The Calcutta of my dreams:
When I imagined Calcutta as a kid, I imagined a city with long, twisted lanes with colourful, old houses on either side. Contrary to the outside scene, these houses with short and humble doors would open to a big verandah with multi-floored rooms and balconies all around it. The verandah would be used for common activities in the family beginning with the members sipping tea in mornings, to drying out chillies, pickles and papads in the afternoon, playing badminton and Ludo in the evenings & gazing moon & stars in the night.
In some families, this space would invariably be occupied by an elderly on a cane, reclining chair while kids would hover around them for a bedtime story. In my mind, this elderly person was a grandfather, with long & silver beard, grey hair, clad in kurta pyjama and shawls.
In Calcutta of my imagination, there are tea corners in every lane where well-dressed people enjoy conversations over Kulhad Chai. From the balcony opposite the tea corner, one could often hear a melange of sounds: of passionate debates questioning the righteousness of the ruling party, the noise coming from the old engine of India’s first tram train, the high-pitched haggling & eye brow dancing between a middle aged woman & a hand rickshaw puller – mixing with the calls & hollers of numerous vendors selling Jhaalmuri, Rosogulla, Kathi rolls & Puchka on the streets. In these noisy surroundings, some minds would find their meditational refuge in creating music, painting a fresh canvas, and scribbling on the many sheets of paper – and add on to the already artistic mood of the city.
The Kolkata that I saw:
The Kolkata that I experienced wasn’t much different either, in spirits. My first day in Kolkata began with an elaborate breakfast at Flury’s with pots of tea, and a plate full of toast, baked beans, hash brownie and grilled vegetables – the recipe to a happy soul.
I spend the afternoon doing what Kolkata (apparently) does the best – a nap. And it recharged my batteries. There’s something nostalgic about naps and siestas. It reminds me of the time when all I had to do was to breathe, learn, laugh, complain and speak. All my finances, meals, hobbies were taken care of by parents, and I had no care in the world. Kolkata made me feel light again – free of all worldly worries, and adult life chores – so that I could enjoy the small and trivial pleasures of roaming around without an agenda, merging with the colorful backdrops, and eating almost everything that I could lay my eyes on, to check items on my list. No pressure. No worries. No timelines.
In the evening, I reached National Library, and took a walk within the premises admiring flowers (I didn’t know the names of), and feeling the fresh air fill me up with excitement. I, of course, clicked many pictures, selfies and portraits & filled my treasure trove with memories that will serve me good on my death bed. Later that day, I went to the ghaats, on the other end of Howrah bridge. The flowing water, minuscule boats riding on waters far away, puchka selling vendors, the guard telling you away from the railway track & beautiful-looking couples form a scene that’s yet not been written in any movie or a book yet.
The following days in Kolkata, I had work to finish, places to go, sarees to buy and food to taste. I did manage to do some of this, part of that, and ported everything to a list, for the time when I visit Kolkata next.
On some days, I miss the cab rides & spotting bright, shining Yellow taxis that are clean from the inside too. I miss the simplicity of Kumartuli, the canteens on college street. I miss securing a place in the college mess lookalike, Indian Coffee House, placing an order for a plate of veg noodles and coffee and look around. The place is exceptionally ordinary and yet been home to many a great mind of last couple of centuries. I spent half an hour guessing what all films Satyajit Ray must have conceived here; Amartya Sen probably thought of ‘The Argumentative Indian’ the very first time in here; and perhaps the coffee house & its people and conversations influenced the social elements of Ritwik Ghatak’s movies. I wondered in there, and I still guess about it when I roam around the cafes of Delhi and Bombay. And that makes me miss Calcutta even more.
Calcutta is a city with much hidden inside. You got to probe, shovel and dig deeper to be able to find experiences that brighten your soul and spirits. Calcutta is what Vir Sanghvi once captured in a few lines:
“Calcutta is not for everyone.
You want your city clean and green, stick to Delhi.
You want your city rich and impersonal, go to Bombay.
You want them hi-tech and full of draught beer, Bangalore’s your place.
But if you want a city with a soul, come to Calcutta.”
I have lived in the first three cities, and won’t mind a chance to spend a year in Kolkata to experience the soul that some have felt strongly.