Wednesday, January 18, 2006

My Calcutta

I haven't been to Calcutta in three and a half years. I belong to that class of homesick individuals who eagerly browse the web for any new information about the city they grew up in, who read and re-read emails from home, to glean every bit of information about the newest development, the latest trends, the coolest resturants, the hippest shops, and the juiciest gossip to hit my hometown. I have a strange nostalgia associated with anything Calcutta and that gets rekindled everytime I come across an article, a photo, that talks about the people, the culture, the city.

Yet, the larger portion of what I read or learn about Calcutta is a city that I have a hard time identifying with. Calcutta that is in the news today, is vastly represented by a modern pro-western metropolis. One that boasts of glamorous shops selling "ethnic wear" and "designer fusion wear", coffee shops where you pay fifty bucks for a cup of coffee, discotheques and pubs where people just "hang out", fashion shows where tank tops rule, shopping malls and multiplexes where a fat wallet can get you "in". I know I am old-fashioned and dated and that I do not live my days in the "new" Calcutta, and I am happy for all the upcoming fashion and technology that has hit my city, yet, somehow it just does not add up. Because when I remember Calcutta I remember her as a melting pot of people and culture and passion.

To me the average Calcuttan is not that girl in her tank-top and shorts or the guy with spikes in his hair and sporting an Armani. When I think of the people I see a man rushing to office in a terrycot pant and an untucked poplin bush shirt, a woman in a crisp cotton saree wiping sweat off her forehead with the "aachol", the vendor on the street corner in an old faded dhoti and dirt streaked sweaty banian, the rickshaw-wala in a brightly printed lungi and turban tied round his head. Those are the people out on the street, the ones that I'd see everyday. And feel at home. Like comfort food. Not KFC fried chicken or pizza from Pizza-hut or a latte from Coffee-Pai. But plain and simple bhaat, palong shaak, lau shukto with daaler bora, mochar ghonto with kucho chingri, alu-posto, mooshur daal with gondho-raj lebu, patla machher jhol, aamer tok, mishti doi. Going out on a date would not have to be an expensive deal. We could still have matir bhare cha from a street vendor or chinebadaam from a miniscule thonga and watch the last rays of the sun ebb out in the pond at Nandan.

Don't get me wrong. I am not saying this globalization and change of face that Calcutta is experiencing is bad. I am glad for the youth of Calcutta. For the exposure, the opportunities, and the options. But my city is not all about malls and call centers and discos and multi-national food chains. It's about the crowded streets, the traffic congestion, the billboards that sport catchy ads in bangla, the early morning radio jingle of "shurobhito antiseptic cream Boroline", the hawkers that line the pavement, the rickshaw-wala, the thelawala, the phuchkawala, the man selling Joynagarer mowa, the kagoj-bikriwala, the shil-kataowala, the bashonwali. They are the ones who do not feature in the news from Calcutta, yet they form the vibrant life-source that is the heart of the city.

Calcutta is beautiful. You have a heady crowd dancing to the beat at Tantra. And you have a music conference that boasts the best in Hindustani classical music. And you have a baul with a dotara singing at the street corner while a group of men light a bonfire and sing Bhojpuri songs while they keep warm on a cold winter's night. And it is all music. You have art galleries that present the best in Indian modern art and you have people drawing on the pavement with colored chalk to earn a few pennies. And it is all art. You have a sumptous meal served to you in an upscale resturant and you have wonderful food cooked up in front of you on a little stove on the street. And they all taste great.

That to me seems great.

That to me is Calcutta.

30 Comments:

At Wednesday, January 18, 2006 10:26:00 AM, Blogger J. Alfred Prufrock said...

Shaadhu, shaadhu

J.A.P.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2006 1:53:00 PM, Blogger satchisgod said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2006 1:54:00 PM, Blogger satchisgod said...

The best thing is probably the huge vista in time that it upholds. I know places (and pple!) in old Calcutta (Bowbazar area)...which belong to a time a century ago. Even they way they live, the way they talk and how they think about life...somehow almost as if they got frozen in time.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2006 8:10:00 PM, Blogger Parna said...

believe me all that you mentioned is still there in calcutta. maybe it just does not get portrayed through media, which understandably is trying to portray a pro-global picture of the city which has been much criticised for its alienation from the west. i have lived and more importantly, worked in the city long enough to realise how frustrating it can be at times.

 
At Thursday, January 19, 2006 8:34:00 AM, Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ JAP thanks.
@ biplab and parna that is what I meant....the time and era and the attitudes of people. And even though it hurts when we see good ole Cal being portrayed by foreigners as poor, and dirty with beggars and dying people and primitive folks with ancient mindsets and we argue vehemently that it is not a true reflection of what Cal has become in the last few years and there are many modern progressive people living there, the fact remains a greater portion of cal and her inhabitants live in dire poverty in inhuman conditions. And each one of us have seen beggars, homeless, dying on the street people, kids with marasmus and kwashiorkor, skin and bone people who barely survive on a single meal a day and chose to look away and go on with our modern pro-gobal lives. And can't blame the foreigners with their cameras when they take back pictures and memories of the poverty and say Calcutta is dirty and poor.

 
At Thursday, January 19, 2006 10:49:00 AM, Blogger sunando said...

......the city goes soft; it awaits the imprint of an identity. For better or worse, it invites you to remake it, to consolidate it into a shape you can live in. You, too. Decide who you are, and the city will again assume a fixed form around you. Decide what it is, and your own identity will be revealed, like a position on a map fixed by triangulation.
-Soft City, Jonathan Raban

I think thats an excerpt that I think is pretty relevant in this discussion, the Idea of a city being more important that its location in space, geography and time. But then thats a pretty subjective tack to pick....

 
At Thursday, January 19, 2006 5:52:00 PM, Blogger Bengali Guy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Thursday, January 19, 2006 5:54:00 PM, Blogger Bengali Guy said...

I miss urinating in open air on the walls. Has that practice become extinct yet ?

 
At Friday, January 20, 2006 9:36:00 AM, Blogger Rimi said...

ki jaano m, (and maybe this comes with living in north cal) the worlds are not really all that far apart in a certain section of the (chiefly central cal) population. ei jemon, a friend of mine danced her shoes dead at Tantra day before till four in the morning, aar this sunday night she'll spend at Dover Lane.

but i have to agree. this section which 'meets for coffee' at Barista and goes home for a dinner of kaalo jeere diye machher jhol is rather tiny. and not growing.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2006 9:37:00 AM, Blogger Rimi said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2006 11:21:00 AM, Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ sunando_c nice quote you have there and agreed it is how we chose to perceive the city.
@ bengali guy plesae....that is something I can do without :) That reminds me of this street near my house called Greek Church named after an orthodox greek church which in fact is the sole orthodox greek church in the whole of asia. Anyways, the street was real shady and men used to put the wall which had a common wall with the church as their urinal. So the priest who presided over things at the church came up with a novel idea. He put up paintings of all Hindu Gods and Goddesses along with Jesus thrown in on the wall and after that nobody dared pee on it anymore. I thought that was really cool.
@ rimi I guess there are people who do form a kind of bridge between the contrasting faces of Calcutta. But like you say, the number is few and far between. And when I talk to friends back in Cal I just can't seem to identify with the things they are doing and places that they are going to. Priorities have changed. And so is the face the city is putting forth to the world.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2006 3:25:00 PM, Blogger Raps said...

baba, kolkata ke ektu baanchte de. '60 Kolkata was hip and happening ( dilli aar bombay to khoka shoman). Notun kore shaajtede. Onek to holo purano gaan gaoya... ebar dekha jaak hoyeto 50 takar coffee te tufaan uthbe. Shudu kaojirer jhol kheleyei bongo shontan hoyena.... mone raakhish jodi kolkata tal miliye cholte paare to torai baanchbi.

oto shohoje shob kitchhu chole jayena.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2006 6:11:00 PM, Blogger Bengali Guy said...

I think what has happened to Delhi will happen to Kolkata.

New Delhi => New Kolkata (Rajarhat , SaltLake, *parts* of south Cal)

Old Delhi => north kolkata - too unplanned , too old to be undone.

Change breaks. Change builds.
Change reinvigorates. Change is good.

Just my opinion.

 
At Friday, January 20, 2006 10:57:00 PM, Blogger HutumpaNcha said...

The good things about Kolkata is indeed its openness to other culture, people and tradition.

However the potrayal of Kolkata thanks to media and also due to a category of its inhabitants is of a city of poverty, beggars, narrow lanes, traffic jams, squalor and filth. That propobably is one of the reasons why Kolkata has what I would call 'beggar tourism' (http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/9512/india_beggar/)

The different facets of kolkata one of City Centre and Nandan, of Rajarhat and Bowbazar, of metro rail and circular rail of chartered bus and handpulled rickshaws is what gives its its uniqueness.

Wonderfully written and very very picturesque. Great Job

 
At Saturday, January 21, 2006 3:02:00 AM, Blogger Ankan said...

Hey even I'm doing something similar! I'm trying to focus on Bangla films and literature on my blog (www.ankankazi.blogspot.com) and will update it contnuously. I've just started out though... do have a look and leave your comments. Thanks!!

 
At Saturday, January 21, 2006 4:21:00 AM, Blogger Srin said...

Beautifully put.

 
At Saturday, January 21, 2006 3:16:00 PM, Blogger Kele Panchu said...

Very nostalgic! Last time I visited, the egg roll corner in front of light house was there. Does it still exist?
Not all changes are bad. The new flyovers are much needed addition.

 
At Sunday, January 22, 2006 6:37:00 PM, Blogger Bonatellis said...

ohhh, i am among the last to read this ... most wonderfully written and captured. I left Calcutta in Jan '97 - the transformation the city has gone through in all these years is quite amazing. I suppose those who still reside there are happy that consumerism is finally kicking in. Those who associate with the old Calcutta get even more nostalgic.

Is the papdi chat wala opposite Lighthouse still there? Is Jhantu's roll corner in Park Circus still there? Does Shyamabazar's Golbari still attract the same kinda crowd? Does Badshah/Bedouin still sell those amazing rolls?

 
At Monday, January 23, 2006 8:46:00 AM, Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ raps Kolkatar taal miliye chola niye kintu aami kono obhijog kori ni.....so do not misunderstand where this rant is coming from. I am happy for Kolkata and like I said I am happy for all the progress and happening things. Yet for a soul who has not lived in Kolkata for years I find all this "in stuff" a little unsettling and alien. This entire post was about missing the little things that make Cal so unique to me. Mind it I said "to me". Everyone loves their own city and so does this homesick soul. This post was about applauding the "new" with a nostalgic reminiscence of the "old".
@ bengali guy really liked the last few lines you have there. Change is good only when change is welcomed.
@ humtumpacha I guess every person feels that their city is unique and beautiful and I believe every city has something unique that sets it apart from the rest. I miss the soul of Cal and its people.
@ ankan will check it out.
@ srin thanks!
@ kele panchu I hear not all the flyovers are such a blessing.
@ bonatellis you know about Jhantur roll er dokan in park circus? Dear old Jhantu. Gosh I wouldn't think anyone would know about the greasy rolls that Jhantu would dish up and how wonderful they would taste when you haven't eaten for hours. Are you from the area? Just curious. Last time I went I had kosha mangsho at Golbari and it was pretty crowded. And the rolls from badshah and bedouin were just as amazing as they've always been.

 
At Wednesday, January 25, 2006 5:06:00 AM, Blogger bir2005 said...

" কলকাতা "
I am Feeling Homesick :(

 
At Monday, January 30, 2006 8:40:00 AM, Blogger Bonatellis said...

yes, I am from close by :)
were u my next door neighbour ;)

 
At Monday, February 13, 2006 5:32:00 PM, Blogger RajpaL said...

Damn..I miss Calcutta!!

Good Blog! The first para sums up my sentiments perfectly. I have also linked the post to my blog. You can check it here on - http://rajpalsidhu.blogspot.com/

 
At Tuesday, February 14, 2006 1:41:00 PM, Blogger razor4077 said...

Nicely written - I guess all of us staying away from Calcutta start missing it a lot.
And as far as the Westernization aspect goes, that's something that is essential for the city to survive in these days and times. Yes, most of us who call it home love the city dearly, and would defend it when others criticize it. But looking at it realistically, without all the economic progress and new establishments Calcutta would not be able to make it in today's world. Whether we like to admit it or not, our's was hardly a progressive city when Jyoti babu was at the helm. Buddhadev has been criticized for being "un-communist and socialist", but he said it best - "They can talk politics, I have to run a state".
I believe that most of the changes being made are for the good. A coffee at Barista costs 10 times the amount at a roadside stall, but that's the price you pay for progress and the option to choose another lifestlye, I guess. The bottom line is, we can still make choices. Those who want to have a more modern, western lifestyle opt for a Barista, a CCD, a Shopper's Stop and a Tantra. Those who prefer to hold onto the old days turn to the Coffee House, New Market and Girish Mancha. But the best part is, those who wish to, can have the best of both worlds. Like the person who wrote about dancing in Tantra one night, and going to Dover Lane the next. That's why Calcutta is so unique, so endearing. It has variety, culture and also offers the latest in technology and entertainment. It has character - it is not cold like Delhi or Bombay, or Bangalore. Enjoy the city, help it grow and embrace the advances. But never forget the man who sells Joynogor-er moya or the phuchka wala at the corner or mesho'r chaiyer dokan. They are all Calcutta, just as much as City Center, Forum and Tantra.

 
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At Wednesday, October 04, 2006 9:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Came across this post while searching for Rajarhat in google!
Nice post by the way.

Change is always good. Kolkata had stagnated for too long and the stagnation was often glorified by Kolkata lovers by saying that this was the city with a big heart, the cultural capital of the country etc etc.

It's been good to see Kolkata blossom again in my last few trips to the city. Let it have to courage to keep up with reforms.
Ring out the old and ring in the new.

 
At Saturday, November 11, 2006 9:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kolkata's poverty is basically an extension of poverty of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bangladesh. And poverty is big business in Kolkata - for the missionaries looking for suitable converts to Christianity (I recently read an article by an evanagelist ruing the rise of incomes and fall in comversion rates), for the politicians (if the poor disappear whom will these politicans raise slogans for and pocket the funds allocated for poverty alleviation) and for the police (all those Sudder Street, Oberoi Grand beggars pay a flat rate commission to Kolkata police; A recent survey by an NGO shows that hand pulled rickshawwallahs pay bribes averaging Rs 3000 per year to Kolkata police. At 20,000 rickshaw wallahs that is basically Rs 6 crores of bribes annually for Kolkata police from one source; Now add the hawkers, beggars, footpath residents etc.).

 
At Saturday, November 11, 2006 9:44:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kolkata's poverty is basically an extension of poverty of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Bangladesh. And poverty is big business in Kolkata - for the missionaries looking for suitable converts to Christianity (I recently read an article by an evanagelist ruing the rise of incomes and fall in comversion rates), for the politicians (if the poor disappear whom will these politicans raise slogans for and pocket the funds allocated for poverty alleviation) and for the police (all those Sudder Street, Oberoi Grand beggars pay a flat rate commission to Kolkata police; A recent survey by an NGO shows that hand pulled rickshawwallahs pay bribes averaging Rs 3000 per year to Kolkata police. At 20,000 rickshaw wallahs that is basically Rs 6 crores of bribes annually for Kolkata police from one source; Now add the hawkers, beggars, footpath residents etc.).

 
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