Darshan” is a Hindu form of worship through seeing, through being in the presence of God. In a more secular sense, perhaps this Sanskrit word can be extended to seeing or being in the presence of a beloved. For some, the beloved may be a mother—Ma; or motherland—Matrabhumi. To understand the importance of those removed from their Ma or Matrabhumi, one must empathize with, even feel deep pity for, the soul who can no longer see her loving mother (land).
Unlike some book reviews, for my wife (Mangla) and me, this review is no abstract consideration of an author’s work. Ever since my wife’s mother, who lived some five decades in Calcutta (plus another five in its reincarnated form, Kolkata), and breathed her last breath on Earth Day, 2013, Mangla and I have been learning to see Mummy without being in her saintly presence.
First there was the frantic flicking through a life’s archive of paper and digital photos, in search of one image that would stay with us, that would sit in puja, garlanded with flowers. Then there was the blinking away of tears to make travel arrangements back home to Calcutta, back home to a house that no longer felt whole. The flight itself was a kind of denial: if only we hurried back, Mummy would be waiting for us, with her ever-present smile, her generous spirit, her nurturing culinary tradition, her optimistic proverbs, her undying duty to her family’s happiness.
But when Singapore Airlines flight SQ516 touched down on the hard tarmac of Kolkata’s cold, new airport in the middle of the dark, ancient night, there was no negotiating with Yama, the God of Death. We now had our duty, over thirteen days, to help Mummy’s soul peacefully reach the other side, away from the grinding cycle of life.
And, thus, this trip to Calcutta would be my first when I would neither see Mummy nor take darshan of the city-village she called home. Whether it was the communal insularity of the mourning period or the unyielding tears that clouded my vision, I saw little beyond our family’s sitting room that served as a shrine to Mummy during the day and doubled as a sleeping room area for the out-of-town family members who came by car, rail, and air to pay their last respects.
Even during the fraternal trips to the Hooghly River to purify ourselves in the final, muddy bend of the Ganga before its release into the Bay of Bengal, even during these drives through the desperately alive city, I was unable to actually see old Calcutta or its newer avatar, Kolkata. Perhaps I was lost in my incessant chanting of the Hanuman Chalisa, one of Mummy’s favorite recitations, or maybe it was the fellowship in the car with brothers-in-law who have become my brothers through the decades. Either way, I refused to take a photograph, refused to keep frozen in time images of a place that lives its many million lives sun-up to sun-down, and then again the next day and the next. I could not even permit myself to cup my hand to my eye to see the world in the iconic way that Calcutta’s beloved film-director, Satyajit Ray, had been photographed countless times. Through his films such as Maha Nagar (The Big City) and Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road), I had learned to know the teeming city and its lush, green countryside. Not only through Ray, but also through Mummy, I had taken Calcutta into my mind’s eye.
On all previous trips, I had snapped at least one photo of Mummy. And there would be artsy photographs of rickshaw-wallahs pulling their loads through the monsoon rain, and of children in the Hooghly doing somersaults off of trawlers, while bathers and mourners washed away their impurities. Or if I was out of film (or storage), there was always my trusty hand to frame Calcutta’s chromatic world to capture a quintessential Bengali moment.
Of course, this is a book review, albeit one complemented by a sadly nostalgic view back of a life well lived. There is also a sunnier nostalgia of a place well lived in. Beyond the undying memories are the tangible reminders of place and time. There will always remain the photographs to give new and ongoing meaning to what was once familiar and touchable. As the prominent photographer Alfred Stieglitz memorably said, “For that is the power of the camera: seize the familiar and give it new meanings, a special significance by the mark of a personality.” In his forward to Steve Raymer’s Redeeming Calcutta, Dipesh Chakrabarty, professor of history at the University of Chicago writes, “There is also a welcome historicism that I notice in Professor Raymer’s efforts. In spite of the ‘eternal’ iconic shots of the city his photos exude a certain sense of the present.”
This aliveness to the present is palpable throughout Raymer’s collection of photographs, with helpful text providing context. While the physical face of the city—its many imperial buildings, riverbank vistas, and bridges old and new—is commendably photographed, the meaning-filled and meaningful faces of the city are what make this a remarkable book.
These faces do not fade into silhouette characters supporting the city’s machinery, but rather are the spirited eyes through which one can peer into the soul of Calcutta: there is the face of the sweeper immaculately sweeping the floor of Raj Bhavan, with “a painting of Rabrindanath Tagore” staring intently into the room; there are the faces of “angry demonstrators” protesting rising electricity rates; there are bright and eager faces of “students at Loreto College,” looking hopeful and optimistic into the Asian 21st century; and, of course, a book on Calcutta might seem incomplete without worn-out faces of rickshaw-pullers, “like a scene from the early twentieth century” and beatific faces of “adoring churchgoers” surrounding a nun of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
Occasionally, and irritatingly, the text accompanying the photo spells out the name of the subject; for example, there is Akhil Sapura’s face “tasting tea for a bull market” as only an experienced general manager of a tea auctioneer can. Irritation arises because one doesn’t understand why Raymer privileges Akhil’s fine face with a name while relegating most of the other faces to anonymity. But this is a small pet peeve of a reviewer who believes that the names, faces, and memories of ordinary human beings deserve the dignity of attention and merit everyday darshan.
Redeeming Calcutta is itself a kind of darshan. Just as a statue of one’s God should not be relegated to the back of a closet, this book should not gather dust on the coffee table. Find a way to see it, to be in the presence of its lively and alive images.
To be sure, those from Calcutta may consider this book a Proustian “remembrance of things past;” they will recall revering Bengali culture, singing the great poet Tagore’s Rabindra Sangeet, seeing Ray’s heartfelt films, genuflecting to Kali Ma, and reflecting upon the saintly deeds of Mother Teresa. For those who have never set foot in Calcutta (but may still have found a way to snigger at its economic decline), this book may enable you to be in touch with your better angels. Whether you were born in another hot and steamy Indian metropolis or in a cool and efficient Silicon Valley suburb, you are sure to see something of home here. But I suspect you will see your better self and your own place on earth revealed – and redeemed – only if you approach the book with an empathetic heart.
For Mrs. Suman Dave, who left this earth on April 22, 2013, diagnosed as having an enlarged heart.
Rajesh C. Oza is a Change Management consultant, who also facilitates the interpersonal development of MBA students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.