Sunday, February 12, 2006

A Calcuttan's Kolkata travelouge: I

Fair warning: VERY long post. Skip, if you want. I won’t mind. But if you choose to read, be a sweetheart and read it all.

So you thought I only rambled in pen and ink? Or in invisible HTML, under present circumstances? And you thought YOU were the only one being tortured by it?

Here’s proving you wrong. For those of you who don’t know Calcutta, please click on this link (not my favourite, but he best I could find) and see the city’s map for better comprehension of this post.

Why Poushali and I bunked uni Tuesday:
1. There was a screening of A Day From A Hangman’s Life, a film arbitrarily and forcibly removed from Nandan by the authorities on the chief minister’s demands, followed by a pretty pointless panel discussion on ‘Censorship’ which Taslima Nasreen, the star of the show, was ‘unable to attend’ and which nonetheless droned on till eight in the evening. Poushali got bored with getting bored and taking pics of my cleavage with her almost-new camera phone. We needed a break.

2. My attempts at submitting my passport form had been jinxed for over eight months now. I had gone to the Regional Passport Office, I had gone to the Passport Extension at the GPO (six times in all), but I’ve NEVER been able to give it in. Tuesday, I wanted to. It was getting on my nerves.

3. Poushali and I had been talking about a walking trip through the unfashionable parts of the city for ages now. And since our exams start next week (and will go on, intermittently, till the end of this sem), we thought, what the hell, screw uni, we bunk too many classes anyway, let’s do this.

Phase I – GPO:

We’re supposed to meet at the Esplanade metro station – on the platform, where it’s easier to find people – between ten and ten thirty. I caught my train from the Shyambazaar metro (it’s roughly a 12-15 minute ride) station at ten thirty seven. He he.

We walk to the GPO from the metro statione (which Poushali pronounces ’Splaned and I, Es-pluhnade). It’s incredible. The rush around us, office boys running from one office to the other with sheafs of paper (they still do that? Excuse me while I check the century…), young men dressed in starched formals in pastel shades getting their shoes shined one last time before the entered the majestic colonial buildings with their ancient carved oak and brass doorways for job interviews, rushing cabs which managed to screech to a halt just before the stop-line, the amazingly laid-back body language of the cops efficiently manning these very important crossings, footpaths lined with people selling cucumbers and guavas and plastic folders and pens and second hand books and small stuffed toys and peanuts, and fortune-tellers and their shiny rhinestones and parrots, traffic signals changing lights and an immediate swamping of the roads with cabs and minibuses from one end or the other, people screaming for cabs, people trying to grab your boobs and disappear in the crowd…it was like you see in movies: the world rushing, rushing, rushing all around in a blur, and P and I the only serene, unhurried people stopping every two minutes to take pictures of a particularly impressive column or doorway or shining decorative doorknob or stairway.

We got a lot of looks. Stares. Advances. Most of them registered like a passing car does, perhaps less. Being an attractive woman with a sense of style spending several hours a day for years in busy city streets does that to you. And Poushali is and does :-)

GPO was a breeze. The lady at the counter fell in love with me. Asked me to call her ‘kakima’ and drop by at her place after college for lunch one day. Yes yes, I’m on of nature’s born charmers, and less of those discreet coughs, if you please! The much-agonised-over form was submitted in less than fifteen minutes. Woohoo! Now I just have to wait for the West Bengal Police rep. to come to my place to be bribed for a clearance.

PHASE II – ‘Oasis des Friedens’:

Then we walked past Writers – the single building ever which looks majestic in red – and I had to explain to P, in full hearing of the tons of cops and guards on duty outside it, why the street in front of it was so empty and clean and full of cops and why we weren’t allowed to use the footpath in front of the building. “But HOW can we carry bombs inside the kinds of clothes we’re wearing, even if we were terrorists?” she asked loudly, and ten heads on uniformed shoulders swivelled towards us. Darling, I love you, but sentences like that would have ensured prison, rape, torture and possible death even thirty odd years earlier.

Munching cucumber slices at the crossing in front of St. Andrew’s Church (Scotland, Kolkata), we stared at the streets, wondering which and where. Suddenly we realised we’ve gone past the church tons of times without ever going in. One of those things, you know? So we went in. There’s this visitors’ book right next to the front entrance, hardbound in dark red, now dirty, with a dirty golden label, lying on a polished wooden antique three-legged table. We stood for twenty minutes looking at the entries. “How weird are we?” mused P. “We’ve bunked college to look at what people we haven’t a clue about have written about a church we’ve never been in, at twelve in the bloody afternoon at the heart of crazy Dalhousie?” Well, you never know. Maybe we’ve walked past them on the ‘tourist zone’ – Park Street, Chowranghee, Victoria Memorial.

You never know, do you?

Here are some entries we saw. Most of the people had visited for nostalgic reasons:

19th January 2003: Finlay Moodie – Returned to see where I was christened in 1937. Thinking of my parents who lived here.

30th November 2005: Andreas Hansv – Today is my Name Day in Andrews. I’m from Germany (“Explains”, said P. I didn’t, I swear!). Bless me!

1st September 2005 (or is it 9th January?): Enrico Zabaglime of Calgari, Canada – If having the Lord is wrong, I don’t want to be right. Amazingly, P hadn’t heard of this one before. Am I the only one who gets a kick out of cheap rhetoric employed by people who think they’re such wits? Incidentally, “Hmmm…having the Lord, eh?”, said Poushali, who is incapable of thinking respectably.

15th January, 2002: John & Jennifer Fowler, 31 Lethbridge Park, Somerset, UK – Revisiting where we were married in 1968!

Both P and I found this incredibly sweet (what did you expect, we’re 21 and female). We tried to imagine the two people, not too old ( or perhaps) coming in from the disciplined stricture of Writer’s on one hand and the crazy traffic of Howrah-Dalhousie on the other into the sudden peaceful stillness of this church, and perhaps trying to see what has changed, trying to remember how the other looked 38 years ago at the altar, and how many there were that aren’t any more. Who knows, some of them might even be at the Park Street Cemetary. Except that we wouldn’t know which ones, even if we walked past their graves.

Who was John Fowler, I wondered? What kind of a last-bit-of-the-Raj was he? What did Jennifer think of getting married in India? Were they British? Were they/was one of them perhaps an Anglo-Indian? I'll never know, will I? But at least I had the chance to wonder...

19th December 2006: Dilip Pundit, Kumilla (he preferred Comilla), Bangladesh – WONDER that was Christian Calcutta and not a city full of demons. If any of you can figure this out, we’d be very grateful.

Then there was Michael Cannon of Hampshire, UK, who visited on the 1st of December 2005 (again, although he’s from the UK, it might well have been the 12th of January), revisiting the city of his birth, and adding, for reasons only he could best explain, that his great-uncle Roy Whitehorn was principal of Westminster College, Cambridge. Any of you know the family? :-)

On the 29th of December last year, David, Suzie, Charlotte and William Pepperell of Wessex Close, Thames Ditton, Surrey came to visit ‘David’s birthplace and where Granny+Grandad got married (Peter and Joyce Pepperell on the 1st of October, 1955)’.

Michael Pitcairn, who was born in Cal in November 1949 and christened in the church, where his parents were also married, and his wife Xandra, whose first trip to India this was, visited on 16th September 2000. While they wrote this, news was running along the phone lines to the serener parts of the city, whispering how the person dearest and closest to me than any other had given up living.

Not that I’m complaining. Some grief is past all that.

On the 22nd of January, 2003, Ranjita Dutta and Aruna Sharma wrote, ‘when people are in distress, they realise there is one place where they will find peace and belonging. We found this place.’ Bless their peace.

There were several others: Michael and Jenni de Jesús, who believe their address is ‘Heaven!’, Csige Ga'Bor who comes from Debrecen, Hungary and A. K. Bannerjee from Kanaipur, Hoogly, who visited the church on the same day. Joost Hoetjes from Holland who sat inside "...this quiet and holy place" and thought ‘pure thoughts’, like ‘Wonder what Don Preston would whip out of this one…’.

“Let’s mail him!”, said P. “I can just see the mischief in his eyes when he wrote this! Besides who’s Don Preston?”
“What if he’s dead?” I asked. You never know. He came in 2002. Anyway, we haven’t mailed him, of course. It’s one of those things you never get around to doing.

Then there are the handwritings. Sorry, this is quite possibly a negative generalisation, but the American and Canadian handwritings were almost illegible. A lot of them printed their words, clearly uncomfortable with joined handwriting. Plenty couldn't keep within the confines of the top and bottom lines. The British were mostly readable; the three from Germany were smallish with some letters indistinguishable from the preceding ones. Then again, there were Peter Packshin and Marks Andreya from St. Petersburgh, Russia, one of whom has loopy, large, beautiful near-calligraphic handwriting, which nonetheless (and oddly) didn’t soothe the eye.

Then there were our own entries, which became a conversation on paper. If any of you go to that church anytime, maybe you could look up what we wrote, dated 7th February, 2006. Maybe we’ll go back one day and check if the cute guy inside I mentioned in my entry read that and wrote anything in reply. Most probably we won’t. Does anybody?

Phase III – K.C.Pal:

On the ridges on the back wall of the St. Andrew’s Church, marking the outer limits of it’s territory, are alternate English and Bengali graffiti by a certain Mr. K.C.Pal. Tintinda had gone to meet him at his place in Howrah, apparently, and his house is covered with slogans against what he thinks is the delirium of the masses.

“The Sun revolves around the Earth.” He proclaims. “There is no life on Mars.” “Are the reporters one-eyed?” ("Surjo prithibike prodokkhin kore. Mongolgrohe praan nei. Sangbadikra ki kana?)

Apparently he has written to NASA claiming to have proof of the fact that the sun goes around the earth. I don’t know if NASA bothered to reply.

Another of those people, perhaps, who weigh stuff at the Customs Office during the day and translate Neruda by night. Calcutta, you know.

P.S: For those who've asked offline, I apologise for my friend's abject stupidity of buying a phone which doesn't have either infra-red or bluetooth, especially when she's lost her USB cable. So sorry, took lovely pics (my cleavage included), but ...

Cross posted on my personal blog, whatever things.


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