Immigrant Bengalis

The Naugs had contacted Trip Advisor for a walking tour of Kolkata. Concerned about their security, I too joined them.

I had no reason to fear. A well dressed, polished young man called Kaushik Chatterjee conducted the tour. As we walked through the narrow lanes, Gail Route asked if we could locate the house she was born in. She had saved the address over the years.

Kaushik guided us to the house on Bipin Behari Ganguly Street. The architecture was imposing. However, the building was in dilapidated condition. It must have been an important landmark during the Raj.  The ‘durwan’ told us it was a ‘Saheb’ hospital. A few rupees changed hands and we went in.

In the foyer, Gail stood transfixed beside the ornate staircase. As we could not climb up the rotting steps, she stood hugging the banister, staring up. Almost sixty years earlier her mother had walked down these very stairs with her in arms. She had left for the UK in 1962 with her parents. Gail was very much an English woman, in fact a college professor at a university in Australia. Her need to see and touch her roots in Kolkata had not withered over all these years.

I had to take the Naugs to Park Street, knowing that their parents and grandparents had surely walked along this street. Over reshmi kabab and beer, Kaushik asked, “Dada, what do you do in the US?”

To keep the discussion off myself, I replied, “I write a blog called Immigrant”.

Kaushik was insistent that he wanted to read my blogs, so I gave him the link.

Kaushik called me back the very next day. “Your writing can have a wide circulation in India. Do you have an agent? What is your marketing plan?

I had neither an agent nor a marketing plan. We met for more reshmi kabob.

I made it clear to Kaushik I followed the tradition of my family. I did not have a financial motivation for my writings. Kaushik was aghast when told him I lived by the saying of Thakur Ramakrishna, “Taka mati, mati taka.” ( টাকা মাটি , মাটি টাকা)

Kaushik looked me in the eye and said, “Dada, you got it all wrong. When Thakur Ramakrishna said, ‘Taka Mati, Mati Taka’, he was advising you to invest in real estate.”

I burst out laughing. At the same time, a light flicked on in my head.

This was not the Kolkata I had left behind in 1970 for the US. There was vitality in the air. Young women in jeans walked down the streets with their heads held high, more often to their jobs. Shops lined the streets with an abundance of consumer goods and sales were high. Gone were the days of ‘load shedding’ and frequent strikes that crippled the city.

My friend Kajol Das had returned to Kolkata from New York with a small capital. In fact, he had invested in land, more precisely in real estate. Starting with a small apartment building in Dum Dum, he built large developments now. The city of Kolkata now extends from Kalyani in the north to Baruipur in the south. Kajol told me a funny story that is most revealing of life in Kolkata.

Moving to a spacious penthouse from their previous apartment, Kajol bought his wife Papiya a new refrigerator. As a gesture of good will, Papiya asked their maid if she would like to have the small but old, fully functional frig. The maid replied that she needed her husband’s approval.

Next morning, arriving at work in Kajol’s house, the maid informed Papiya her husband, a brick mason, had told her not to accept the old frig. In fact, he would buy her a new frig if she wanted one!

It is not the anecdotal or sensational that has made me look at Kolkata or India in a new light. Since that trip after a thirty-year hiatus, I have travelled to India several times. India is a well-informed country. Scientific method and information technology have taken root. There is confidence and optimism in the air!

I too wanted to see the house I was born in. I had not visited that old house in decades though members of our extended family still lived there. I knew the general direction to the house but the area has changed enough that I was disoriented. Seeing two young women in their thirties buying vegetables from a street vendor, I approached them for guidance.

They did not need the house address. One of the women looked at me and pointed towards a narrow lane. She said mischievously, “You are Banu-di’s younger brother. Go that way to your home.”

I looked around myself and the crumbling houses on the banks of the Adi Ganga in Tollygunge. I was engulfed in a gentle, uplifting aura; it felt comforting. All presumptions, speculations and vaulted theories that I held over the years simply slipped away. I was a part of this historical street.

My father had returned to India from the US to help build an independent India. He and his peers were the foot soldiers of the science and technology revolution. I had the benefit of science and technology in my early years but over time, had travelled into the realm of the liberal arts.

Next month I will be looking for a place to live in Kolkata. I will have to figure out a way to make a living. I know a few people there, but I have to make new friends too. I hope I will have something meaningful to offer to this new Kolkata.

And surely, I will be home.

​(Posted January 1, 2024)

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You Can’t Go Back Home Again, … But I Beg to Differ 

Satya Jeet

Returning to New York from Kolkata in 1989 I knew there wasn’t a place for me in India anymore. I did not even try to visit. Thirty years flew by. Looking back, I see that my life in that period was no different from millions of other immigrants in the US. I had to learn to make a living. I had to find a place to live. I had to find new friends. The highlight of my life was the fact that I started a family. Very late in life, I was blessed with a son, Raphael.

And then the call came. Roland Stuart asked me to join his extended family on a trip to India. They had a profound reason to visit. Their story bears telling.

In 1898, Robindra K. Nag, son of the zaminadar of Kharagpur, Nabin C. Nag, travelled to the UK to study law. He returned in 1902 with an English wife, Dora. Roland and the extended family were the grandchildren and great grandchildren of Robindra and Dora. They chose to anglicize their last name to Naug.

The Naugs had lived, worked, and married among ‘pukka’ Anglo Indians, Britishers who were domiciled in India. Some of them had never been to the UK and were happy to call British India their home. My uncle Badal, a dashing fighter pilot, posted at the Indian Air Force base in Kalaikunda, had married Patricia Naug, an absolute look alike of Elizabeth Tailor.

Within a couple of years, Badal died in an air accident. The Naugs had been drifting off to the west since Indian independence. Patricia, her baby Anita in arm, joined the migration.

On this sojourn to India, I met up with the Naugs at the Novotel Hotel near the airport. That was the first shock of the trip that knocked my socks off! I had never imagined that such a first world, modern hotel existed in Kolkata. Then we hit the highway to Kharagpur in air-conditioned cars. Highways? Four lane highways in India? Not in my wildest imagination!

It was exactly fifty years since, as a bungling freshman, I had arrived at the sleepy town of Kharagpur. Barring our Institute and the Air Force base, it was a small provincial town. Now, we pulled into the parking lot of the four-story, air-conditioned Hotel Wonder Inn. Surprise!

The greater change that touched me lay inside the hotel. Smartly dressed young men and women in their early twenties stood behind the front desk. Speaking fluent English, they operated the computers and checked in guests from abroad without missing a beat. Their practice of hospitality was at par with hotel staff in New York, Paris or Tokyo. They were local boys and girls. I am willing to bet, for many of them, their grandmothers had picked up cow dung from the fields for the fire in the ’chula’. In seventy years, the tryst with destiny had touched people in unknown corners of the vast country.

I was amazed by the sincere involvement of the Naugs as they visited the church, railway quarters, and cemetery that had been a part of their past. Next day, we went to the village of Chamka and suddenly there appeared a large Hindu temple. Their ancestor, Ajodhya Ram Nag had built this temple in the mid-18th century when he established the zamindari in Kharagpur. Though the visitors were Catholic, they treated this visit to their family temple as a pilgrimage. Surprisingly, the residents of Chamka embraced the visitors with open arms. They were family! Back in town, Roland and the extended family visited another wing of the Nag family. We were welcomed into the ancestral home!