Nidhi Dugar Kundalia’s narrative on Calcutta, her in law’s place, which she shares with Goddess Durga.20th June, 2013
“You’re getting married to a guy from Kolkata? Oh no!” This came along with every congratulatory message after I got engaged.
It’s a chaos. This city. I remember getting trampled underneath it the first week I was here. Main roads run through residential complexes. And these stick thin lanes not only have two rows of parking, but also big fat yellow six-seater ambassadors (mostly carrying just the driver and a malnourished passenger) along with a Benz and a Maruti Zen, scrambling their way through them. The legendary one way traffic rule where the entire city moves in one direction before 1 pm and goes exactly the opposite direction after 1 pm. And somehow, everyone seems to know the flow. It’s like their mother tongue. They are just born with the traffic language of the city. People are everywhere in this city. They sleep in houses, apartments, parks, sidewalks. And the rest on handcarts, on machines. Even below big cars. And if you somehow manage making it to the weekend and as you shed the overwhelming blanket that the city has thrown on you, you begin nuance-ing the city- little by little.
In the last two years of my married life, Calcutta has revealed itself to me slowly. Opening one sleepy eye at a time. Now an Armenian cemetery. Then some jazz left by some Americans in the war years. A casket of opium and its history in the city. The city lives in the history as much as it lets its history get mouldy. Look, for instance, at the streets parallel to the Bow Bazaar mod. A crumbling monastery founded by a Sri Lankan monk, a locked up Toong On Chinese church and the Bengal Theosophical Society, one of the world’s first East-meets-West religious ideologies. Each building has its own tale. Each street, a journey through the grimy layers of time. When you walk through Calcutta’s old quarters, you can’t help but feel like you are flipping through an yellowing old book from your grandpa’s bookshelves- with doggy ears and broken spines and find letters and photos tucked between pages- which talk of love, life and long nights of his life.
It is as much a talker’s city as a ramblers’. Happiness to Bengalis is Adda-baaji, a substantially Bengali penchant that might be extravagant but is actually very intellectually stimulating. The facility to arouse creative expression in others is an absolute quality of an adda addict. Even if you do not understand Bengali, like in my case, you are welcome to join in the addas under big banyan trees, over a spacey rooftops, at Paramount sherbets or India Coffee House, in dark corners of parks and over smokes at ghats fringing the city. You could find an adda on works of a popular musician RD Burman or science of Satyendranath Basu or something as irrelevant as types of muri.
Happiness to Calcuttans is also food. And you can eat the world here. A Chinese breakfast at Tirreti Bazaar. The Iraqi sambusas at Nahoum’s. The Indianised cabbage dolma brought in by the Armenians. Or the Bangladeshi Rui Kalia (carp curry) in Free School Street. Of course, the perennial shondesh. For there is happiness, there must be shondesh. What perhaps could be missing here, when compared to other metros in the country could be the boutique-y setup. The transportation of a clutch of hens tied by their feet and strung to the backseat of a bike. The de-skinning, amidst a flurry of feathers and blood diluted by the water flowing from hand pumps. The butchering. And then rolling it into a chicken roll the city is famous for. Everything happens right before your eyes. Like Ifte, a city walk operator, tells me, “Every city does its share of dirty work. But in Calcutta, unlike most urban cities of India, lacks that cosmetic layer shielding it.”
It’s a city where if you lose your gold strings on a sidewalk, 10 pedestrians will be looking for it along with you. If you don’t be grateful for it, they will make their offence known to you. It’s a city where change is not visible, but millions of human beings and automotives are in uninterrupted movement every day, negotiating their space and value in the giant street theatre.
Maybe someday I’ll find a quiet suburb to live in. But right now, as I see Ganga river lick the banks of Babu Ghat, dotted with couples romancing over cones of Scoops ice cream and the sun sinks into the horizon while I wait for a ferry to take me to Dakhineshwar, there is no place on earth I’d rather be.