I grew up in a Calcutta where the laal jhanda and laal salaam held immense power, where being politically inclined was synonymous with being a communist, the Calcutta which couldn’t imagine its Coffee House as a non-smoking zone, the Calcutta which didn’t live in utter denial of the once upon a time existence of Marx. In fact, I grew up in a Calcutta which was called Calcutta in the first place.
Now that poriborton is setting in, I find my city changing bit by bit and every annual visit rubs it in my face. What adds to this sense of alienation is the fact that I end up comparing Delhi and Calcutta quite a lot. I want to see the city I once knew inside out but with all the blue paint, it’s sort of difficult.
Calcutta smells different. And I don’t just mean the Domestic terminal which could very well pass off for a government hospital. There is a warm, wet smell about that city— very different from Delhi. The first beads of sticky sweat on my skin and I know I am in Calcutta. For the next few days, Calcutta remained grumpy, bubbling in sweat under a steady cloud cover, almost sulking over my sudden visit.
As the car drove into the city towards home, I saw the dominance of the colour blue. I had obviously heard of Mamata’s ‘paint the town blue’ move but having her favourite colour stare right at you is a completely different experience altogether. Every pavement, every traffic island, every bridge, flyover, every building, a shade of disturbingly bright cobalt blue. Who knows, in her attempts to stamp out red from the city entirely, Mamata might want to rename Lal Dighi as Neel Dighi. As if that wasn’t enough, there are the rows of street lights that look something like the devil’s pitchfork with the measurements gone wrong, with three bulbs on each post. Power consumption? Don’t ask me.
There are two faces one gets to see at every street corner— either Pranab da saying he is going to be President or Mamata di shaking an indignant, policing finger at the world. Therefore the otherwise unabashedly vocal Calcuttan has now resorted to adding a warning at the end of each of his cracks about the political class—ei bolish naa. Didi dhorey niye jaabe (Don't say such things, Didi will get you). A friend even went ahead and predicted the coming of a second Marx to avenge the chucking out of the first one from text books in Bengal.
One of the biggest reasons why I avoid Calcutta during Durga Puja is the insane amount of traffic. But this time, even in mid-July the traffic seemed as bad. Back in school, the stretch from my place near the Doordarshan station at Golf Green to Lake Gardens used to be such a smooth run and now you get stuck at home ground for hours on end. It is probably the South City mall next door that has made movement absolutely impossible. Prince Anwar Shah Road, Ho Chi Minh Sarani, Russell Street, Middleton Row, Theatre Road are as bad as ever. Blame it on the narrow lanes or bad traffic management, that city can teach you one or two things about being patient. I live in South Delhi and I travel to Safdarjung everyday and never have I been stuck in that sort of never-ending traffic snarl, not even in front of AIIMS, not even when Kalmadi was in there.
Talking of Durga Puja, it seems as if Calcutta has decided to be in festive spirits all round the year. With the traffic, the excessive street lighting and the unnecessary Rabindra Sangeet in awful Dakshini style blaring at every street corner, I could almost smell a whiff of Durga Puja in the air. A very exasperated friend asked, “Tell me, why just Rabindra Sangeet. Nojrul kii dosh koreche? What was Nazrul’s fault?”
Catching Up With Calcutta
A few days into the vacation and I realised I had hardly met Calcutta. So one early morning I set off to Princep. A sleepy city stretched and yawned in front of me. Sweepers swept dust, mud and grime for yet another day. Vendors with their wares boarded off launches at the ghats for another day of buying and selling. Princep ghat though, was practically empty, except for a few men playing football in front of the James Prinsep monument. Sleepy-eyed policemen sat near the embankments having their morning cup of tea.
I have always had an inexplicable love for water bodies. The river lazily flowed. A tiny fish practised swimming, occasionally popping up on the surface. Colourful little boats tied to the jetty bobbed to the rhythm of the flowing river. And I wanted to be an unemployed poet. I asked one of the boatmen to take me for a little boat-ride. Actually, it’s no ride, it’s more of a float. Buoyancy is an amazing thing. It makes me want to buy one of those mattresses filled with water. The river lapped against the sides of my boat and I simply sat and stared— at the other bank, at the Howrah Bridge, at stranded ships, at transience of time.
Signs of the Times
At Princep, I came across these delightful sign boards in Hindi— ‘Yahaan thuuknaa manaa hai’ and ‘is jagah ko saaf suthraa rakhiye’. Well at least Calcutta is trying to learn Delhi’s tongue.
Eeleesh(Hilsa), Paapda, Rohu, Chingri (prawns), I had it all. Calcutta invariably brings out the fish-eating Bong in me. Breakfast in that city is incomplete without kochuri-aloor dom and jilipi. Calcutta-style biryani with potatoes and eggs from Arsalan, Chicken roll, red-hot pan fried momos, steaks at Mocambo on Park Street, Jhaal muri, beguni, phuchhkaa and bhaarey cha (tea in earthen cups)— as far as food is concerned, that city never disappoints me. Be it red or be it blue, Calcutta’s platter never ceases to be scrumptious.
On my way back, I witnessed a bunch of Calcuttans squabbling with the airport authorities over why they weren’t allowed to board the aircraft first. Apparently they believed if they got on the plane first, they would be able to conquer the window seat. It was all very amusing and somehow made me feel extremely good about returning.