I had left Kolkata in 2007. I had packed my bags sparingly when I left for my hostel in Jamshedpur. Like many who have left their lands behind, I kept my doors and windows open, confident of an imminent return. The city froze in my memories like a live portrait. In the rush of the early twenties, in the midst of hearts aching, and dancing heels breaking, I didn’t notice the years pulling us apart. I lost the city of joy, I was born to love.
The Grating Cycles of Life
Work took me to the busy, flirty Mumbai. Marriage to the charming, hassled Bangalore. New memories, new relationships, new experiences were written over the rusty, old love story. The more something hollow tugged at my heart, the more I yearned for the unseen. Far away from anything I had ever called home, I would suddenly see something that would stir up the feels. A rickshaw maybe, or a street side Calcutta Roll shop. And, I would long to return. I would tell my husband stories of the fantasy land I belonged from. I would promise to show him. But, when I did go back, with bags full of excitement, I found a different city where mine stood. We had grown apart and met again as strangers. I watched Calcutta through the tinted glass of my car window and found a forgotten acquaintance. I owned up to the husband that perhaps I had imagined a city that never existed. For now, it was lost to time.
Walks to Remember
Last week, I decided to leg it, around the City of Joy. It was a last-ditch attempt at finding my childhood in the streets of South Kolkata. The hubby and I woke up in the wee hours and set off to see Kolkata up, close, and personal. We walked about the streets, sometimes in the direction of the Rabindra Sarobar Lake, sometimes around Gariahat, and on one occasion, along the beautified banks of River Ganges.
South Kolkata 2.0
Let me first tell you how much I found Kolkata changed. I had left a city decrepit with age, riddled with potholes, and sighs of despair. Coming from the exhausted Bangalore today, I found Kolkata almost pleasant. The city looks newly repaired with broad paved footpaths, manageable traffic, waste incinerators in key locales, well-lit streets, maintained parks and water-bodies – it was satisfying.
I also found a Kolkata busier on its feet. The youth in the city are no longer middle-class Bengalis, engaged in ideological or existential struggles, stewing in the fumes of cigarettes and teacups. They have mostly left the city, like I had, in search of prospects. Today, Kolkata’s youth is rich, metrosexual, largely non-Bengali (irrespective of parentage), and definitely from a trading background. They jog around the lake in designer wear and are never nabbed by the police for indecent public behavior. They do not talk in raised voices about human rights affairs. They discuss the Financial Times, Marketing strategies, and the make of their fitness hardware. I love how picture-perfect, Bollywood-friendly they make Kolkata’s mornings. But, they are not mine to cherish.
The ‘food scene’ has also been upgraded. My local ‘fuchkawalla’ doesn’t carry his load like Atlas anymore, he pushes a food truck around. Hatari serves horrendous ‘gravy chowmein’ now, and nobody goes to Oly Pub in Park Street. Now’s the time for One Step Up, Mamagoto, and Raize the Bar. Alcohol is not drunk secretly in gallons anymore. Kolkata has found a casual relationship with liquor that was unthinkable in the city of mine. Family Restaurants do not need to surreptitiously add ‘and bar’ as a warning to keep out children. Families sit down and drink age-appropriately, without judgment, at all the hip joints.
Did my City of Joy elude me again, then? Not this time. I saw her, behind the veil of her new avatar. I found her as I sat down to drink tea at a roadside stall, and the tea seller discussed the future of the Mexican football team with analytical precision. I found her tucked away in a one-room library, that refuses to be shut down. I saw her among the flower sellers outside Lake Mall whose bouquets cost half of what I pay online. I found her when my brothers dressed up in simple ethnic wear and lined up for Bhai Fonta.
I found my Kolkata as I walked past a group of naked kids jumping into the Ganges one warm morning. In the eyes of the tram driver who slowed down his ride so that I could cross the road. I tasted her in the piping hot kachuri, torkari, and jilipi, from a fifty-year-old shop, that we gorged on after our morning walks.
I took an Uber one day, only to find a familiar aged, Sardar behind the wheels. The man used to drive a yellow cab when I was in college. He held a warm conversation with me. That’s where I found my city, in the middle of that conversation with a known cabbie.
This time I showed my husband glimpses of the wondrous city I was born in. I showed him red cement floors, broken, weed-infested gari-verandahs, a community gym, and an old men’s adda outside Dilip da’s tea stall. Of course, Kolkata will never be mine again. Not the way it was mine a decade ago. But, I reclaimed her this time, to start a new connection with an old flame. As it often happens with age, our relationship now is calmer, and more solid than it was in the romanticized version of my childhood. Long live my City of Joy!
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