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Posts Tagged ‘culture’

October 14th, 1971.  The year in which two people fresh from an arranged marriage moved to Japan, a strange and beautiful foreign land where they spent a year getting to know this fascinating country as well as each other.

October 14th, 2011.  Forty years later they returned, along with their grown up daughters to knock at the door of old memories as well create new ones.

1971

A young couple

Suvesh was going to embark on a post-doctorate fellowship to do research at the prestigious Tokyo Institute of Technology with Prof. Furuta. We arrived in Tokyo in the late evening at the end of autumn 1971 after a long flight from Kolkata. Fortunately we had two refuelling stops, first in Bangkok and then Hong Kong. The last stretch was longer and except for a pair of companion wing-lights blinking at the tips we were piercing through the darkness until Tokyo’s neon skyline came into view.   One of Prof. Furuta’s student, Ken Tomyama came to receive us at Haneda Airport and brought us to the hotel.  Looking through a window on the 10th floor Tokyo looked like a dazzling fairy land.  The next day, Ken and Professor Furuta took us to the tiny one room flat which became our home for a year.  Our initial reaction was shock.  Just one room!!!  It was a very steep learning curve but surprisingly it did not take long to feel completely at home in our little nest.

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Perfumes may evoke and trigger over-romanticized and unreliable memories but for me, old television shows are much more effective.  At this point, you will be scratching your head, an eyebrow will arch but bear with me.  Didi (Bengali for older sister) and I were chilling this weekend (read: sitting in our parent’s conservatory mashing up our media or in more familiar words watching tv, Facebook stalking on our laptops, and texting on our mobile phones) when she came across a highly melodramatic, vaseline-tinted TV movie from the 80s on one of those cable channels that pats itself on the back when it gets 500 viewers.  I believe it was called “Romance on the Orient Express”.  Enough said.  But for us, this movie was hugely significant.  As my sister reliably recalls, this was one of things that had our rapt attention in our Sea Rock Hotel room in Bombay during our last few days in the city before we left for Sweden.  I was not in the least worrying about what Sweden would be like.  I was too busy thoroughly enjoying my plush surroundings.   The first time in a fancy hotel room, glossy TV shows which hinted at other worlds and the revolving restaurant at Sea Rock.  Seriously, tell me who would not marvel at eating in a revolving restaurant??

Bumping into this old movie made us think of all the stuff we used to watch when we were younger.  The usual obsessions definitely obviously featured like 21 Jump Street and Beverly Hills 90210 (fyi, definitely in the Dylan + Kelly camp).  However, there were four television shows which I will always identify with the early years in Sweden.

  1. Sinhá Moça (Young Lady) – a Brazilian telenovela about a slave-owner’s daughter set in Sao Paulo in the late 1800s.  Looking back on it now, I probably only understood 10% of what was happening in the soap.  It was obviously in Portugese and since my comprehension of Swedish was still at beginner level, the Swedish subtitles didn’t really help.  Why on earth did we watch it?  We were entranced by the high drama (would the Sinhá Moça ever get together with Rudolfo, the anti-slavery fighter?), the gorgeous dresses and a sensual language we had never heard.  The show was a gateway to a whole new world.
  2. Barnen i Bullerbyn (The Six Bullerby Children) – a Swedish miniseries based on the stories of Astrid Lindgren.  This was pure nostalgia as it tells the story of a little girl’s life and adventures in the small and neat Swedish village Bullerby.  It is the sweetest and most innocent story that is a throwback to a childhood which is more about good ol’ fashioned play, adventures and ‘scrapes’ instead of being on your nth diet by the age of 12.  Ok rant over but you get my point.  The show also reminds me of my childhood in Sweden.  I was outside a lot.  In the summer, it was about going on bike rides to the lake, grilling hot dogs, picking mushrooms and bluebells in the forest outside our house, swimming in Nalsta’s public pools and in the winter, sledding, making snowmen and climbing on top of the snow mountains stacked along the pavement.  Good times.
  3. If Tomorrow Comes – another American TV mini-series.  We recorded this on VHS tape so I watched it constantly.  I used to come home from school, drink my daily glass of O’boy chocolate milk, do my homework, and then watch part 2 (inexplicably this was the only part recorded so until very recently I never knew about the first part!) in a state of bliss.  Again, the glamour totally engulfed me.  The big hair, 80s shoulder-pads, and the exotic locations.  But the story was about a jewelry thief so Baba got a little concerned with my obsession and feared for my future.  He needn’t have worried.  My one attempt at stealing happened at our local supermarket was intercepted by the security guard and the humiliation henceforth made me never enter that shop and also crossed off larceny as a potential career.
  4. Eurovision Song Contest – Yeah yeah, I hear you snigger.  But I promise that this show was a big deal in Sweden.  It was one of the television moments of the year.  My family were really nerdy about it.  We used to all squeeze onto the sofa, tear out sheets of paper, armed with pencils and actually score each country’s song entry.  This was back when there were only 20 or so countries in the contest and the political voting was limited to France and UK awarding each other the dreaded ‘nul point’.

It’s funny to think of how these old TV shows have triggered family stories and memories.  I really don’t think sniffing Revlon’s Charlie would deliver the same results.

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Dima had the softest skin.  I used to love kissing her cushiony and marshmallow cheeks.  I don’t have many memories of her since she passed away when I was only nine.   But there are three or four really vivid images that I flick through like the slides in the vintage Viewmaster I played with when I was a little.  Her skin is one of them.  Another one is of her sitting with her paan paraphernalia on her lap and cutting up supori (betel nuts) with her special betel nut cutter like in the picture above.  I used to watch in rapt attention as she used this surgical-like instrument to chop up tiny squares of the nut with focus and precision.  I also remember watching her do puja in the thakur ghar after her daily bath and take note of the offerings she made to Krishna, Ganesh and Lakshminarayan.  I must have followed her around a lot.  But she was more than a Bengali widow who kept the household keys tied to a corner of her white cotton sari thrown over her shoulder.  The sound of the  jangling keys is akin to the modern personalised mobile ringtones.  You knew when it was she who was approaching.

Preetilata Chaudhuri was 17 when she married Dadu in an arranged marriage.  As well as becoming a wife at this young age, she had to adjust to living with his large family and being the eldest sister-in-law, a position in the household which brought with it lots of responsibilities, expectations and obligations.  Quite a daunting prospect as such a life  when viewed through today’s lens seems as not your own.  Part of her married life was quite solitary because Dadu used to be at the tea gardens for long stretches of time during which Dima eagerly waited for his letters.   It would be wonderful if some of them still existed.

Beyond the confines of the roles of wife, mother, daughter-in-law etc, Dima had artistic flair and a keen aesthetic eye.  She had no training so everything that she did just poured out of her naturally and through instinct.  During any auspicious event like pujas and weddings, Dima used to create ornately designed alpanaas ( the form of Rangoli practiced in Bengal but unlike Rangoli, Alpanaa is always done in white) on the floor of various rooms of the house with the help of a small piece of cloth drenched in a blend of water and grounded rice paste.  She used to start in one corner of the room and then painstakingly cover the whole floor.  All by freehand.  Her creative flair could be found in other mediums too.  My stomach is eternally grateful for Ma learning and absorbing Dima’s mastery and love of cooking.  She  made all of Ma’s clothes when she was a little girl and some of my sister’s and mine too.  When I was a baby, she embroidered my bed linen and knitted blankets to keep me snug.  If she was alive today, I would have encouraged her to make and sell her beautiful children’s clothes and linen on Etsy!

Ma definitely got her love of books and ideas from Dadu but Dima’s imprint is there on her talent for cooking and love of the arts, especially music.  It’s been doubly-rewarding to learn more about Dadu and Dima because as well as having the pleasure of getting to know who they were, I now understand Ma a little better too.

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