Welcome to Kolkata: A Day in the Life

Maid Sailors often shares curated content profiling cultural experiences. Here’s a piece about an American-born, first generation American visiting his motherland.

I spent ten days in Kolkata — my supposed ancestral city.

My mother still has the luxury of identifying as a living woman’s biological daughter. This means, from time to time, I am obligated to join my mother on a trip to the motherland to visit her 75 year-old mother. That’s the age where Death starts tagging you on Instagram. I’m surprised she said “ugh, hi” to 75 to begin with — she’s battling diabetes, boasting a history of heart trouble (the physical kind) and breathing in a village with no Bengali word for “pollution”.

My mother’s family is the metaphorical line that creates my circle — the only side I’ve ever known. The flight from New York to Kolkata is twenty hours long (or four X-Men movies and three Bloody Mary’s). I’ve made this trip every two Presidential terms from diapers to diplomas. The frequency allows me to describe the experience with the cavalier attitude I normally reserve for Uber.

The Boeing I board is enormous, yet elegant (not to be confused with enormously elegant, like The Taj Mahal). The planet-of-a-plane resembles an ornament you’d find closely cradled by an adolescent Incredible Hulk.

I enter the spaceship and accept that English has been demoted to a “nice to have”. Have you ever witnessed a Sari trapped in an economy seat with a fountain of silky, jet-black hair jutting out the top? Indians discovered Yoga but have yet to embrace Yoga pants (or maybe they use them solely for their intended purpose). Miniature coffee-colored, fleshy crying machines seem to have been placed in my section as if I overpaid for them online. Landing there will be a simple formality — I’m already in Kolkata.

The twenty minute journey to my grandmother’s dwelling was more exhilarating than the twenty hour flight. This doesn’t feel like my fifth time here. It’s more like my fifth time seeing this for the first time. I’m surprised Google knows I’m in “Baranagar” — the remote village whose name could’ve been inspired by pushing a bowling ball down a spiral staircase and meticulously transcribing the aftermath.

My mother was born here and, unlike mine, her birth came packaged with an assortment of siblings, aunts and uncles. In this parallel universe, it’s commonplace to see a building with entire extended families growing together — like a forest. While I prefer my urban, flower-in-its-pot way of life, I’m glad this custom exists — I don’t have to travel much.

This structure is technically a home in the same way a penguin is technically a bird. A baby drive way. A closet with a stove (they called it a kitchen). “Go check the bathroom! We installed a Western toilet!,” my grandma cried as she channeled Christmas morning (a concept as foreign to her as the soil that supported my Nikes).

I approached the bathroom like Indiana Jones and laid my eyes on an ivory-white toilet that was clearly slumming in a hostel. Despite the fact it belonged there, it looked tragically out of place.

In that instance, no Indian could claim they had more in common with me than that toilet.

This piece was done in collaboration with Anish K. Mitra, a comedian, writer and entertainer based in New York City. Visit him, here

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