Tuesday, July 24, 2007


One could almost taste the excitement and expectancy that hung low and heavy over the Chattopadhyaya family residence in Mumbai. After all a trip to the USA does but materializes frequently, in fact this was going to be our maiden trip westward. Time was ripe too, Mintadidi’s marriage had been fixed for the 10th of June and being the last NJ Chattopadhyaya being married it was important for us to be present as flag-bearers of the Chattopadhyaya family from India, taking over from Shejo Jethu who had been a fantastic ambassador not only of the Indian Chattopadhyayas but also of Yoga and had enthralled one and all with his refreshing camaraderie and affability, not to mention his wondrous beard that won him legions of fans.
Mamma was determined to make the most out of the trip and began burning the midnight oil scourging the net for the best hotel and sightseeing deals for she had already chalked out grand plans of covering parts of California before everyone got into shaadi mode. Papa, as usual, wouldn’t be able to join us because of his worldly attachments (read “office”). Calls from Cobblestone Lane became a nightly affair as Jethu kept a tab on our preparations and constantly updated Mamma about the practicality of her plans in a manner that was almost pedagogic. The emails flowed too, with hotel bookings, tour packages and the like.
The tickets finally arrived, putting to rest absolutely all doubts surrounding the tour and after halcyon May days, the date was almost upon us and we began packing in earnest for a month long extravaganza. We nearly emptied out our wardrobes filling monstrous suitcases almost to the point of non-closure. Digicam batteries, video cam batteries, medicines and other small details were all taken care of as we all sat down to dinner on a balmy evening on the 15th of May…. I could barely eat having had my fill of the excitement already.
“I think everything is packed. Riju, I think you should carry some of your law books so that you can flip through them in your spare time over there”, Papa continued between mouthfuls of mutton curry and roti. I just nodded, seething inside. Damn, who wants to study on a vacation?
“Everybody pack up, it’s already late. We must get up really early tomorrow because we must leave by three thirty”, Papa announced as he sat down to do his after dinner asana that courted sleep. Mamma, as usual, was doing last minute packing, filling her make up bag that probably contained half the world in it. I had other ideas of course; played some music on the computer and scrapped away on orkut.com.
The hours ticked away and I worked out for sometime and got ready just when everyone else was stirring from slumber. Papa came soon after, sleepy eyed, “You are awake?”
“I didn’t sleep at all!” I quipped.
Nonetheless, we finally were ready to head to the airport and after wrestling the baggage down to the Chevrolet Tavera, we were away, only the neighbourhood dogs still awake and barking away. The streets of Mumbai wore a deserted look and were bathed in the yellow street lights. The driver turned out to a Bihari who had lived in Kolkata for a while and kept chirping away as my parents tried to catch up on some sleep. I was wide awake and was savouring the breezy drive to the airport. It was drizzling lightly as we finally reached Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
It was about 4:30 am but the amount of people belied the unearthly hour. The Great Indian Vacation was getting underway and there were people everywhere dragging luggage, waiting for relatives, some teary eyed others happy. Our flight was due to leave at 0720 IST and we checked in our luggage amidst relatively less activity and came back to spend the last hour with Papa. Clad in a tee and shorts, I epitomized the carefree traveller. Jethu called again informing us of his mobile number.
Finally the boarding announcement was made and we trudged towards the plane. Blonde airhostesses cheered up the prospect of a 23 hour flight that loomed, and soon after a few minutes of taxi, the airbus groaned as it prepared to take off and soon we were amidst the clouds and Mumbai could have been mistaken for Lego land. I settled into my seat and prepared for slumber that was so crucial to counter the tedium of a long flight.
Paris was still a good three hours away when I woke up, hungry. The chequered fields materialized as the French countryside lay sprawling and then the timeless buildings of urban Paris. The stop at Paris was a good hour and a half. Fluorescent jacket clad French appeared cleaning the aircraft and checking luggage.
“Bonjour! Is zis your luggege?”
“Oui Monsieur”, I replied to the gangly wire haired man who also checked our passports.
Paris to Newark was going to be another painful twelve hour flight and with many seats empty, several passengers stretched out. Watching movies was all one could do till sleep came and when I woke up we were almost there and soon after we landed at Newark Liberty International Airport. The lady next to us in the plane turned out to be a Gujarati who was coming back after shopping for his son’s wedding in India. She stayed at up market Allendale, so she claimed.
We were in America, yes, America, the place where everyone wanted to go to lead the good life. We were finally there, the US of A, the land of the good stuff, the place which my favourite uncle called home for the last 40 years. Yeah!! We were there.
The flight sure was on time and it was a tad cloudy outside but even a drizzle wasn’t enough to dampen my high spirits. We were surprised when we had to shell out 3 dollars to get hold of a trolley and were even more surprised to find that all of our luggage sitting beside the conveyor belt. We grabbed our stuff as a policeman casually strolled around with his sniffer dog eagerly nosing the bags. Immigration was a piece of cake with no less than 40 counters and customs was an apple pie.
“India eh? How many mangoes?” the burly officer boomed
“None”, I replied.
“No pickles.”
Those guys were mighty surprised that we weren’t carrying any of the typical things. That was it; we slowly made our way to the outside. Alas, we had no change to call Jethu. Fortunately, a good Tamil Samaritan allowed us to use his phone to make a call and Jethu said that he was on his way.
I strolled about the airport, checked out the Starbucks kiosk, the magazine store and other places. I thought of Jethu, Jamma and my cousins whom I hadn’t seen for years. Jamma arrived and presently Jethu driving his Camry. Jethu looked fresh and youthful in his golf cap and red jacket and soon we were driving down NJ Turnpike toward Ramsey.
The sheer variety of cars amazed me as Acuras, Saabs, Volkswagens and numerous others shared the road. It was a bit chilly as the New York skyline appeared hazily over the swampy wastes and tall reeds. We caught up on all the news as we passed through Allendale. Yeah, it sure was up market. A big clock tower stood in the town centre with little bistros and shops around. The municipal pool went by and finally around the bend was Cobblestone Lane which for so long had been a mere address was going to be our home for the next month or so.
It is hardly a lane; almost a road that too a cul-de-sac and not a single cobblestone is present for it is well paved. Beautiful single houses each with a lawn and plenty of greenery stood impassive side by side as we drew up. Jethu’s house had a finely manicured lawn, hedges and fancy red sawdust and an incredibly spiny pine tree lining the steps leading to the house, which kept pricking me. It was ominously grey as Jethu broke the bad news of Jamma’s accident that cost them the new Lexus but it was God’s grace that Jamma came out of it all unscathed.
Whew! There we were in Jethu’s house which was well; almost a mansion. A backyard with a little creek and a maple clump just added to the charm. Lots of bric-a-brac adorned the living room besides a piano and a well stocked bar. We all sat down with pina coladas while Jethu made trips to the sprawling basement bringing the dinner up dish by dish for reheating. We all lent a hand and soon enough around nine Dave arrived immaculately turned out in his blue pinstriped suit. Babandidi had gone to a fundraiser and would be home only later.
The refrigerator was intriguing for it doubled up as a scrap book. It had all sorts of paraphernalia clinging to it from business cards to marriage dates to pictures of a baby Neil and a newborn Alejandro and in the gap between the refrigerator and the cabinet were plastic bags hanging as if in suspended animation. The larder was enormous but Jethu’s study was amazing because of the sheer amount of things that lay there from back issues of the Geographic to even a microwave (?). The fireplace was well known for it had hosted a raccoon family that had been news even back in India. The basement was cold and had practically another world down there. White sheets covered what seemed like corpses turned out to be neatly packed “totto” for the wedding.
From our little interaction with Dave we knew that he was reticent. We later found out that he eats very little for dinner.
We began talking about the impending California trip for some things still remained undone. Dave updated us about San Francisco for his brother Doonie is based there. Dinner taken care of, Jethu began calling up the respective hotels to check on the status of bookings. Presently, Babandidi arrived looking absolutely luscious in a lavender number.
She was surprised out of her wits seeing me for she was seeing me after about 6 years.
“You are so big now! So glad to see you guys here!” Babandidi exclaimed.
The San Francisco leg of the tour was still shrouded in uncertainty when Jethu came into the room armed with the cordless. He put it on speakerphone and we all listened as he dialed Travelodge By the Bay.
“Good evening, Travelodge By the Bay. How may I assist you?”
“Could you tell me what is your cheapest room rent currently available?” Jethu continued in his usual measured and calculated manner.
“That would be $89 plus taxes with breakfast sir” the voice crackled.
We were all sitting on the dinner table in various states of inattention barring Jethu and Mamma. Babandidi was busy telling me about the virtues of “progressive dining” and just how bitterly cold it could get in San Francisco even in summer.
It was sealed and Travelodge it was going to be in San Francisco.
“Oh we had so much fun in California. You guys aren’t doing the Wine Country?” Babandidi inquired.
“Wine Country is fascinating and the best part is that you can get drunk for free. We tasted wine all day and ended up buying several bottles. We were so tipsy by then. You must have the clam chowder in San Francisco with the sourdough bread.”
I just nodded in agreement, too sleepy to even follow all that she was saying.
“Tumu, it is unbelievable that for the last few weeks at office I was thinking about your trip all day. I hope everything works out smoothly. And I learnt so much about the internet websites from you.” Jethu remarked as he stood up, mission accomplished.
“Dadabhai, only you made all this possible!” Mamma exclaimed in Bengali.
Jamma was putting finishing touches to the day by putting in the dishes into the dishwasher as we slowly made our way upstairs to retire for the day.


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