Saturday, March 25, 2006

Straight from the Heart of a Calcuttan

I found this in an article in the LA Times:
CALCUTTA SEARS the senses. You can almost taste the poverty, the spices in the air, the breathless heat and the swirl of humanity. I once watched bodies being cremated on pyres along the banks of the Hughli River. Then I retired to the Grand Hotel for a splendid lunch. Wondrous, uninviting, unforgettable — the former capital of British India is all those things.
"There is only one city in India," Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1888 in "City of Dreadful Night." "Bombay is too green, too pretty, and too strugglesome; and Madras died ever so long ago. Let us take off our hats to Calcutta, the many-sided, the smoky, the magnificent, as we drive in over the Hughli Bridge in the dawn of a still February morning."
— All said about the city where I have lived over two-thirds of my life. Every bit of it so undeniably true. I close my eyes and muse. I begin strolling down memory lane.

Summer evening. You are on your way back home on a bus — a crammed bus — on a narrow, jam-packed street. You are standing, clutching the closest bar for support hoping the plump lady seated in front of you will disembark at the next stop. There is barely any space to move. You smell the stale air inside. Sweat trickles down your temples and you curse yourself for forgetting your hanky for the nth time. The bus, that was advancing at a snail’s pace, suddenly stops for good. A taxi coming from the opposite direction trying to overtake another bus is now right is front of your bus blocking the way for both vehicles. A heated altercation between the cabdriver and your bus-driver ensues. Some fellow passengers join in. You catch words and phrases now and then. You don’t try to listen. You don’t really care. You feel tired, angry, and impatient and just want to get home.

Summer evening again. End of a hot, sweltering day. Cool gusts of wind picking up speed. It takes shape of a violent windstorm–a Kalbaishakhi. Dust from the streets swirls up in the air. Ma rushes to close all windows to keep the dust from coming in. You hate her for that. Who cares about the dust when it’s so soothing and cool outside? Well, she who has to clean up the next morning does! Kalbaishaki—the tumult, the refreshing coolness, and the bliss!

Late June. Monsoons in full vigor. Threatening rain-clouds, thunder and lightning, and torrential downpours. You just love to climb up to the rooftop with Ma and/or Didi and get wet. It pours relentlessly, and the neighborhood gets water-logged in no time. The rain clears the layers of dust from the foliage of your neighbor’s mango tree reviving its lush green tinge. You fill your lungs with the smell of wet earth. You are reminded of those days when Dadu used to be there, and you would float paper boats in the pool of water outside.

Another rainy day. Only this time you need to go out somewhere. The long-awaited rains now feel sinister. If you are lucky enough, you’ll find a rickshaw passing by, and that’ll save you the pains of wading through the pool of water carrying all the squalor of the gutters. It eventually stops raining. The water recedes besmirching the cratered streets with mud, filth, and puddles. Dum Dum Junction. The road travels underneath a series of low overpasses for the trains. You are on foot on the dank, dark, smelly, narrow sidewalk bordering the road. You squelch through the mud, umbrella in one hand, trying to avoid contact with the wet mossy wall. There is a puddle ahead of you and a passer-by coming from the opposite direction. You take turns to go around the puddle. Finally you reach the other end of it. You heave a sigh of relief as you step out of hell.

Durga pujo is approaching fast. The air is filled with the hallmarks of autumn — plenty of sunshine, azure skies, and clouds like cotton. Mahalaya. You are up before sunrise and first listen to Mahishasuramardini on the radio while huddling inside the mosquito net and then watch the Mahalaya-special program on TV. A few more days and then finally it’s shashthi. Holiday! Pandal in the neighborhood. The hubbub of the lively crowds. The cheerful radiance of the lighting. The perky rhythm of the dhaak. The sharp smell of the dhunuchi. The reverberating voice of the purohit chanting mantras. The eager anticipation for pushpanjali. You get decked out in new clothes and go pandal-hopping. You complain of the long queues but, once you are inside, most of the woes are forgotten. There is so much to analyze and admire — creative new themes for the pandals, artistic renditions of idols, and innovative lighting and d├ęcor. Time flies, and, before you know, it’s Bijoya, and you bemoan the yearlong wait before the next pujo.

Winter. It’s the season of arts. You would want to frequent Nandan chottor with family and friends. The film festival in November brings to you a fabulous selection of motion picture masterpieces. December ushers in the climax of the city's thespian spirit with the annual theater festival. Whether it is poignant drama, sprightly humor, or dark satire, the local theater groups take your breath away with their creative sets, innovative themes, psychedelic lighting, and of course their immense acting talent. The days following are a breath hold as the best is yet to come. Calcutta Book Fair, in January, is the most-awaited time of the year. The unflinching four, Ma, Baba, Nil, and I, join the human deluge at Maidan. Fiction, nonfiction, storybooks, textbooks, books-boi-kitabein-knigi — the stalls have it all! You weave through the crowd and inhale clouds of dust but manage to saunter across the wide arena digging through the overwhelming arrays of books, loading yourself with increasingly many shopping bags, and always keeping a watchful eye as you know not what treasures the very next stall may be hiding.  

You think of the landmarks — the Hooghly river, the two bridges across it, Maidan, Shaheed Minar a.k.a. “the monument”, Victoria Memorial, Eden Gardens, Race Course, Dakshineshwar temple, Science City, Nicco Park, or the Calcutta Metro. You think of the new, glittering plazas Forum and City Center — favorite haunts of the youth of today. You think of having fuchka or bhelpuri from the roadside stalls. As you think of Calcutta, you mind wanders through all that the city has offered to you. As your mind roams through the expanse of the city and around the calendar, the dust, the smoke, the sweat, the art, the warmth, and the love repeatedly come back to you. You keep wandering. But, suddenly you stop short. In front of you is a quaint, white building in a small neighborhood in Dum Dum. The address plate reads 134 N. N. Road, Cal. 28. You step inside to get welcomed by all the warm, smiling faces that you call family. That’s Calcutta for me!


  1. Nitesh2:42 AM

    nice one joyita [:)]

  2. Manoj2:47 AM

    Ausum! U write well.

  3. Anonymous11:05 AM

    joyi u made me really nostalgic, sitting thousands miles away also u have the same feeling about kolkata,which i always used to thought is mine only.

  4. Anonymous11:05 AM

    joyi u made me really nostalgic, sitting thousands miles away also u have the same feeling about kolkata,which i always used to thought is mine only.

  5. Anonymous11:06 AM

    joyi u made me really nostalgic, sitting thousands miles away also u have the same feeling about kolkata,which i always used to thought is mine only.bhaski

  6. Wow Joyita, that was awesome. It makes me feel all the more homesick.

  7. Its great. you just expressed my feelings.

  8. Anonymous2:38 AM

    i know joyita u never expected this frm me.. but u write really well..

    its very nice.. nice visualization.. i wish i could write sthg like this for BHOPAL

  9. Anonymous5:47 PM

    great.......really great.
    feels even more touching when u so far off from home.....must say one of the best in long time though i dont read much.

    I dont hv an account so putting anonymous here.....


  10. aditya raghavan5:56 AM

    i believe the last but second tag was by sachin, who elusively signs anonymous but gives it away with the mention of "bhopal"
    good job!! well written..

  11. Humble Calcutta…always there…always taken for granted! And then suddenly we are in glitzy LA. We take a while to realize what we are missing. We post a blog. Good job!

  12. fr the first time i feel that i missed out a lot fr not growing up in calcutta!

  13. Very difficult to say why I liked the post.When I tried to ponder over it, I found another similie.
    Another entity that commands similar feeling without any goddamn rational reason.And that is Kolkata - the whole of it.
    Both have something in common: unpretentious, full of liveliness and a closeness to this earthly world where I belong.

  14. guess what you did? i am a bengali born an d brought up in gujarat. My mother being spent 28 years of her life in calcutta had a lot to talk about it... and i have always longled to be there, to live there , to be in my culture..and to breath the place in...and today after reading this ,you made me recall all that my mother has ever told me...and more. It was nice.