The last time that I had visited my birthplace, Calcutta, was just before the turn of the new century and here I was back again, well into the new millennium! It is strange how the concept of home keeps changing. I perceived myself as a Solomon Grundy kind of person, who instead of being “born on a Monday, christened on a Tuesday,” was “born in Calcutta, grew up in Jamshedpur …” The problem with people like these (read me!) is that they find it hard to answer very matter of fact questions about identity. There is a realization about not having put down roots anywhere and yet having left a part of myself in each of the places that I have lived in. And each time that I revisit, I am looking for that elusive something that was left behind. In most cases, I have only nostalgia to fall back on!
And so, the excitement was palpable, when the touchdown at the Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Airport in Kolkata was announced. The two name changes hit me almost immediately. I had been used to the alliterative “Dumdum” from the time I was a child and the new names instituted some distance between the place of my memory and the city I was visiting.
I was visiting Kolkata to attend a wedding and it seemed as though most of my flight was on a similar mission. The Bengalis, like the Punjabis, have been among the votaries of the Big Fat Indian Wedding.
I stepped out to a blistery and windy welcome. It was an unusually cold winter, one that had forced Bengalis to arm themselves with thick woollens, shawls and the de rigueur monkey caps (where a good part of the face is shielded by a thick woollen cap, leaving only the eyes, nose and mouth exposed).
I recall earlier visits and the horrified reactions of relatives and friends upon seeing me pad about in my bare feet on December mornings and their urgent admonishments: “wear your chappals and socks or you will catch a cold!”
I had completely forgotten the average Bengali’s preoccupation with health. There often is no trace of embarassment even when discussing delicate health ailments like those of the digestive tract!
At the Scottish-Bengali wedding I attended, I developed an insatiable appetite for the mouth-watering Bengali sweets, the sandesh, the rasagullas, and the gulab jamuns.
There was a band of shehnai players resplendent in their Lucknowi clothes. I went up for a little chat and listened to these performers praise Calcuttans and their love of culture, which had kept their art-form alive. All the men turned out to be Muslims from either Bihar or Uttar Pradesh who had made this city their home. It felt good to be present at an Indian-Scottish wedding, conducted according to Hindu rites, with Muslim shehnai players holding forth.
I decided to visit New Market, originally known as Hogg Market, and found it teeming with people. It seemed as though the old thriving marketplace had lost its old-world charm. Everyone seemed to be in a great hurry and there was none of that lazy, relaxed kind of shopping that I had associated with this market.
Kolkata has always been a favorite place of the Chinese, many of whom have made this city their home, congregating in places like Chinatown and Tangra. Known for their enterprise, they opened beauty parlors, restaurants and leather footwear shops. Chinese carpentry and dentistry also became synonymous with quality. New Market was filled with stores selling shoes, made by Chinese workmen and it was not surprising to see a dentist in the midst of the rows of shops.
New Market has a well-known Tibetan jewellery shop called “Chamba Lamba.” There was a young man inside, what was earlier a solely feminine preserve, trying out a pair of ear-rings! Calcutta it seemed had metamorphosed into its new name and culture, while I had been away.
I drove to Park Street and past old restaurants like Trincas, where Usha Uthup gained fame as a singer and brought respectability to the profession of nightclub singing; Flury’s—famous for its confectioneries and liqueur chocolates; Kwality’s, Moulin Rouge; Mocambo; and the grand old Grand Hotel, now refurbished and glitzed up as the Oberoi Grand.
When traveling around in a yellow cab (almost extinct in India), I found that the city’s famed traffic jams had not reduced, even as I realised that the people’s idea of road sense had not improved. Not surprisingly, the two are corollaries to each other.
The cab radio kept plugging the “Boi Mela,” or book fair. So, I decided to attend along with a friend. Bengalis are lovers of literature, quite undeterred by the huge lines at these events. At the book fair, my friend and I stumbled upon the book launch of “Pataudi, Nawab of Cricket.” Suresh Menon who edited and authored the book was to discuss the biography with Bollywood’s yesteryear heroine Sharmila Tagore (married to Pataudi) and Saurabh Ganguly, billed as India’s most successful cricket captain.
All the three speakers radiated charm. Sharmila Tagore shared some special memories of her husband, including the kick that she got from him under the table, when she used a cricketing term incorrectly (leg glance instead of a late cut)!
Saurabh Ganguly was asked by a member of the audience “Dada, why don’t you become the brand ambassador for cricket in Bengal?” Pat came the reply, “For that, you will have to ask Didi!” The didi in question is Mamata Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal, who looms imposingly over Kolkata, ever since she vanquished the communist party, CPI (M), after they held sway in the state for more than three decades. Her posters dominate the city-landscape, just like Jayalalitha’s in Chennai. Banerjee’s imperiousness is legendary and the story goes that some poor academic landed in jail for uploading a cartoon spoofing her among his private set of friends!
I decided to visti Dakshineswar, located in the extreme north of Kolkata, where Ramakrishna Paramahamsa is said to have found enlightenment. One of his famous sayings is “Taaka maati, maati taaka” (money is mud and mud is money) to indicate his sense of detachment towards all things material. So, it was, with a bit of a shock, that I found the place teeming with shops selling all manner of things, and big jewelry advertisements sprawled across the walls.
I guess that when it comes to nostalgia, Calcutta, the place of my past can really exist only in my mind. And so, though what I looked for in the Calcutta of the 20th century was occasionally missing in the Kolkata of the 21st, the trip was certainly worth it. When I need to feel good about the city, I can just inhabit the childhood places and memories in my mind and draw happiness from them.
Melanie is a Bangalore-based writer and Literary Reviewer who has been freelancing for more than 15 years now. She holds degrees in English and Mass Communications.