Over a quarter century ago, in my third year of college at Northwestern University near Chicago, I read about an impishly brave boy in Bibhutibhushan Banerjee’s Pather Panchali. As Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is for today’s youth, Apu’s village was for me a way of escaping from teachers and their textbooks, parents and their persistence, the world I knew and its ways. Although I was born in Bombay in 1960, the world I knew best was made in America. My family had emigrated from India in 1965, and I did not return for more than a decade.
Those early years were a long uninterrupted stretch of American clichés: Santa Claus bearing gifts in winter, snow melting into tulips and roses in spring, children playing stickball until mothers shouted for meals in summer, and sun-kissed leaves turning red and gold in autumn. The only reminders of India were the improvised vegetarian food we ate, the saris my mother defiantly wore, the pujas marking special occasions, and the infrequent aerogrammes that transformed grandparents, uncles, and aunts into black ink on blue origami paper.
The year before college, I returned to India to attend my elder brother’s and sister’s marriages. Those weddings not only succeeded in bring my bhabhi and jijaji to the United States, but also re-arranged my worldview. During my college years I would steal away from assigned texts to read books that had me daydreaming about an India where even nonfiction read like fiction. Banerjee’s novel transported me to an alternate universe which made Santa, snow, stickball, and sunkissed leaves seem so ordinary. Enchanted by Apu’s childhood in a faraway land, I attended an all-night screening of Satyajit Ray’s adaptation of Pather Panchali and the other two films of his Apu Trilogy. Those sleepless hours in a Chicago art theater awoke in me a lifelong appreciation for all things Bengali.
In 1983, when it was my own turn to wed, my parents asked if I had any criteria they should consider. I pulled out Manisha Roy’s Bengali Women—a book from an anthropology class—and said that my only wish was that my bride be from Bengal. This was an odd request for a Shrimali Brahmin family hailing from Rajasthan, but my parents managed for me to meet Mangla in Calcutta over Christmas break from academia. During that week, I felt the way Apu must have felt when he first came to the big city. In awe at the wonder of it all, my wide-open eyes took it all in: a thin, brown Santa Claus selling Christmas cakes; a fat, white queen sitting atop the Victoria Memorial; a big, big banyan tree said to be older than America; a Little Master (cricketer Sunil Gavaskar) who transfixed a subcontinent as he bested Australian Don Bradman; and Ambassador and Fiat cars that came in any color one desired as long as it was black or white. On my last day I went for an early morning walk to take pictures of the city waking up and to purchase roses as a small farewell gesture to Mangla and her family. A helpful stranger, Mr. Saha, took me from Salt Lake to Maniktala in search of the elusive bouquet. It turned out that the stranger was a police officer who was interested in acquiring my cheap, little box camera. Mr. Saha never did find the roses, and I couldn’t find the courage to smuggle a camera into India.
As I prepared to depart from Dum Dum Airport, Mangla’s eldest uncle asked me what I thought of his city. I responded that it was the greatest village in the world, romantically explaining that villagers were interdependent, dignified, helpful, and respectful of India’s great traditions. To be sure, I was feeling poetic with thoughts of married life, and perhaps I was remembering Soumitra Chatterjee and Sharmila Tagore in Apur Sansar. But more likely I had read that complimentary description of Calcutta in some unassigned reading and wanted to make a good impression on my future in-laws.
For the past two decades, my wife and I have flown into Dum Dum (that lovely alliteration has now become a patriotic mouthful: Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport) every other summer with our children to visit Calcutta. Much has changed: it seems that at least in Sector 5’s high-tech corridor everyone and his uncle has a cell-phone with a built-in digital camera; Sachin Tendulkar has replaced Sunil Gavaskar as India’s brilliant batsman (though a few Bengalis might cast their vote for Sourav Ganguly); flowers and cars of every shape and color are now available aplenty; and of course Calcutta is now officially Kolkata. But the banyan tree continues to grow in the Botanical Gardens, as new generations put down roots in this wonderful village of ours.
Based in Palo Alto, California, Rajesh C. Oza balances his life between family and friends, workshops and consulting, reading and writing, India and America. He is presently writing a memoir about his childhood in India, Canada, and the United States. This piece explores ideas of how race and home contribute to a sense of self. Raj can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.