Oh Calcutta!


by Surya Bhattacharya.

Kolkata.

No, not Kolkata… Calcutta.

You can’t love Calcutta if you only experience it through your eyes or your nose. You love Calcutta when you experience it with your heart.





I felt something different when I was wandering aimlessly through Calcutta’s streets this time. Here I was, in the city I so passionately claimed to hate. I hated it so much, in fact, that I decided to go for a walk to kill time… There was never anything to do! But suddenly, everything that I had always made fun of started making sense to me. Did I change or did the city change?

Kolkata on the Hooghly river, India
Kolata on the Hooghly River by ArijeetB (Flickr Creative Commons)
There went an Aunty in the typical Bengali avatar- sari and a sleeveless blouse. I remembered why I always made fun of their clothes (Only Bengali women from Calcutta can wear sleeveless blouses with their arm fat jiggling all over the place!). But I couldn’t remember why I found it so funny.

I went up to aforementioned Aunty and asked her for some generic directions. She stopped, looked at me and smiled. She gently placed her hand on my arm, turned me to face the right direction and patiently explained the way to me. Her elderly husband stood smiling by her side, waiting for her to finish, shopping bags in hand. They asked me where I was from, why I was randomly walking around, and a host of other questions- a trait I used to find supremely annoying in the past. This time, however, something else shone through. I could see the innocent curiosity of a generation of people who had grown up indulging in a kind of community feeling that I had never experienced, and probably never will.

I see it every time I visit my aunt’s place. The plump woman next door always stands outside her gate and stares at us whenever we have a conversation anywhere in the vicinity. Nosy, sure, but I haven’t seen that kind of unabashed, and strangely endearing, nosiness anywhere else.

One certain traffic policeman I asked for directions was so concerned about my decision to walk around, that he first tried to find out why I’m not in my own car, then tried to convince me to use public transport, then gave me tips on how to avoid getting run over by traffic, and finally sent me on my way, marveling at my energy, after I assured him I’d only ask policemen for help If I needed any.

Then there was the man who was trying to fill his water bottle from a hand pump. Near impossible task- he was pumping, running to fill the bottle with a few drops, running back to pump and so on. It would take forever. Already starting to fall in love with the city, I decided to help him out and offered to hold his bottle while he pumped. I don’t think I’d ever do that in Delhi.

Calcutta cares.

Walking along a street in Calcutta, India
Calcutta by Leonid Plotkin (Flickr Creative Commons)
I visited some relatives and friends on my way. Each one looked delighted at my unexpected presence. I stopped by at a great aunt’s house. She was napping. When she woke up and saw me, she jumped out of bed, threw her arms around me grinning from ear to ear, and sat clutching my hand like there was no tomorrow. I suddenly felt so shallow, so superficial. Is it really so easy to make people happy? Why don’t we take this effort anymore?

It suddenly dawned on me why Calcutta weddings are not as ostentatious as the ones I’m used to in Delhi. We Bengalis (I say ‘we’ even though I have NO intentions of toning down the far-in-the-distant-future wedding of my imagination!) don’t see the need to spend plenty of money on clothes costing in the 5-figure range. We don’t need 8 cuisines at the wedding. We don’t need celebrity performers. What we do need, however, is to be with our loved ones- our friends and family- during the big moments in our lives.

Calcutta celebrates the things that really matter.

Houses in Calcutta are not lavish. My sister and I spent years talking about ‘Ugh! How do people LIVE there??’ The common belief, and probably the truth, is that the average Bengali from Calcutta does not make too much money. And now I know that it’s not because they’re not talented, or dedicated, or hard working. No, that’s not it. The average Bengali from Calcutta is not as wealthy as his or her Gujarati or Punjabi or Marwari counterpart because the Bengali doesn’t live for money. The Bengali lives for relationships- to create new ones and enhance existing ones. The Bengali lives for the arts- you’d be hard pressed to find a Bengali kid who doesn’t sing, dance or draw.

The typical Bengali’s house in Calcutta is not done up in fancy upholstery. It has rickety old furniture, and carpets that are so old you cannot peel them off the floor anymore (my house). The rooms are simply whitewashed and the outsides are a faded sea-breeze-weathered remainder of a brightly coloured coat of paint that hasn’t been retouched in decades. It is dusty, and if you look just carefully enough, you’ll probably find newspapers from a few years ago.

The typical Bengali’s house also has books. Lots of them. Yellowed and dog-eared from readings and re-readings. There are hundreds of music CDs, and even cassettes that haven’t been thrown out yet, even though the last time someone listened to one was several years ago. You’ll also probably find a couple of musical instruments tucked behind some furniture.

Countless books in a bookstore in Calcutta, India
India Calcutta Bookstore by FriskoDude (Flickr Creative Commons)
The typical Bengali’s house feels more like home because it’s not perfectly done up like a hotel room. The intimidating books have been read. The fancy dishes have been eaten in. The new mattress has been slept on. You have to watch where you sit because there may be an old pair of glasses on the sofa (An oft-repeated, standing joke about Bengalis is our glasses. Almost all of us wear glasses!). The house almost always smells like food, and you can drop by uninvited and unannounced, and are always welcomed with the most open of arms.

We’re not lazy work shirkers, though we are usually the first ones to leave office every evening. We don’t care about overtime pay, but we do care about eating dinner together with the rest of the family, discussing everyone’s day.

Never have I seen life so calm, so peaceful, and so unhurried than in those few hours. I was walking at my ‘Delhi pace’, walking briskly, deftly swerving to avoid bumping into anyone. It was like the world around me was moving in slow motion. I knew I was different when I heard people exclaim in surprise when I said ‘I’m from Calcutta’. Everyone looked unconvinced at my claim till I admitted that I belong to Calcutta, but I live in Delhi, and have most of my life.

You cannot love Calcutta if you look at it critically. You have to feel it, and taste it… Inhale it, and absorb it. And that’s when something changes. Maybe it’s the city… Or maybe it’s you.



Author Bio: Surya Bhattacharya is an architect from New Delhi. She is currently a design student in Milan, Italy. She wants to travel a lot more than she actually does. She can be found recounting her 'adventures' on her blog.


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10 comments:

  1. wow :) My respects to the people of Kolkata :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I loved it Surya... :). The end is even better... "And that’s when something changes. Maybe it’s the city… Or maybe it’s you", way to go, girl... :)

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  3. A heartening account of homecoming! Calcutta, yes not Kolkata, does that to you.. pulls you right back after years of being rejected & ridiculed! I am from there too, (a non bengali, marwari to be precise, you are so right in the comparison between the Bengalis & the other communities regarding their raison d'etre.. have always regretted not having enough bengali friends) visit from time to time, each time swear its getting worse & resolve never to set foot again, but then sure something has me packing my bags again, & again. Although i am yet to experience it completely, the way that you have, but have loved lingering on in the metro stations, reading Tagore's musings on the walls, the sight of 'addas', two cigarette puffing, kurta clad, thick bespectacled bengali males,in the thick of passionate discussion about..err..well nothing. Atleast to my limited bengali comprehending ears that's what it seems.., the hearty uninhibited laughter of bengali women..
    The city & the people sure leave their spell on you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Such a wonderful comment :) Thank you so much! I can see your love for Kolkata literally glowing from your words. You seem to have experienced it really well! I'm glad this post spoke to you. Thank you, again :)

      Delete
  4. A heartening account of homecoming! Calcutta, yes not Kolkata, does that to you.. pulls you right back after years of being rejected & ridiculed! I am from there too, (a non bengali, marwari to be precise, you are so right in the comparison between the Bengalis & the other communities regarding their raison d'etre.. have always regretted not having enough bengali friends) visit from time to time, each time swear its getting worse & resolve never to set foot again, but then sure something has me packing my bags again, & again. Although i am yet to experience it completely, the way that you have, but have loved lingering on in the metro stations, reading Tagore's musings on the walls, the sight of 'addas', two cigarette puffing, kurta clad, thick bespectacled bengali males,in the thick of passionate discussion about..err..well nothing. Atleast to my limited bengali comprehending ears that's what it seems.., the hearty uninhibited laughter of bengali women..
    The city & the people sure leave their spell on you.

    ReplyDelete

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