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Monday, 30 July 2012

The joy that is Calcutta!

A while ago, Dominique Lapierre’s “City Of Joy” somehow ended up in my hands, and after reading it cover to cover I vowed never ever to go to Calcutta because the picture the book painted in my mind was of people on crowded street corners selling organs and babies! I was petrified.

A few months ago, it just so happened that all the pieces fell in such a way that I ended up with my luggage in Calcutta where for the first time I saw cars driving a foot away from the railway platform. How convenient! I did not fathom it would be a trip I would always remember.
AM, MM (both Bengali and my colleagues) and I were chatting the other day during break, and some how the topic steered us to Calcutta, more specifically to Bangla fish! The thing I’ve observed is that every culture has some idiosyncrasy; the same way as Italians feel strongly about coffee, Brazilian about beef, Nigerians about Jollof rice and Bengali’s about their people outside Calcutta and fish.
Passion is infectious, so to see the passion with which these young Bengalis, living outside their state, talk about their language, culture, more importantly about fish is fascinating. It is amazing to see that even though they have left their family homes behind, they have packed years and years of Bengali culture and history with them, which one can sense miles away. I’ve seen a common glow, a twinkling in the eye and nostalgia when they talk about Hilsa fish, and the various ceremonies. It is intriguing for me because having travelled a lot; I have sort of compartmentalized my nostalgia of my hometown, which has made acclimatizing in new places a bit easier and faster.
So lately I have been getting a crash course in how rich the Bengali culture is, how it is fine for brothers of the bride to carry her on a small stool round the fire 7 times, how they put vermillion on a fish (wow!) during ceremonies as a gift to the gods, and how a whole festival revolves around the Hilsa Fish. I would have been skeptical about this loyalty were it not for the fact that I had seen this subtle enigma with my own eyes when in Calcutta. There is such a soft blend of modernism, old culture and politics in the entire city that it is almost tangible. It feels as if intellectualism is in the air! One can almost expect to turn around and see some poet penning a few words by the Hoogli Bridge, or a political procession voicing their stand on some point (Which I did happen to see in Calcutta University).
Everything, from the people, to the places is understated. People don’t dress too loud, and one can walk faster on foot that in the tram (and by paying 70p extra one can travel in the first class) I got to see the underbelly of Calcutta with AS, who’s a proper Memsaab when it comes to her city. She knows most of street like the back of her hand and is a walking talking encyclopedia of the city history. We went to Kumartuli, (A whole area interwoven with tiny streets and generation of artisans on either side making statues for the puja) where we saw the statutes ranging from INR 10,000 to 70,000. For the life of me it didn’t make sense why they would spend all that energy, painstakingly making the jewelry of the goddess, dress her up so extravagantly only to throw her in the water; the same water from where the mud will be collected again to make the next statute. How can one not be fascinated? This fascination of mine has been a source of endless mirth to my Bengali friends who smile knowingly amongst themselves and indulge my ignorance.
The point is, for an outsider like me, its is not for me to question why the loudspeakers play political tunes at each intersection, why one would venture to shop in a place where it feels like there are millions of people in one go, or why one would travel from one part of the city to go to Paramount sherbet  to have fruit juice, go to a tiny museum on the by lane and see some freedom fighter who had travelled the world and inspired western philosophers or to be humbled my Mother Teresa's Ashram. The point is to enjoy, revel and go with the flow and enjoy even for a short while the enigma of Calcutta.
For me, Calcutta would always be that breezy evening on the boat, with the oarsmen serenading us with old Bengali songs, where one is again transported into years gone by where every thought was a song, every expression poetry and where the shores call out to one’s soul no matter how far one goes from it.
Oh to what foreign land do you sail?
Come to the bank and moor your boat for a while.
Go where you want to, give where you care to,
But come to the bank a moment, show your smile -
Take away my golden paddy when you sail.
Take it, take as much as you can load.
Is there more? No, none, I have put it aboard.
My intense labour here by the river -
I have parted with it all, layer upon layer;
Now take me as well, be kind, take me aboard.

No room, no room, the boat is too small.
Loaded with my gold paddy, the boat is full.
Across the rain-sky clouds heave to and fro,
On the bare river-bank, I remain alone -
What had has gone: the golden boat took all.

-Rabindranath Tagore

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