The voice belongs to the counter person in one of Kolkata’s trendy sweet shops. With its chic white subway-tiled walls, and its offerings handwritten on blackboards decorated with pastel swirls and paisleys, we could be in any pastry shop in any hipster neighborhood anywhere in the world. Only when a man sporting a basket of dried fish on his head scurries past the glass storefront does Kolkata – Calcutta – come back into view.
Bengali red clay bowls seem out of place in this ultra-modern establishment, but they crowd the display case. Fluorescent orbs floating in colored liquid fill them. The spheres are fruit and spice flavored rosogolla – the spongey, milked-based chenna balls soaked in syrup that end most eastern Indian meals.
“How long do they stay fresh?” With my face aimed down, the salesperson doesn’t catch my American-accented mutter. Sushmita, my neighbor, friend, and kindred stay-at-home spouse, suggested this shopping excursion. She takes over.
“What she is asking is,” the superior tones of a British-school education tinge Sushmita’s voice, “are these rosogolla needing to stay cool? She is traveling by road to Puri tomorrow.”
Sushmita’s haughtiness bothers me but doesn’t faze the girl; she’s probably been subjected to worse. “No problem, Madam,” she says with infinite politeness. “They will stay fresh for three days without being in a cooler.”
When Sushmita learned we were visiting my husband’s grandparents in Odisha, the state south of West Bengal, she insisted they would be “absolutely charmed” if I took them Bengali mishti – sweets. She and I have already been to one of Kolkata’s oldest sweet shops – K.C. Das established in 1866 – to buy traditional rosogolla flavored with rose water and cardamom, and chum chum, rosogolla’s dry oblong cousin coated with coconut flakes and chopped pistachios.
“Would you like to sample our newer flavors: cappuccino, hot-chili-lime, toffee. . .?” The counter person beckons a young man, also dressed in black with an apron tied low around the hips, to serve us. Even in a modern shop, everyone in India has their specific role.
My stomach does a small flip. The rubbery texture rosogolla and their deep-fried cousin gulab jamun always leaves me squeamish. They squish and then squeak between my molars as if something alive is trying to escape my mouth.
“Thank-you. We shall try the strawberry and the blackcurrant.” Sushmita controls this engagement. “Katie, didn’t you say you’re driving in the Cadillac to Puri? These pink and purple rosogolla are lovely. They match the color of the car.”
We leave with twenty of each.
“I won’t be driving and neither will you. Ashok can handle it.”
Jay’s trying to dismiss my concerns. Ashok usually drives my car, a small Indian-manufactured Ford, that he navigates with ease through Kolkata’s congestion. The only time he drove the Cadillac any distance was when he and Jay brought it to our condo complex where it has sat under a tarp waiting for this trip. Jay’s engineer logic irks me, but law school taught me how to counter-argue.
“Let me point out the obvious.” My tone has a condescending edge that isn’t nice, even in a mock courtroom. “The steering wheel is on the wrong side. It’s going to be hard enough for Ashok to pass trucks during the day even with you in the front to help.”
Jay’s arms cross his chest. This is his adventure, but he knows I’m right. Still, his eyes gleam like shards of obsidian. I reach out and trace my finger over his eyebrow – the glaring black softens into matte licorice. A flush spreads over my cheeks. A plea bargain presents itself.
“If we leave around 5:00 a.m., with stops, we should be in Puri before sunset.” My lower lip quivers. “I don’t want to be one of those news stories about a head-on collision on the highway.”
His tight hug leaves me breathless. We’ve gone on road trips outside Kolkata in his office SUV – a vehicle with its steering wheel on the right-hand side, air conditioning, and seat belts. Even in that car, everything on these Indian highways – overloaded trucks, careening jam-packed buses, bullock carts, bicycles, pedestrians – makes me nervous.
“Fine. I’ll set the alarm for 4:30 a.m., but just remember there won’t be time for early morning seduction if we need to leave by 5:00 a.m.”
We kiss. Rose water syrup coats his lips. Jay’s love of mishti comes from my father-in-law who came to the U.S. as an engineering student in the 1980s. He would go around Chicago looking for Indian restaurants just to sample their sweets. If the restaurant had Bengali staff, the mishti would be better.
My mother-in-law, also an engineer, is a Minnesotan descended from Scandinavian stock who doesn’t cook or even like Indian food. “Not my thing,” she’s told me. Jay teases that she deprived him of his “food heritage.” Maybe so, but he doesn’t seem to have suffered. He played defensive end for his high-school football team.
“How many have you eaten? You know they’re for your grandparents.”
“One. You bought enough to feed an army. What’s with the purple and pink ones?”
“We’re taking a car the color of a strawberry milkshake to Puri, so Sushmita thought sweets that complement its color might be fun.”
The Cadillac is a present for Jay’s grandfather – his jejebapa. The idea for this gift baked into Jay’s brain during one of his infrequent childhood trips to Puri. One year, the visit coincided with the famous chariot festival – Rath Yatra – held in July to honor the most revered Hindu god in Odisha, Jagannath. Before the procession began, a white convertible drove past Jay who was with his grandfather and great-grandfather. Both admired it. His great-grandfather spoke in Oriya to his grandfather. When Jay asked what they said, his grandfather replied, “That man must be very lucky to have a car that looks as if it could be a chariot for the gods.”
The hunt for “the chariot” began when Jay’s employer, an Indo-American power generation company, transferred him to its India office. Jay mentioned to Ashok that he wanted to find a classic convertible for his grandfather. After several leads fizzled, Ashok learned about an old Cadillac for sale in a northern suburb. It allegedly belonged to a maharajah who had purchased it as a wedding present for his much younger wife in the 1960s.
I don’t know how much Jay paid for this bubblegum pink convertible with whitewall tires and cream-colored leather seats that are oddly unblemished after years in Kolkata’s grimy air. I asked him to tell me only if he spent more than ten thousand dollars.
When Ashok and Jay took the car to a local mechanic shop for a tune-up, it attracted a crowd. With its soaring tail fins edged in chrome, its bold grillwork, and bright red tail lights, a boy said it looked like a rocket ship. Another thought it might have once been a film prop. Everyone proclaimed that Jay was a wonderful person to be giving such a marvel to his grandfather.
The morning doesn’t begin well. After Ashok removed the tarp, he moved the car under a tree and went to wash his hands. The crows – if there is anything Kolkata has in abundance it’s crows – that perch in that tree splattered the car with their droppings. It looked as if giant translucent amoebas had attacked it. Luckily, the top had been up. By the time it’s clean, we’re well past our departure time.
Notwithstanding the bird mess, early morning Kolkata is special. The first sounds and smells of this very human mega-metropolis have charmed me since our arrival. Charcoal smoke from a nearby neighborhood of huts wafts into our compound, and the crows begin their vocal exercises from a jumbled mass of overhead wires. Vendors walk through our neighborhood selling fruits and vegetables, even though enormous supermarkets are everywhere. Despite the internet, newspaper stands remain flush with papers in Bengali and English. Even during morning rush hour, people are unfailingly polite.
Ashok maneuvers the car through the city to the Kona Highway. We’ll cross the Hooghly River (known elsewhere as the Ganga) on the Vidyasgar Setu – the second Hooghly Bridge. Ashok has told me countless times how Kolkata’s roads have improved over the last twenty years and how for decades, the only way to cross the river was on the clogged Howrah Bridge. Still, traffic crawls. Pedestrians and bus passengers point when they see our pink wonder of vintage American craftsmanship. My cargo of mishti, repackaged in plastic storage containers and nestled in ice, rests in a large plastic bag in the back with me. They should be fine for a nine-hour trip.
Kolkata and its ugly, industrial outer limits are soon behind. The Cadillac holds its own on the multi-lane divided highway, but without air conditioning, the open windows make it hard for me to talk with Jay and Ashok unless I rest my chin on the front seat. Ashok is opining that West Bengal’s former communist government was much better than the current one. Ashok and I spend more time together, so I’ve already heard his adda – chatter – about most things: why Mother Teresa was good for Calcutta; the meaning of Hindu holidays; which restaurants serve pukka Bengali food; and his confusion over Jay not knowing much about India, even though his father is from Odisha.
The back seat is comfortable. I’m content to look at the countryside especially after we cross into Odisha. Rural India reveals itself here. This year’s rice crop is young; the paddies are vibrant kelly green like the make-believe grass my mom uses every year in her Easter baskets. Hindu temples, most painted white with billowing saffron pendants, and Islamic mosques, also white but trimmed in green, seemed to float like islands over the fields.
After three hours, Ashok pulls off the main road and drives to the entrance of a small hotel. “The loos will be cleaner here,” he says. He will go to the petrol station next door to fill the tank and get a bite to eat at the adjoining dhaba.
Jay and I order tea and toast, then use the facilities. They are clean, but the smell of pine-scented disinfectant makes me queasy.
“Hey, are you okay? You look pale.” Jay has ordered scrambled eggs to go with the toast.
“I hate that fake pine odor. Why does anyone associate clean with it?” Instead of answering, Jay butters toast for me. “I think you’re hungry,” he says with uber-kindness as he pours tea for me. Then he adds, “that’s your punishment for making us leave before breakfast.”
When we walk to the car, Ashok is holding court. Boys are wiping dust off the chrome and making faces in its mirror-like finish. Ashok gives them a few rupees for their endeavor, but I have another idea. I crawl into the back for a container of chum chum.
“Who speaks English?” I ask. Jay shakes his head at the sight of me holding out sweets to the boys.
“I am speaking English,” one says while the others giggle and poke him.
“Excellent. Please share these with your friends.” A man repeats in Oriya what I said. Everyone’s happy, but drowsiness envelops me. I’m glad the back seat is mine.
Unencumbered by a seatbelt, I stretch out. My thoughts drift from Jay’s family to my parents. My mother is a diplomat working in Nairobi. My father was in the Special Forces – he died in an armored vehicle accident when I was thirteen. When Dad wasn’t deployed, Mom needed to make his favorite desserts. I helped her, but after he died, our dessert time perished too. The car’s rolling motion becomes hypnotic and soon my parents star in my back-of-the-Cadillac dream.
We’re in a bright kitchen with yellow curtains and white cabinets. Flour covers the countertops. Mom brandishes a rolling pin. Dad asks, “Michelle, when are you going to accept that you can’t make pies in the tropics? Everyone knows the crusts get soggy.” They embrace and the rolling pin disappears. Mom is so happy. She turns to me and says, “In that case, how about cream puffs? Katie, please give me four eggs.” I open the refrigerator, only there aren’t any eggs, just tubs of rosogolla.
The dream ends. The pie crust admonishment was their private joke. They’d met at a reception at the Ambassador’s house in Bangkok where Dad saw Mom talking to the Ambassador’s wife. He hoped she would introduce him to Mom. When he approached them, the wife was lecturing Mom that it was impossible to bake pies “in this climate.” Mom said that was silly; she had made pies in Mumbai. The wife called Mom “impertinent” and stomped away, leaving my shocked father to introduce himself. Mom set out to prove the wife wrong by baking pies for Dad to share with his office until his transfer six months later.
“Beauty, brains, and baking – what more could a guy ask for?” Dad loved telling me how everyone was in awe of Mom. “She reminded us guys of Kathleen Turner in . . .” When he’d utter “Kathleen Turner,” Mom would shriek, “Stop!” and finish his sentence with, “Kathleen Turner in Romancing the Stone.” Only when I was a teenager did Mom confess that the movie Dad teased her about was Body Heat.
“Katie, are you still sleeping?” Jay’s voice mingles with my reverie. “We’re stopping for lunch in Bhadrak.” Jay’s playing with his phone. I lean over the front seat and glance at the screen. He’s found a hotel restaurant that serves Chinese food. Ashok agrees it’s a good place.
We’ve turned off the highway to drive down a congested road with at least four sweet shops – all with bright colored rosogolla in their windows. A small vulgarity escapes my lips.
“Is something wrong?” Jay asks. “You didn’t sleep on the wrong side, did you?” He’s trying to be funny.
“I can’t believe this.” Another sweet shop comes into view. “Sushmita convinced me that mishti were something special to bring to your grandparents.”
“Madam, I was not wanting to say anything yesterday,” Ashok breaks in, “but Odia people are very proud of their mishti. Sometimes there are even competitions between Bengali and Odia shops.”
Jay stretches his hand over the front seat. I take it, semi-laughing and crying.
“My grandparents will love anything we bring them,” he says, “but maybe what we should do is bring back Odia sweets for Sushmita.” This devilish idea amuses him and Ashok. “Remember the time she told you to fake a British accent so people could understand you?”
“I never followed that advice.” Although we laugh, I’m glad for Sushmita’s companionship even if mishti aren’t the perfect gift. Like me, she “read law at university.” Unlike me, she isn’t defensive about her decision to marry rather than go into the legal profession.
The oily aroma of fried food leads us through the hotel lobby to the restaurant where a fish tank with two enormous goldfish welcome diners.
“Fish for lunch?” Jay asks.
I punch him on the shoulder. We adore Indianized Chinese food with its reliance on perfumy five-spice powder, tongue-tingling cinnamon, earthy cumin, and other seasonings blended to appeal to the Indian palate. I want sweet corn soup and fried chili prawn. The waiter leads us to a table next to a noisy air conditioner that dribbles water. Only three other tables are occupied; I ask if we could sit elsewhere. A flicker of confusion crosses his face; maybe other western diners have preferred to be next to that blast of moist chilled air.
“Let’s send something to Ashok. He likes momos and Hakka chicken noodle.”
Jay studies the menu. “How do you know he likes momos? Are the two of you eating your way through Kolkata’s Chinese restaurants without me?” He fake pouts. He’s glad we have sensible Ashok with his calm personality.
“Who doesn’t like dumplings? Let’s get some for us too.” I know Ashok enjoys them because I’ve ordered them for him when Sushmita and I have had lunch at Chinese restaurants.
The waiter puts crispy, puffed shrimp crackers on the table. Jay never touches the garish green and pink ones. I don’t worry about the dyes that turn them those colors – I’m greedy hungry and happy there’s more for me. Jay orders for Ashok and me, adding hot and sour soup and ginger-chili chicken. The waiter nods. “The Hakka noodle and half the momos are for our driver. He is at the petrol station.”
The waiter moves his head from side-to-side – the classic Indian acknowledgement. “How shall I know him?”
“His name is Ashok. I shall call him and tell him to look for you.”
The waiter leaves. “Why are you looking at me like that? Is there something wrong with my face?” Jay places his hand over his eyes and peeks through his fingers.
“Did you know you were talking with an Indian accent? You sounded like your father.”
We rejoin Ashok who’s with another gaggle. The car’s top is down, and Ashok is letting children take turns in the front seat. Their smiles rival the chrome’s gleam. People take pictures with their phones. Away from the front, two barefoot girls in raggedy dresses press their foreheads against the car. When the taller lifts her head, I glimpse the smaller girl licking the car as if it were a giant lollipop.
I want to give the girls pink and purple rosogolla, but I’m afraid the bigger boys will grab the containers. I divert them with the remaining chum chum while Ashok asks if anyone knows the girls’ maa or bapa. A woman with a baby on her hip arrives. When she stands in front of me, she pulls the long end of her sari over her head – the gesture is humble and humbling. She can’t be even twenty-five years old. The tiredness that comes from living on the margins of Indian society oozes from her entire body.
Jay squats next to the girls, trying to speak to them with the limited Oriya vocabulary that’s buried in his brain. I climb into the back and pull out two containers of strawberry and blackcurrant rosogolla. From nowhere, a plastic bag flutters in my face. From his logoed attire, the man handing it to me must be the gas station manager. He whispers, “dhanyabodo.” I’m not sure why he thanks me, but I put all four containers of the colored sweets in the bag. Jay kisses the top of my head, takes the bag and gives it to the woman. The girls and their mother stand in the shadow of a shop until we drive off.
“What’s left?” Jay asks as Ashok works the motorized roof back into place.
“Just the traditional rosogolla from K.C. Das.”
“Do not worry, Madam,” Ashok says, “even in Odisha everyone knows the very best sweets come from K.C. Das.”
Two more hours pass and we’re near Pipli, the town famous for its chandua cloth umbrellas, wind stockings, mobiles, and wall décor crafted with intricate, mirrored appliqué. Ashok asks if we want to stop. I vote no since the bright reds, yellows and greens of chandua’s geometric patterns don’t appeal to me. Jay agrees, but he is again playing with his phone.
“Let’s keep going, but what if we get off the highway? We’re less than an hour from Puri. It might be nice to see the countryside close-up.” He turns to me. I nod okay. He shows Ashok a route on his phone.
Perhaps we drive twenty minutes before the car begins to chug and slow. A truck driver lays hard on his horn as his junk-heap nearly scrapes our side when he passes. Jay thrusts his head out the window to help Ashok guide the car to a safe spot on the shoulder.
Frantic wisps of steam escape through the hood and spiral into the silvery grayness of the sky. When Jay and Ashok lift it, vapor billows like just-spun cotton candy. It’s so dense that it covers them before it melts away into the maw of eastern India’s coastal humidity.
“I think its overheated. I’ll call my grandfather and ask if he can send a tow truck.”
Jay’s phone is on speaker when he tells him we are on Delang Road near Baba Bhudeswar Temple. His grandfather assures Jay that he knows the location, but asks, “Jayant, what are you doing in that place? I am coming with your uncle and cousin. Do not go off with any miscreants.”
“Jejebapa.” Jay stops from explaining why we’re not on the main highway. “We will stay here. Look for the pink car.”
“Did you say big car or pink car?”
“It’s a big, pink car.”
Traffic seems light after our encounter with the truck, but we’ve moved away from the edge of the road to be safe from other vehicles. Off to the side, a dirt path cuts through a field. Two bullock carts piled with rounded bales of hay enter the road from the path and come in our direction. Two teenage boys straddle the mounded hay. The oxen’s horns are painted red giving them a coquettish air.
“Those oxen look like ladies going to town for the evening, but I think they’re bulls.” I don’t know how Jay comes up with this stuff. When the oxen see us, their quizzical expressions are priceless – the ox equivalent of what the heck is this?
The carts pull alongside. The musky odors of urine and dung mingled with hay clog my nose. The teenagers hop down. They’re enthralled with the car until one of the drivers speaks sharply. One says in broken English, “My father asks if you need help.” Before we can say a tow truck is in route, the men position their carts ahead of the car, take a heavy rope and tie us to them. Jay and Ashok don’t object although I’m not sure this is a good idea.
“This is different,” Jay says, “how many people can say they’ve been towed by oxen?”
“You told your grandfather we’d stay put.”
“They’ll see us.”
Ashok and I stay in the car. Jay rides with the teens on the back of a wagon. He’s having fun, but our slow-moving procession hogs an entire lane. Vehicles behind want to pass. My unease about traveling on Indian roads returns. The tow truck races by us followed by a car. Jejebapa’s head is out its window. I wave at Jay and shout to pull over. One of the teenagers understands. He clambers over the hay. After a dozen or so vehicles zoom around us into the oncoming traffic lane, Jejebapa and the tow truck stop in front of us.
Once the car is secured to the tow truck, I grab my remaining K.C. Das rosogolla and give them to the teens. Jay tries to give the men some rupees, but they resist until Jejebapa intervenes. They finally take the money.
“They were telling me,” Jejebapa says, “it was their duty to help. I said the money was your penance for disobeying me.” He pats Jay on the cheek then embraces him.
Jay’s phone rings just after 8:00 a.m. The car is ready, just a minor problem – a burst radiator hose. Jay and his cousin tell Jejebapa they can manage without him. He goes to sit on the veranda with his newspapers.
While we wait, Jay’s aunt, grandmother and I drink tea at the dining room table where the remainder of last night’s spectacular dessert – a two-tier, green fondant-covered, chocolate cake decorated with intricately piped Moghul-style elephants – sits under impenetrable layers of plastic wrap.
“The cake is so beautiful,” I say. “It could be from any bakery in the U.S.”
“Yes,” says Jay’s aunt. “There are several bakeries in Puri that specialize in these fancy cakes. This comes from a bakery whose owner followed a pastry course in Paris.”
I tell them about the desserts my mother and I made for my father. Auntie pats my hand; Jay’s family knows my father is no longer with us. She breaks the sadness lingering above the table. “I am sorry we cannot try the rosogolla and chum chum. How lovely of you to think of us, but, how special those children must have felt when you gave them the sweets.”
When I stand, Jejemaa runs her hand across my abdomen. “The best sweet is the one you will give us next year.” Jejemaa was a well-known lady-doctor in Puri until she retired a decade ago, perhaps she sees something I don’t yet feel.
A toot at the gate is followed by the crunch of the gravel driveway. The car is home. Jejebapa still doesn’t know the car is a gift. We go outside to inspect the chariot.
Jay walks to his grandfather and gives him the keys. I envision a young Jayant looking at his grandfather with love.
“Jejebapa, for twenty years, I’ve dreamed of the day when I could give you a special car.” Jay’s voice trembles. “This is for you.”
Confusion and amusement dance across Jejebapa’s face. He embraces Jay and whispers in Oriya to his wife. My heart sinks at their reaction, but I stay quiet.
We spend most of the day at a beach resort. The heat and humidity tire us. The men drink a good deal of beer which makes Jejemaa cross. When we return home, we shower off the sand and salt water and rest before dinner.
We gather in the living room while Jejemaa supervises the cook. Bottles of scotch, beer, Orange Fanta and Pepsi perspire on the coffee table. Auntie brings out salty snacks. She warns the men that Jejemaa will not tolerate much more drinking.
“It is a special day,” Jejebapa says as he pours another small scotch. “Katie’s and Jayant’s first visit to us after marriage requires a toast.” Jejemaa joins us – even she indulges her husband when she hears him say this.
“Tell us, Jayant,” his uncle says with feigned casualness, “how did this idea of gifting a car to bapa come about?” Jay’s cousin seconds the question.
Jay recounts being in Puri for the Rath Yatra and how impressed Jejebapa and Jejebapa’s father were with a convertible. “I promised that one day I would give you a car to rival the one that passed us.”
A flurry of comments in Oriya crisscrosses the room. Jay looks confused; I take his hand.
“What do you remember about that car?” asks Jay’s uncle.
“It was a white convertible with deep red, maybe maroon, seats. A man in a white dhoti sat on top of the back seat and waved to the crowd.”
Jejebapa leans forward; the memory returns.
“When I asked about the car, Jejebapa said that man must be very lucky to have a car that looks as if it were a chariot of the gods.”
More Oriya flies past Jay and me. Jejebapa wipes away tears of laughter. He wedges his slender body between us on the sofa.
“You see Jayant, that man was a terrible person, a goonda – who swindled many people. He was always making such a show, such a big tamasha with that car. My bapa and I knew you did not understand hardly any Oriya which – you must be knowing – made us sad.” He looks at Jay’s grandmother for confirmation. “When you asked what we said, you were such a small boy, I couldn’t tell you the bad words. But now you are a grown man. My father said, ‘Look at that bloody bastar. . .” Jejemaa hushes her husband. “I could not share such language with you then or now, so I said this nice thing to you about the car.”
Shock spreads across Jay’s face. He never once questioned his childhood vow to find his grandfather a car. I reach around Jejebapa’s back to rub Jay’s shoulder. Jay cradles his head in his hands.
“The car is beautiful – it is indeed a chariot fit for the gods.” Jay’s cousin breaks the silence.
“Any man whose grandson gives such a gift is truly blessed,” Jejemaa says as she sits on Jay’s other side.
“You come next year for Rath Yatra.” Jejebapa takes our hands. “I am sure our beautiful car will find its place in the procession.”
Jejemaa whispers in Oriya. He raises his eyebrows. “Fine, maybe not next July because the baby will be too young, but certainly the following year.”
Jay and I exchange looks.
We’ve been to Puri twice since Anjali’s birth. Jay’s parents came from Chicago on one occasion. We flew on those trips. Jay’s cousin picked us up at the airport in the convertible. The car makes everyone smile as does blonde, blue-eyed Anjali who babbles in Oriya and likes mishti. Before Anjali was born, Jejemaa found us an Odia nanny – I’m learning Oriya too.
My multilingual mom is visiting from Africa. After just a week, she’s picked up more Oriya than Jay seems to know, but to be fair, Mom already speaks Hindi. Poor Jay doesn’t have an ear for languages.
We’ll leave for Puri in the early morning – this time in our new SUV. Mom brought Kenyan coffee and tea for Jay’s family. She’s also baked chocolate chip cookies and brownies – just in case we need mishti along the way.