In his book, Istanbul: Memories And The City, Orhan Pamuk writes that as a boy, he believed that he had a doppelganger, another Orhan living in another house somewhere in Istanbul. For those of us who migrated away from India at a young age, as I did, there is always another imagined self that stayed behind, the self we might have been, the one that got away. I moved with my parents from Calcutta to New Jersey in 1990, when I was 12. The year is important, as is the age. I never sang ‘Ilu Ilu’ to anyone, or hung out at college fests or tried to copy Shah Rukh Khan’s come-ons. I never dreamt of whisking women away to Swiss meadows, or fantasised that they were Madhuri Dixit, while we made out behind a bush. My entire adolescence—from the first sprouting of facial hair, to the first slow dance—took place in America.
The country we left in 1990 was still a place where everything stopped for one hour each week, on Sunday mornings, during the telecasts of Ramayan or Mahabharat. It was a time before cable TV, Indian beauty queens, heroes with six packs, and the 24×7 bombardment via ads of consumer durables to make you happy. When I left India, we had just gotten Pepsi, but the slogan “yeh dil maange more” was not yet born.
From each according to his abilities, wrote Marx in the Communist Manifesto, to each according to his needs. Growing up in Calcutta in the 1980s, that was the motto in my family. As a kid, I was not to ask for anything. My material needs would be provided for me, according to my requirements. The only problem is, who really needs cap guns, magic tricks, and wind-up cars?
Each year during Jhulon, around the time of Janmashtami, a street fair full of stalls selling plastic cars, cap guns, and magic tricks took place along Vivekananda Road, almost at the doorstep of my grandmother’s house in north Calcutta. The asceticism of my upbringing determined that I avert my eyes from such lures.
One year, I set my sights on a bust of Rabindranath Tagore. It was a well-sculpted clay statue—the bearded face resembled Tagore, and not some stray hippie. My sublimated desires desperately wanted to buy that bust. It cost Rs 30—in late 1980s money—I didn’t have that kind of cash, and I certainly couldn’t ask my parents. In the end, a sympathetic aunt bought it for me. That statue sat on my desk, goading me to improve my class rank during every first, second and third term exam.
When we moved to the US, the Tagore bust went in my suitcase, and broke in transit.
For years, I kept the broken pieces in a plastic bag, like the ashes of an ancestor kept in an urn.
I wondered about the person I might have been—with Tagore and text preparation manuals at my desk—if I had not moved away. Friends and cousins of my generation would say I was lucky that I had escaped, evading the competitive exams, which I would have failed to clear, then going to some second-rate engineering college to learn programming, then an MBA, then a job in Hyderabad or Singapore or inevitably in America.
After college, I moved in the other direction, back to Calcutta, to work as a reporter at The Statesman. I was 22, already an adult; a decade had passed. I knew nothing about picking up girls in tuition classes, buying them gifts from Archie’s, or taking them to the quiet corners of Dhakuria Lake. I had missed out on an Indian adolescence.
One year, my friend, the artist Sumitro Basak, and I visited the Jhulon mela together. I told him the Tagore story, and Sumitro said, “I’ll buy you anything you like.” My gaze was drawn to the plastic auto rickshaws gleaming under the yellow lights. But I was tongue-tied. I became the boy I had once been, unable to articulate desire. Sumitro bought me an auto rickshaw, a cycle rickshaw, some figurines, all “for a friend’s son”, I told the seller. I felt an inordinate burst of sheer pleasure, as if I was hoarding the uncollected bounty of a lost childhood. For months afterwards, I frequented such melas, picking up wooden horses, plastic gas cylinders, clay sparrows and papier-mâché palm trees. I was a man acting like a child, seeking the child I had long ago abandoned, trying to discover the man he might have grown up to become.
I live in this country, at least for now. My daughter plays with the toys I once hoarded. In her memory, she has lived nowhere else. Is this the life I would have led, the life I would have desired if I never left? I doubt it.
Maybe my other self, the one that stayed, the one that got away, now lives in a cul-de-sac in a quiet suburb of Boston, in a house with a two-car garage and falls asleep each night next to a woman who reminds him, still, of Madhuri Dixit.