Presenting a new section to the readers : CalcuttaScape. It would be a guest column on One and a Half Minutes, in which published authors will write about their experiences on visits to Calcutta. I will be approaching non-resident authors who have visited for a vacation or stayed in Calcutta for a short while.
I know, dear readers, the first question cropping on your mind would be, why Calcutta? I’m not sure if I have a satisfactory answer for this one. It is my city, at times it has been my muse, it has been a companion in my early adult years, it has been a witness to a major part of my life. This is probably my way of paying a tribute to Calcutta, by bringing to you words flown from famous authors, on a city that never ceases to amaze.
The second article in this column is from author Nalini Rajan, her first novel ‘The Pangolin’s Tale’ was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize, 2007.
I have visited Calcutta three times, and I have mere fragments of memories of this city.
The first time I went to Calcutta, I was nine years of age. I was travelling by train from Delhi with my 12-year-old sister and a 20-year-old male cousin, Shekhar. “Girls, there are lots of things you should see in Calcutta”, our father advised us. “This is a city, brimming with history!” He looked somewhat dreamy. “And Howrah Bridge is something you see, anyway, from the train”, he added, as he waved us goodbye at Delhi station.
Right at the beginning of the 20-hour journey my sister and I knew one thing: we loathed our cousin, and he, for his part, simply forgot that we existed. It was lucky that our mother had packed loads of food for the train journey – else her daughters would surely have perished of hunger. For the most part of the trip, Shekhar would hang out with people his age, and usually of the opposite sex. Not once did he ask us, out of cousinly concern, if we needed anything! We were so puffed up with righteous indignation at this benign neglect, that we missed seeing Howrah Bridge altogether, as we approached Calcutta.
Our destination in Calcutta was the posh Alipore Estate, where Shekhar’s father, my uncle, lived. Mercifully, we got along with Shekhar’s younger siblings, Ashok and Usha, who were roughly in our age-group. We had such a blast together, that we didn’t want to go out anywhere. When our aunt suggested that we visit the Asiatic Society of India, my sister cheekily replied, “Asiatic what? We only know the Asiatic lion!” We giggled in unison. It was a wonder we didn’t get our faces slapped. But we were dragged to the Alipore zoo, where we saw two gorgeous white tigers.
The next time I visited Calcutta was on my way from a conference in Guwahati. I spent a couple of days with relatives in a southern suburb in Calcutta. It turned out that the daughter-in-law of the house was a devotee of the goddess Kali, and she insisted on taking me to the temple in Kalighat. I have never experienced anything quite as vibrant and energetic as the crowds of devotees, the touts, the middlemen, the priests, even the sacrifice of young goats garlanded with hibiscus flowers, in the temple courtyard! As we reached the sanctum sanctorum of the goddess, my companion kept pressing my hand and urging me to demand anything I wanted from this most powerful and beneficent deity. I didn’t dare tell her that, given all the external stimuli, my mind was a complete blank.
In 1996, I went to Calcutta once more – this time, on my way to Dumka in Jharkand. I stayed at the YMCA on that wonderful stretch known as Chowringhee Road. Apart from the colourful bazaars and the colonial facades and the mobile food vendors, what really struck me about Calcutta was the kindness and decency of its residents. After all, I was used to Delhi’s pushy aggression and Mumbai’s cynical resignation. What I experienced in Calcutta was humanity’s zest for life, even in the face of a crumbling infrastructure. The staff members at the YMCA were incredibly polite, when the elevators failed to work, and the taps dried up in the rooms. Strangers, who stood in line at the railway station, actually made way for me to go on ahead and buy my train ticket, simply because I was travelling to Dumka the same evening. I reached the head of the queue to find that the computers had crashed and the reservation clerks had gone for yet another tea break.
Calcutta is a city I would like to re-visit. This time, I plan to see Howrah Bridge, spend time in the Asiatic Society, in Fort William, in Kalighat, in Chowringhee, and even in the Alipore zoo.
Nalini Rajan is Dean of Studies and professor, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. She has a doctorate in Social Communication from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. Nalini has travelled widely, and held post-doctoral fellowships in UK (Oxford and Edinburgh) and in the US (New York).
Her first novel, The Pangolin’s Tale, was longlisted for the 2007 Man Asian Literary Prize. Love and Death in the Middle Kingdom (2013) is her third work of fiction.