Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Friday, March 4, 2011


Can you be homesick for a place that you are standing in the middle of?

I think I might be.

When Chandana heard about my accident the other night she made me show her the damage and, despite my protests, I was sent off in a rickshaw to Dr. Ganguly's who I met last week when he came over to visit with Eva.  We had rum and cokes, remember?

Dr. Ganguly is retired, ostensibly.  But he still has clinics in the morning.  The rickshaw man pulled up to a tiny little building and told me to take a seat in the open air waiting room.  After one person came out and another went in and left, I took my turn.  Dr. Ganguly looked at the cuts on my leg and the big bruise on my upper thigh and told me he would like to give me a tetanus shot, despite the fact that I've had one only last month.  He is sure that the reason I told him I didn't want a shot is that I am afraid of the injection; I just think it's unnecessary.  But I've learned here that sometimes making other people feel better is the easiest choice, and I'm pretty sure another tetanus shot isn't going to do any harm.

He also prescribed some anti-inflammatory pills which he walked me next door to pick up.  I paid for the pills, but he wouldn't let me pay for the consultation: "You are my friend.  My friends do not have to pay." I wanted to tell him that wasn't a very good way of doing business, but I'm not entirely sure that I agree with myself on that one.

I was Dr. Ganguly's last patient of the day and as we waited for the pills to be counted out, he told me that he was very excited and anxious to get back to the book he was reading.

"I am getting goose bumps.  It has been a very long time since a book has affected me like this.  I will give it to you when I am finished."

He is reading The Man from Beijing, which Eva had brought for him as a gift.

"I understand," says me to him.  "With books like that I always feel a little jealous when someone else gets to read them for the first time."  Dr. Ganguly smiled.  He smiles in the most odd and wonderful way.  His lips don't elongate themselves the way many of us smile, instead, his lips draw in, almost like pursed lips, and only then do the corners go up; he lets his sparkling eyes do all the work of telling you that he is glad and happy and that he approves of what you've just said.

Dr. Ganguly walked me back to the rickshaw, pointing out his house across the street from where we stood.  "Not much of a commute," I joked.  His eyes smiled.  We exchanged "good-byes."

As my driver sped off at a crawl, I found myself inexplicably emotional.  Maybe it's the extraordinary circumstances of being so far from my normal support system, but I wanted to cry, to embrace Chandana and Dr. Ganguly, the rickshaw driver, for making sure that I was all right.  It was all probably a bit to much bother for my minor injuries.  But to be seen to and looked after was so touching.  I felt as if my very being was going to crack open and spill out.

It wasn't just the tending to my wounds that made me come undone.  Think about it, when was the last time you went to the doctor and he or she talked about needing to get home to a book that was so good it gave them goose-bumps.  And Dr. Ganguly didn't rush me in and out, even to get to his book.  He lingered and got my medicine, walked me to the rickshaw (the RICKSHAW!).  He was a human being talking to another human being, not a man who knows more, talking down to a patient who knows less.  I had none of my usual feelings of insecurity about being around a doctor.  Just like I want to be a good human before I want to be anything else, I think Dr. Ganguly might just think about himself in the same way....

This morning I moved out of the swanky apartment I'd been living in since I arrived in Shantiniketan.  It had been arranged for by Eva and the three of us had lived there at a reduced rate in deference to her standing in the community, but the rate had gone up when it was just me; the monthly rate was exhorbinant, by Indian standards.   I moved just around the corner to the larger house on the "estate" Chandana lives on.  I have a smaller, more comfily lived in space, but I adore it so much more.  It's not just that Chandana lives on the other side of the garden, but I also love the family that tend to the house: Minou, Jahor, and their daughter Rocky.  (I'm sure I've messed up the spelling of their names...Bengali lessons to begin apace!)

But in the complicated way that you can be homesick for a place you are already standing in, I will also miss the family that took care of the house I left this morning.  Chompa, the woman whose job it was to clean the dishes and do the laundry is a character, to say the least.  As Chandana pointed out when she was able to translate Chompa's Bengali, Chompa says everything, including the most innocuous of questions, with a tone of angry remonstration: DO. YOU. WANT. ANYTHING. CLEANED???!!!????  or  YOU. ARE. VERY. BEAUTIFUL!!!!!!?????!!!!

She uses this loud tone all day long.  Say that you are trying to take a nap, you might very well find it difficult because Chompa is in the back yard, half a house away, saying to her son something that in tone translates to: YOU WORTHLESS CHILD, GET TO WORK, I HATE YOU, GO RUN UNDER A BUS!!!???!!!! In Bengali, she's probably saying, "I love you, could you please do your homework, I baked you a cake, here's a rupee, go get an ice-cream."

Worse yet, imagine that right after you get up in the morning, you have just made yourself the first cup of coffee for the day and Chompa comes in to change the sheets.  She stands three feet from you and yells through the house to her son.  She's probably saying, "You are late for school.  Make sure to eat your breakfast.  I love you.  Run along.  Kiss kiss."  But, your brain can only imagine, based on the way she's communicating, that she is saying: WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT THERE YOU LAZY IDIOT?  I'M ASHAMED TO CALL YOU MY SON!  GET IN HERE AND HELP ME BEFORE THIS STUPID WHITE WOMAN EXPECTS ME TO DO HER DISHES!"

Ask anyone who has ever had to live with me how I feel about loud noise, especially in the morning or when I am trying to sleep.  Go on.  If you can't find someone, let me tell you myself: it can, under the perfect storm of hormones, lack of sleep, and stressful living conditions, make me crazy mad.  Since none of those things have been a factor the last two weeks, it has only made me moderately annoyed.

The only reason I haven't gotten mad is that Chompa has also taken a shine to me, so she tempers her yelling with bringing me sweets after Puja, hugging me, and doing her best to give me my space, which I know is hard for her.  I also adore her son, Bishar, who is nine and who has one of the all time sweetest smiles.  I've been downloading cartoons for him to watch and we've had little parties with cookies.  Usually it's just us two, but last night Chompa and Nicole joined us.

This morning I said Goodbye to Chompa while her husband, who is a sort of quiet, almost ghost-like figure loaded up his rickshaw for the short journey to my new home.  Chompa hugged me and started crying.  For the first time since I came here, she spoke quietly.  Of course, I don't really know what she said, but I know that it was sweet and spoke of me being in her heart, at least I think that's why she kept touching her heart.  We hugged several times.  As she clung to me with every fiber of her being, I let myself be moved by her emotion.  I could feel her heart breaking and I was sad myself.

I wish I could understand why I am so special to this woman with whom I couldn't even speak.  She kept telling me last night (ok, I THINK that she was telling me) that I needed to learn Bengali, or at least Hindi, so that next time we can communicate.  Of course she said it more like:  YOU LEARN BENGALI, OR AT LEAST HINDI.  FOR NEXT TIME!!!!!????!!!!!

India holds so many layers of emotion, of reality all at once.  It is possible here to be sad and happy and at home and homesick, all at the same time.  I can find Chompa impossible to live with and let her into my heart at the same breath.  I can be taken care of by Chandana and Dr. Ganguly without losing my strength.

Dr. Ganguly has said that he lives in the past.  I asked him, "What about the future?"  He said, "Let's make it.  We have to make it."

That's difficult, isn't it.  To move on, to make the future, when you are already homesick for the present.

But that's the only option.  The only option is to move on.  To hold the past delicately, the present with kid gloves, and to beckon the future with an open heart.

Here, in India, emotion lives closer to the surface.  It catches a heart more readily.  There are shades of grey and green and red and magenta that tangle up the black and the white and make reality a bit more hazy and opaque.

Or does it?  Maybe reality is clearer here, more honest, more multi-layered.  "Home" and "Homesick" no longer remain confined to one place, one time, one person or set of people, and, instead, begin to hold a whole town, a complete nation, I've only just gotten to know.


Kirstin said...

It doesn't surprise me that you've found family and home in a part of India you never expected to reach. It just warms my heart that people are there to watch over your well being and at the same time warm your heart. Your stories, tails and recountings make me smile and homesick for you. xo

Jane said...

oh, this may be my favorite post yet. not that I'm playing favorites :) Love LOVE the pic of Chompa and Bishar. They're perfectly as I imagined to you, jm