Again a recycled post… But then you can’t blame me. I’m in the middle of my thesis. Crying T_T
I wrote this in October last year after some unknown phenomenon happened and I suddenly realised I LOVE that city.
No, not Kolkata… Calcutta.
You can’t love Calcutta if you experience it through your eyes or your nose. You love Calcutta when you experience it with your heart.
I felt something different when I was wandering aimlessly through Calcutta’s streets this time. Here I was, in the city I so passionately claimed to hate. I hated it so much, in fact, that I decided to go for a walk to kill time… There was never anything to do!
The potholes were in place, so was the filth. I was literally playing hopscotch in trying to avoid stepping into some sort of goop.
But suddenly, everything that I had always made fun of started making sense to me.
Did I change or did the city change?
There went an Aunty in the typical Bengali avatar- sari and a sleeveless blouse. I remembered why I always made fun of their clothes (Only Bengali women from Calcutta can wear sleeveless blouses with their arm fat jiggling all over the place!). But I couldn’t remember why I found it so funny.
I went up to aforementioned Aunty and asked her for some generic directions. She stopped, looked at me and smiled. She gently placed her hand on my arm, turned me to face the right direction and patiently explained the way to me. Her elderly husband stood smiling by her side, waiting for her to finish, shopping bags in hand.
In the end, of course, they asked me where I was from, why I was randomly walking around and a host of other questions- a trait I used to find supremely annoying in the past (Mind your own business, people!!). This time, however, something else shone through. I could see the innocent curiosity of a generation of people who had grown up indulging in a kind of community feeling that I had never experienced, and probably never will.
I see it every time I visit my aunt’s place. The plump woman next door always stands outside her gate and stares at us whenever we have a conversation anywhere in the vicinity. Nosy, sure, but I haven’t seen that kind of unabashed, and strangely endearing, nosiness anywhere else.
One certain traffic policeman I asked for directions was so concerned about my decision to walk around, that he first tried to find out why I’m not in my own car, then tried to convince me to use public transport, then gave me tips on how to avoid getting run over by traffic, and finally sent me on my way, marveling at my energy, after I assured him I’d only ask policemen for help If I needed any.
Then there was the man who was trying to fill his water bottle from a hand pump. Near impossible task- he was pumping, running to fill the bottle with a few drops, running back to pump and so on. It would take forever. Already starting to fall in love with the city, I decided to help him out and offered to hold his bottle while he pumped. I don’t think I’d ever do that in Delhi. Delhi is indifferent.
I passed a group of people huddled together playing Carrom on the middle of a footpath. I chuckled at this oddity and moved along, and in some time, found myself standing in front of a board tacked on to a nondescript wall. ‘Friend’s Corner’ it said, and there was another board game perched on a stool, waiting for any group of people who’d want to stop and have a game.
Every corner has a fuchka-waala and rastar-chowmien stall teeming with people. No mineral water and plastic gloves here. No one cares about hygiene, and no one falls sick either.
I visited some relatives and friends on my way. Each one looked delighted at my unexpected presence. I stopped by at a great aunt’s house. She was napping. When she woke up and saw me, she jumped out of bed, threw her arms around me grinning from ear to ear, and sat clutching my hand like there was no tomorrow. I suddenly felt so shallow, so superficial. Is it really so easy to make people happy? Why don’t we take this effort anymore?
It suddenly dawned on me why Calcutta weddings are not as ostentatious as the ones I’m used to in Delhi. We Bengalis (I say ‘we’ even though I have NO intentions of toning down the far-in-the-distant-future wedding of my imagination!) don’t see the need to spend plenty of money on clothes costing in the 5-figure range. We don’t need 8 cuisines at the wedding. We don’t need celebrity performers. What we do need, however, is to be with our loved ones- our friends and family- during the big moments in our lives.
Calcutta celebrates the things that really matter.
Houses in Calcutta are not lavish. My sister and I spent years talking about ‘Ugh! How do people LIVE there??’ The common belief, and probably the truth, is that the average Bengali from Calcutta does not make too much money. And now I know that it’s not because they’re not talented, or dedicated, or hard working. No, that’s not it. The average Bengali from Calcutta is not as wealthy as his or her Gujarati or Punjabi or Marwari counterpart because the Bengali doesn’t live for money. The Bengali lives for relationships- to create new ones and enhance existing ones. The Bengali lives for the arts- you’d be hard pressed to find a Bengali kid who doesn’t sing, dance or draw.
We’re not lazy work shirkers, though we are usually the first ones to leave office every evening. We don’t care about overtime pay, but we do care about eating dinner together with the rest of the family, discussing everyone’s day.
The typical Bengali’s house in Calcutta is not done up in fancy upholstery. It has rickety old furniture, and carpets that are so old you cannot peel them off the floor anymore (my house- true story!). The rooms are whitewashed- no fancy painting business here. The outsides are a faded sea-breeze-weathered remainder of a brightly coloured coat of paint that hasn’t been retouched in decades. It is dusty, and if you look just carefully enough, you’ll probably find newspapers from a few years ago.
The typical Bengali’s house also has books. Lots of them. Yellowed and dog-eared from readings and re-readings. There are hundreds of music CDs, and even cassettes that haven’t been thrown out yet, even though the last time someone listened to one was several years ago. You’ll also probably find a couple of musical instruments tucked behind some furniture.
The typical Bengali’s house feels more like home because it’s not perfectly done up like a hotel room. The intimidating books have been read. The fancy dishes have been eaten in. The new mattress has been slept on. You have to watch where you sit because there may be an old pair of glasses on the sofa (An oft-repeated, standing joke about Bengalis is our glasses. Almost all of us wear glasses. And that’s because we’re intellectuals… Yes, we are!!). The house almost always smells like food, and there’s always something nice to eat. You can drop by uninvited and unannounced, and you are always welcomed with the openest of arms.
Never have I seen life so calm, so peaceful, so unhurried than those few hours. I was walking at my ‘Delhi pace’, walking briskly, deftly swerving to avoid bumping into anyone. It was like the world around me was moving in slow motion. I knew I was different when I heard people exclaim in surprise when I said ‘I’m from Calcutta’. Everyone looked unconvinced at my claim till I admitted that I belong to Calcutta, but I live in Delhi, and have most of my life.
Calcutta feels warm, literally and figuratively, and safe. You can stand in a crowd and not have to worry about shady men and pickpockets, not much atleast.
You cannot love Calcutta if you look at it critically. You have to feel it, and taste it… Inhale it, and absorb it. And that’s when something changes. Maybe it’s the city… Or maybe it’s you.
This has been featured on India Untravelled’s blog as well, with some edits and really nice pictures. Make sure to check them (my post AND the website itself) out!!