I trace my lineage to the beautiful city of Calcutta, which has been described among other things as “a city that makes decay seem like an art.”1 I don’t remember where I read that. But the words have been stuck in my brain since then. My relationship with the city though is a little deeper than kinship. Apart from the rather obvious bloodline connection, I have also been extremely lucky to develop an independent relationship with it that is not forced, influenced, or taken for granted. That’s greatly helped by the fact that I don’t live there.
Ever since I can remember, I have had to contend with extreme negative feelings of the people around me towards the city. “Oh, you are going to Calcutta? It’s a very dirty city!” a lady sitting next to me at the airport told me helpfully while I waited to board the flight. She screwed up her nose as if to visually indicate the stench that would emanate if she even imaginarily stepped into it. I was 6 years old but polite enough to smile and disagree. As you can imagine, our conversation, which had started quite well, died right there. My many teachers from school2 told me the same. Even today, I meet people who make the same comment. My attitude has remained the same: smile and disagree.
These comments have always puzzled me. Did I step off the wrong universe en route to my holidays? Calcutta is no dirtier than a regular Indian city. And it had also that something extra which had nothing to do with dirt. It always used to make me wonder if am I seeing the same things as a majority of the other people.
Slowly, as I grew up, I heard other adjectives that were attached to the city’s name. ‘Cultured’ and ‘passionate’ were among them. And then I realised that I wasn’t looking at the city all wrong as I had presumed. Moreover, there was something about the city that increasingly captured my imagination.3 Here were all the things that I could indulge in: intellectual conversations, films, food, the arts, period architecture. Some traits which manifested much later – addiction to books, films, the arts – were endemic to the fabric of the city. When compared to other cities, the central space given to these activities in a pure completely noncommercial way absolutely wins me over.
It was a source of immense wonder that I actually love Calcutta inspite of not having spent more than a year and some vacations living there. I am aware of its drawbacks and love it just the same. I do abhor certain aspects such as the nekamo or overtly affected coquettish behavior that some women seem to adopt, traffic jams on Park Street, the pollutants in the air, and the air of sluggishness that goes beyond the afternoon siesta. When I went to Calcutta recently, I was thoroughly prepared to battle all these and more. But I was bowled over. Everything I saw made me reevaluate those feelings. Also, what made me change my mind was this buzz in the air. The journey was fun, the destination even better. Maybe one can leave Calcutta but Calcutta doesn’t leave you.
1. This is probably not the entire quote but the jist of it. I don’t know who is the author of this quote. If you are the author, please mail me, and I will include your name here. No plagiarism is intended.
2. Thankfully, my college professors were enlightened beings who made quite the opposite statement.
3. I understand that I haven’t lived in Calcutta to completely justify this comment. I shall rectify this soon. That would be material enough for another post or a series of posts.