Although I stay in Kolkata only for a few days every couple of years, Kolkata is never ‘travel’ for me. The city that made me who I am today is like a living breathing family. When I walk through the narrow bylanes of the old city, I find her communicating with me. The complicated labyrinth that is Kolkata is the fulcrum of Bengali culture that we all are proud of. A couple of weeks back, I made a short trip to the city under extenuating circumstances. I was mentally tired. But, the trip was about nostalgia and cherished bonds. I thankfully found the answers to the questions I had been looking for. Here I write about 3 tiny incidents that hold a lot of meaning for me and my memories of Kolkata. These stories are random insignificant incidents that beautifully portrayed the spirit of Kolkata to me.
I had booked the flight tickets only a day before. And my flight was scheduled to land in Kolkata around midnight. My parent’s place, where I was going to be put up, is a couple of hours away from the airport. My uncles and aunts live near the airport, however, I knew they were going through some difficulties themselves and I did not want to bother them at that time of the night. I would have to book a taxi/cab was a tad nervous about safety. As I was contemplating my options, I suddenly received a text message from my uncle asking me when my flight was landing. I told him the time, at which he replied, “I will go and pick you up from the airport”. I know the readers from Kolkata might be raising their eyebrows and thinking why I was moved by such a common act of chivalry. The further you go from the city though, you realize that this feeling of community from extended family members is a privilege quite unique to the city. Every time I visit Kolkata, I usually announce my dates of visit to my family (not just my parents), and they make sure I feel welcomed. Pickles are made, the best fish is procured, and special sweets are ordered just for my benefit. I sure am proud of my family. But in a way, this is Kolkata, showing up for you when you need her the most.
Of neighbors and friends
Most of us have a love-hate relationship with our neighbors back home. We hate their prying eyes and their judgmental comments. We love their occasional sweet treats and other delicacies. Our shabby apartment building at the end of the waterlogged roads is home to 10 families. My parents had moved there when I was in school. The families in the community formed a special bond that I think is very specific to Kolkata. The little kids who used to run around with plastic cricket bats have grown up to be young men and women of substance. I guess I have grown up as well. Most of the parents still live there. This time, I met a couple of terminally sick neighbors. That did not stop them from coming forward with a smiling face and pitching in to assist with our problem. The caretaker, “Parimal Kaku” is still lurking around in his tiny security guard room with a meager income of a few thousand rupees. Over the years his job role has increased exponentially while his salary has not. He is the common service provider of the two apartment buildings. From arranging drivers, cars, cooks, maids, running errands he does most of these out of the generosity of his heart. All he gets in return is perhaps a cup of tea or a new toy for his daughter. More than the families living there, he has embraced everyone in the vicinity. I am sure there are thousands of Parimal Kakus, Mashis, and Jethus in every neighborhood in Kolkata. They have limited resources, are satisfied with their lives in general, and always available for service or at least a hearty conversation.
Of Random strangers
Much to my dismay, I have become the stereotypical NRI! (self-shudder). I drink water from mineral bottles, am scared of mosquitos, irritated by traffic, and bit by the nostalgia bug. Thank god for Ubers, and car rentals, my traffic woes are limited to poor road conditions and traffic jams. However this one day it was raining heavily in Kolkata. Everything literally shuts down in a Kolkata Monsoon. People scurry back to their shops or homes and wait for the rain to stop while they enjoy hot sips of tea with dunked Marie biscuits or fried goodies. The Uber cars vanish; the tuk-tuk drivers lock their vehicles and are nowhere to be seen. I had to be somewhere so I decided to try my luck and ventured out into the road in search of a cab. I saw a long line of people waiting patiently for an auto rickshaw. I started looking for a Taxi. After sometime I saw an empty taxi approaching and started waving my hands like crazy. However, two women and a little kid literally ran across the road and garnered the coveted attraction of the Taxi driver instead. The Taxi driver was in an entrepreneurial mood and signaled me to ask where I would go. I thought maybe the taxi is pooling passengers and I shouted back my response. He signaled for me to get in. I crossed the road and sat in the front seat with the driver, only to realize the ladies had booked the car privately. I was embarrassed and offered to share the fare and explained that it was critical that I reach my destination on time. The older lady (who appeared to be the mother of the younger lady) asked me questions like where I lived, where I was going and why. With an authoritative but motherly tone, she declared I do not need to pay anything. They had booked the car anyway and they will drop me to my destination without taking anything from me. The driver was not very happy with this arrangement and voiced his protest. I agreed to pay the driver the initial meager share amount for dropping me all the way (farther than I initially hoped for). In those 30 mins, I had a meaningful conversation about Trump’s migration policies and compared education systems of the countries. I did not even get their names (my western influence stopped me from asking private questions), but their kind faces will always be etched in my memory.
They say Kolkata is changing. It really is. The newer part of the city is starkly different from the middle-class hoods. The demographics in the middle-class areas where I hail from are vastly aging. The wall graffiti that advertised coaching centers and job centers during my growing up years now advertised numbers for nurses and domestic caregivers. The roads are in forever broken condition, the same flyovers are still under construction. They say that the political climate is intense. As an outsider, I can only skim through the headlines and have heated conversations in social media. But thankfully I still found the spirit of my city I have known forever in these few days. I found the same familiarity, the same feelings, and emotions, and even the same faces that makes me feel at home instantly. Thank you, Kolkata, for all your love. With all your imperfections you are what I call home.
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