On Subhash Chandra Bose’s death anniversary amid the continued post-Independence Day deliberations on democracy and freedom, I have one recurrent thought. I miss the old-world charms of pre-liberalised 1980’s Calcutta – my notion of idyllic India. I miss the water handpumps, kerosene stoves, boiled water, home-made coconut naarus and paatishaapta, famous five chocolate bars, gems and tiny-sized, thick, square toasted bread with jam. I miss New Market Christmas trees and cakes, I miss pre-megamall shopping for trinkets in Gariahat. But more than that I miss my grandparents’ Park Circus home and paara.
32 Dilkhusa Street was the ultimate dilkhush place--a largely Muslim dominated neighborhood, where multiple religions not only co-existed but were co-respected – yes, as a verb. Despite the scarcity constraints of pre-liberalised uni-brand India (Lakme, Godrej and Bata land), there was a pluralism of post-Naxalite/pre-Babri Masjid 1980s Calcutta that was real, palpable and now aspirational.
My grandfather was a freedom fighter from the Subhash Chandra Bose camp. He was charismatic, a brilliant singer, orator and storyteller. He was the erudite English honors with distinction, a brilliant architect of limericks and rhymes and simply the most elegant, handsome, well-read, and delightful human ever. If I could have serenaded Sting’s “every little thing he does is magic” – I would. Because he was. Having been a critical messenger to Subhash Bose across borders, he had joined the “Bengal Volunteers” party at the age of 15 and told me that he realised his life’s mission right then – to serve and die for his country. When he was 21 in 1941, Bose sent him to Kabul disguised as a “Pathaan” (under the code name “Sher Zaman”) to deliver a key message to the INA. He spent days and nights on end on foot without his next meal or a place to sleep in sight. They were lonely nights laced in fear of being discovered. During the pandemic’s migrant crisis, I often thought about those days my grandfather spent on foot without food, water or shelter in sight. His survival came from random acts of kindness from the Pathans in Afghanistan. Those days of his life fostered a lifelong love and loyalty towards folks in our neighborhood which he never forgot. The random acts of kindness bestowed on him by complete strangers saved his life again and again.
His other greatest companion outside reading The Statesman and books of every genre was song. Our mornings began with toast, jam and chhana(sweet paneer) over the All India Radio “Akash Bani” offering Rabindra Sangeet, to which he would sing along and also reminisce other “swadeshi” songs, which kept him and his companions going during eight years of jail time.
On one of my earliest trips, when I was roughly four, he taught me DL Roy’s Amar Jaunmo Bhumi(the soil of my birth), in his perfect pitch, marvelous tenor voice. I imbibed the verses while attempting to apply a scarlet red liquid bindi to my forehead. When he commented on my being inattentive (with the red bindi liquid now smeared all over my forehead), I sang back all four verses to him verbatim. He was stunned. This song then became our anthem duet on every drive to and from Calcutta Dum Dum airport where the arrivals felt like a wedding and the departures were like a funeral. The departures inevitably with a pit in my stomach where the lines “Amar ei deshetei jaunmo jano ei deshetei mori” (“let me die in this country where I was born”) would evoke an intense melancholy.
So the root of this annual Calcutta love fest was of course family and songs. My cousin and I would spend the summers in “lockdown” style in our grandparents’ bungalow creating havoc. It was a party every day. We were never bored. We had a free reign of the house reading, play-acting, singing and conducting “school” for staff and anyone willing to attend every afternoon. We dumped our rannabatti (pots and pans) for baribari (house – if you can call it that) where we draped our grandmothers’ carefully ironed sarees over the four polls of the glorious colonial style canopy beds for them to discover later in the day. We went out only occasionally to restaurants, movies or the zoo, but it didn’t matter. Our imaginations were the virtual reality movie. Our no nonsense but indulgent grandmothers set the bar high - both having been full-time teachers they hosted former colleagues (girlfriends) who were often inter-faith, Muslim and Christian, who came home for nimki and chai over laughter and adda on all things under the sun. My grandfather and his younger brother, both former freedom fighters and cricket addicts, were clearly overshadowed by the quiet powerhouse women they were married to.
Secularism wasn’t just a theoretical “idea” in those days, it was living by doing. Our driver was my cousin and my playmate and ludo partner and India-Pakistan test cricket matches on black and white TVs were obsessively watched. While our neighborhood often did cheer for Pakistan, there were no particular hard feelings. My grandfather would go to get the daily fish and vegetables from vendors who rehashed the match and my grandfather, with his arresting charm and unmistakable laugh, would deflect either a good win or loss to Pakistan.
In our neighborhood, namaaz was read peacefully and openly in a cluster of balconies across from our house at routine times. Across the street there was also Akhtar Ali, a famous tennis player on one floor, with the Pachuris on the second floor, and the Mukherjees on the third. That was normal. That just was. Aktar Ali’s daughter Liloufer was a close friend who would come over and play with me and my cousin during idyllic afternoons where we would eat shooji(halwa), sweet or savory on different days. Then there were the balcony chats with my cousin’s classmate across wrought-iron paned, green shuttered windows. We would call for her from the bathroom window and someone would summon her so the three of us could jam. But we rarely made it to each other’s houses. She wasn’t really allowed to step out and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere unaccompanied. There was just an understanding and acceptance of those constraints. There was no one-upmanship. Those days seem unimaginable now.
The “otherisation” on caste, class and religion during the pandemic lockdown will remain a devastating black mark in our history. Did we even individually show enough empathy and goodwill? Did we truly put our ourselves in others’ shoes? As much as I gave to the causes in little ways I could, I still find myself on many occasions being short, irritable with staff only to be corrected by my husband. Where is collective progress then?
We got stuck in time. Both my grandfathers were Brahmin Gangulis who married a Sarkar and Basu out of caste in those days. My great grandfather, a freedom fighter and Gandhian, made it clear to all guests invited to the weddings that if they had issues with an inter-caste marriage they should kindly not attend. He also told the fathers of both brides that dowry of any kind was not only unwelcome but simply would not be accepted. Sadly, we have hardly progressed enough in a century.
Cerebral discussions on caste, religion, and the divides in India won’t move us forward. It ultimately has to come at a heart level, beyond politics. That can’t happen only through reading books and articles. Art is a transformative tool – street theatre, music of every genre, cinema and theatre where we win back the romance of “unity in diversity”. We need to celebrate this cool jambalaya with unique ingredients and distinct flavors. The Dalit rapper Dule who’s speaking out on India’s poor tells us to get off our butts, out of our houses and do something. This echoes Bose for “freedom is not given – it is taken”. For ultimately, it’s our jaunmo bhumi.
(The author is a writer, director & Tagore fusion singer with a Masters in Public Health from Columbia University. She tweets at @3threewomen. Views expressed are personal.)