Heritage matters

May is a special month for me. Not only because spring reigns at last. It’s also because it marks the commemoration of identity-related politics for me. At least, it makes me think about identity, family history, and home.

Heritage Month

In Canada, we celebrate May as Asian Heritage month. What this means is taking a moment out of busy days to ponder the complexities of celebrating who we are in our increasingly globalized world. It reminds us to pay tribute to our heritage, roots, and culture. Truly, without an awareness of roots, what are we?

I come from the East Indian state of West Bengal. Yes, pretty ironic, you may think. But if you go back to your history books, you’ll find how the Bengal presidency, as it was known during the 200 years of British rule in India, was actually a very important part of the sub-continent. It was in the 1900s that Bengal was ripped apart into East Bengal (which later became Bangladesh), and West Bengal.

My ancestors were Brahmins, that is, of the priestly class (I have my issues with that, but that’s another post!). They lived in the rural area of Domjur, where my great grandfather, trained as an accountant. He lived with his brothers and extended family in the sprawling ancestral home which still stands, though only partly habitable today. My great-grandfather took up service under the British, and was posted to Poona, in the western part of India.

Our ancestral home in West Bengal

His son, my grandfather, became a doctor and moved his own family to the semi-urban Howrah. We called him Dadabhai, an affectionate moniker for his towering personality. Active politically and socially, Dadabhai left a deep impression on me.

My father trained as a draftsman and moved his family, at that time consisting of my mother and I, to Poona, strangely enough. Or perhaps this was a way of moving full circle? From the age of three, I grew up in the city of Poona, witnessing its transformation from a laid-back cantonment, to the mega-city that it is today.

It was here that I recognized how thoughts coalesced into words, and began that continuing struggle to write, to have my words heard.

The way forward

Adulthood beckoned and those idyllic afternoons of books and bookish friends, vanished like mist. Responsibilities of my own little family took over and I moved to the Arabian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain with my husband and babies. Traversing through newspaper jobs, reading to my daughters, entertaining friends in the expat circle, I had little time for introspection.

Night-time over Bahrain

Then the Internet happened.

Suddenly the world was like an open book (almost). The novelty was sweeter than honey. My husband and I decided we were ready for a bigger move. We applied to immigrate to Canada. And that was the best decision. Ever.

This country that I call home now, has made me realize the meaning of the words ‘journey’, and ‘home’. Actually they are not just words, they are catch-alls. I keep feeding them with memories, feelings, attitudes, and hope. They are like huge chests – you know the old-fashioned kind, with leather straps and the faint smell of moth balls. It was with chests like these that we travelled every summer from Poona to our ancestral home. Now, those long disappeared chests are reborn figuratively in my mind, developing into comfortable places that I crawl into.

The stately pines, still lakes and small towns of Canada sit in my heart now. Along with the love of Tagore, that Nobel-prize winning Bard of Bengal whose stature grows daily in my heart. Comfortably I navigate between Alice Munro and Amitav Ghosh, between grilled Atlantic salmon and mishti doi (sweet yogurt, a Bengali speciality).

No longer is that war between love for one or the other. I am the richer for loving them both.