Dadu’s Typewriter

Photo by Shome Dasgupta

Kolkata Chameleon

Shome Dasgupta

When I was younger, more than anything else, I was just a brat not giving attention to my heritage—and I wasn’t truly understanding where I was living and the beauty of the cultures in which I’ve been able to immerse myself. As I became older, during my visits to Kolkata, visiting my relatives—most importantly, my grandparents—my thoughts toward my background became more meaningful and purposeful. At the same time, I didn’t quite realize the beauty of Cajun culture, one that blankets Lafayette in every which way until later in life.

I had only met my father’s parents less than a handful of times as I would visit Kolkata every four years, and they both passed away by the time I was reaching my teenage years. I am grateful to retain some memories of them—I remember my grandmother had a beautiful singing voice and people would visit her on Theatre Road, fittingly, to hear her perform sangeets while enjoying tea and cake. I remember her hand tapping her knee as she rocked her body back and forth and moving her head in a smooth motion as the words came out of her mouth with a soothing, fluid voice. I didn’t quite know what she was singing about because my comprehension of Bengali was still fledgling, but it didn’t matter—the beauty of her singing, the spirit behind it, did not need any definitions. My father’s father, an ENT specialist who passed away when I was much younger, had a deep solid voice, but his skin was very soft as I remember kissing him on the forehead and on each side of his face before going to sleep each night.

I saw my mother’s mother—Dida—in the various stages of her life, as a vibrant, strong lady, and as an even stronger and vibrant lady as she suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Either way, she was sharp and witty, always making us laugh. The last time I saw her before coming back to Lafayette, as she would pass away before my next visit to Kolkata, one of the helpers wheeled her onto the balcony—my family and I were outside putting out suitcases into the car—and she got up from the wheelchair, with one hand holding the balcony railing, and the other hand waving to us. It all made sense to me. I truly felt like an Indian at the moment but I cannot explain why.

Portraits of my Father’s Mother

When it comes to my mother’s father—my Dadu—without hesitation, I will always think of him as my inspiration. He was a worldly man, the kindest and gentlest being I knew. His soft, watery eyes always made me feel at home—they always humbled me. My parents had a lot to do with my passion for reading and writing; however, it was my grandfather who somehow, despite our geographical distance from each other, instilled the foundations of my love for both endeavors. There is this manila folder in the drawer of my office desk that contains a myriad of letters, always written via a typewriter. Each letter is full of love, and he was always quoting various authors and philosophers, and I would sit in my room trying to remember every quote he had sent me. His personal library consisted of about 10,000 books, and whenever I visited Kolkata, I would sit in his study, keeping the door open—the door that led to the balcony—letting the sun streak through, letting the smell of freshly washed clothes hanging from the balconies all around us enter the library, and I would try to look at every book he had, ranging from Noam Chomsky to John Milton to literary theory to books on philosophy. His gentle touch, when he put his hands on my shoulder had such an enigmatic effect, I always felt the world was in harmony. It was through him, I felt Indian. It was through him, I realized the importance of my family’s background.

Letter from Dadu

Dadus Typewriter

When I would visit India as I became older, at times, I very much feel like a stranger—I understand the language and I understand the culture, traditions, and the way of life in Kolkata, but still I felt estranged unless I was with my grandparents and relatives. I always noticed, while walking on the streets or in stores, how people are looking or staring at me. I don’t particularly have dark skin, but I also don’t have white skin either—over there, I felt like I didn’t look Indian though. There was no fooling them, perhaps—despite wearing tradition Indian garments, they can identify that I didn’t live there. They could turn me inside out in their heads and realize that I was coming from America. It was just a feeling one gets—the way of the look. It’s also the same look I get here in Lafayette when people realize that I’m not from Louisiana. Indians can tell that I am a Westerner, and Louisianians can tell that I am an Indian. In both places I will often be asked about my background. In either setting, they called me out with their eyes.

Here in Louisiana, where it’s not my American characteristics that stand out as they do in India, my Indian characteristics lead to questions and looks. Sometimes the general question of where I’m from is more out of curiosity—people wanting to know about other countries and traditions and so on. Maybe it’s a way for them to make connections and relate to different cultures. Sometimes I am seen as a Middle Easterner, other times, African—sometimes it gets me into trouble, while other times it brings me closer to the people here. One of my favorite memories was when I was an adjunct English teacher at the local community college, and without a doubt, on the first day of class of each semester, every time I walked into the room and stood in the front, they always looked so surprised. Later on, once we were able to establish a comfortable setting in one of the classes, one of the students casually mentioned that when I walked in, that I was walking in to learn how to speak English.

Teaching English at SLCC

To add to my personal confusion, my family and I lived one year in Manchester, England. A grey industrial toned city, it was certainly a culture shock to me—especially with the idea of knowing we would be there for a year. I immediately noticed how the students my age, or even younger, were much more mature than I—this was when I was about 12 years of age. Their knowledge of curse words, whether the universal ones or their own local slang was far beyond what I had known. Their knowledge and experience with sex and how they talked about it—I had to try my best to pretend to know what they were talking about. And the fights. The fights—I had to try my best to stay away from them, to not get caught in them. Those scenarios in TV shows and movies where they say, “meet me at the tree in the playground after school,” or “meet me at the locker rooms at 3:30,” actually happened in real life. Students would gather in circles, shouting and yelling until one of the students was down and out.

In Manchester, I was definitely seen as an American more than anything else. The students there had a diverse population, people from the Middle East, Pakistan, and India, so my feeling of isolation wasn’t so much founded on being Indian but from coming from America. I was teased and for saying “yes, Ma’am” to the teacher instead of saying “yes, Miss” and they would ask me if I was a cowboy. I had to fend for myself often—I was surprised that I took it so personally.

Since I’ve returned from Manchester, I have found myself feeling like a Cajun at random, sporadic times. This has happened quite a bit—especially when I find myself going out with my friends to eat Cajun food, such as boiled crawfish, gumbo, and crawfish etouffee. Sometimes it’s at a friend’s house—a small gathering of companions hanging out in the kitchen and on the patio. Other times, we’ll go to a local restaurant where there’s live music playing, and although I don’t quite know how to Cajun dance, I’ll always give it a try—to be in the middle of the crowd, lost and smiling, trying to move my feet in rhythm with everyone else. It’s the attempt itself that leads me to relate to the culture. 

Boiled Crawfish

There are those certain moments where I have those sudden realizations of where I came from or where I am—sometimes, I wake up in the morning craving the smell of boiled crawfish and gumbo. Other times, I wake up in the morning, in a reflective mood—a meditative state, leaning towards some kind of morning raga.

Sometimes I feel Indian when I’m by myself walking around the city of Lafayette. Sometimes I feel Cajun when someone refers to me as “boo” or “sha.” It is something I can’t really explain—it is some kind of spiritual connection to both cultures despite the confusion I feel being a part of both cultures.

The idea of being Cajun, in the strict sense, comes directly through lineage. However, there seems to be looser sense of being Cajun these days. It is a culture that has welcomed me into their homes, and it is a culture that I welcome wholeheartedly. I mean not to offend Cajuns by calling myself, in some ways a Cajun, and I want to thank them for opening me up to their Cajun traditions—to their joy of life and food and dancing and friendship. The same goes for the Indian community here and my relatives in India—for always looking over me, since childhood—for always accepting me despite not really knowing who I am. There are several similarities between the two cultures, in particular, the love for spicy foods, dancing, and closely knit families, so in some ways, I feel both Indian and Cajun at times—Cajundian. Both cultures, from my observations and experiences, exhibit hard work ethics, while at the same time, a love for celebrations—a love for festivals, and dancing, and of course, no matter the function, there is always great food, whether Indian or Cajun. Each way of life practices kindness and compassion, and each way of life whether intentionally or not, displays qualities of meditation. Place.

I continue to search for some kind of identity—I will continue to dissect myself—perhaps, this is the Indian in me, or perhaps, this is the Cajun I pretend to be, or perhaps, it’s neither. However, I do know that I probably won’t be able to fully explain it—the concept of being Indian or Cajun or both. It is an indescribable feeling more than anything else—it is a feeling and the moments of being, infinite and unending. It is a way of life that only comes naturally and without thought—it’s a chameleon of cultures.

Flooded Park in Lafayette, LA

Atchafalaya, Louisiana

At an Indian Wedding in Lafayette, LA

Sketches and Photos by Shome Dasgupta

Shome Dasgupta is the author of The Seagull And The Urn (HarperCollins India), and most recently, the novels The Muu-Antiques (Malarkey Books) and Tentacles Numbing (Thirty West), a prose collection of fiction and personal essays called Histories Of Memories (Belle Point Press), and a poetry collection, Iron Oxide (Assure Press). He lives in Lafayette, LA.

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