Account of travels across the world. This blog provides descriptions of travels in different parts of the world. Pictures related to many of the blogs can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/7330879@N05/ and for more information I can be e-mailed at ananda@wfu.edu

Saturday, January 01, 2005

India Trip 2004

Our trip to India in 2004 began relatively peacefully on December 6, 2004 when we flew from Greensboro to Newark via Washington on United Airlines. Barring a slight delay in the flight things went pretty well. The Fairfield Inn at Newark was comfortable but I had to go across the street to the Springhill Suites for high-speed wireless Internet access. We took the morning Virgin flight from Newark to London on 12/7 and traveled Premium Economy. Unfortunately the computer power outlet did not work and so that was bit of a disappointment. Arrived in London with no problems and took the Heathrow Express to Paddington and then a taxi to the Marriot at Maida Vale on Edgeware Road. Got to bed early. The next morning, 12/8 was a quiet start, tested out the STSN high-speed wireless access in the hotel lobby, the problem was that it was too expensive – six sterling for an hour and with the dollar running at 2 to 1 that was steep. Around noon, our travel agent, Mr. Mukherjee came by and collected the balance for the ticket. We then stowed our bags with the hotel and left for the London jaunt. Took the underground to Piccadilly, had lunch at Garfunkels at Piccadilly, walked down Regent Street to Hamley’s toy store, spent some time there browsing with the Christmas shoppers, then walked down to Oxford Circus, sat at a bistro for a while, and eventually took the underground back to Maida Vale and walked over to the hotel. Got the bags and ordered the taxi. It was about 40 sterling and took the cab to Terminal 3 at Heathrow. Since we were traveling upper class this time, check in was a breeze and then went off to the Virgin Lounge which is quite a treat. Had a complimentary haircut for Bebo and me, got my shoes shined and tanked up on single malt, not to mention the good food. Eventually boarded the 10:00 pm flight to Delhi and had a pleasant flight to Delhi. Upper Class in Virgin is priced the same as business class for most other airlines (indeed we had frequent flyer miles Air India code-shared J-class tickets but on Virgin that is considered upper class [this was one of the most complicated deals I have pulled off, but essentially thanks to obscure linkages between American Express, Air India, Virgin and a travel agent in London, we were able to get into upper class for rack-level coach fare. I can explain this over a good drink!). The facilities in Virgin Upper Class are really good including a full bed to sleep on, a bar, an on-flight masseur (Mikku got her hands hydrated and also got a shoulder massage on the plane!), and eat-when-you-want. Anyway, got into Delhi at about noon on 12/9. There was a Maruti Esteem from the hotel and an old friend of Mikku’s family to see us at the airport. Barely fitted everything into the car and got to the hotel (Marriott at Saket) in about 45 minutes. This is a nice hotel and we got a good comfortable room for free using Marriot rewards (this is considered a category 3 reward). Had room service lunch (really good chicken rolls) and then Mr. and Mrs. Jain came to see us (these are the parents of one my graduate student at Wake Forest, they also visited with us on our way back from India). Spent some time with them and then after they left, kind of called it a day and rested for the remainder of the evening. Ate the buffet dinner at the hotel café. Turned in early. The next day, 12/10, had an early start and got a Toyota Qualis (from Travel House at the hotel, about $20 from the hotel to the domestic terminal) to the airport. Checking in was OK. So was security. Flight left on time (Jet morning flight) and was in Kolkata at about 11:30 am. Babul-baba, Boudi-ma and Tinku (Mikku’s parents and her sister) were at the airport to receive us. Bebo was really excited to be back in Kolkata. Took a pre-paid taxi to AC-140 Salt Lake (was about Rs. 150) and got there a little before Mikku and all showed up. After a brief stop, Mikku and Bebo went off to D-50 (Mikku’s parent’s home) and I stayed over at AC-140 (my parent’s home). The stay in Kolkata is best described around some of the high points.

On 12/11 I went and visited the newly opened “City-Center” in Salt Lake. Essentially it is a large mall with numerous stores with Shoppers Stop as the anchor store. A very interesting and global construct and it appears to be doing extremely well even though it has just opened. I had Pappu as the driver of the Esteem that we were renting from Sonata Car Rental located at BB 62 in Salt Lake (owned by Abhijit Biswas, +913323580810 or +919331065679 or sonatacars@rediffmail.com). It was really good because Pappu had his own mobile phone and so could pick me up from any location. Spent the afternoon at City Center and then went on to Capital Electronics in Ultadanga. The place was mobbed since they were selling tickets for the Russian Circus in town. Bought a DVD player (about Rs. 4,500 in India now for a basic DVD player) and a cordless phone for my mother and eventually came back home after a stop at D-50 (Mikku’s parents’ place). That evening, Dadabhai (my cousin from my fathers’ side) came to see us. Munmun (my niece who is currently staying with my mother [desperately looking for a good groom for her, please call me for details]) and Shanker da (my cousin from my fathers’ side) came home early too and so had a nice evening gathering.

On 12/12 went and saw my aunt (Chotopisima) in Lake Town and also visited with Phuchku da, Deepa boudi and Jishnu. The highpoint of the day was the get together of friends from the class of 1979 from Calcutta Boys’ School. This was really a great gathering of nearly 12 people and their families. The best description comes from Kunal Sengupta currently a big-shot in the Calcutta daily “The Telegraph.” In his words: “Park Street (Calcutta), Dec. 12: The second CBS1979 lunch was a smashing success crowned by the presence of overseas luminaries like Sumantra Coomer and Ananda Bachchu Mitra. The venue, Flavours of China, at BarBQ here did not know what hit them for close to three hours when the old boys, most of them with wife and kid/kids set the place abuzz with old school tales and catching-up lines.
Beer flowed along with the conversation as Coomer, Ananda, Sadri, Chandan, Sambaran, Panki, Rana, Rajat, Arijit, Raja, Joy, Piklu Saha (honorary member) and Kunal sat down to a long, long session of quaffing and chinwagging.
Lunch and beer over the group then trooped over to Russel Street for ice cream. Coomer held up traffic while the boys, along with the ladies and the kids, crossed the street. Sadri had collected money well above the bill at the restaurant which was put to use to first buy a round of ice-creams and then tea at the Russel Street dhaba. Panki pulled off scheduling a long-promised meeting at his place on January 26 (time to be fixed). On the whole the lunch was a resounding success as the bonds grew. Blood pressure, cholesterol, acidity and low back pains were also discussed.

cheers for now!

Kunal Sen Gupta

That done we got back home to Salt Lake. Dadabhai visited in the evening as did Samrat (my cousin from my mother’s side) and his wife Smita.

There are several new restaurants in Kolkata now and one of them is called “Oh! Calcutta” located on the top floor of the Forum Mall on Elgin Road. Had two occasions to visit this place. First with Joy and then later with Tul-da (my cousin from my fathers’ side), his wife, Bibi-boudi and Mikku. This place specializes in authentic Bengali food for a pretty reasonable price. The first visit (on 12/14) with Joy (my brother-in-law), I tried their grilled Bhetki fish (this is NOT traditional Bengali) and really liked it and the second time (12/22) had the more traditional Bengali stuff. Really good. The other restaurant of note is of course Peshwari at ITC Sonar Bangla on the Eastern Bypass. Went there with Tul-da and Bibi-boudi (12/21) and had the Dal Makhni and the chicken kabob. Other eat outs were at general and regular places including my favorites – the Chowringhee bar at the Grand Hotel (with Sambaran once), the Hyatt bar (with Rana), Charnock City Restaurant (with Prithwish), Abco’s Food Plaza (with Khuku mashi once and once with Abhijit Basu), Sourav’s (with Mikku and her parents).

On 12/13, Mikku’s parents’ anniversary we went to Fort Williams for lunch. This is a tradition that we have maintained for many years and as always this is a pleasant experience. We topped off the day with a visit to Sourav’s food plaza (named after Sourav Gangully the captain of the Indian cricket team) located across the street from Music World on Park Street (enter the street right adjacent to Music World, off Park Street and Sourav’s is on the left, parking is a pain, get a rental car with a driver with a mobile phone!)

Visiting friends is a real important thing when in India. This time I had the opportunity to spend a day with a long-lost school friend – Sambaran who came and spent a day with me (12/15) as well as other old friends such as Rana Mukherjee [CBS] (12/17), Prithwish Mukherjee [IIT], Raja DasGupta [CBS], Bijit Sircar [IIT] and the IIT folks in Delhi (Kingshuk, Ketoki, Debashsis Sircar [Saucy] and Arindam [Chiku]). The Delhi gathering on 12/29 was really excellent. Kingshuk and Ketoki came to the hotel and visited with Mikku and Bebo for a while and then I rode with Kingshuk and Ketoki to Chiku’s place in Greater Kailash where Chiku and his family have a really nice home. Saucy and his wife joined us soon and we had an excellent time reminiscing. Eventually, Kingshuk and Ketoki dropped me off back to the hotel. This was really a good gathering.

The IIT connection was particularly poignant since I spent a day and night at the old college town (Kharagpur [KGP]) this time. I took the Bhubaneswar Janashatabdi train (leaves at 14:05 out of platform 20 from New Howrah Station, air conditioned chair car ticket is Rs. 225 [about $4] each way) on 12/16 and got to KGP by about 5:00 pm. Rented a car from the station (if any one wants to make this trip, buy the return ticket from Howrah because the KGP station is really very slow, also try out the Verandah of the Howrah First class waiting room, quite nice, sat and read the “da Vinci Code” there) and checked in at hotel Swagat (behind Patel Hall) and then went and visited Azad Hall. Was recognized by Ashok (the owner of the cycle shed) who greeted me saying “Chumchike [I was nicknamed “bat” in college, during the ragging/hazing time by Bijit Sircar] you are back.” This was a shock since I was going back after about 20 years and never imagined anyone would recognize me let alone remember my name! Later met with the Hall warden and the Hall student president. The president and I had a few drinks together and then I went to Waldorf for dinner [for ex-KGP readers – the food is equally good, but the décor is different]. Next day, took a full tour of the campus (one of the best ways to do this is to rent a rickshaw, pay the rickshaw guy about Rs. 50 [$1.20] for 2 hours and he will take you anywhere you want with the final stop being the station) and took a lot of pictures (note: if you want to enter the campus by the main gate you need to have a photo ID, US DL works but security is really strict, rickshaws can not enter through the main gate, but need to go in through gate number 5). Campus has changed a lot but thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Later had a late breakfast at Anarks (their food is the same too, try the bread and omelet, but décor is pretty up scale by KGP standards) and went off to the station and took the train back to Kolkata on 12/17. Train was about 30 mins late. Took the pre-paid from Howrah to AC 140.

Obviously, the best part of the trip to India is the family gatherings and there were three of these of note. The first one was at Samrat and Smitha’s house in Salt Lake hosted by my cousin sister Moushumi and her husband Joy. This was on 12/17 and was really a great affair with really good food and excellent drinks. All of the cousins from my mother’s side of the family were there and all had an excellent time. Unfortunately, Mikku and Bebo could not attend since Bebo was down with flu. The next party was the one that Mikku and I host every year. We did this on 12/19 and were held the community center across the street from AC 140. We had a really large group, all the cousins and surviving elders from my fathers’ side which amounted to about 50 people. The appetizers were ordered from Bhajohori Manna (this is a really good catering service in Kolkata, and Siddhartha Bannerjee [+913332672195 or +913330960607] was really a pleasure to work with). The starters were really good. Then the main course was pizza that I picked up from the Pizza Hut at the City Center (if you want to do this talk to Niraj at the Pizza Hut and remind him of the person who ordered 15 large pizzas!). The tables and all were supplied by King Decorators (Mr. Mazumadar, +919831082375) and the lighting by Bontu Roy (+919830242014) and it was a great bash ending with a lot of impromptu singing and dancing. The third gathering on 12/26 was more somber since it was the first anniversary (batsharik kaaj) of the passing of my uncle (my mother’s brother) last December. This was held at my cousin’s place (Sudip) and we had lunch there and met with some of the family from my mother’s side that visited. We did not take Bebo to this. Other than these gatherings we had dinner with Dadabhai and family at Dum Dum Park (12/20) had a gathering with Phuchku Da and family at the Lake Club where they treated us to food and drinks as well as a live music show by Alka Yagnik – a leading Indian singer (12/27) and visited with Bhaima (my aunt) in Dum Dum Park, my aunt (Chotopisima) at Lake Town, my Baro Mama (uncle) in Salt Lake and had dinner with Khuku Mashi (Mikku’s aunt) and family in their home in Salt Lake.

Going to India is a lot about spending time with family and that worked well this year because people who are not in Kolkata were visiting Kolkata and thus we got an opportunity to spend time with them. My nephew, Babli (currently doing a post-graduate course in dentistry in Mangalore) was there for most of the time we were there and so we had a chance to visit with him. Then my cousin and his wife from Raigarh visited and my aunt from Raigarh was also there and we all had an excellent time with all of them. Other non-Kolkata family included Rimi and her daughter visiting from the UK. The interaction with the family is particularly critical for Srijoy who enjoys the company and was eventually not wanting to come back. Sitting in the hotel in Delhi I asked him how his trip was and he said that it was fine but he wished he had another week with his family. He really gets into the family mode and interacts with everyone really well and that is a pleasure to see.

Since my father passed away my trips to India is also a lot of work. A friend, Avijit Basu, helped a lot with that. The key things that I was able to accomplish in this visit was obtaining the probate papers for my father’s will and then using those papers to transfer the electric connection at AC 140 from my father’s name to my mother’s and then making other adjustments to the structure of the electric connection. Other work accomplished included the sprucing up of the bathroom, some paint work in the kitchen, the reconditioning of the air conditioner and the wood work.

Of note, also during this trip was the killer tsunami that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives on 12/26. Weird, but why is there some disturbance every time we are in India? 2000 was the Indian Airlines hijacking that ended in Afghanistan with some casualties, 2001, year my dad died, the 9/11 event, and Afghanistan bombing, and then in December the bombing of the Indian parliament, 2002 was eventless as was 2003, but 2004 the tsunami hit. Lots of hours watching TV and worrying about our friend Anil da who was in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit. Indeed, he had called me just before he had left for Colombo.

So, the question always is, how was your trip? I think Bebo puts it well – short. There was more to be done and I wish I had more time on my hand. I felt constantly rushed, and I also felt pulled in many different directions, both in terms of things to be done and people to be attended. There are many demands in India and it is impossible to fulfill all the things one wants to accomplish. But it is heartening to note that we did accomplish a lot in many different ways. This is in spite of the curious identity I find myself in when I am in India. I can speak English like an Indian and I know when I must do that. I have learnt how to dress when going to see a government clerk to get electric supply work done (jeans is not recommended) and I was told by people dear to me that I was not at all “Americanized” in spite of the fact that I have lived in America for 20 years. In deed there were moments where it would have been very tough for the other person to know that I was anything other than a Kolkata Bengali (as Sambaran, who saw me after 22 years, put it – “Ananda your shoulder bag, outfit and everything is so Kolkata that it is tough to imagine you have not been here for 20 years”). I can never tell if that is a mere statement or whether identity is so pliable that it can adjust to the circumstance. To me the most surprising moment was in London when the taxi driver declared he was from Sylet in Bangladesh and I automatically reverted to the “bangal” which is the language (often denigrated by traditional Kolkatans) that people from Sylet speak. I grew up in a Kolkata neighborhood where most of my friends were from what-is-now Bangladesh and I can do a bangal as well as anyone. This clearly endeared the driver to us and proved the power of language. At the same time, when we were in this high-class and talk-of-the-town boutique called “FabIndia” in Kolkata (go to Golpark, take the road next to the Bharat Petroleum gas station, road is called Purnadas Road, take the 2nd right and follow directions to FabIndia) and Mikku and I were talking to each other in Bengali (after all we were in Kolkata) and in walks a white middle-aged couple. Two words out of their mouth and we have placed them somewhere near Kensington, very West-End London. So, for a lark, I try a trick. Mikku and I waddle up close to them, and examining a ware, start speaking as if we are sitting in Winston-Salem. The Brits look at us and say, “You are from the States aren’t you?” Works every time. But there lies the irony of identity. As soon as I walk out of FabIndia and the crowded streets of Chowringhee I can and have to revert back to Kolkata and then eating the sumptuous traditional English breakfast in the restaurant of the Slough-Windsor Marriott (Ditton Rd.) the “thanks mum!” comes as natural as the hard-learned BBC accent when answering questions at immigration at Heathrow. These trips not only point out what Bebo said to his good friend Max – “it’s a big world out there” but it is still a very diverse world where adaptability is the key to survival.

posted by Ananda  # 8:24 AM


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