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Revisit ancient Kalkatta with a Marwari family

Revisit ancient Kalkatta with a Marwari family
Supriya Newar writes about Kolkata before the ear of digitisation,

Supriya Newar, a Marwari from Kolkata takes us back to the Kalkatta of yester years when the non Bengali speaking population were trying to fit into their surroundings.

Anjana Basu
July 18 , 2019
03 Min Read

The book is called Kalkatta Chronicles for a reason—this is the Kolkata of the non- Bengali speaking population, hence the spelling. Supriya Newar brings together her memories of growing up in a joint Marwari family in North Kolkata in a time before digitisation, malls and instant mobile connections. She describes a time when the Marwaris, a few generations down from Rajasthan were trying to fit into their surroundings and connect with the Bengali babus. Each of the stories centres round an object or a person ranging from the bespoke tailor to the liftman to the itinerant bookseller with his sack. Most of the vendors would walk into the homes where doors were never shut during the day with an abrupt ‘Ram Ram!’ by way of greeting.

The people have borrowed their mannerisms from the Colonial times without even noticing it, as Newar mentions in her introduction. The family tailor who would arrive with the tape around his neck from Metiabruz and would squat under the fan taking measurements was common to many families though most Bengali men, unlike the Marwaris, did not use his services.

Lifts operated by liftmen and struggles with the phone were part of everyday life in the sixties and seventies— though the lifts where you are expected to walk rather than ride down still exist in many buildings. Shouting over the phone, of course, has not ended with doubtful cellular connections and call drops. Newar talks about new text and exercise books being covered in brown paper at the start of a new school year, something that still lingers in every household with a school-going child, though perhaps the slit in the wall Metropolitan Book Store is no longer in such demand. Yes, loadshedding—that poetic Calcutta name for power cuts—is mercifully extinct and households do not unite with candles and hurricane lamps in the evening. Train journeys are much the same for all families minus their rolls of bedding but the experience does deserve to be preserved for newer generations who travel alone or in twos and threes without vast tiffin carriers shared among everyone in the bogey and antakshari—travel has become more suspicious these days with the taint of drugging always in the air.

Women sitting together and stitching or knitting, laying out papads on terraces in winter and fending off crows with rolling pins. Newar has the details that make for nostalgia (though it would help if an editor at Readomania knew the difference between purl and pearl where knitting is concerned). For those unaware of the intimate details of Marwari households the fact that bahus would sneak off to New Market whenever possible and guzzle rolls at Karco’s— though why not Nizam’s is never explained—despite the ban on garlic at home is fascinating. As is the fact that women who were never schooled taught themselves the numbers on the telephone dial so they could memorise important numbers and call them out in Hindi to the rest of the family when they were old enough to have someone else do the dialling.

Newar’s generation has moved from North Kolkata to bungalows and complexes in the South so the bustle of traffic around Howrah Bridge and the tension of seeing family members or guests off at Howrah station has lessened. What she records are the rituals of a way of life where small things were of great importance, something that has lost its relevance in a more casual, less connected time.


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