Saturday, August 18, 2012

Kolkata trip part I: Dubai, Kolkata saris, and the perfect blouse-maker

For two days I waited for the hummingbird in vain.  One rainy morning it hovered around my back deck, preening, pouting and daring me in mid-air.  I borrowed a telephoto from a friend and then lay in wait with my camera for two afternoons.  It stood me up, flickering by only on the eve of our trip to India in a farewell swoop—its speed, its upredictable trajectory, and the low light conditions preventing me from getting off a good shot. 

It was with this feeling of rejection that I reached JFK airport the next morning, only to await further rejection and find that Emirates had now cancelled M’s confirmed reservation: a slip of electronics somewhere in the labyrinthine depths of the web, her seat gone, with no recourse, no paper trail, and no apologies.  This too was sorted out eventually by a sympathetic Emirates employee, and after this bit of drama we were on the plane and outbound.

Dubai airport, where we changed planes for Kolkata is like a halfway house for India.  Large groups of migrant workers from the sub-continent throng the airport, headed back home with packages and brown boxes with laptops, young men in tight jeans, chunky sneakers, and bulging backpacks made with 21st century polymers that promise a lifetime of rugged adventure.  The man sitting next to me on the flight back to Kolkata is from Bahrampur (Berhampore), a small town in western Bengal.  He is rushing back to tend to an ailing father—the call had come in that morning. After graduating with a degree in telecommunications engineering he moved on to management studies, and from then on to banking, which is what he did in Dubai. 

This apathy towards engineering is a widespread trend.  Indians have historically loathed manual labor and there is little excitement for building things with one’s own hands. As an example, India is among the cheapest wireless and broadband providers in the world today (~$20 for 10 GB of data transfer using a 3G usb dongle); mobile telephony is omnipresent, yet, unlike other emerging Asian nations, India has no presence in the setting of technical standards in the wireless world.  The chipsets are Huawei, the marketing plans Indian. The bookshops and the business intellectual environment are filled with thoughts on management, on brand value, on deals, on things and stuff that can be done with the stroke of a keyboard—the country’s elite has taken to these like a fish to water.  But there is little enthusiasm for noodling around, innovating into and not around the skin of a technology.

Kolkata, for all the derision afforded it by my non-Bengali friends, is on a roll.  An entire industrial sector dedicated to the IT industry is coming up near the airport. It brings to life what a Bengali minister had once mentioned—you can fly into Kolkata, finish your meeting and be back at the airport in the time it would take to get halfway to your business destination in Bangalore from its airport.  The metro rail is being extended all the way to the airport.  Large flyover constructions are in progress along the Eastern Bypass, stifling traffic for now, but beneficial in the long run.  The traffic volume gets less unruly and further regularized every time I see it. 

We visit a new sari shop in Hindustan Park called Byloom (  It is on a residential street in a reconfigured residential house with old stone floors.  A stream of customers flow by and it is popular among high brow Bengali film actresses whose tastes are not to be confused with those of their Bollywood counterparts.  The owners get their designs executed by artisans from various parts of Bengal, adhering to traditional textile making methods.  I try to take a photograph and am sternly warned.  Perhaps I might consternate a private customer.  The saris are unique, elegant, often muted, and with appealing color sense. They are not the loud, often garish designer saris that are immensely popular in the rest of India.  The prices will cause you to raise both eyebrows multiple times. 

Buying the right sari, I learn, leads to now finding the right blouse maker, a task not to be trifled with.  I ask several of my old high school buddies to recommend a tailor that M could visit.  I receive some, but none that are unqualified.  My women friends of Kolkata, I learn, are in perpetual search for the perfect blouse maker, and there is a fluid pool of tailors who fall in and out of favor depending upon how much the wearer and the blouse have deviated in the interval between the initial specifications and the final product. The perfect blouse maker does not exist, just as the perfect energy conversion engine does not exist. 

I am told that Manohar and Jayasree near Triangular Park and New Market have excellent tailors, and am referred to friendly Shombhuda from Jayasree, but then reminded that they did mess up a few times.  I recall Rajesh Khanna leering over glasses balanced on the bridge of his nose in “Ladies Tailor”, and wondered about his sartorial skills in this Bollywood flick from the 70s.  Debasree’s in Hindustan Park is a bit “nose up in the air”, pricey, but good.  Shantibabu is an independent entrepreneur who will come to your house to do a fitting.  And there is Ladies Creation, on Wood Street.  The choices are many. I like the comforting names—Debasree, Jayasree, Shombhuda, Shantibabu—they permeate the ears with the roundedness of a warm bowl of water.  They suggest new possibilities: perhaps I might find a blouse tailor named Nachiketa, or in a store bearing that most Bengali of Bengali names—Kadombori, or what about Kanakalata—these are just the K’s and the options could be endless.  I learn more about saris and blouses than I had signed up for.  More on this later.

We take a week long break to spend time with my parents in Guwahati.  The road from the airport is long and straight, and the landscape almost rural on either side, though incongruously dotted with large billboards for all sorts of luxury goods. Then, after a few kilometers the road degenerates into the urban mess that is modern Guwahati.  With the Brahmaputra river on one side and hills on the other, a more dramatic setting could not exist for a city.   This beauty lies to waste today as the city looks inwards and relentlessly deconstructs from this ideal in aimless random geometries of concrete, construction and automobiles. 

My parents live on a property settled by the oldest of my uncles in the 1930s, who shared this land equitably with his five brothers. Only two people remain here from that generation—one brother’s wife now 96, and my father, 88.  Until a few years ago my father would walk up the stairs to her house—ramrod straight—every day after dinner and spend a quiet hour chatting and reading the newspaper.  Now, injuries and illness have left them frail, confined in movement, unable to see one another for the last two years.  I took my father by hand one morning and helped him climb the stairs.  Tears flowed down my aunt’s eyes as they both sat in her room in celebration of the days past; both near deaf and unable to communicate verbally.  He was 13 when she married into the household in 1938 at the age of 21 and she had played the role of his guardian in a large joint family household. She sat there, on her 75 year old bed that had witnessed her marriage and the death of her husband, her gaze steadfast upon her brother-in-law, dabbing at her tears, occasionally reaching out for and holding his hand.  They were the last two from their generation, the others long gone. What memories they must be sharing in this moment of silent companionship.


  1. As always a beautiful post! It is hard to watch parents growing old! I lost my dad last year, and relate well to the memories.

  2. Supro - awesome write-up. Please continue on this -- it quenches our thirst as readers of good writings.
    Take Care,