over songs and adda, where everyone treated Mashima with such respects and even gave her presents, how Niagara falls was the most astonishing sight she had seen in her life, how she missed us in Disneyland, how Americans severe the fish head and her heart wept for my Mom whose love for Muri Ghonto ( a special Bong delicacy with fish head) is well known in the family, so on and so forth. And yes, how lovely American neighbours and their kids were.
Michelle and Tom were my aunt’s neighbours in Wayne, New Jersey. They must have been really cute kids since my Grandma was so fond of them. “Ki je shundor duto bacha. Phutphute, phete porche gayer rong aar phor phor kore ingriji bolche.” ( How beautiful these kids were. White skinned and speaking English fluently), she shared on her return. Ahem!! It took my mom and dad some time to hold their laughter.
She went back to the US again much later in the late 80s and her fascination had not changed much. This time she came back with the worst biases ever. By now, my sister and I were both teenagers and pretty strong self-assumed ambassadors of the Mera Bharat Mahaan campaign. One evening at dinner, when Grandma was caught in a whirlpool of American fantasies, raving about every single thing she had eaten, worn, seen or touched, Dids and I, mischievously decided to teach her a lesson. The war was now between the Indian Basmati Rice and some fragrant rice she had been served in the US. The opportunity for such a moment came soon enough as she handed over a stack of neat jute bags to my mom, saying “Look, I got you the bags in which the rice comes from the supermarket. They are good for storage.” Dids and I lost no time in grabbing one of the samples on which the following words shone like shining neons!! “Premium Dehradun Basmati Rice. Export Quality.” Under the big label in blue were tiny prints on the jute fabric: “Imported from India.”
My Grandma’s loyalty to the American dream came close to being shattered when her favourite American, no less than the President himself, Mr Bill Clinton was facing a potential impeachment due to his somewhat scandalous liaisons with an intern in the Oval Office. My Grandma was perhaps amongst Clinton’s greatest fans. She followed every single news piece on him and was fiercely protective about any political or personal allegations against him. She almost took it personally. So intense was her loyalty, that she pledged an offering to the revered Goddess Kali at a temple should Clinton walk out scot free. My maternal uncle had to actually go and pay homage to Bhriingi Kali and offer a basket of red hibiscus flowers, some sweets and donations in honour of Mr Clinton’s release. It does not stop here. The priest, it seems, was little impressed or did not recognize the name of the person whose offering he channeled to the Goddess. In his usual high pitch he had thrown the question to my uncle across a bunch of other devotees. “Hyan kaar name pujo?” ( In whose name is this offering?” “Bill Clinton.” My uncle almost died with embarrassment for having to do this.
“ Bill Clinton? Bideshi? Accha, ki Gotra?” ( Bill Clinton? Foreigner? What is his Gotra?”) My uncle had looked helplessly at my Grandma. How would he know what Gotra Clinton was! Grandma who was standing next to him, shouted back with an unforeseen authority, “Kashyap.”
Well, ever since then, Clinton became family, or at least linked by my maternal Gotra. Strange as it sounds, my first trip to the US happened only a month back. I would not go into the details of my personal experience of whether or not I was fascinated by what I saw for the simplest reason that I perhaps live in the swankiest, modern-est, safest, cleanest city in the world and every other city looks like a washed out version of my home-city few decades back, but I did have an enormously enriching experience travelling across some parts of its west coast. They say, life moves in full circles and it could not have been truer than this. We spent the new year at the Grand Canyon Village in freezing cold. Amongst all the things that my 16-year-old daughter could have gifted me at the start of this year was a piece of Canyon rock beautifully carved out as a candle stand. Her words were: “Mamma, that’s your Amrikarer pathhor ( American Rock). We found it.”

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