When people ask me, "where are you from?" it is always a loaded question. I was born in Kolkata , then called Calcutta, and spent the rest of my life living everywhere but there. This week I returned to visit some dear cousins. I cannot tell you when the last time I visited was.
I spent the past few days driving through the bumpy side streets of old Kolkata, revisiting old neighbourhoods where I almost always got into trouble during days I spent on summer holiday. Thanks to my older cousins, who would get away with their pranks and blame me, I learned the ins and outs of areas such as Behala, one of Kolkata's oldest neighbourhoods.
But I had forgotten about so many little things that used to delight me, such as the naturally occurring fresh water ponds called pukur. Or the wooden shutters on windows that allowed you the privacy to look into the outside world without anyone looking in. The little side streets you can run along and still feel enclosed within your safe zone. The smell of lunches and dinners wafting in and out of homes and the sound of studious pupils practising Rabindra Sangeet at home.
And of course, the art of buying saris. After my now older, but still just as precocious cousins finished teasing me about my lack of Bengali cultural skills (how to de-bone a fish), my inability to wear a sari properly, and my unimaginative wardrobe (jeans and a black top? Cue sneer), we marched off to what I was told would be a shop. En route, we stopped and asked a guava seller (and the guy in a shack who sold delicious but hygienically dubious snacks) for directions through alleyways that snaked off from the main road.
Turns out, we were visiting my cousin's friend who runs a sari trade out of her home. She commissions pieces by traditional weavers who can - and believe me when I say this - take up to four years to embroider a sari by hand. I wanted to purchase that sari, regardless of price, but decided against it. My cousin was right: I was going to spend the rest of my life not wearing saris every day, so it was hardly fair I buy a piece of art only to store it away when it was meant to be worn and displayed.
For the next four hours, over endless cups of tea and energy that refused to flag, my mother and cousin racked up an impressive pile of saris - from traditional kantha stitch (darning stitch) to batik work to printed Baluchori and Matka designs on silks that combined tradition and trends. I sat quietly on a stool, gaping at their encylopaedic knowledge of cloth and design. I fell in love with another simple piece, in grey and black silk with traditional fish and leaf motifs. It cost so little compared with the buying spree of the other ladies that my dad suggested I slip it in with the rest, but I realised, sadly, that my cousin was right after all. My life so far has been wasted, for not learning how to appreciate the sari.