Empty Roads

No better street food in the entire world.

An old, fragile, homeless woman hovered around the trunk of our car, like she did around other cars when the owners returned to the filthy car park. She didn’t speak. She cupped her wrinkle-clad hands and bobbed them up and down. Repeatedly, all day, all night until she eventually fell into another night of uncomfortable sleep. She had spent her life being invisible, her story unknown to the world… At least until the bobbing became a visible irritation. The younger mama broke off our conversation, clearly fed up with the bobbing, “What is it? Later. Just wait.” The bobbing stopped, like a baby’s cry of hunger in the presence of a bottle. She began to simply hover. Her gaunt body just hung in the air as our two uncles, or mamas loaded up our suitcases into the trunk and motioned us four sisters to squeeze into the backseat together. They slammed the trunk door close, got into their seats and we drove away.

The invisible woman continued standing, once again surrounded in a cloud of disappointment. We speeded down deserted roads lined with slums and makeshift beds on every street corner and every abandoned rooftop. We complained about the flight, the baggage delay and the heat. We praised the design of the new airport, the empty roads and the street side food we were able to find.

We were all terribly excited by the Indian drive through. A series of shacks along the roadside, serving Indian version of Chinese food, and pop. There is no entrance, there is no exit. The car glued itself to the edge of the road, our uncle trying to find any empty spot – of course there was not any legal parking with signs or boxes drawn on the concrete. He drove and a boy no older than 18 chased us. “Chicken popcorn, steamed veg and non-veg momos (dumplings) and six cold coffees (instant coffee with a scoop of ice cream dunked in the cup). Hurry up. I’m going to the other side.” He made a swift, illegal U-turn and we sat waiting on the other side of the road. More old, fragile and homeless women were hovering. This time around the garbage that was littered across Kolkata as if they were leftover Christmas decorations.

The boy showed up a while later, handing us our uncovered, dirt and dust covered food, which we took no time to devour. He ordered another plate of chicken popcorn, for the ride back. We disposed of our rubbish outside the car. The old, fragile and homeless women complained, “I just cleaned this area and these guys dirtied it up!” We drove away, making our unclean escape before they walked over to scold us. They would have earned some ten rupees for all the plastic they collected that day, all the while we spent some seven hundred rupees on our midnight snack.

My grandfather, mother, my older uncle’s wife and children, and the servants were all waiting at the kona, or Corner, looking down into the large, open garage. Our car arrived. The large grin on my face from our conversation disappeared and the pit of nostalgia swirled in my heart. Everyone was there, except my grandmother. The family’s heart, soul and glue. My eyes welled up, like a child who misses her mother. I shook my head and got out of the car. While our uncles unloaded our luggage, we walked up two flights of concrete stairs and down a long and dark but open veranda to our relatives and mother who could barely hold their excitement upon seeing the four sisters walking in together. We hugged, we waved. Our grandfather squeezed and kissed us all over, a sad grin spread across his face. Everyone had a sad grin over their faces, but no one stated the obvious, mainly because we did not have to – our grandmother would have been there, squeezing and kissing and already force feeding homemade sweets and treats, yelling at her sons for taking so long, asking about the flight, the food on the flight, asking about the number of hours we slept, telling us how we had grown, even though it was her that had shrunk, from all of her illnesses.

This accurately describes a very normal interaction with Scooby.

We were ushered into our maami’s, or aunty’s, room. To change, shower and sleep. We awoke in the morning to fulfill a day of catching up, meeting the new dog, the neighbours. I had never missed someone more than that day, when I woke up to realise she would never be there again. I stood in the bathroom, like a child who missed her mother, crying, wondering how my mother left if I felt like this. I saw her everywhere. In the corner of room, near the pickles she had left in a large, sealed jar, in the face of the moon on a clear night, in the taste of my mom’s food, in the small clutter she left behind in her room. The smell of her clothes lingered in her closet. In the sadness that had taken a permanent position on my grandfather’s face. I washed my face, brushed my teeth and went upstairs to the biggest kitchen anyone will ever see. I was introduced to the new pet, who was crazy with excitement over the sudden increase in the number of people. Her tail whacking everything and everyone. She was the happiest living thing in the house, attempting to restore the liveliness our grandmother had taken with her.

We had bread, toasted on the fire of a gas stove, with pure butter, and bhujiya, or fried potatoes (Indian french fries), chai, made with milk from the two cows reared downstairs and enough sugar to give us diabetes that very second, and my personal favorite, jalebi, (I don’t know what the English translation of this would be). It’s orange. It’s a spiral. It’s deep fried sugar, flour and orange colouring, essentially. Our hearts should have stopped there and then, but we kept going. Throwing biscuits and bits of our bread to the dog, because apparently Indian dogs can and will eat anything and everything.

I walked around the rooms, the corridors and corners, laughing on the inside every time I remembered the name of the rooms. “The Big Room/Hall.” “The New Flat.” “The Corner.” Originality was not a criteria when naming the rooms. I re-saw all the pictures I saw growing up, of our great grandfathers and great grandmothers and other ancestors I could not recognize. The bed frames, tables and chairs standing exactly where they have been standing in my memory all these years. The intricate patterns of the beds, the delicate wood carving, the bright walls, all still the same, except now all the rooms were empty – the ultimate sign of a family growing up, becoming old. People moving away, children growing up, grandmothers dying. But the memories remained, in picture frames across the walls, in the laughter inside our heads from stupid jokes we made standing around the same bed frame a decade ago. It was the ultimate realisation that our childhood was over. The pit of nostalgia stirred inside me some more, clear looping images of running up and down that long, maroon-floored corridor, tripping over the abundance of shoes outside the rooms, the sharp sound of the bell that rang whenever someone went to the little temple and prayed.

This new, adorable dog, Scooby, had begun to take over my nostalgic, emotional little heart. We hugged her, and ran with her, and laughed every time she urinated on a straw mat. She smiled, constantly. She barked and created a fuss. She tried to eat plastic secretly. She moped around when she got caught. She chased and killed bugs in a cruel, but intriguing manner. Her size scared off everyone else in the building. She didn’t seem to understand that she couldn’t be friends with everyone. I taught her to sit, in English. I taught her to sit still and listen to me yell at her when she did something bad, in English. I nearly taught her to shake. We fed her too many biscuits, and she got sick. We felt guilty and didn’t feed her any biscuits for a while. She got better. We fed more biscuits. She lit up a room with her quirky personality, like a child that doesn’t learn her lesson. When she tired herself out, she would lay there, quietly. Staring into the nothingness, enjoying her state of being.

Miss you Scoobs 😦



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