It’s mid-January here in frozen-solid Montreal and minus 30ºC with the wind chill. Naturally, the pipes froze this morning, not just in my home but in hundreds of homes across the city. Not for another week is the temperature here supposed to crawl up to a balmy high of zero…maybe! Under these somewhat frigid circumstances, it’s not easy to believe that a few short weeks ago, one could have been in a place where the temperature is never less than 30ºC above the freezing point, as is the case in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where I spent ten days last November on the way to Kolkata in December 2019.
I want to write, nearly did write, “on the way home” to Kolkata. I stopped myself. It isn’t my home; hasn’t been since I was eighteen months old. I came to Canada for the first time in 1960 as an Indian-born Indian child on my father’s Indian passport. If my mother had given birth in Calcutta (as it was spelled then) any time after 1977 rather than in 1958, she would have passed on her Canadian nationality to her child through the principle of jus sanguinis, “law of the blood.” However, between 1947 and 1977, for children born abroad to Canadian parents, “Canadian citizenship could only be passed down by Canadian fathers when born in wedlock, or Canadian mothers when born out of wedlock.” The law, in other words, was sexist; children of legally married Canadian women living abroad could not inherit their mother’s nationality, only their father’s. It was not until age eight that I was naturalized, along with my father.
Since 1960, Toronto and Montreal have been my two homes. The first time we went back to India as a family, I was twelve, and found everything exotic and unfamiliar nearly to the point of inducing trauma. I saw my first corpse, bouncing along in the back of an open truck on the way to the burning ghats; my first emaciated children, dying of malnutrition and neglect; my first deliberately-blinded beggar child, whose face and whose song I can conjure up yet (remember the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire?). I both loved and hated the place—Kolkata has that effect on people—and did not go back again for many years.
But perversely, contradictorily, the longer my life here, the stronger the pull to go back to that distant birthplace. This latest visit was the fourth in sixteen years, the third in eleven, the second in three. The intervals are getting shorter. What is the mysterious force of attraction that can cause a “Westerner” well-rooted in the global North to gravitate to a city and culture so different and in many ways so difficult? To want, more than anything, to learn the language that wasn’t passed on in childhood? The cadences of Bangla (Bengali) as it is spoken by my Kolkata cousins are like the beating of the blood in my veins. They are in rhythm with my heart, though I understand only about one word in three.
It’s not just because the pipes never freeze there. True, December is a near-ideal time of year to visit West Bengal (Kolkata is the capital), despite the “Unhealthy” to “Very Unhealthy” air quality that my weather app displays, every day. In contrast to the unbearably hot and humid summers, the temperature is very comfortable for a Canadian—25ºC or so in the day, 20ºC at night, or even cooler—although the cousins find it rather too cool. In the schools for the very poor organized by the small NGO that my cousin Nupur helps to run, the children are wrapped up warmly against the cold.
The schools are small, and, by “Global North” standards, not abundantly equipped. Children sit on mats on the floor in what might seem to us quite crowded conditions, working on the homework they bring from their inadequate “Government schools” to these supplemental, tutoring-style classrooms run on a shoestring. The NGO in question, Institute of Social Work (ISW—this link takes you to the contact page, for those who may want to learn more), has been helping to support basic schooling for very poor children in several economically depressed rural areas of West Bengal, as well as one of the dense urban slums of Kolkata, for over forty years. It was during a visit to the slum school in Khidepur three years ago that I experienced unanticipated root growth into the local soil—I tried to write about it at the time. Suddenly I found that I could not detach from the lives of the girls and women ISW works with. “If you ask them, they will tell you their stories,” Nupur said, and they did. Desperately poor homes, parents in difficulty (their mothers are usually domestic workers or “sweepers,” their fathers, rickshaw-pullers or itinerant manual labourers); pressure to leave school and marry in their early teens so their birth families no longer have the burden of supporting them—keeping these girls in school is both incredibly difficult and incredibly important.
In one of the rural schools, ISW has been able to build three classroom-sized buildings on a donated plot of land in the village and is now putting up a fourth. As my cousin pointed out, having toilets attached to the building, accessible from the inside, is crucial if one is to persuade the girls and their parents that continued schooling is even feasible for them. In the many places of the world where most people must find an outside spot to relieve themselves, going to school may not just be impractical and expensive for girls, it may also be life-threatening. My departmental colleague Claudia Mitchell has written about this major obstacle to girls’ education in the context of sub-Saharan Africa (Mitchell, 2009), as have many others; much of India, where “lack of safe toilets is one of the leading causes of rape” (Shah, 2015), is no better. The new building ISW constructed between my visits in 2017 and 2019 has, not one, but two attached toilets—the water supply is not as reliable as it could be, but they are working on it. “Now to plant some trees for shade, and flowers for a bit of colour,” said Nupur; “we keep trying, but the goats will get in and eat the young shoots…”
At another one of ISW’s rural development sites, an income-generating project for poor women gathers in worn-out cotton clothing (India is a fabric-lover’s paradise), teaches the women to use two old treadle-operated Singer sewing machines at weekly workshops, and produces finished items in the traditional kantha quilting tradition that are then sold locally or through Fair Trade shops abroad.
I am hopelessly hooked, have brought back a second suitcase-full of quilted artwork, and have even started recycling our family’s more threadbare kurta-salwar suits and saris into quilts myself under the skilled mentorship of long-time colleague and local quilter Marlise Horst. My cousin Nupur and I are now trading patterns for kantha items, ideas for the schools’ ESL curricula, and, of course, recipes…
…all my cousines (but there we are sisters—Bengali, like other languages of India, has no word for cousin) invited me for elaborate meals and long conversations during which my language proficiency inched along from beginner to low-intermediate. The ISW schools say they can make use of me, if I can stay longer next time.
For fifty-some years, I didn’t understand properly the ways in which I belong, not just here, but there as well. Fortunately, it’s not too late to go back and find out. So much still to learn.
Mitchell, Claudia. (2009). Geographies of danger: School toilets in sub-Saharan Africa. In Olga Gershenson & Barbara Penner (Eds.), Ladies & Gents (pp. 62-74).
Shah, Sachi. (2015, November 19). The scary connection between sexual assault and the lack of toilets. TakePart World. Retrieved 18 January 2020 from http://www.takepart.com/article/2015/11/19/world-toilet-day-oped