Jun 2, 2016

Odometer Clicks

This piece will be performed as a piece of oral story telling at a public production called 'Voices' on June 4th and 5th (2016) at Somerville's Davis Theater (near Boston). Loosely modeled on the Moth Radio hour, this is the debut story telling event of the Bengali Theater group 'Off Kendrik'. It is themed 'Immigrant experiences' and will hopefully be repeated to capture more 'Voices' from the diaspora. 
Event details and theater company info here.

Odometer clicks by Chandreyee Lahiri

Did you ever watch your car odometer for a milestone?

100,00 miles?
200,00 miles?

If you did, chances are, you were young.
In that excitable phase where Life is charted with symbolic milestone.

Let me take you back to one of mine.

It was 1999, the onset of a new millennium. Fresh out of grad school, I had started my first job and set up house in NJ with my husband. We were still attuned to gathering experiences so off we went to Washington DC. We were going to bring in the new millennium with friends. Part-ay! Woo-Hoo!

But these were also the romance years so we snuck in an overnight halt in Pennsylvania Dutch country. Christmas Eve in a rustic bed n breakfast on an Amish farm.

Mmmmm! It was everything we’d imagined! Quaint. Cozy. Charming.

We woke up the next morning to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and were still munching on warm muffins in the farm kitchen when the farmer's wife popped in.

She said "It must be hard to be away from family on Christmas Day....Oh! Do you...celebrate?"

I lost my words for a moment. Do we celebrate Christmas? Where do I start?

Should I..... describe the New Market stalls in Kolkata.....bristling with their annual forest of fake Christmas trees? Or the lone one in the corner of our living room? Pokey wires twisted into a scraggly cartoon shape. 
How do I explain.....that it delighted us just the same?

Should I .....tell her about Christmas gifts in our joint family?  Basically up-cycled trash!
My little cousins working hard with glue and glitter to tranform junk to treasures. 
Jordar tin....magicked into Pen holders. Shondesh-er packet....transformed into jewelry boxes.
How do I explain......that the “oohs!” and “aahs!” of the adults were not for the new possessions. They were celebrations of this childish generosity.

Should I......describe our seasonal smells? Not the fir, pine and cinnamon of American Christmases. Oh No. Our seasonal smells were: Kakimoni's chilli sausage....Notun Kaki's coconut alur-dom....and of course, Dadua's special fish fry…aha!
How do I explain…..that we were an odd stew of traditions, NONE of which bore the faintest resemblance to American Christmas.

So, I gave up. I gave up on translating my culture - to myself or to this kind lady.
"We celebrate family" I said, "but not Christmas. Not really."

The farmer’s wife was quiet for a few beats. She seemed to be weighing something in her mind.  Then do you know....she turned around and said, "Would you like to come to our cousins to visit and sing carols? This afternoon! You'd be with family!" she said "Ours."

And so we found ourselves on Christmas evening - not just in Dutch country, but in the log cabin of an Orthodox Amish family.

It was a snug little place, warmed by a friendly blaze in a smallish fireplace.
Over in a corner, an ancient looking wood stove gently released baking smells.

Wooden furniture polished with years of wear sat around an old braided rug.
 A few oil lamps scattered bubbles of golden light around the room.

The family had given us a warm welcome and the polite chit-chat was now out of the way. We felt free to sit back, take it all in. I swear, those people had stepped out of a period film (or maybe we'd stepped in to one)! The men wore long beards and suspendered breeches. Bonneted women in full-skirted , floor-length, cotton gowns. And the children: miniature replicas of the adults

And all around us rose a measured hum of conversation….sedate, respectful, quiet conversation.

It sent me HURTLING back to our South Kolkata living room. Though truth be told...."Quiet conversation" is an oxymoron in our family. To be a Lahiri, you need to have:
-  a healthy pair of lungs
- a love of story telling
- some talent for pointless arguing.

On Christmas night, you would probably find us all full-bellied from the feast and ready for the post-prandial 'adda' and 'torko' (which loosely translates into 'conversation' and 'debate').

Tatunmoni (my uncle) would typically start on a Shikar story from our days in the country, in Chirimiri, deep in the heart of Madhya Pradesh. That 3 am pounding on the door by villagers terrorized by a Royal Bengal tiger! My Dadu or Bapi grabbing their rifles, leaping into their jeeps and speeding through dense jungles to end the mayhem....

Bapi (my dad) would jump in at key moments and embellish. The crunch of leaves under careful steps as he stalked his prey.  The hair raising grunt that said the beast was approaching and Bapi, heart in mouth but iron willed, eyes glued to the gunsight……

What you need to know about my Bapi, by the way, is that he valued a good story way more than accuracy. So.... no matter how many times we'd heard the story before, we never knew what form it would take on any given day. Sure, these thrilling accounts might often stray to that nebulous border between fact and fiction but for entertainment value? Nothing like it!

Then, at some point politics would enter the room. Indira Gandhi's shadow would rise up to deplore the latest CPI(M) shenanigans.

"Ah, chharo chharo Boudi. Aaj Kolkata Bandh tho kaal Bangla Bandh. Kaaj bondho Na Korey kaaj Morley, bujhi. Joto-shob!"

This would devolve into squabbling over soccer team performances then the state of the roads until a Maa or aunt, sensing that a tipping point was nearing, would deftly change the topic.

In our house, this was usually done with...."Shyama".
It’s very effective!  In fact, I DEFY anyone to grind their teeth in anger when someone suddenly calls out..."Dhor-dhor! oi chor! oi chor!"

You have no choice! Generations of conditioning will FORCE you to reply....
"Noi ami, noi chor...noi-chor, noi-chor! Onnayey opobadhyey phelona amarey phandey. Noi ami, noi-chor, noi-chor!"...and it just flows from there.

[If you're not familiar with Shyama....it's kind of like turning on the radio and hearing a voice sing, "Hello!!!!"....you instinctively sing the rest of that line. Though, my little son sings it quite differently than me. Turns out it wasn't me he was looking for. It was just hello from the other side]

Anyway, the interlude means anger is forgotten, peace restored. Thank God! Or as he’s known in Bengal, Robi Thakur. When Shyama was done, it would be Dev Anand's turn (“Pukaar ta chal hoon main..”) then perhaps…a little Sondhya? (Ujjal ek jhank payera..) And then, of course...."Hark the herald Angels sing, Glory to the new born king!"

Oh boy. We're not in Kolkata anymore, Toto.

The Amish people had gently nosed into my memories in a-capella harmony. The sweet granny beside me offered me her worn old hymn book, turned to the correct page, so I could join the singing. I did. There was SUCH comfort in blending my voice with so many others, all of them…raised in communion, in joy. I slid once again….gently….back to Kolkata.

As night wore on, the kids would slip into an exhausted stupor and we would start wrapping up. Usually with Dadua channelling Saihgal. Now….I can't sing  like Dadua, leave alone Saihgal but its this one...."Babul mora. Naihaar chooth-ohi jayey. Angana tho parbaat bhayo. Aur dehri, bhayi bides. Ho, babul mero. Mey chali, piya ki desh."
Back in 1999, we took our leave of the Amish family and got back on the road to Washington DC. I gazed out the car window at silos and fields whizzing by and thought about this “new experience” that we had just collected.

I was puzzled. These people were so very different from  us but so similar too. It’s not what I’d expected.

I had expected the Amish to be conservative, simple-minded, folks who were perhaps a little racist. But I found a community rich in generosity....one foot in tradition while the other kept a toe-hold on modernity.

This America that we'd just glimpsed…it felt more real to me than any before. For one, it was peppered with as many contradictions as my Christmas-celebrating Brahmin family.

Now….I won't say that I was never again visited by the ghost of Christmases past.
I was.  
I still am, even though we have Christmas traditions of our own now.

But I seldom feel like an outsider...looking in.
I don’t think we’re all the same….we can't be. But I know now, that there are similarities running through our differences. 
And this patchwork quilt of a country....might just keep me warm.

My odometer had clicked over into a very New Time.

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