Closure in Calcutta (Part 2)

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Sarmishtha lives with her parents and her brother’s family. The two-story house overlooks a narrow lane and a squared-in, natural pond. On the other side of the pond is the house where Sarmishtha spent the first 14 years of her life. The last 17 years, she has lived here, in this house in Dakshineswar, a somewhat peaceful neighborhood in the Howrah section of Calcutta.

The pond must be filthy, but its dappled surface is beautiful, reflecting palm trees and the train station across the way, which is built to imitate the nearby Kali Temple. There are birds flitting around its edges, yellow and orange flowers too, and all day long, men stop to bathe in it, entering the water in wrap-around lunghis which they keep on as they lather up and rinse off.

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It is a relaxing, warm visit, and I am living the same Bengali culture described in Lahiri’s book, which I read early in the morning, on the balcony, sipping black tea. The unique Bengali language, the clothes, the customs. These things are familiar to me as I read the book, and I begin to realize how much I’ve learned. The food too, which in this house, is prepared by Bo, a servant with Sharmishtha’s family for 33 years; she is a part of the family, along with her daughter, the two of them cutting vegetables on the kitchen floor all afternoon to make us rice, fish curry, dahl, and payesh for the evening meal.

When Deba-dada arrives, our foursome takes a final excursion together. We walk to the river bank, only ten minutes away. The Hooghly is a branch of the sacred Ganges, and there are temples and ghats and markets and snake charmers along its edge here (up and downstream there are also smoke-billowing jute factories).

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The four of us take a boat taxi across the river as the sun sets behind even more temples. We disembark at the Ram Krishna complex on the other side, where we visit cool, marble temples and shrines, and mix with so many Sunday-afternoon, dressed-up families on the lawns. Tay and I are the only foreigners here; in fact, we haven’t seen another white face since we said goodbye to Carmel-from-Australia, but we get only mildly curious looks from people, none of the crowding or staring I would have expected. A bloated dog carcass floats in the river near a ghat where women and children bathe, splashing rooster-tailed streams of holy brown water over their heads.

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When we get back, it is dark and despite Bo’s meal waiting at home, Debasish insists on “making a party for Joshua and Tay,” treating us to a meal he can’t afford and we allow him this, as we’ve paid for everything so far, and he must feel some duty to host us in his home city. At Sarmishtha’s, we spend some time looking at photos on my laptop, then Deba leaves and we wave from the balcony and he shouts “I hope you come back to India!”

In the morning, we ride with Sarmishtha to pick up our train tickets, then to Sealdah Station, where we had groggily disembarked only 72 hours before. The halls are clogged with village drumming troupes; gaunt, costumed men and boys, sleeping against their instruments. They have come to try earn money during Diwali and Kali Puja and there is a large crowd in the parking lot where the troupes audition in the sun, drumming and dancing in a kind of desperate frenzy.

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Sarmishtha is going back to Birpara to continue on with the tea workers. We say goodbye as a relentless, one-armed beggar pesters us, calling her “Didi” (Little Sister) and me “Babu” (Sir). Then Tay and I board the Rajdhani Express, another three-tier sleeper car, but this one is far cleaner and more spacious and we sprawl in the empty seats; we are served multiple snacks, cups of hot tomato soup, and a meal of rice, dahl, and oily paneer, or cottage cheese. Everyone else in the car goes to sleep, on their way to Delhi, but we stay up, reading amidst our bags. We are getting off the train in Gaya, after only six hours, to see the most famous tree in the world.

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