I just finished gorging on the radio drama of Chander Pahar a few days ago, a famous staple from my childhood, and my first introduction to Africa. That book is still there in my old room at my mum’s, a spontaneous gift to me from a much older cousin after he’d finished with it. My mother read it to me, chapter by chapter, through the afternoons officially meant for napping. The only reason for that must have been her love for reading aloud to me, because by then I could read myself. Very little napping got done, obviously. She read it to me once, and then I read it on my own again. I have been reading and rereading it and listening to it all through my life. It’s one of those timeless experiences that one doesn’t tire of, even after childhood is long over. The book cover (which was designed by Satyajit Ray, no less, only he hadn't the cult status then) has come off and been sellotaped many times, the silverfish have got to it too, I saw one year on home leave, Kolkata is so hard on books. But unlike my cousin, I have never managed to finish with it.
Right into Chander Pahar country
Right into Chander Pahar country
A year after my mum read it to me, she broke the news in her typical, gentle-lead-ups-are-only-for-sissies way that we were moving from Delhi. Oh, really? So, we were going back to Kolkata, to my grandparent’s house? No, to Africa! Immediately the simple but effective illustrations of the open African grasslands, peppered with the acacia and the baobab, the vastness and the majesty, flashed into my brain. I had no problem identifying the first baobab I saw on landing in Kano.
Unlike Shankar in Chander Pahar, my father’s job in West Africa did not require him to stay in tents rigged out in the bush, we lived in regular houses with flushing toilets and electric hobs, and I even got to go to school and all. However, the culture shock was severely truncated. Everything was new and different, but nothing was much of a jolt. I sat in a classroom made out of tin sheets nailed to wooden stakes driven into the sandy ground. We watched films at the officers club out in the open air, one of the officers doubled up for projector duty, sometimes the screening was interrupted by a viper slithering in between the rows of metal chairs. I wasn’t very surprised at anything, not at all put out. Hadn’t Shankar, the protagonist of the book, faced down a black mamba, way more evil than vipers? Hadn’t he been threatened by lions? This was Africa! Anything was possible! A travel adventure story created by someone who had never set foot in this continent yet captured it accurately and magnificently in polished prose was my guide, buffer and comfort blanket all-in-one.
From a giant leap...
From a giant leap...
Much later into teenage I heard my mother relate an anecdote from her single days. That someone had read her palm once at one of those light-hearted gatherings where all unmarried women of a certain age get their fortunes told; she had been given a reading that she will go into the “faraway lands of the rakshasas”, and the political incorrectness apart, had no difficulty in equating Africa with that reading and the accuracy of that long-ago prediction.
Neither of my parents come from lines of intrepid adventurers, the farthest anyone in both their families had settled was Northern India, in places like Chandigarh, Lucknow, Delhi, the really brave in Ahmedabad maybe. For my mother, growing up and living practically all her life in Kolkata, moving to Delhi must have been daunting. But at least she knew other family members, distant cousins, friends-of-friends there, people to help settle her in. Delhi was the capital, it had the best infrastructure, the best prospects, so what if the language was different? A postcard took only a couple days to reach, you could get on a train one evening and reach home 24 hours later. But Africa? No-one she knew in the whole continent, no-one except the cultural attaché in Delhi to advise her; and an old class-fellow of my father's who was working there already. Moving was a giant leap of faith.
...to a tiny one
Almost twenty five years later, I watched a plane take off with my husband in it and understood exactly how high that leap was. We were relocating to Bahrain, a country where we knew not one soul. Six months earlier, I didn't know its coordinates. I didn't sleep that night in a haze of diffuse anxiety. I have this hyper-active imagination, I dreamt up a massive range of somewhat negative what if scenarios in a short couple of hours. There was only a fixed telephone line at home, he called that almost a day later to inform about his arrival. My mum-in-law and I sighed audibly in relief.
Subsequently things have changed a little. We have relocated a few times since that first move. From late nineties onwards, there's been internet at home, so that an armchair reconnaissance could be carried out as soon as postings were finalised. I have left messages in expat blogs/forums asking for help on the specifics, and got answers from perfect strangers who were kind enough to respond. Moving has lost that fear factor, that huge, arching leap into the completely unknown. It just retains a sense of adventure and anticipation. Expat life has its own downsides of course, but one thing it doesn't do well is boredom.