Monday, September 12, 2016

Oh Calcutta! My Calcutta! – The Prelude

I have always had a conflicting, sort of a love-hate relationship with Calcutta. Always.

As a child, life was filled with some delightful memories of wandering around the lanes of the quiet neighbourhood of Shovabazaar (in North Kolkata) where I grew up in. Back then, I wasn’t allowed to go out with friends and hence made acquaintance with the different alleys of Shovabazaar and its surrounding areas. The sondesh, the bazaar, the maath (playground), the bandh days, the many festival celebrations; all of them contributed in making my life pretty charming back then. What helped the most were the Durga Pujas where my entire neighbourhood would transform into something magical, something unrecognizable and would leave me enchanted and thirsting for more on those four remarkable days.

A gorgeous painting by artist Ananta Mondal which captures a beautiful essence of Calcutta

Things began changing, though, as I grew a little older. Aided by a group of school friends, mostly Marwaris, who would constantly ridicule anything and everything Bengali and an elder brother who had begun despising every darn thing about Calcutta – the traffic, the transport, the job situation, the food and what not – I too began slowly getting influenced by this notion. I too began finding faults in everything wrong with my city and would scoff and even get exasperated at the locals who seemed to be living their life here with much ease. 

What did not help matters was that by this time I had found love in another city – Udaipur, my nani ghar. The unconditional love and affection I received there and the barrage of memories I created made me feel that this was the city I deserved to be in, not Calcutta. Every time I would return from Udaipur to Calcutta on my summer holidays, I would feel miserable and while entering the city would loathe it to the core of my heart. I blamed Calcutta for taking me away from my wondrous world of Udaipur and would find satisfaction in deriding it for everything.

Things took a turn for the worse when, just after finishing my school, my mother got seriously sick. The next two years of my mother’s ailment were the darkest days of my life and Calcutta too bore the brunt of it. Several issues cropped up in the family and seeing my mother’s distress I yet again began blaming Calcutta for it, very savagely. I believed that the city was a dark omen for my family and had shed its ominous shadow on my life. I remember going out during the Durga Puja that year and feeling absolutely despondent from inside. I was not being able to enjoy any aspect of the city then and was convinced that I and Calcutta were now broken up forever.

A few months later my mother passed away. And things changed. Very peculiarly this time.

After my mother’s passing, I went into my shell and for a good 12 – 15 months just refused to meet any of my friends. After contemplating about shifting to a different city for a while, I gave in as the idea did not feel prudent. Curiously, it was during this period that I found my love for Calcutta in its truest sense.

This is a phase that I have never discussed with anyone but it actually helped me reconnect to my city and also enabled me to get over my grief. To combat the loss I had faced, instead of meeting my friends, I decided to meet Calcutta. I would leave my home – I had shifted to Behala by then – in the morning and go about wandering in different nooks and corners of the city. My usual route would be to walk along the entire stretch of Rabindra Sadan to Chandani Chowk – about 4 Km – and explore different places each day. After having a light snack at Haldiram’s, I would take a round of Metro Plaza (a shopping arcade in Maidan) and then walk towards Park Street. Here, I would spend an hour or so in Music World (a large music shop which is no longer in existence) listening to various music albums and then proceed to the Oxford Bookstore right across the street. Here again, I would spend a good couple of hours browsing through different books and soaking in the quietness of the place.

On other days, I would get down directly at Park Street and walk straight towards Free School Street (also known as Mirza Ghalib Street). It’s a bustling lane filled with various hotels and an array of shops. I especially enjoyed visiting the second-hand bookstores and the dusty, old record shops which took a lot of my time. And after having a delightful sandwich from a small shop located right at the end corner of Free School Street, I would enter Esplanade. This was the place which allowed me to completely let free. Sitting at Hogg Market, strolling through the insides of the massive New Market , spending time at a couple of small book shops right below the Sreeram Arcade, and eating puri sabzi at a shop nearby, I found peace like never before. The mango juice shops and the Chinese shoe-wallas in Bentick Street further helped my cause.

No matter how much time I spent in these places I never got bored and kept coming back and kept discovering new places and things to love and connect to. Spending some of my late afternoons at the banks of Babughat made me realize then that I was falling in love with Calcutta again. Like a man who, in order to heal his ailing heart, goes and finds love in the company of a woman, I went into the arms of Calcutta to let my wounds be healed.

Things went smoothly the next few years as I entered a new college and made new friends. Along with them, I savored the various places I had discovered and along the way, also came across new places to fall in love with; one of them being the entire stretch of Gariahat and Golpark where an assortment of items, including second-hand books, are sold by pavement shops and which really caught my fancy.  

Those were the golden days between Calcutta and I. So much so that for close to six years in this period, I did not even visit Udaipur and was not really missing it either. But then, as in the past, things changed again soon.

Some issues surfaced at my workplace and a phase of struggle began. Also, immediately after, my brother, along with his family, decided to leave the city for good and shifted out of here because of his own professional issues. This left me alone with my father in my house and a period of frustration and loneliness followed. Health issues, along with the endless political matters plaguing the city, for which I had developed a keen interest by then, began gnawing at me. Yet again, I found a reason to hate Calcutta. Yet again, I began contemplating ways to get away from the city.

But over time I have begun to realize that the more you hate something, the more you let something posses your mind negatively, the more it will get to you. Over the past few months, I have attempted to shed this baggage of hate that I had developed for Calcutta and am beginning to take little steps towards appreciating it for what it is and falling in love with it all over again. This, here, is one of those first steps.

Through this series on my blog, I attempt to explore Calcutta - the different hidden and magical facets of it - and bring it out. For as long as I am here, why not try to take this journey which may help me see my city in a new light? I believe Calcutta holds a lot of magic beyond its Howrah Bridge and Victoria Memorial and much beyond its deep-rooted political culture. The kind of magic that perhaps resides in its dusty lanes and is often overlooked by its residents. That is the kind of magic I wish to tap into.

I don’t know yet what shape this series would take. To be honest, with the stories I plan to uncover, I wish to take a ride with you. A ride where I, along with you, can be charmed by this beautiful city. I just pray that in between I do not find reasons where I begin to hate the city again. No, I am quite tired of that feeling.

This is the city of my birth. This is the city which I have loved and hated with equal measure at different times. And this is the city which I promise to make you all fall in love with. Because Oh Calcutta! My Calcutta! our trip is not done yet. In fact, I feel it is just beginning…

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