Cover Story

CALCUTTA UNCHANGED

Reported By: Soumyo Das, Amartya Datta & Arunava Chakraborty

“As they were walking, a beggar came up, holding his hand out and crying, “Baksheesh! Baksheesh!”
Mike kept on going but Mitchell stopped. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out twenty paise and placed it in the beggar’s dirty hand.
Mike said, “I used to give to beggars when I first came here. But then I realized, it’s hopeless. It never stops.”
“Jesus said you should give to whoever asks you,” Mitchell said.
“Yeah, well,” Mike said, “obviously Jesus was never in Calcutta.”

 

Jeffrey Eugendes was right; Kolkata is not a city where you can find men strutting alongside Ganesh Chandra Avenue oldcalin Saville Row suits, neither a city where you can get draught beer for the price of tennis balls, nor it has the fast paced lifestyle of Times Square. It has been a city with frugal needs, nostalgic emotions and sympathy for the physical. The British might have bid farewell to their East India Company properties well over 60 years back, but even today, Kolkata is one of the few cities of India which is unique and gentle in its daily approach, and yet has a regal thin film of the English legacy, a harmony so rare yet so beautiful that comprehending and understanding the city named Kolkata needs more than just love for old palaces and Victorian architecture; it requires a heart and a soul. It is the city of Teresa’s love, of Ray’s genius, of Netaji’s martyrdom.

 

There is a notion that change occurs with time and yet this city has proved itself to be immune to the fleeting moments of change, remaining true to its core even today over 68 years after the British regime ended. India in general might have pushed forward through the hardships it has faced over time, but Kolkata still has hanged onto the last bits of the nostalgia we Bengalis have loved, and still long for when a certain change comes our way. Even in this age of better commercial vehicles, the yellow taxis have remained a trademark of the city’s roads – the trams quietly run on the wet tracks on a June evening, smelling of rain drenched stories it has heard in his life. But how is Kolkata possible without the squatting of beggars, of the hawkers of New Market or the smell of old books in College Street, the empty tramlines which once were bread and butter for the daily commuters?

Chowringhee Square-Old Calcutta

As Amartya Sen has pointed out, Indians are argumentative; and of them, we Bengalis take the crown position. And if not, India wouldn’t have ever been the largest vocal democracy in the world – after all, democracy is another term for argument! We Bengalis love to argue everything under the sun, be it at the corridors of the Writers, with coffee at the Coffee House or at the roadside tea stall. Debating on Maneckda’s work to Dada’s legacy over some jhaal muri and cha is the living proof that we Bengalis don’t think adda to be a waste of time, but time to be a waste of adda! And as Tahir Shah puts it beautifully, ‘Calcutta’s the only city I know where you are actively encouraged to stop strangers at random for a quick chat.’  This nostalgia extends not only to the senses, but also in our daily lives. Even though a multitude of swanky new malls have sprung up in the city, yet Durga Puja shopping is incomplete without a trip to the old incensed Gariahat, whose colourful lanes remind us of a time when photography was black and white, and cinema, of reels. The bargaining minds at Hogg’s Market and its adjacent New Market have remained unchanged, their earthy flavours still resonating even in this age of modern renaissance. Here, a scholar’s life is still complete without a lifetime commitment to College Street; walking down its lanes searching for a long forgotten lore, for a classic unknown to many, this place is where the iconic Coffee House stands, the centre of intellectual activities, of revolution and redemptions. This is where our forefathers, over a cup of coffee, had found their calling to fight for our motherland. It is a place where education is incomplete without a degree from Presidency or Calcutta University; schooling from La Martinere, St. Thomas and alike.

 

People across the world have a notion that building a wall around a family constitutes a home; but while walking through5333047428_666eaa489a_z the lanes of Kolkata, one might encounter something different. There is a romance of the ages when one intones the names of these lanes, many named after the eminent and the worthy. The soul of the city resides in these lanes. Homes which are shoulder to shoulder; walls attached. It is the city where a conversation in one part of lane echoes in the other. Where a haunting Hemanta melody floats down the street with a lone bulb against a black sky, where once can smell of fish across kitchens. Where Calcutta is still one family separated by impertinent walls rather than a neighbourhood separated by permanent mindsets. Where addresses tell stories, bricks hide anecdotes, and smells carry memories. It is the city of Shukumar Ray’s writings, a place where a duck and a mongoose combine together in mystic lore to produce a mix of both, a city where a snake doesn’t have eyes, nose or fangs, doesn’t run or bite; a city whose daily lifestyle would be denounced nonsensical by the entire world, but here, it is the beauty of life. It wouldn’t be Calcutta, if taxis were Fiats and not Ambassadors, if the glove box stayed secure once clicked into place. It isn’t Kolkata if the driver’s shirt was unbuttoned to the top, if he did not holler to his comrade at a traffic signal, if the metres and dials on the dashboard were working, if he did not adjust the rear view mirror to view the couple on the backseat. It isn’t Kolkata if the bus conductor says the bus is empty even if people are hanging from the doors; if his hands hold notes a way no other conductor does in any part of the world. The torn tickets, if not used as a bookmark, an earbud or to be wound around the finger. Kolkata is not Kolkata if the monkey cap is not worn during the winters, if you have never remained struck at a traffic jam while a procession of a thousand in red or green flags shouting ‘Writer’s Chalo!’ had slugged ahead in front. It won’t be the same if Khadims’ and Bata weren’t there, if jhaal muri and Benimadhab Sil’s panjika wasn’t there; if the impromptu bandh hadn’t thrown life out of gear, and slyly you had enjoyed that one extra off day at office.

 

But a city is not a city if there is not something which binds people together irrespective of age, caste or gender. Mohun BaganDivulging into history, and perhaps taking a look at the nickname the city has earned for its love for football, once can say that this game is what has been to Kolkata what absinthe had been for the poets of the Renaissance. The game has been the life of the people of Kolkata for generations, and even today, a match between Brazil and Argentina closes down the entire city. There was a time when East Bengal and Mohunbagan, the two clubs of erstwhile Bengal, used to be the only way to differentiate between two people, the only way to take sides in a debate. A saying went that when EB beat Mohun Bagan, hilsa became dearer, and when the Mohun Bagan defeated EB, prawns became dearer; and this only show the ways we Bengalis are, have been, and will be. And how is Kolkata possible without the Rabindranath chromosome? A line from his poem starts a rally, the index of how cultured a family is measured by whether the members have read Gitanjali untranslated. Even today, dare anyone call his writings ‘boring’, and one will find Bengalis unifying across all borders, of all political, economic and religious divides! The city thrives on literature to an extent that V.S. Naipaul, in his works adds poignantly,

 

‘…what an extraordinary gathering of readers in the city, where a working woman carries a half read novel in her bag, where red light workers discuss Saratchandra and the drawing room conversation  extends to the works of  Neruda and Chaucer..’

 

In popular imagination, Kolkata is a packed and pestilential sprawl, the city of Dreadful Night, a city whose image was revived by authors like Naipul and Malle. It might the city of extremes, where exquisite refinement rubs shoulders with coarse commercialism and political interference. It has been 68 years since independence, but even today, the city still thrives despite its drawbacks but still knows how to carry on with that silver lining of royal heritage. It knows, how to salsa in a sari…

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