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Memories of Another Day: How the Pandemic Upended My Yearly Visit to Kolkata

Memories of Another Day: How the Pandemic Upended My Yearly Visit to Kolkata

  • I can’t wait to see my grandparents, climb the guava tree at their house and eat ‘gur.’

I hugged my grandmother and said, “See you next year!” This was in December 2019, when I did not know that COVID-19 would change our annual tradition of going to India. For the past ten years, I have traveled to Kolkata every December, to see my grandparents and uncle. My family is always excited about going to India; when we could not go last year, we were all really disappointed. 

My dad and I eating kathi rolls in Park Street. Top photo, cricket match in progress on a Kolkata street.

One of my favorite things about India is the food. My grandparents have a guava tree in their house. My grandfather climbs up to the second story and gets me a guava from the tree. The thing is – the fruits don’t get ripe before we leave. 

My favorite thing to eat in Kolkata is gur—a sweet, sticky liquid that is a little bit thicker than maple syrup. My grandmother gets a lot of fresh gur for me to eat — she gets really excited about it. I mean,really excited. I enjoy dipping bread in the gur — for me, it is the best breakfast in the world. Don’t just take my word for it. One of Bengal’s most famous poets, Sukumar Ray, wrote a poem about how wonderful gur and bread are! Sometimes I accidentally drop the bread in the gur and I get annoyed because the bread looks like a dead jellyfish. I still eat it, though. It’s too tasty to waste! 

Last year, I ate kathi rolls from Park Street for the first time. Kathi rolls have an outside of paratha, which are a thick, soft, and flaky bread. The inside can be made out of a lot of different things—mine had onions, paneer, and eggs. I remember not really wanting to go because central Kolkata was very busy and loud. My dad, who loves kathi rolls, convinced me to try one, and we ate it while we walked through a park. I am very glad that I tried it because it is the second-best thing after gur. The funny thing is that my cousin from New Zealand was in Kolkata at the same time, on a school trip. He and his friends agreed that kathi rolls are the best! Back in the U.S., we have tried to make rolls at home. They are good, but not as good as the famous Hot Kathi Rolls of Park Street.

When I told you that gur is my favorite thing to eat in Kolkata, I was lying…my favorite thing is actually sweets. Kolkata is famous for its love of sweets. Down the street from my grandparents’ house, there is a mishti (sweet) shop, that never seems to close.  I would go there every day. The guy at the sweet shop would say – “oh, here is the little American girl who likes our Bengali sweets.”  Sometimes my uncle would pick up some treats from a place near his office and then we would have a mountain of sweets. Trust me, it really looked like a mountain. My favorite sweet is gulab jamun– but there are so many tasty treats there. My mom is crazy about sondesh, a cheese-like sweet made from gur. She says she is going to eat just one a day—but, by my count, she ends up eating at least three a day.

Speaking of my mom…if there is something my mom loves more than her daughter, it is Darjeeling tea. I never hear the end of how wonderful Darjeeling tea is. Bengalis drink a lot of tea, and they always must have a cookie with it. They are very strict about that! While everyone is having tea and cookies and watching cricket, I get popcorn. Because she prefers her teacup to stay clean, my mom likes to dip her cookies in other people’s tea – especially her brother’s. It causes some family tension. She also brings a big suitcase full of tea back to the U.S. This year, the tea finished, and she has been sad about that. My mom moped so much about the “boring tea” you get in the U.S., that one of her friends went all the way to a special shop in Portland to get good Indian tea for her.

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Here we are in May 2021, and the Covid surge in India is terrifying. Kolkata has been badly affected. My mom looks anxious all the time and keeps calling people in India. Even my friends here are asking how people in India are doing. My grandmother told the gur guy that she doesn’t want to buy as much gur this year because I will not be there. He told her that he hopes she can spend time with me next year. I wonder if the sweet shop guy in my grandparents’ neighborhood is still making sweets and if the kathi roll shop still has long lines outside the stall.

I have been lucky to visit Kolkata every year. Some people have waited years to see their families. Because of Covid, they will now have to wait even longer. Even more sadly, many people all around the world will not be able to see their loved ones again. Compared to the suffering around me, my story is a small one. Still, I miss spending time with my family in India and I worry about them. Since December 2019, things have changed in my family too. My grandfather, who is 85 years old, can no longer climb up to the second floor of the house. Next time I am in Kolkata, I hope I can go up to the tree and get him a ripe guava. 


Samara Desai is a sixth grader from Seattle, Washington. She likes to play basketball, chess, tennis, and predicting the ending of movies. 

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