Ever since we moved abroad which was a decade back, we have been visiting India once a year to spend time with our parents and to catch up with relatives and friends. Only this time I decided to carry a sketchbook with me to document my time there.
This series of sketches is a result of that little side project amidst all the meetings, greetings, feasting and frolicking that happened while we were there over the holidays.
Meet the parents
My parents live their retired life in a two storied house in Kolkata, a metropolitan city in eastern India. My dad spends most of his time reading at his desk and is surrounded by a large and ever increasing pile of books. From time to time, he would holler for a cup of tea and would drink it sitting at his desk. In order to spend time with my dad I sit on his bed next to the desk and read or listen to music. This is where I sketched him as well. He doesn’t move much which is perfect.
Since my dad is tied to his desk, my mom is in charge of running the house. She buys groceries, milk and fish, supervises the cook and the cleaner, waters the plants, pays the cable guy and calls the electrician, plumber or the doctor when something or someone needs fixing. Spending time with her has always been easy. She’s likes to talk, listen and laugh at silly things.
When I was home, every morning she would flip through the Bengali newspaper and narrate news articles to me that caught her attention. One day it was about a couple that jumped together from a ferry into the river Ganges and the next day it was about a policeman who slapped a women because she pulled his jacket.
Bengalis love their fish
I have often been snubbed by my cousins who grew up in Kolkata for not fancying fish as much as they do. Nevertheless, when I visit my parents at least one meal of the day has to have a fish dish. Everyday before lunch the fish gets washed, liberally coated with turmeric and salt, fried in mustard oil, put in a gravy and served hot with white rice. It’s interesting is how easily and seamlessly I fall into this rhythm when I visit home and fall out of it when I leave.
Here’s a sketch of the cook working her magic on the catch of the day.
On the Road Again (and again..)
Much of my time on this trip to Kolkata was spent on the road, inside cabs, taking my elderly parents around to visit doctors, getting medical tests done and at pharmacies buying medicines for them. Sketching would often help me relieve the stress and anxiety that accompanies this sort of thing.
I’d use the cab window to frame the passing scene and when something struck a chord, I sketched it. This scene was my view from under Maa flyover, at Park Circus Seven Point Crossing. Everybody seemed to be in a great hurry to go somewhere. Engines were roaring, cars and bikes were honking and hawkers were peddling candies to those stuck at the traffic signal. What caught my eye at this busy junction was the pristine white dome and the minaret seen in the distance against a pale blue sky, creating a juxtaposition of chaos and calm.
Sketching on the road wasn’t limited to subjects outside the car window necessarily! If you’ve travelled in a cab in India, chances are you have encountered at least a handful of Indian gods and goddesses. My Uber driver had the entire dashboard of his car turned into a shrine which I had to draw. Besides several framed pictures of goddess Kali, you see lord Hanuman hanging low from the rear view mirror carrying the Gandhamadana mountain, as told in the Ramayana!
Hanging from another thread is a copper kalash (vessel) charm complete with a miniature green coconut and few plastic mango leaves stuffed inside and decorated with the auspicious red swastika. Don’t miss the ‘Jay Maa Kali’ (hail mother Kali) written on the windscreen and Kolkata’s iconic yellow ambassador taxi seen right ahead.
One of the joys of my India visit this year has been in the ability to use Colgate toothpaste every morning. We don’t find Colgate in Korea, so coming home once a year to a familiar taste felt like a treat and a reminder that you really can’t take anything for granted. The Dettol hand wash is also a standard fixture inside Indian toilets.
My dad taught me how to play scrabble when I was ten to help me expand my vocabulary. It took me four years to beat him. He was more happy about it than I was!
It’s interesting how as parents grow older you switch roles with them. Few years back I taught him how to play online scrabble. Since then we’ve been playing everyday, sitting thousands of miles apart. Even when we go without talking for days, I know he’s okay because he’s making his moves! And occasionally when he wins I’m the one beaming with pride! This sketch is of my dad playing scrabble with me on his tablet and trying to hide his tiles so I can’t see them.
Mom and the stray (cat)
Or the stray and the patron saint of all strays in my parents’ neighbourhood. My mom starts her day by feeding crows in the morning that caw on the electric poles in front of our house. Sometimes during the day a brown mutt climbs on top of our garage where he’s given biscuits and milk and lastly this fluffy mottled brown cat that makes the most soulful meowing sound is at times allowed into the house to say hi in person and given fish, bones and belly rubs.
But mom doesn’t stop at feeding them. She names them, talks to them, disciplines them(the brown mutt was recently chided for pairing up with a really ugly black mongrel with no prospects), gets anxious when they don’t visit ( fluffy cat who didn’t make an appearance during Christmas and new year was probably feasting elsewhere) and worries about them when she travels.
I don’t know if there are more on my Mom’s roster for strays but know this much that as long as she’s around no one’s turned away hungry or without love. I get the sentiment. To assuage other concerns I bought her a bigger bottle of hand sanitiser!
An old acquaintance
This flower lady has been delivering flowers to my parents for as long as I can remember. Besides meeting my parents’ daily flower needs, she’s delivered flowers for all the big events in the house- my wedding, my sister’s wedding, our grandparents’ birth and death anniversaries and my nephew’s rice ceremony when he turned one. She’s a one woman show, exceptionally hardworking, efficient and persuasive. Except a few strands of white hair, she looked exactly the same. That day she was selling marigolds, hibiscus and tuberoses to my mom and saying how glad she was to see me.
My sister aligns her holidays with mine, so we can be together at least once a year even for a few days. This is also when I get to see my nephew who is 3 years old now and loves cars, actually anything that has wheels. Whether sleeping, awake, in the tub or on the pot, some sort of vehicle can always be found clutched between his fingers!
The other day I caught him playing in the balcony with a toy set of construction trucks, all lined up neatly in a row. A lot of active excavation, shovelling, loading and dumping was happening with appropriate sound effects on a flat marble surface! The nonchalant crow perched on the balcony railing wasn’t actually there. I added it to keep the little guy company.
One smelly affair
The fish market in my parent’s neighbourhood is the loudest and the most crowded. Aggressive fishmongers sitting on their haunches holler names of fish and their prices to the passerby. Thrusting a fish in your direction they’ll say, “look, how red the gills are and how clear its eyes are”, guaranteeing its freshness. Sometimes a recipe is narrated on the spot!
If you take the bait, they will immediately weigh the fish on their hand balance, bit of friendly haggling over the price occurs, and after scaling and gutting, they’ll cut the fish into pieces using a long curved blade attached to a wooden base (and held down by foot) called boti and put it into your bag, moving on to the next customer, pronto, repeating everything you just heard.
The mobile bazaar
The last sketch in this series is of the narrow lane right outside my parents’ house that sees a bevy of activity from dawn till dusk. In a span of one hour, I saw a guy selling bedsheets, a cobbler yelling if someone needed to fix their shoes, a garbage collector, a musical instruments repairer, a fishmonger and a vegetable seller who brings his cart right outside the door of my parents’ house every day for my mom to check if she needs something. He had green peas, radishes and chubby looking aubergines that day.
Three weeks can vanish in the blink of an eye. Though we click pictures of all the special moments during our stay with the family, there are innumerable feelings, sensations, thoughts and revelations that we have from time to time, no less stimulating than others, which slip through the cracks and fade away with time.
These sketches were an attempt at catch them one at a time and deposit them into the memory bank only to be relished later. Until next time, Kolkata!