Welcome Home, Mate

by Indranil Halder

His journey to Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport had started late afternoon. To lighten his apprehension, he sought comfort in three spicy Bombay Sapphire cocktails from the Christmas pop-up bar at the departure lounge. Pretending that he was a gin lover with time to trial each and every new Bombay Sapphire cocktail creation, in reality he was keeping his sadness at bay. Managing sadness was a part of his transnational family life. Understanding and responding to his transnational family was always challenging. At the same time, he loved his transnational family as he commuted seeing his elderly father Kuber Sen in Kolkata, or his brother Prem Sen, in New York. Its celebrated freedom, respect, and strengthening family ties.

Akash was sad to leave his wife and daughter as he journeyed alone to Kolkata. It was Christmas, a time to be with family and friends. Unlike a stereotypical Bengal man, Akash spent his money to maintain a family car and home and looked after his wife. Carolyn was born into Sydney’s eastern suburb’s privilege but had maintained her normalcy and humbleness. Not a plastic Aussie apple pie with a love for caviar, Botox, and Range Rovers. And his daughter Molly, fifteen years old, named after the Australian Molly Fink who married the Indian prince Martanda Bhairava Tondaiman, the Raja of the princely State of Pudukkottai in 1915, and that too without the approval of the British Raj, was a normal Aussie teenager and full of life. Carolyn and Molly would be with his in-laws in Austinmer, a beach village on the New South Wales south coast, a perfect town for the Aussie summer. Memories flooded back for Akash for his and Carolyn’s time during their courtship in the salty but fresh ocean breeze of the south coast.

He was a bit afraid too. It was the start of a black Aussie summer. News of raging bush fires engulfing the Blue Mountains burning many hundreds of thousands of hectares of land and destroying homes and properties was on his mind. And Blue Mountains was only 45 minutes from his house. The fires had the potential to swallow many more thousands of hectares in New South Wales along with a dire number of animal deaths. He was flying out at a time when volunteer fire fighters from as far afield as the United States were arriving on Australian shores to support their fellow Aussie fire fighters. They joined hands in their battle to save properties and lives.

If anything, his twenty years of marriage had taught him, it was that both his ladies were more than capable of looking after themselves, whereas his father Kuber Sen needed him the most. He needed him not because of his age, but for his security.

***

The capital city under British Raj, Kolkata, had suddenly turned into a city of Non-Resident Indians, whose parents lived on with the hope of seeing their children as often as possible, but the reality was far from the hope. Some parents managed to see their children once in a blue moon. Others did not. They lived on the hope of seeing them one day. Hope was all that was left to hold on to.

Akash knew the truth from Sydney Bengalis that visiting their elderly parents in Kolkata was not a common practice for Non-Resident Indians, rather a waste of time, effort and money. The concept seemed to be working so far for many, except Akash. Akash was bit different.

He had been able to visit his father twice a year as a priority. He appeared to have adopted the role of protector in his father’s Ballygunge world since his mother’s death. He more or less had been appearing in the city like the Hindu God Krishna, as a protector. His visits had helped to keep a balance in his father’s Ballygunge world of Kolkata society, where good prevails over evil. This allowed Kuber Sen to live a normal independent life.

Kolkata local newspapers, both in Bengali and English, highlighted the helplessness of elderly people. The stories had two words in common: ‘property’ and ‘murder’. Nowadays, both Bengali and non-Bengali property developers had more sharp teeth than the salt water crocodiles of the Sundarban Delta and its mangrove forest, or of Australian sharks which seemed harmless next to the predatory Kolkata property developers.

Especially in the suburb where Kuber Sen lived. Ballygunge was part of the South Kolkata neighbourhood where garbage was collected, streets were cleaned, and trees planted regularly. It was home to the mega-wealthy, as claimed by the Times of India. Ballygunge, along with Kolkata’s other suburb of Alipore, nestled some hundreds of millions of US dollars of total Indian wealth. Like Akash, the city’s property developers were very much aware of newly rich Kolkata residents who aspired to live in the affluent suburbs. And with India’s young population growth of 67,000 babies in the first day of 2020 alone, real estate in Ballygunge was highly prized. And Akash’s empty family home had started attracting city developers like a magnet.

One of those developers, with his sparkling white teeth and shiny white Tata Indica, had already approached Kuber Sen with a developmental proposal to highlight the real estate potential of the Sen family home. A proposal that would make his father grind his cigarette-stained teeth in pain. The very thought of the Sen freestanding home reduced to dust was painful for Kuber Sen.

The family home retained its distinct character in Ballygunge, which had started to resemble Chatswood on Sydney’s Lower North Shore of Sydney with its multi-storey buildings. The multi-storey buildings in Ballygunge were about to engulf the heritage concept of freestanding houses. The freedom of the freestanding house was threatened.

Akash would never surrender to another high-rise any more than Kuber Sen would. His family home would always remain freestanding.

Akash’s visit to his Kolkata family home gave his father the extra security that he deserved to live a free and independent life. Kuber Sen should be able to roam freely like the Bengal tiger in the reserve of Sundarban rather than be locked up in a zoo, which was what moving into aged care facilities would be like for him.

Akash’s late mother Lakmé Sen had lived and died in her own home. Lakmé was determined to make a difference in people’s lives through education and wealth. In her personal life she loved her family dearly, especially her husband. Her life was a true celebration of the multiple interests of a working woman’s life.

She recognised her husband’s talent as an entrepreneur, but her love was not blind. She worked by his side, questioning him on his decisions and at the end of the day, she would sit next to him offering her homemade, mouth-watering, sweet river water fish covered in mustard curry for dinner. They didn’t break each other’s heart.

Kuber Sen always appreciated and admired her beauty. So did Akash. To him, she was as pretty as the moon in the sky; not because he was born into Bengali culture which had a thousand-year-old association with the moon, but because she had a celestial presence. Wearing her red lipstick, she would go out for dinner with her husband to Kwality’s in Park Street, one of the finest restaurants specialising in North Indian cuisine.

She was a connoisseur of the finer things in life, but never had the time to completely indulge herself. When she finally had the chance to do so, her health did not permit.

It is a rare opportunity to die in your home surround by your own people and having the food you like.

When Lakmé Sen died, her husband who was a man of immense strength for the rest of family, broke down in tears as his forty-five years of marriage ended abruptly.

***

Now in the empty family home, Kuber Sen supported Akash to celebrate Lakmé Sen’s death anniversary. The Kolkata celebration day was fast approaching. Akash sent out invitations through email, Facebook and WhatsApp. Soon the celebration turned into an event. And the event became a platform for artists, entrepreneurs, and Bengal textile at a grass root level.

Akash found the perfect name for the celebration too — Chandraketu. Chandraketu is moon marked flag in ancient Sanskrit. The flag that flew high and might celebrate the truth about his mother’s ideology of supporting strangers with talent. As the event took shape to support strangers with talent, the name Chandraketu shone brightly.

Instantly it seemed Chandraketu was the right celebration of his mother’s death anniversary as it embraced everything she loved. Even though Akash had been living in Australia for the past twenty-one years, he always remained strongly connected to the Indian subcontinent, his transnational family and the celebration of family ties. His life was far from being self-centred and untouched by family woes. He would not have it any other way.

He felt the free spirit of Lakmé Sen whispering in his ear, “the present does a very good job of changing the past and the future. Always remember that.” Lakmé Sen’s omnipresent legacy remained central to Akash’s celebration in the Sen family home.

At midday, with the flick of a switch, the crystal chandelier dazzled brightly. The Sen family home was ready for the event. People started gathering. During the event, Akash was straddling the roles of event organiser, host, social influencer, publicity officer, caterer, interior decorator, and Champagne bottle opener. Doing calisthenics at Bondi Beach would have been much easier notwithstanding his slightly pear-shaped Bengali Babu belly which blanketed his six-pack. Still, he looked very fetching in his white dhoti and kurta.

The guest of honour the Maharaja of Costmary Raj Bengal was yet to arrive. Akash saw his seventy-nine-year-old father with six dozen long-stemmed red roses walking towards him. He gave Akash the roses and said, “Your mother loved them. I am happy you are using them.”

As he stood and appreciated the beauty of the red roses and their symbolism, the guest of honour, The Maharajah of Cossimbazar Raj, arrived. The Maharajah’s family had undertaken silk business with the British East India Company on their arrival in Murshidabad in the late 1700s. He enjoyed the confluence of ideas to celebrate Bengal heritage textile, art and trade.

Lakmé Sen had loved Murshidabad, so it was an honour to host the Maharajah of Cossimbazar Raj. She had loved photography, so a photographic exhibition was staged. She had loved heritage fashion, so a catwalk celebrating Bengal heritage textiles from Dora was staged. She had loved art, so creative director Ravi used art to represent the models, not just the catwalk models, but a representation of Bengal art itself.

The Maharajah asked, “Do you know all these people living in Australia?”

Akash replied, “Not all. Only a few.”

The Maharajah asked what he meant by that. Akash replied, “Well Sir, the concept of our project is supporting strangers with talent.”  Upon learning about the concept, the Maharajah announced to the crowd, “I am delighted to attend an event that supports so many people with talent.”

It was a perfect moment of celebration. Akash stood there in the crowd as a Bengali Indian to many, and an Australian to some. As a transnational who represented two communities that he loved, he found himself promoting the beauty of misty Blue Mountains and eucalyptus forests, while enjoying a cup of tea at the Hydro Majestic Hotel; and a sunset Sydney Harbour cruise; or a bush walk through Chowder Bay nature reserve, side by side with his Bengal heritage.

At 8pm. Emirates flight EK416 landed at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport. Customs clearance done, Akash waited for a maxi-taxi to make his way home. The weather was warm, just like Dubai. Akash found it hard to breathe. At the taxi stand Akash checked his credit card in his phone case wallet. He still had the perfectly folded taxi receipt for ninety-nine dollars from two weeks ago for the trip from his home to the airport. He transferred his luggage to the back of the taxi.

The taxi driver, Ross, is a polite man with a worldly view as his regular passenger fares are international travellers. He was predicting summer rain. “We need the rain. The animals need the rain. The continent needs the rain.” He looked weary from the devastating news of bush fires in eastern Australia with huge losses of human lives, animals, and properties.

Akash received a pre-recorded voice message from Minneapolis. It was an Emergency Notification System alert warning about the Australian bushfires disaster. Akash’s employer was a global medical device company based in the United States, providing patient centric medical devices to manage disease.

Akash nodded in and out of his jet lag as the taxi crossed the Sydney Harbour Bridge, in between he looked across to the shimmering white tiles of the Sydney Opera House covered in a smoky haze, just managing to continue his conversation with Ross.

Not long ago at Dubai airport his Emirates flight had waited for take-off as overhead lockers filled with duty free whisky. Alcohol was more popular than gold at Dubai airport, the most valued commodity for everyone arriving in Kolkata, West Bengal, India. And Akash Sen had his bottle too: a Barons de Rothschild Brut Champagne for a special celebration. No, it was not for the silly season.

Now, Akash is on the final leg of his journey home, engaging with the chatty maxi-taxi driver, Ross who enquired, “How was your trip?”

“Great. I hosted an event to encourage bilateral relationships between West Bengal and Australia, attended by a Maharajah and an Australian Diplomat.”

Ross mused, “It was successful then?”

Pondering how he was going to measure the success, Akash replied, “Absolutely.”

Ross continued updating Akash on how Australia was facing the bush fire crisis and said that it was an apocalyptic scene.

Akash dozed on and off from jet lag but kept reflecting how the Chandraketu event encompassed all that his mother loved. Her opinion mattered. The diversity of her voice mattered. Her ideas mattered.

Akash could clearly see the transformation that had occurred in his mother’s life. The transformation in her personal life, in her working life, and in her social life. A transformation that had made her who she was. Akash was consumed by his thoughts of supporting his transnational family and the joy it brought to him.

In no time he was outside his Sydney residence. Sydney streets without traffic was what Akash had always wanted. He enjoyed this experience after the congested traffic of Kolkata.

His jet lag faded away at the sudden shock to his brain when Ross announced, “That will be $168, Sir.”

 Taken aback, Akash protested, “This is much higher than the normal fare. It is a maxi-taxi fare.”

Ross replied, “No, this is the regular taxi fare from the airport to your suburb.”

Akash was puzzled. He travelled interstate and overseas many times a year. All he paid for a home stretch taxi fare was around $80 to $110. If the traffic was heavy, it may be a fraction more. That taxi fare was definitely not fair. Maybe Ross did not have his glasses on and mistook the two large suitcases for two humans instead!

 Could it have been the stories of the Chandraketu event? He did not have an answer. All he knew was that his stories should not have backfired in Australia. Even if that was the case, it did not give Ross the right to charge that taxi fare when there was only one passenger with two suitcases. Akash paid him.

Collecting his unfair fare, Ross sped down the ramp, ‘Welcome home, Mate!’

***

INDRANIL HALDER

Indranil Halder is a Corporate Consultant, global heritage tourist and former Ambassador of Fabrics of Multicultural Australia. He lives in Sydney, Australia, with his multicultural family and travels between India and USA for his transnational family. He has degree in BioMedical Science and MBA. He loves to keep fit and healthy. He is a social influencer who celebrates the India and Australia bilateral relationship with his updates to bring the two nation closer together. He has written his international student memoir: Warrior in The Sanctuary to promote high quality Australian education. He also founded the Halder Chowdhury Prize to award the merited archaeology, finance and medical students at the prestigious Macquarie University. He said, “Bengalis stepped in Australia in 1797 and New Zealand in 1755. With time as migrants’ contributions rise of the Indian Diaspora in Australia, business growth and sustainable living environment, it is time to  celebrate and undertake a literary project to bring short stories from across the globe involving  India and Australia.”

One Reply to “Welcome Home, Mate”

  1. The concept of a tribute- Chandraketu is very nice.

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