CalcuttaScape : Timothy Jay Smith

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 first one in this column is from an American author, Timothy Jay Smith (winner of the Paris Prize for Fiction 2008) reminiscing two of his visits to Calcutta in 1978 and 1990s.

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Enduring Calcutta

I boarded the train at a way station north of Madras; and it was still called Madras then, not Chennai. I had managed to avoid buying anything resembling a Madras shirt—those myriad colors swirling in soft fabric worn so ubiquitously by the Sixties flower children. Perhaps now they are called Chennai shirts, but I hope they’ve retained the name Madras. The word defines an era well beyond a fashion statement.

Traveling third class, I stepped over dozens of feet—in sandals, sneakers, one foot bloated with Elephantitis—and found a spot on the wooden bench. I stowed my backpack under it and sat down. Across from me was the strangest man I had ever seen: stick skinny, smeared with green paint, naked except for a revealing loincloth, and fingernails so long that they had looped back on themselves. By contrast, I could not have been more ‘normal-looking’ in my jeans and button-down blue Oxford shirt.

And everybody on the train was looking at me.

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Mus(e)ical Bel(le)Fast

I haven’t yet lived in a city which I can claim to be mine. Perhaps Gainesville would come close being the only place I lived on my own terms. Calcutta-buffs, I know, will scathe at me for being ungrateful to the city which doesn’t cease to amaze me. Still, I don’t seem to devour Calcutta the way others have done. Something hinders me, I can’t surely say what it is – perhaps my inability to adapt nuances of the city at a later age than required. It is technically my hometown now, but having stayed there for only eight consecutive years hasn’t given me the chance to imbibe the city into myself. I long for it when I’m away and yet I feel the longing is just for the sake of it. It is in human nature to try and own – places, people, relationships – without justifying the ownership. I haven’t consciously tried to let Calcutta engulf me into its charming tentacles, consequently being open to immerse myself into any other city in the world.

Belfast was different from all the other cities I’ve lived in because I already knew the exact number of days I was going to be there. I did not seriously know what to expect from the short-term affair with a city radically apart from the ones I’ve been to. Visiting London confirmed the hypothesis we created, that united Ireland resembles more with Europe than the rest of United Kingdom. Belfast has all the European qualities, right from pebbled streets to open-air cafes and the afternoon drinking culture which is too lethargic for London to accept. The people have a laid-back attitude, they drink – morning and noon, evening and night – because they are Irish.

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Autumn Memoirs

Today was a bright sunny one – clean, smooth, flawless autumn blue sky.  Not even a single spec of cloud, crisp sunshine with a little coolness in the air and trees fluttering in the wind, all green (yes green, and not the so-called “fall” colour). I could hear the wind bumping into my ears when I was walking back from the lab, walking against the wind. It played like a broken flute all along, rumpled my hair like my father would sometimes fondly do. Nevertheless, the sky attracted me more, as always. I think if I’d have to design a colour catalogue for paints, I would do really well with the blues. Just look at the sky, it’s a different shade of blue each time I’ve seen it. Right from staring through the barred windows of Barasat-Hasnabad ‘deluxe’ bus on a Nabami morning every year, to gazing at the brilliant crystal blue while standing in a queue at Belur Math on Ashtami afternoon, again each year. Times change. The un-intimidated ritual for nine years, of reaching Belur Math before the Kumari Puja at nine o’clock has long been replaced to watching the puja live on television. We prefer the change nowadays to avoid the excessive crowd, the pushing and jostling for a view of the kumari, two hours of journey from our present home, and the unstable health of my ageing parents. But we miss the ambiance  and the inexplicable khichuri bhog prepared since ages by some Ghanashyam from Ghusuri. I’d trade anything, simply anything, for an earthen cup of that divine bhog. Nobody has been able to explain the reason behind such taste till now, though he makes it with no special ingredients or procedure. Somethings are better forever unexplored, I guess.

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An Afternoon and I

It is a big room. Rather, a huge room. The store-room. Or, dryer as they say here. The ceiling is quite high, though not enough to drift your thoughts to any wonderland. And it is sloping on both sides. Not even a false, plain ceiling. I wonder why these people make all buildings with sloping roofs. None of the houses have a terrace. None that I have seen till now. Occasionally, rarely a house or two with a plain roof, but no terrace to climb upon the stairs and cherish the summer breeze or rain.
The building, just one large room has four collapsible shutters and two doors. The interiors are stuffed with a variety of smells that seem choking at first. Smell of grass, in its different stages of drying inside two monstrous ovens. Smell of onions, mostly fresh and some rotten, lying on the floor in boxes, unused, unsold, untested. But it is the intense, overwhelming very typical smell of grass which is dominant. And when the initial surge of these smells subside, a third one lurks from inside, the musty smell of a closed, less ventured room. Though it is not that less ventured, visited almost everyday by someone or the other, the smell still remains.

I seem to be the only person working here today. All on my own, in this ominous room. I arrange my stuff on a table near the machine I am supposed to work on. It stands beside one of the collapsible shutters. I have been instructed to keep the shutter open for ventilation. Having done that, I venture to take out samples from the oven. I have to switch off the temperature, open the door and enter inside. Hot air gushes into my face, I gather my sample bags and come out before it starts baking my skin. Starting my work I place one of the samples, all grass, dried, into the grinding machine, switch it on and sit on a chair, waiting for the sample to be ground nearly into powder.

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