Calcutta – I knew it before it became Kolkata, as temporary resident, then as frequent visitor and now as permanent admirer. ‘Cal’ does that to more than one person, I know. It’s a city that’s easy to fall in love with, a place that makes one feel at home. Perhaps that is why I remember the city as a sum of sensations and stimuli, sights and sounds that not only stir fond memories, but also come together in the present as a story that must be told, full of emotions, drama, intrigue, suspense and love.
Say “Calcutta” and I think of samosas emerging from the depths of a lightless, soot-stained shop in Kidderpore, to be eaten while walking over cobbled streets, sighted feet avoiding open man-holes and the washed remains of yesterday’s downpour. I also think of rasgullas (and its pronounced roshogolla, not roshogullo, as I’ve been oft reminded) from that piece of paradise on earth – KC Das on Esplanade. The informed visitor consumes the delicacy while showering many blessings on the father-son inventor duo of Nobin Chandra and Krishna Chandra Das. The less historically-inclined show as much relish, but affirm that both rasgullas and rasmalai from the decades old main store taste much better than what comes out a high-tech vacuum-sealed tin. Alternatively, one could indulge in street-fare phuchkas and jhal-muri, followed by dessert that would literally seem a world apart: melt-in-your mouth pastries at that unforgettable Calcutta institution –Kookie Jar.
And before you say it, yes, there is a lot of food in the memories. As there is music, both in the soothing lilt of Rabindra Sangeet as well as the joyful cadence of everyday Bengali, as you eavesdrop on animated, wholesome conversations that you cannot understand. Buses are a great place to do that.
The other image that comes to mind is that of tarmac, as seen through the inches-wide the gaps between the wooden boards that are the floor, such as it is, of Calcutta’s public-private buses. The panic that strikes you is, however, soon forgotten as the kind matron seated in front of you offers to hold on to your heavy bag. That moment is when all your transportation adventures, which should include a ride on the tram, seem completely worth it.
All this against the omnipresent canvas of Howrah Bridge – the old and the new stand proud and tall in a city where past and present collide.
Calcutta is the Victoria memorial at dawn, the Esplanade at dusk. Her grace brings a dignity even to the malnourished horses that take visitors on carriage-rides wait near Princep Ghat to discharge their duty without complaint, like the old coolies of Bara Bazaar with their rounded backs and tired shoulders. None complain, for their city is hope; hope that begets kindness, though of a strange but never unpleasant nature.
Which is why, as you end your touristy sojourn to the city with a shopping trip to New Market and its imaginatively named sister, the New “New Market” (not to be confused with the air-conditioned AC market and its sister, the New AC Market), you can be sure that a shopkeeper will go to every length to get you whatt you want – including procuring the item from his competitor next door, without profit. You can also be sure that despite all your protests of familiarity with the city, both your brand-bearing shopping bags from Park Street, and your accent give you away to these Harvard-MBAs-must-learn-from-us businessmen. You will pay nothing less than the tourist price. The transaction completed, you won’t ever hold it against them, just as they will not hold your ridiculous counter-offers against you. This is life, this is reality. Calcutta knows that and she doesn’t begrudge it. Just as she does not flinch from death.
There is death, on the burning ghats on the banks Hooghly at Nimtala, in the array of severed goats heads that line the narrow way into the Kalighat temple that invoke awe, anger, sorrow, confusion, even penitence, or solemn acceptance. All the while, we remain flanked by life and colour, by sindoor heaps, flowers, incense and red sarees for Maa, as we walk down that path with dhaak-sound for heartbeat.
There is of course, much more to be seen, depending on one’s interests, from the Nehru Doll Museum to the synagogue and Tagore House. But at some point, you stop sightseeing and start being a part of it all.
Where’s the story here, you might ask. Well, if you are in Calcutta, then you are in the story. The city is a living, breathing character, one that draws you into her tale and makes you hers, if only for a few hours or days.
And then, in her life, you will see your own. Maybe that is why Calcutta always feels like home.
Krishna Udayasankar is a graduate of the National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, and holds a PhD in Strategic Management from the Nanyang Business School, Singapore, where she presently works as a lecturer.
Govinda, Krishna’s bestselling debut novel and the first in the Aryavarta Chronicles series of mytho-historical novels, received critical acclaim. She is also the author of Objects of Affection, a full-length collection of poetry (Math Paper Press, 2013) and is an editor of Body Boundaries: The Etiquette Anthology of Women’s Writing (The Literary Centre, Forthcoming, 2013). Her second novel from the Aryavarta Chronicles series, Kaurava is doing the rounds in bookstores these days.
When she is not watching Rajinikanth movies first-day, first-show, complete with applause and whistles, or hanging out with her fictional characters, Krishna can be found with her family, which includes two book-loving Siberian Huskies, Boozo and Zana.
Review of Govinda coming soon here!