Routes and roots

By Nina Mukerjee Furstenau

After eight months away, bursting through clouds seemed an appropriately dramatic way to return to Missouri from West Bengal.

FAYETTE, Missouri--My route home twisted through clouds. It was easy to imagine this as something customary on British Air at 30,000 feet. Thinking otherwise was crazy-making. After eight months in Kolkata, India, where I was mostly carried about on wheels, not on thin air, I was filled with feathery dreams from whence I came. I was leaving, yes, but re-wired.


The re-wiring happened at ground level in India. To arrive in a somewhat tidy fashion, my hair being what it is in humidity, I called Uber to get to Fulbright research interviews with chefs, generous home cooks, influential monks in charge of feeding thousands of daily visitors to temples, as well as to meet new friends at various places to nosh. My husband, Terry, also bred in the Midwest but of German-Swedish stock, had different journeys. Amiably finding nooks and crannies in the city, he tried out auto rickshaws, a memorable subway ride, and more.


But there was no avoiding the cars. Autos, numbering nearly one million in Kolkata, beeped and buzzed and often formed four and five lanes from the two actually intended. Drivers pressed the horn to signal "I'm here, let's not crash!" though, very occasionally, less admirable thoughts were also conveyed.


Most days, I also walked. At first, I walked looking at the pavement where something seemed to be thrusting up from below at times forming rough patches and potholes, cracking through. My family story felt like that, an underground history born of Bengal and transfer, now pushing to the surface. Walking in the city and closer to that early story, transformation happened en route.


I walked to the sidewalk produce sellers, outside our door nine or ten houses to the right, with always changing, colorfully fresh vegetables and fruits. I walked a half-block further down Pandita Road for morning-caught varieties of fish and live chickens and the people who knew how to deal with both. There were no urban-U.S.-style food deserts in Kolkata; abundant food was steps away.


On the way, the old houses with mottled paint colors whispered their stories, and the neighborhood-fed street dogs, usually sleeping, remained right where I might step on them. Often, great masses of leaves were mysteriously rustling in the middle of the pathway, thin-limbed boys played cricket with make-shift bats, and the car washer wetly tended to yet another white Maruti. Women who worked at neighborhood houses as cooks or housekeepers stepped down the middle of the street toward their next house, and the three sweet shops on our block briskly sold out of Bengali specialties. In the evening, my walk took me to the nearby park, or a coffee shop, or busy Rash Behari Avenue where there were street stalls to browse and a shiny grocery store to visit with its offerings of packaged foods.


I walked to get the feel of the city and to sink into my family’s homeland as best I could. Gradually, over the measured progress of my routes, the pavement ceased to distract, snobberies and even politics dwindled, and the sweetness and diligence that is Kolkata made me alive. Flavors bloomed, almost by the aroma in the air alone. Tiny, tiny perfect muffins accompanied tea or coffee at Sienna Cafe, a plate of chaat, that sweet-sour-hot-salty mix of various ingredients joyfully greeted at dabba wallas, and tender bhatura bread ordered up with Dancing Coffee at the south Indian restaurant near Lake Market whipped up fresh hungers.


Once, a block from home, a young woman carrying a toddler said something softly in her ear as they brushed by, and though they were close enough that the scent of baby talc teased the air, the mother’s words were snatched away by a car horn. Even so, I began to know conversations, and I sensed the time of day by their slowing cadence, always brighter and lighter as it neared 6:30. By how the older men walked slowly home in a pleased fashion with sweets in twine-tied boxes hanging from their finger-tips. And how the woman in the orange sari and the one with the blue embroidered shawl walked less quickly along the center of the pavement, shoulders eased down.


And there, near the corner outside a tiny grain store, was Terry gamely picking out what to have milled. "Is he a a good man? A good American?" women customers murmured in Bengali. And I ate and ate of the good food we made of that flour, and smiled and put my head on his shoulder at our flat, knowing he was.


When I flew through clouds getting home, when I touched down in St. Louis Lambert International Airport, I saw that it all was going to happen anyway—the feeling of effortless lift, the savvy guidance by the pilot, the touchdown into the land of the Midwest—and knew fastening my seat belt had nothing to do with anything. Even though my heart had cracked open, all of the journey had been customary to someone. My only job had been to prepare as best I could for the things to come.

One of many walking routes to Rabindra Sarovar from the author's apartment in Kolkata, West Bengal, to take in the lake and rowers, the trees and flowers.

Author’s note: Do you write? Try this writing prompt out for yourself from Stonecrop Review, journal of urban nature writing and art: “Just as roots provide a tree with nourishment, so routes through a city also provide nourishment: food, water, access to green spaces, and the freedom to wander. …take us on a journey.”


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