The lime green house with the well is infiltrated with swarms of mosquitoes all throughout the day. It's been like this for the past 16 years I've been going there. The house is in a dingy corner of Behala, but the alleyways that diverge from the main road are all-too familiar. Part of my mom's extended family lives here, the ones I am most familiar with, the ones who I have seen for years and loved unconditionally. We call this house the "Behala Bari," meaning the "Behala House" in Bengali. It consists of 10 or so people, but this number has been steadily decreasing, as unfortunate as it is.
The house smells of mosquito repellent and cooking fumes, sometimes doubled with the aroma of the mango tree that sits out back. The large iron-cast gate isolates the house from the city. For me, this house is the one thing that has remained steady in Kolkata. My grandparents have shifted an infinite amount of times, but Behala Bari has been there since day one. When I was young, I used to spend hours in the lime green house, the one place I loved unconditionally.
Every time I would visit, someone from the house would summon the Pani Puri vendor (my favorite street food), even though the amount of Pani Puri I ate could never have been any good for a tiny child.
Lately, I find that I can't return to that same house anymore. The rooms are inundated with a kind-of grief that replaces light. The family has split into secluded sectors, no longer exuberant like those years I used to remember. Six years ago, the house thrived with my mom's three uncles, their wives and daughters, my grandma's cousin, and my grandma's aunt.
These relations seem so distant, but in my family, such distances are irrelevant; we base our definition of family off of love.
About five years ago, one of the daughters I mentioned above passed away at about age 17. Of the three sisters, I was always most fascinated by her. She had this elegant, taut smile that would bring out her dimples, that I would often try to emulate. She stood out from the others, tall and poised, with a rippling laugh, always making everyone smile. Since then, I've been back at the house three times. In 2008, right after it happened, the house was silenced by her hanging pictures, festooned with flower necklaces that represent mourning the death in our culture. Last year, my grandma's aunt passed away at about 97, the eldest and most venerated relative of the entire family. But her death was received with a solemn acceptance -- she had lived a fulfilled life. Yet, the house I once knew isn't the same, and going back is never the same. It was the house where I first discovered a rotary dial phone, played Call of Duty computer games, and nurtured my love for street food. But those memories are drowned out with sad eyes that only lighten up with our visit, as well as the flood of mosquitos by the door. Nonetheless, I love that house. I may hate to visit, I may hate to see the mourning and the silence, but nothing can replace what that house has meant to me, in my years as a child and even now, for the people it represents and the stories it has told.
Now, while Behala Bari has held significance in my own history, another house in Kolkata has held significance in my family's history. My grandpa grew up with 11 brothers and sisters, in a 200-year old house in Chetla, Kolkata. Apparently I used to spend a lot of time at that house, but I can't seem to summon those memories. Yesterday, I visited after maybe 10 or 11 years, with no recollections whatsoever But my inner-curiosity emerged the minute I stepped through the double doors. The Chetla house has only a couple of people living in it, half broken down, yet bursting with family stories. Three cats swarm the premises, hiding beneath the verdant plants in the back. The rooms are separated by decrepit olive green doors, and the walls are plastered with endless pictures of deceased relatives. Behind the house are miscellaneous objects -- chairs, broken lights, a dead tree. "There used to be a tiger in the back," my grandpa joked, though I wasn't sure if he was actually joking.
My family thinks I am repulsed by Chetla, when the truth is that I have never been so fascinated by a place. Everything about the walls, about the people, about the 200 years of history is mind-blowing. My camera has caught more stories than I am able to tell with my words. I think my photography bothers my grandparents, but they don't realize that I do it because I appreciate everything -- my roots, my ancestry, my heritage. Everyone here assumes that people outside find India repugnant, but there is something beautiful about all of it that I try to convey with my blog posts and pictures. During one of my photo-opps, I took one of the most beautiful pictures I think I will ever have the chance to take, of a woman in a striking red sari standing beside her dilapidated house and a blue wall that starkly contrasts with her attire. It explains both the poverty of some places in India, as well as the richness of the culture. Yet, my family is ashamed of the candor of my photography. I, however, am not. The purpose of photographs is honesty. Like Behala Bari, like Chetla, like the woman in the red story, India, in itself, has a rich story to tell, and I am only doing it justice by capturing every honest moment with my words and my photography.