I watched him this morning juicing a grapefruit, guava,
blood orange, mango, plums, and grapes and pouring the elixir into a giant
glass pitcher. Beads of condensation rolled down the sides, like an ad for California
freshness. Chhoto kaku, my late father’s youngest brother, is vegetarian; the
warring juices are the equivalent of eggs and bacon, buttered toast and coffee.
He will take tea and toast, but never coffee, which is known to inflame the
passions. Life, or the vagaries of the Calcutta marriage market, did not bless
him with a wife. Arousal, he believed, would be wasted on him, and he has taken
traditional measures against it.
Ten years ago this was all
farmland, but for the big house and the shingled cottage behind it. No lights
spill from the cottage, yet Chhoto kaku makes his way across the rocks and
cacti to her door. Don’t go, I breathe, but the door opens. Devorah was
alone last night. Usually she comes out around eight o’clock with a mug of
coffee and a cigarette, sometimes joined by one of her stay-overs. On our first
visit she produced a tray of wild boar sausage that a friend had slaughtered,
spiced, cooked, and cased, after shooting.
Her hair changes color. I’ve seen
it green and purple. Today, there are no Mercedeses or motorcycles in the yard;
she was alone last night. She wears blue jeans and blue work shirts, and she
smells richly resinous, reminding me of mangoes. Her normal hair is loose and
She told me the day after we
moved in, “Your uncle is a hoot.” She calls me Abby, my uncle, Bushy. His name
is Kishore Bhushan Ganguly. We call her Devvie, which in our language
approximates the word for goddess. “He looked at my paintings and he said, ‘You
have the eyes of god.’ Isn’t that the sweetest thing?” I count myself a man of
science, so I must rely on microscopes and telescopes and x-rays to glimpse the
world beyond. “He said I see the full range of existence. He said, ‘I tremble
before you.’ Isn’t that beautiful?”
When I reported her assessment,
Uncle said, “I think she is an advanced soul.” I asked how he knew. “She
offered me a plate of cold meats. I told her meats inflame the passions.”
Youngest Uncle is a Brahmin of the old school. “So, she’s giving up meats, is
that it?” I asked. He said, “I believe so. She said, ‘Maybe that is my
Six months he’s been with me, my
cherished Youngest Uncle, the bachelor who put me and two cousins through
college, married off my sisters and cousins with handsome dowries, and set up
their husbands, the scoundrels, in business. He delayed and finally abandoned
all hopes of marriage for himself.
When he was an engineer rising
through the civil service, then in industry, there’d been the hope of marriage
to a neighbor’s daughter—beautiful, smart, good family from the right
caste and even subcaste. Her father had proposed it and even Oldest Uncle, who
approved or vetoed all marriages in the family, declared himself, for once,
unopposed. Preparations were started, horoscopes exchanged, a wedding house
rented. Her name was Nirmala.
I came home from school one day
in my short pants, looking for a servant to make me a glass of fresh lime soda
and finding, unimaginably, no one in the kitchen. The servants were all
clustered in Oldest Auntie’s room, joining in the loud lamenting of other
pishis and older girl-cousins. I squeezed my own limes, then stood on a chair,
and from the kitchen across a hallway open to the skies I had a good view into
Youngest Uncle’s room. He was in tears. He had been betrayed. In those years he
was a handsome man in his middle thirties, about my age now, with long,
lustrous hair and a thin, clipped moustache. Older Uncle had voided the
Something unsavory in Nirmala’s
background had been detected. I heard the word “mishap.” Perhaps our family had
given her the once-over and found her a little dull, flat chested, or older
than advertised, or with a lesser dowry. It could have meant a misalignment in
the stars, a rumor of non-virginity, or suspicion of feeblemindedness somewhere
in her family. Or Nirmala might have caught a glimpse of her intended husband
and found him too old, too lacking in sex appeal. Every family can relate a
similar tale. A promising proposal not taken to its completion is an early sign
of the world’s duplicity. My parents, who married for love and never heard the
end of it, did not call it duplicity. They called it not striking while the
iron is hot, an image in English I always had difficulty picturing.
In time “Nirmala” stood as a kind of
symbol of treacherous beauty. In this case, the rumors bore out. She had a boy
on the side, from an unsuitable community. They made a love-match, disgracing
the name of her good family and rendering her younger sisters unmarriageable to
suitable boys. They had two boys before she was eighteen. The sisters scattered
to Canada and Australia and had to marry white men. A few years later, Nirmala divorced, and once, I’m
told (I had already left for California , she showed up at Youngest Uncle’s
door, offering her body, begging for money. Proof, as my mother would say, that
whatever god decides is for the best. God wished that Youngest Uncle would
become middle-aged in the service of lesser-employed brothers and their
extended families, and that he not spend his sizeable income on a strange woman
when it could be squandered on his family instead.
You will see from this I am talking of
the not-so-long-ago Calcutta, and surmise that I am living in Silicon Valley—or
more properly, was living until a few months ago—with my wife,
Sonali, and our sons, Vikram and Pramod, and that my uncle is with us. You
would be half-right. My wife kicked me out six months ago. Not so long in
calendar days, but in psychological time, eons.
Christmas bonus eighteen months ago was $250,000. In Indian terms, two and half
lakhs of dollars; multiply by forty, a low bank rate, and you come up with ten
million rupees: one crore. My father, a middle-class clerk, never made more
than two thousand rupees a month, and that was only toward the end of his life
when the rupee had started to melt. What does it do to a Ballygunge boy, a St.
Xavier’s boy, to be confronted in half a lifetime with such inflation of
expectation, such expansion of the stage upon which we strut and fret? Sonali
planned to use the bonus to start a preschool. She was born in California and rarely
which depresses her. Her parents, retired doctors who were born on the same
street as I, live in San Diego.
There are three dozen Indian
families in our immediate circle of friends, all of them with children, all of
whom share a suspicion that their children’s American educational experiences
will not replicate the hunger for knowledge and rejection of mediocrity that we
knew in less hospitable Indian schools. They would therefore pay anything to
replicate some of that nostalgic anxiety, but not the deprivation. She could
start a school. Sonali is a fine Montessori teacher. Many of the wives of our
friends are teachers. Many of my friends would volunteer to tutor or teach a
class. We would have a computer-literate school to do Sunnyvale proud. She
spoke to me nightly of dangerous and deprived East Palo Alto, where needs are
great and the rents are cheap.
If I stay in this country we
would have to do it, or something like it. It is a way of recycling good
fortune and being part of this model community I’ve been elected to because of
the responsible way I conduct my life. You name it—family values,
religious observation, savings, education, voting, tax paying, PTA, soccer
coaching, nature hiking, school boards, mowing my lawn, keeping a garden,
contributing to charities—I’ve done it. And in the office: designing,
programming, helping the export market, and developing patents—I’ve
done that, too. America is a demonstrably better place for my presence. My
undistinguished house, bought for cash on a downside at a mere $675,000,
quadrupled in value in the past five years—or more precisely, four of
the past five years. It is inconceivable that anything I do would not be a
credit to my national origin, my present country, and my religious creed.
When something is missing it’s
not exactly easy to place it. I have given this some thought—I think
it is called “evidence of things unseen.” Despite external signs of
satisfaction, good health, a challenging job, the love and support of family and
friends, no depressions or mood swings, no bad habits, I would not call myself
happy. I am well adjusted. We are all extremely well adjusted. I believe my
situation is not uncommon among successful immigrants of my age and background.
I went alone to Calcutta for two weeks, just after the
bonus. Sonali didn’t go. She took the boys and two of their school friends
skiing in Tahoe. She has won medals for her skiing. I am grateful for these
comforts and luxuries but had been feeling unworthy. It was Youngest Uncle who
had paid for the rigorous Calcutta schools and then for St. Xavier’s, and that
preparation got me the scholarships to IIT and later to Berkeley, but I lacked
a graceful way of thanking him. The bonus check was in my wallet. I would be in
Calcutta with a crore of rupees in my pocket. I, Abhishek Ganguly of
Chhoto kaku is now sixty-seven,
ten years retired from his post of chemical engineer. The provident funds he’d
contributed to for forty years are secure. One need not feel financial concern
for Youngest Uncle, at least in a rupee zone. He has no legal dependents.
Everyone into the remotest hinterland of consanguinity has been married. He was
living with his two widowed sisters-in-law and their two daughters plus
husbands and children in our old Calcutta house. The rent had not been
substantially raised since Partition, when we arrived from what was then East
Bengal and soon to become East Pakistan, then Bangladesh. Chhoto kaku was a
boy of eleven. I believe the rent was about fifteen dollars a month, which was
reflected in the broken amenities. A man on a bicycle collected the rent on the
first of every month. They said he was the landlord’s nephew, but the nephew
was a frail gentleman of seventy years.
It is strange how one adjusts to
the street noise and insects, the power cuts, the Indian-style bathroom, the
dust and noise, and the single tube of fluorescent light in the living room
which casts all nighttime conversations into a harsh pallor and reduces the
interior world to an ashen palette of grays and blues. Only for a minute or two
did I register Sunnyvale, the mountains, the flowers and garden, the cool
breeze, the paintings and rugs and comfortable furniture. And my god, the
appliances: our own tandoori oven and a convection oven, the instant hot-water
spout, ice water in the refrigerator door, the tiles imported from Portugal for
the floor and countertops. Sonali is an inspired renovator. You would think it
was us, the Gangulys of Sunnyvale, who were the long-established and landowning
aristocracy and not my uncle, who lived in his single room in that dingy house
for longer than I’ve been on earth.
Youngest Uncle is a small man, moustached, the lustrous long
hair nearly gone, fair as we Bengalis go, blessed with good health and a deep
voice much admired for singing and for prayer services. He could have acted, or
sung professionally. There was talk of sending him to Cambridge in those heady
post-Independence years when England was offering scholarships to identify the
likely leaders of its newly liberated possessions. Many of his classmates went,
stayed on, and married English girls. He remained in India, citing the needs of
his nieces and nephews and aged parents.
The tragedy of his life, if the
word is applicable, is having been the last born in the family. He could not
marry before his older siblings, and they needed his unfettered income to
secure their matches. And if he married for his own pleasure, the motive would
have appeared lascivious. This, he would never do. My father, that striker of,
or with, hot irons, had been the only family member to counsel personal
happiness over ancestral duty. He called his sisters and other brothers
bloodsuckers. When my parents married just after Independence under the spell
of Gandhian idealism, they almost regretted the accident that made their brave
and impulsive marriage also appear suitable as to caste and subcaste. My father
would have married a sudra, he said; my mother, a Christian, Parsi, Sikh, or
maybe even a Muslim, under proper conditions.
I am always extravagant with
gifts for Youngest Uncle. He has all the high-tech goodies my company makes: an
e-mail account and a lightning-fast modem, though he never uses it, a cell
phone, a scanner, a laser printer, copier, color television, various tape
recorders and stereos. The room could not accommodate him, electronically
speaking, with its single burdened outlet. But the gifts were still in their
boxes, carefully dusted, waiting to be given to various grandnephews still in
elementary school. He keeps only the Walkman, on which he plays classic
devotional ragas. He’s making his spiritual retreat to Varanasi electronically.
I touched his feet in the
traditional pronam. He touched my shoulder, partially to deflect my
gesture, partially to acknowledge it. It is a touch I miss in the States, never
giving it and never expecting to receive it. It is a sign that I am home and
“So, Chhoto kaku, what’s new?” I asked,
the invitation for Youngest Uncle to speak about the relatives, the dozens-swollen-to-hundreds
of Gangulys who now live in every part of India and, increasingly, the world.
“In Calcutta, nothing is ever
new,” he said. “In interest of saving money, Rina and her husband, Gautam, are
here—” Rina is the youngest daughter of his next-older sister. Thanks
to Youngest Uncle’s dowry, Rina got married during the year and brought Gautam
to live in her house, an unusual occurrence, although nothing is as it was in India,
even in polite, conservative, what used to be called bhadralok, Bengali
“Where do they stay, Uncle?”
“In this room.”
There were no spare rooms. It was
a small house.
“They are waiting for me to die.
They expect me to move in with Sukhla-pishi.”
That would be his oldest
sister-in-law, the one we call Front Room Auntie for her position at the window
that overlooks the street. She is over eighty. Nothing happens on Rash Behari
Avenue that she doesn’t know. The rumor, deriving from those first
post-Partition years, is she had driven Anil-kaku, her young husband, my oldest
uncle, mad. He died of something suspicious, which was officially a burst
appendix. Something burst, that is true. Disappointment, rage, failure of his
schemes, who can say? It is Calcutta. He was a civil engineer and had been
offered a position outside of Ballygunge in a different part of the city, but
rather than leave the house and neighborhood, Sukhla-pishi had taken to her bed
in order to die. Anil-kaku turned down the job, and she climbed out of bed and
took her seat at the windowsill. All of that happened before I was born. There
had been no children—they were then in their middle twenties—so
she became the first of Youngest Uncle’s lifelong obligations.
“This is your house, Uncle,” I
said. “Don’t be giving up your rights.” As if he hadn’t already surrendered
“Rights were given long ago. Her
mother holds the lease.”
I should say a few words about my
cousin-sister Rina. She is most unfortunate to look at, or to be around. I was
astonished that she’d found any boy to marry, thinking anyone so foolish would
be like her, a flawed appendage to a decent family. We’d been most pleasantly
wrong. Gautam was handsome, which goes a long way in our society, a dashing,
athletic flight steward with one of the new private airlines that fly between Calcutta
and the interior of eastern India. We understood he was in management training.
Part of the pre-marriage negotiation was that he was given the best room in the
house—which would allow him to pocket his housing allowance from the
airline while subletting the company flat—as well as his own car,
computer, television, stereo, printer, and tape recorder. He’d scouted the room
in advance, since his demands included brand names and serial numbers.
“I cannot say more, they are
listening,” said my uncle.
It was then that I noticed the
new furnishings in the room, and a calendar on the wall from Gautam’s employer.
This wasn’t Youngest Uncle’s room anymore, though he’d lived in it for over
fifty years. He’d sobbed over Nirmala on that bed. The move to the sunny,
dusty, noisy front room, rolling a thin mattress on Sukhla-pishi’s floor, had
already been made. Next would be Gautam’s selling on the black market of all
the carefully boxed, unopened electronics I’d smuggled in.
“Let us go for tea,” I suggested,
putting my hand on his arm, noting its tremble and sponginess. I kept an
overseas membership in the Tollygunge Club for moments like this, prying
favorite relatives away from family scrutiny, letting them drink Scotch or a
beer free of disapproval, but he wouldn’t budge.
“They won’t permit it,” he said.
“I’ve been told not to leave the house.”
“They? Who’s they?”
“The boy, the girl. Her.”
“Rina? You know Rina, Uncle,
she’s—” I wanted to say “flawed.” On past visits I’d contemplated
taking her out to the Tolly for a stiff gin just to see if there was a
different Rina, waiting to be released. “—Harmless.”
“Her mother,” he whispered. “And
I heard precipitous noises
outside the door. “Babu?” came my aunt’s query, “what is going on in my
“We are talking, pishi,” I said.
“We’ll be just out.”
“Rina doesn’t want you in there.
She will be taking her bath.”
The shower arrangement was in
Uncle’s room. His books, the only ones in the house, lined the walls, but
Rina’s saris and Gautam’s suits filled the cupboard. It was the darkest,
coolest, quietest, largest, and only fully serviced room in the house. Not for
the first time did it occur to me that poverty corrupts everyone in India, just
as wealth does the same in America. Nor did family life—so often
evoked as the glue of Indian society, evidence of superiority over Western
selfishness and rampant individualism—escape its collateral
accounting as the source of all horrors. I suggested we drop in at the Tolly
for a whiskey or two.
“I cannot leave the house,” he
said. “I am being watched. I will be reported.”
“Watched for what?”
“Gautam says that I have cheated
on my taxes. The CBI is watching me twenty-four hours a day from their cars and
from across the street. I must turn over everything to him to clear my name.”
“Kaku! You are the most honest
man I have ever met.”
“No man leads a blameless life.”
“Gautam’s a scoundrel. When he’s
finished draining your accounts, he’ll throw you in the gutter.”
“They are watching you too, Abhi,
for all the gifts you have given. Gautam says you have defrauded the country.
We are worse than agents of the Foreign Hand. He has put you on record, too.”
All those serial numbers, of
course—and I had thought he was merely a thief. Every time I have
given serious thought to returning to India for retirement or even earlier,
perhaps to give my children more direction and save them from the insipidness
of an American life, I am brought face to face with villainies, hypocrisies,
that leave me speechless. Elevator operators collecting fares. Clerks demanding
bribes, not to forgive charges, but to accept payments and stamp paid on a receipt. Rina and Gautam
follow a pattern. I don’t want to die in America, but India makes it so hard,
even for its successful runaways.
And so the idea came to me that this house in which I’d
spent the best years of my childhood, the house that the extended Ganguly clan
of East Bengal had been renting for over fifty years,
had to be available for the right price if I could track down the owner in the
three days remaining on my visit. It was one of the last remaining
single-family, one-story bungalows on a wide, maidan-split boulevard lined with
expensive apartment blocks. I, Abhishek Ganguly, would become owner of a house
on Rash Behari Avenue Ballygunge, paid for from the check in
my pocket, and my first order of business would be to expel those slimy
schemers, Gautam and Rina and her mother, and any other relative who stood in
the way. Front Room-pishi could stay.
Perhaps I oversold the charms of California.
I certainly oversold the enthusiasm my dear wife would feel for hosting an
uncle she’d never met. But Rina and Gautam would not leave voluntarily. Auntie
would cause a fight. There’d be cursing, wailing, threats, denunciations.
Nothing a few well-distributed gifts could not settle, I said. Come back with
me for six months of good food and sunshine, no CBI surveillance, and you can
return to a lean house and your own room, dear Youngest Uncle.
Bicycle-nephew was more than
happy to trade a monthly eight hundred rupees for ten million, cash. And with
India being a land of miracles and immediate transformation as well as timeless
inertia, I returned to California feeling like a god in the company of my
liberated Chhoto kaku, owner—zamindar if you will, like my
ancestors in pre-Partition East Bengal—of property, preserver of
virtue, and expeller of evil.
It is America, contrary to received opinion, that resists
cataclysmic self-reinvention. In my two-week absence, my dear wife had engaged
an architect to transform a boarded-over, five-shop strip mall in East Palo
Alto into the New Athens Academy, the Agora of Learning. Where weeds pushed
through the broken slabs of concrete, there would be fountains and elaborate
gardens. Each class would plant flowers and vegetables in February and harvest
in May. Classes would circulate through the plots. I could picture toga-clad
teachers. New Athens would incorporate the best of East and West, Tagore’s
Shantiniketan and Montessori’s Rome, Confucius and Dewey, sports and science,
classics and computers, all fueled by Silicon Valley resources. She’d started
enrolling children for two years hence.
And then I had to inform her—that
outpost of Vesuvius—that my one-crore bonus check now rested in the
account of one Atulya Ghosh, the very cool, twenty-year-old grandson of Bicycle
Ghosh, nephew of old Landlord Ghosh, the late owner.
One of the Ghoshes, it might have
been Atulya’s grandfather, had been the rumored lover of a pishi of mine who’d
been forced to leave the house in disgrace. She killed herself, in fact. Young
Ray-Bans Ghosh was a Toronto-based greaser, decked out in filmi-filmi Bollywood
sunglasses and a stylish scarf, forked over a throbbing motorcycle—all
I could ask for as an on-site enforcer. He took my money and promised there’d
be no problems: he had friends. Rina, Gautam, and Rina’s mother deserved to
share the pokey company flat bordering a paddy field on the outskirts of
Sonali wailed, she broke down in
tears, sobbing. “New Athens, New Athens!” she cried. “My Agora, my Agora! All
my dreams, all my training!” What had I been thinking? And the answer was,
amazingly, she was right: I hadn’t thought about her or the school at all.
“You don’t care about me. You’re
always complaining about our boys’ education, you think I’m lazy, you only care
about your goddamn family in goddamn Calcutta—”
“I should return home,” said
“Oh, no,” she cried. “I should
return home! And I’m going to!”
She stood at the base of the
stairway—I could rhapsodize over the marble, the recessed lighting
under the handrail, the paintings and photographs lining the stairwell, but
that is from a lifetime ago. And her beauty—I am easily inflamed, I
admit it, and I will never see a more beautiful woman than Sonali, even as she
threw plates at my head. “Boys! Pramod, Vikram! Pack your bags immediately.
We’re leaving for San Diego!”
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