For years I had shunned the idea of traveling to Calcutta — now I know, and I wish I hadn’t.
Maybe it was the poverty porn preferred by western media — ‘ the city of the dying’, Mother Teresa and her work amongst the poor, successive Leftist governments’ anarchy — these I submit as excuses, and for atonement.
As the aircraft flexes its wing in descent, the ground below looks wonderfully fertile, in multiple shades of green. And there is water everywhere, in ponds, canals, lakes, streams, and a wide brown snaking river-Hooghly. Outside Dum-Dum airport, the air is a little sticky with heat and carries a faint aroma of mossy vegetation. The taxi ride to our Airbnb at Gariahat takes us through a somewhat rural landscape, soon giving way to orderly suburbs and a spanking flyover.
We had visited here in the second half of October, and the infamous hot muggy weather had softened. Temperatures hovered between the early 20s and 30s, with a few showers then and now. One still got sweat-soaked on a mere 100-meter stroll, but there was far too much happening on street to take notice.
A long time back, Job Charnock laid claims to this marshy land in the late 17th century, as a harbor for English vessels sailing up from the Bay of Bengal, and later extended it with purchase of three more villages: Sutanpuri, Govindpur, and Kolikata, for a sum of 1300 coins of that time. East India Company (EIC) had acquired Madras only a few decades back, and Bombay too had come into English possession, through a Portuguese dowry.
But it was Calcutta that developed and prospered beyond imagination. By the mid-19th century, this had become the second capital city of the British Empire. But the opening of the Suez Canal in the 1870s started shifting marine trade to Bombay. By 1911, when the capital was moved to Delhi, the city’s population was a million strong. Today it’s 15 million.
Politicians believe in changing the names of cities and streets, instead of developing them. But I have stuck to the old terms of endearment — Calcutta — or Cal.
So, with apologies to my delightful friends from Calcutta, here I go…
The most remarkable remains of imperial Calcutta are within a mile of the Maidan — itself a magnificent oasis of calm, much like the Central Park in NYC, or Hyde in London. Perhaps even more remarkable, if one looks at the pressures of population and pollution here.
We roamed the streets of what was called ‘White Calcutta’ with Manjit, who runs photo walk tours and is much in love with his city. He had agreed to meet us at Lalit Great Eastern hotel. We waited outside while a shoe-shine boy banged his brush on a box to attract attention. The hotel itself is a gem — established in 1841 as Auckland Hotel, with 100 rooms and a departmental store, it was acclaimed as “the Savoy of the East”. Over the years it saw its name change, its fortunes decline in the 1970s Naxalite years, and now a fresh lease of life given in 2013, with the new management. “A man could walk in at one end, buy a complete outfit, a wedding present, or seeds for the garden, have an excellent meal, A burra peg, and if the barmaid was agreeable, walk out at the other end engaged to be married” Manjit deadpanned.
Close by is Raj Bhavan, an imposing edifice built around 1800, from where the English Governors-General and Viceroys ruled the native unwashed masses. The credit for its construction goes to Lord Wellesley, the top EIC honcho in India who did not see himself as a mere pale-skinned retailer of muslin and indigo. His self-image was princelier. He did not, therefore, bother seeking authorizations from his masters back in London, while constructing this palatial ‘Government House’. Finally, when the invoices of some ₤169 000 rolled in for payments, London hurriedly recalled him. The house was then called “Wellesley’s Folly”.
We are now walking on Marx Engel’s (who else!) street and it’s busy. Itinerant key makers scurrying along with uncut keys, metal discs, and various tools slung together on wired hoops which they shake in a frenzied clash. Guys sit on the sidewalk with heavy sacks of 100, 200, 500 coins, much needed by public transport buses and tram conductors.
Manjit points out “Dead Letter Building” — a storehouse of undelivered letters, in the mid-19th century, when letters took months to arrive, addresses changed often, and life spans of expatriates could be short. This was the endpoint for unclaimed packages — a ‘Lost & Found’ of penned expectations, promises, commitments, love, and longings of friends, families, and lovers back home. In those days, one could come here and claim his letters-now they are simply shredded.
Up ahead, tall spires of Scottish St. Andrew’s Church rise at the end of the road ahead. Manjit explains that the Scottish wanted to set up their church higher than the British St. John’s Church, and so they crowned it with a weathercock — to crow over the English Bishop!
A run-down two-storey building has a curious motif of Life and the Grim Reaper on its pediment. This was but then Standard Life Assurance Building, now partly occupied and going to seed. The first-floor and then second-floor heights were visibly shorter–the construction was on swampland, with reducing load-bearing capacities.
At last, we reach the famous Dalhousie Square, once ‘Tank Square’ and later renamed as BBD Bagh. “This was a strip 3 miles long and a mile deep besides Hooghly where the Brits chose to make a home, away from home. Fort Williams served as the nucleus, and the natives were pushed northwards, along Chitpur Road (Rabindra Sarani),” Manjit was giving us 300 years of history in 5 minutes, “The Mughals power had declined by early 18th century, and the principal threat came from marauding Marathas. A long trench was dug up for protection, which was later filled up and formed Lower Circular Road.”
“Calcutta’s trade was transacted here in the streets around Dalhousie square, for all of the 19th century,” Manjit explained, “This was once the tank square where the Bada Saheb sent their bhishties to draw water by the bagful from old lall diggy.” He pointed to that large water tank, now used for washing clothes as well. Across the square, an immense dome and Doric columns of General Post Office dominate. On one side stands the Writers Building, color-washed in burnt sienna, where the government of West Bengal functions, when there is one.
We stood under the statue of three young nationalists — Benoy-Badal-Dinesh–who killed a British Inspector General nearby, and paid with their lives — the square is thus named as BBD Bagh. Colonial architecture is all around.
Stately GPO now stands where original Fort William once stood; its boundary is still marked on the pavement by a brass line; the fort started taking shape in 1696, and established its importance through the bloody confrontation with Siraj Ud daulah in 1756. The infamous ‘Black Hole’ incident happened here. Revenge of Robert Clive and Battle of Plassey the very next year secured the foothold of rapacious EIC.
Writers Building came about in 1777, to accommodate junior clerks (called Writers) of EIC, shipped to India to help with the business of administration. In later years it changed much and has taken in a college, a railway company, and since independence, it is the State Secretariat and Chief Minister’s office. At the time of our visit, major repairs were on, and there was a rumor of Mamata moving the secretariat elsewhere.
The evening was now seeping darkness, as we finally entered our last pit stop — St. John’s Church. The architecture, pinnacle, decorations are painstaking memories of home, some 8000 sea miles away — one could well mistake being in Canterbury and not Calcutta. But the illusion vanishes as we step in — rows of ceiling fans swirl overhead to account for the muggy heat, and a large painting of “The Last Supper” was modeled on local merchants in power at that time.
Outside gardens house the infamous Black Hole Monument, with names of men who allegedly died that disastrous night of 20th June 1756. And the Mausoleum of Job Charnock who set the ball rolling in the 1690s for what was to serve as EIC headquarters for one and a half centuries.
After having seen what remains of White Calcutta, it was only natural for us to now walk to the other side. Manjit again came to the rescue and we meet him at a very early hour, close to Chitpur road. And this experience of Black & Grey Calcutta was even richer, messier, and eclectic.
We started at Bow Barracks — originally built for the British troops in WWI, seven blocks of rather run-down apartments. The walls had peeling paint of red, with green windows, and in a few, old men sipped their first cuppa with newspapers. Geoffrey Moorhouse in his book ‘Calcutta’ describes “When Hardinge came to Calcutta in 1910, the population of the city was well over 1 million. There were perhaps 14,000 British among them, insulated from the native mob by 16,000 Anglo-Indians whose loyalty to the Raj established them in positions of minor responsibility in the Railways, in the post offices, and among other vital lines of communication.” The barracks have some 125 Anglo-Indian families now, and diminishing, as successive generations make their way to Australia or Canada. We are told that the barracks are still famous for lively Christmas celebrations.
Further down is a Buddhist temple here, another Jain shrine there, a torn banner for ‘All India Anti-imperialist forum’, a ‘Madeira & Company — Undertakers on Bow Street’. Saplings sometimes sprout from moldy ledges. In a by lane, workers are sitting with stretched-out cables of telephones, talking to their families in villages of Bihar or Orissa. Several old-style irons are heated on a bed of coal fire. In Sun-Yat-Sen Street, red flags and Chinese names adorn entrance doors, and hole-in-the-wall shops sell varieties of prawn crackers. Shop-owners squat cross-legged upon the counters of the shops — we stop at Matka Street for sakora tea, with fresh gathiya and green chilies. Another street shares a Parsi fire Temple with an Aga Khan Jamat Khana. “This was an area where a lot of Anglo-Indians, Chinese, Baghdadi Jews, Buddhists, Zoroastrians from Persia and Armenians were settled,” explains Manjit, “setting up a buffer between the White Town of Englishman, and the Black Town of Bengalis and Marwaris.”
The start of lower Chitpur Road conceals what is left of old Chinatown. Chinese numbers swelled in the 1950s and then dropped after the war of 1962. A generation or so ago the streets echoed with the click of Mahjong, and smoke of perhaps an Opium Den, or two. Then the government chose to make some high-rise blocks and pulled down much of the area. A ragged line of concrete houses rose behind the shacks, most of them still incomplete. Most Chinese have moved to Tangra — the place for Chinese Food now. Those who stayed back can be seen at the Sea-Ip-Temple in Chatwala Gali, with its collection of antique Chinese weapons, its chapel, and its curved roofline with too large porcelain fish standing on their tails. We had Mishti Doi at Bancha-Ram’s here.
We are now walking on BB Ganguly Street with rickety-cooking-pan-like trams. This part of the city hides the bloodstains of partition violence when the cults of Kali and Jihadis fought on the streets. There are stories of treachery and betrayal of friends here, and kindness of strangers against the roaring blood-thirsty mobs, slashing of throats, plundering of properties…All those stains are now layered over by aging optical shops, small dental clinics, makers of attar perfumes, embroidered tunics, wigs… and side walls are plastered with faded ads of coaching classes.
Next is Territi Bazar of Fish-Ball soup, noodles, large pig carcass hanging on metal hooks, strings of Chinese sausages, noisy fishmongers, chicken and vegetable sellers. The morning wet market is in full bloom. There is a hustle in the air, and a heady mix of smells — of incense, cooking spice -turmeric or cumin, fresh fish, flowers, Marigold or Mogra, and rotting vegetation.
Pit stop at a Synagogue on Canning Street. Jews are long gone; the place is maintained by a Muslim family that lights the Shabbat lamps and pins a kippa on the visiting tourist’s heads.
Finally, the tour ends in the chaotic streets of Burra Bazar. This is a sea of humanity, and one can hear the city, seething. Photographically, it’s a busy confusion of things piled one on top of the other- balconies, awnings, wires, washing, belvedere, wooden blinds, indistinct projections, and leaning people. A doorway pediment has ‘AD 1872’ inscribed on a colored stone, long sullied by grime and soot. Where there ought to be Windows, there are rooms open to the street instead; someone has partly enclosed a wrought-iron balcony on the first floor to make a workshop, topped by a marble statue at the roof, part Gargoyle, and part Aphrodite. Smells of burning fuel, rotting dumps of garbage, savory samosas, and onion bhaji, ripe mangoes, flowers, incense sticks… overwhelm the senses.
“This part of town has a different aesthetic,” Manjit explains and I chuckle at his understatement, “Rich and poor lived here next to each other. The servants and service staff of grand houses all lived locally, not in other parts of the city, or neighboring villages.”
We say goodbye to our photo walk group and head towards College Street.
College Street is lined with bookshops, mostly college textbooks, but chances are that one can also find a genuine edition of an old classic. The booksellers are genuinely knowledgeable and can source an elusive title if you give a day or two. They’ll as happily chat with you, or simply leave you alone to leaf through, should you wish so.
I was looking for the Coffee House, much talked about by my Dad, and his then communist friends, sixty-odd years back. It sits quietly now, at one corner of Cornwallis Street, on the first floor, atop a flight of worn-out concrete stairs. Insides are dark, with windows on only one side, and old ceiling fans rotate slowly, giving relief to the humid heat. This mother of all addas now bears a deserted look, served by few bored and turbaned waiters. The bouquet of fresh coffee and stale cigarettes hangs in the air. The rebels without a cause have become conformists; Gen Y is happier at Starbucks and CCD.
Across the street stands Presidency College, since 1855 — the alma mater of Subhash Bose, Satyajit Ray, and now Amartya Sen, to name a few. This was the frontrunner for introducing Bengali bhadralok to Western philosophy, science, and history, after that (in)famous and off-color Macaulay's remark “… a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.”
Next day early morning we head to Howrah Bridge and the famous Flower Market that convenes next to it, on Mullick Ghat.
Howrah Bridge (Rabindra Setu) is to Calcutta, what Empire State Building is to NYC, Eiffel Tower to Paris, Burj to Dubai. Built in 1943, it’s a massive — and somewhat clumsy — a grid of steel, spanning across Hooghly. During peak summers, the bridge is 4 feet longer by day than by the night. More than 100K vehicles and 150K pedestrians use it every day, and the footpath rumbles under one’s feet. Countless films, from Bimal Roy to Shoojit Sircar, have featured this icon. Yet photography is ‘Strictly Prohibited’ for an average Joe, and duty policemen make some pocket money enforcing the ridiculous rule.
In the Shadows of the iconic Howrah Bridge, the area is an explosion of colors of the Flower Market. The sweet scent of flowers mixes here with human sweat. Fresh Marigold in large heaps and long strings around the vendors’ necks, lotus, roses, sunflowers, Togor phool (a specialty), pink wheel flowers… It’s chaotic, dirty, and lively. It’s a moving kaleidoscope of orange, blue, crimson, and white, as servants, hotel staff, pilgrims hustle for their distinct requirements.
Along the Mullick ghat, people go through their daily lives, morning ablutions, get a haircut or catch up on sleep. Stocky youngsters stand in rows or ones and twos, their naked torsos glistening in the sun while they press and touch toes and swing long maces in circular arcs. Few elderly guys take oil massage, others beat their laundry on wash stones, children frolic, jump and splash water.
Across the bridge stands Howrah Station — where 23 platforms serve 600 passenger trains with million-odd passengers, every day. We take a ferry to Calcutta High court, and then walk past the Eden Gardens — Cricket’s answer to Coliseum, with attendance up to a hundred thousand. The churn of humanity can make one giddy; things function, defining the teetering edge of chaos.
Feeling hungry, we look for Nizam’s at the New Market, and it’s recommended Kathi Rolls. It’s noon, but shutters are still down. A sleepy staff outside merely shrugs at our ignorance — “the eatery closed at 4 AM, and shall wake up much later. Try later.” But already famished, we make our way to Kasturi, at Ballygunge, with some Delhi friends. On the sidewalk, blatantly in the open, a college kid is taking a hit with the dirty syringe.
The afternoon was spent at Victoria Memorial–“Taj of the Raj” and perhaps Lord Curzon’s greatest gift to Calcutta. He organized funds from personal contacts and contributions from local princes and businessmen. Construction started in 1906 and finished in 1921; by that time Curzon was long gone, and the capital had shifted to Delhi in 1912. The Museum inside was a haphazard dump, hot and without AC. Her power gone, Victoria herself sat glumly on a pedestal, a pile of melting bronze.
Once the city dons the cloak of a tropical night sky, the place to be is Park Street — connecting Maidan to Lower Circular Road. This is where the tourists, novae-rich and the upwardly mobile drift in the evening, for a drink and dinner. On another side of the town, the old money and privilege fix their burra pegs at The Tollygunge or Calcutt Club, at a fraction of the price, after a round of golf, or a few laps in the pool. Park Street has many eateries along the road — Moulin Rouge, Mocambo, Trincas, Kwality… At all these, the lighting is covered, barely enough for flirtation. A bit of Raj nostalgia hangs here, in the quirky menus (Angels on Horseback, Deviled Crab, Fish a La Diana), the Jazz nights, waiters being addressed as ‘Bairah’, snatches of accent honed at St. Xavier’s or La Marts’, a touch of the Honky-Tonk, but the rest of it is Indian Urban chic. Love birds stroll hand in hand, while the beggars hustle side by side. We had our dinner at Mocambo and then sampled half a dozen sweets at Balram Malik.
The day started at Flurys with its English breakfast and Rum Ball Pastries.
Right outside, we engaged a yellow taxi, with its talkative driver and his comrade on the passenger seat. The fellow was Muslim and his dashboard was secular. Hanuman, Kali, Jesus, and a magnet of Karbala all hopped in harmony, as the taxi rattled on potholes on the road to Dakshineshawar and Belur Math. At both the places, there was a strict ‘No Photography’ rule; much to our amusement, someone will invariably accost us if even a mobile was pulled out for a selfie!
The Dakshineswar Kali Temple is most associated with Ramkrishna Paramhans, but here we found the story of Rani Rashmoni even more compelling. Born to middle-class, but married into a zamindar household, she took charge of family wealth and power, after the death of her husband. She built the temple, and Ramakrishna was her appointee. Stories of her taking on the EIC, and making them yield, are legends now. She contributed to the funding of Hindu college (predecessor to Presidency), and was engaged in multiple charities.
Across the river was Belur Math, embracing religious diversity in its architecture and spirit. Swami Vivekananda (aka Narendra Nath Dutta) laid this out in memory of his mentor Ramkrishna Paramhans and then went on to mesmerize the west with his lectures on Vedanta. He burnt bright and was gone by the age of 39.
Having heard stories of misbehavior and panda gunda-raj, Kalighat Temple was off our list. But our secular and loquacious taxi driver, with his shrine of Gods on the dashboard, demanded that we go there — to the Head Office of Kali Ma; the visit to Dakshineshawar, a mere branch office, will simply not cut it. Freeing us from the horns of a dilemma, he gave us a few of the local’s tricks to get rid of priestly pests, if needed.
Kali was a patron deity of 19th century of Thug assassins, and then to the 20th-century youth, given to nationalist movement; now she is revered by the Maoist-Naxal rebels.
The actual architecture and size of her temple is unimpressive. For the faithful, it is one of the 52 Shakti Peeths where a toe of Devi fell, while an enraged Shiva did Tandav (another story, for another time). For the faithless, the precincts are the usual mélange of flower shops, sweet vendors, fridge magnets, keyrings, and posters/cards of Kali.
We promptly hire a panda fixer to take us to the goddess; he promptly gets into a fistfight with the police guard while trying to smuggle us in, out of turn. We are then quickly passed over to a scrawny 17-year-old, who escorts us through a marble courtyard, slick with the blood of a freshly sacrificed goat, then a hall sprinkled with marigold petals, covered in strings of tingling bells, swirls of incense smoke, and dutifully delivers us inside the sanctum.
A dark-skinned, fierce-looking, four-armed naked Goddess, with blood-red lolling tongue and a piercingly hypnotic third eye in the forehead, greets us there. A bevy of bare-chest purohits chant invocations in frenzy, and for a moment I feel like the goat before the blade swoops down.
We run out of the temple. I am seeing red everywhere — in the Hibiscus of flower shops, blood smears on the floor, Kumkum on Puja thalis, even betel nut juice spitted on the footpath! The place has a vibe no doubt, but one needs a stronger stomach.
Durga Puja gained popularity, as Calcutta found its feet and prosperity in the early 19th century. The elite of bhadralok had risen, co-opting to make profits with the new masters, and willing to show it off. Geoffrey Moorhouse writes– “There is an air of bounce and vitality by the Hooghly in these early years of the nineteenth century and it is perhaps conveyed obliquely by the tone and style of an advertisement that appears in the Calcutta Gadget in October 1814, on the eve of great Hindu festival and holiday, the Durga Puja — the principal days of entertainment are the 20th and 21st. On 22nd Nikki, the Burlington of the East, will warble her lovely ditties at the hospitable mansion of Raja Kishan Chandra Roy and his brothers… nor will the Hall of Neel Mani Malik resound less delightfully with affecting strains of Ushoorun, who for compassion of voice and variety of note, excels all the damsels of Hindustan.” There are tales of how some old families brought ruin to themselves, indulging in these pompous affairs, to put up with the social graces.
In this city of Kali, Goddess Durga got a second wind at the turn of the 20th century, when Bankim Chandra Chatterjee wrote the ode of Vande Mataram — a metaphor for the motherland — and was instantly embraced by the nationalist movement. Today, her radiant matriarchal persona outshines the bloodthirsty Kali. And during nine days of pujo, even her flamboyant consort Shiva, merely stands on the sidelines and claps in admiration, as she works the city to frenzy.
Pandals are everywhere and each colony, housing society or lane, tries to outshine each other in ostentation. We had landed during the Pujo week, and from the airport itself, large posters announced different Pandal celebrations.
At the Gariahat AirBnB, we soon got used to a constant din of pedestrian traffic and announcements on loudspeakers from the pandals next door. Chants of an aarti wake me up at 4 AM the next day. From my first-floor window, all I see below is a sea of human heads, moving like a tepid wave in a one-way street. The city didn’t bother with sleep.
Pandal hopping is a daytime spiritual rave and an all-night party. Young lovebirds eye each other — ’Jhari mara’ as they call it in Bengali. Scrawny drum beaters bring the revelers to frenzy at the beat of Dhak. Newspapers carry full-page suggested itineraries, and the metro runs overtime. Driving on the roads is impossible.
The festival itself is secular, and the middle-class enjoy it to the hilt. Employers sanction Pujo bonus, everyone wears new clothes, and no kitchen prepares dinners. Pandals serve Alu-Dom & Luchi; streets are lined with hawkers dishing our piles of Fish fry Kobiraji, Meat Rolls, Phuchka, these are just a few that I recall.
All hands on deck — It’s carnival time!!
Manjit had organized a visit to Daws’ original residence, at Joransco, in the neighborhood of Rabindranath Tagore’s. This is old Calcutta, of narrow streets, packed to the rafters, where rich men’s haveli can exist next to a hovel. This family made its fortune in gunpowder and gun trading during EIC days, and we are told Durga-Puja has been performed in this very house since 1859. The interiors of Haveli are a mix of grandeur and decay. Affluent of the family line has long moved out to more salubrious localities, and only comes here on special occasions (like Pujo); the less well-to-do side of family and tenants occupy higher floors. A central courtyard forms the air well and source of sunlight, and all higher balconies open towards it. This is where the statue of Durga was established. The entire ceremony was resplendent — men-folk in crisp dhotis and ladies in white and red silk saris.
Statues are made from clay, straw, and bamboos at Kumartuli. Part of the process includes having to ask for soil from the doorstep of a brothel. Many explanations were offered, none made sense to me. Special attention is on painting the eyes — Chokshu Daan — the divine gaze signals giving the figure life. At Daws’ courtyard, the statue was literally draped in kilos of gold ornaments. Family members took a turn to worship the idol–we were told, Bengali look at Goddess Durga both as a Mother and also a daughter who has come to visit her maiden home.
Today was the last day of puja, followed by Visarjan. Before the deity leaves for her watery abode, they anointed her with lots of sindoor. The married women apply sindoor to each other too — Sindoor Khela — in their traditional red and white saris, they look Durga incarnates.
Now was the moment to bid goodbye to the goddess. The jewelry was painstakingly removed and statues loaded on trucks. All that artistry is to be jettisoned in the river, going back to elements- from dust to dust — the cycle of life. The government proscribed immersion to curb pollution, so they ceremoniously dunked the statues at Babu Ghat and then a crane pulls the melting effigies out, to one side for municipal clearance later.
The party goes on with dhunuchi Naach at the ghats- frenzied Dance with beats of dhak and Bells. Smoke billows from the dry husk of coconut shells.
The immersion of Ma Durga is a metaphor for sending her back to her husband’s home, and perhaps as painful as giving the daughter away. Among the dancers, a sweet chant reverberates — Ashche Bochor Abar Hobe — ’It will happen again next year’.
Exhausted after a long day, we made our way to Madras Cafe for a quick dinner and goodbyes.
Calcutta is still chaotic, with ‘poverty and pride — side by side.’ Kipling’s epithet–‘the city of dreadful night’ has long stuck with this fabulous metropolis, but it’s fatuous, such bad rep only half deserved. If at Kipling’s time backstreets of Calcutta were full of Dickensian squalor, there were also the wealthier parts as grand as the finest of Victorian London. For a city, whose population has grown more than 12X, in the last century, it has battled tremendous odds, without losing its soul.
Cal could well demand royalties for the sublime music of Salil Chowdhary, Hemant Da, SD/RD, and the rest of India would readily pay. The best of Hindi cinema has come from Bengal — Shakti Samanta and Hrishikesh Mukherjee in earlier years, and Sujoy Ghosh, Shoojit, Anurag Basu, Dibakar Banerjee, Pradeep Sarkar carrying the torch now. The language itself is sweeter than Mishti Doi, with its subtle, seductive rounded consonants.
Cal is a journey through a grimy palimpsest of time. She is an aged diva, with tattoos of memories on her arms — and a sassy prima donna she definitely once was. An evening spent with friends in Delhi will gravitate with Punjabi gusto for good food, and talk about making money, and a healthy scorn for rule of law. In Mumbai it’s single-malt and the latest Stock Market insider info. But in Cal, it could be chai and jhaal mudi and topics could range from Marx, Mamata to MOMA, with Kishor Da and Saurav Ganguli thrown in as loose change!
Āmarā ābāra dēkhā habē!
Epilogue — Tagore (translation-Humayun Kabir)
“One night I dream a strange dream:
Binu was calling to me, “Wake up and see what is happening.”
I sat up and saw Calcutta shuffling along with uncertain steps
As thousand of beams rafters knocked against each other.
The brick-built houses marched ahead like rhinos
While doors and windows banged and clanged.
The streets moved like huge pythons.
And on their backs clattered trams and carriages.
The shops and markets bobbed up and down
While roofs hit on another in a drunken orgy.
The Howrah Bridge crawled like a giant scorpion
And Harrison Road trailed behind: The monument reeled
As if a mad elephant was waving its trunk in the air.
Our school was rushing forward madly
With arithmetic and grammar books running fast.
The maps were fluttering on the walls like birds flapping their wings
The bells tolled ceaselessly and without break, with no heed of the hour.
Millions cried — “Stop this madness! Where is it you want to go and when?”
Drunken with movement, Calcutta paid no heed
For the lure of dance had made even the pillars and walls restless!
I thought to myself -
“What does it matter if Calcutta goes straight to Bombay?
If she prefers Delhi, Lahore or Agra
All we need to do is put a turban on her head
And horned shoes on her feet!
Or if she wants to rush off to England
All the people will become hatted suited and booted Englishman!”
Suddenly there was a bang and I wake… And found
Calcutta was, as always, still in Calcutta.”