Joydip Sur
2023-03-13 09:09:09

Oh Calcutta!

Oh Calcutta!

No traveller is completely prepared for his first experience of Calcutta. More so a westerner who is coming with visions of great progress. Often termed as the problem city of the world, Calcutta is really bursting to the seams. Only New York, London and Tokyo perhaps have more people than what Calcutta boasts. But it is also true that Calcutta is one of the largest cities of India and perhaps its most important intellectual seat.

Paradoxically set in one of the most ancient cultures that man knew, it is one of the youngest cities. Henry Hudson had dropped anchor off Manhattan and New York came into being 81 years before Job Charnock pitch-forked his tent on the Eastern Banks of river Hooghly and laid the blue-print for what was to become his Calcutta. Maisonneuve founded Montreal half a century earlier, and Rome and Venice a century before. So whatever Calcutta is to offer today is largely Anglican.

 Almost everyone has had some observations about this city be it Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain or Sir George Trevelyan and they seem to see only the negatives. But then there are some unexpected admirers in William Hunter, Winston Churchill and an anonymous quote largely attributed to Lenin, “The road to world revolution lies through Peking, Shanghai and Calcutta.”

Calcutta has changed undoubtedly and is still changing. Streets in many parts of the city are mostly an apology and the vehicles swerve and swing their way through the potholes with an amazing élan. Pollution drive notwithstanding, a journey through the Central Avenue is nauseating. The air reeks of so many worn-out engine fumes, mixed with a dozen varieties of decay. The pushing and shoving, the jostling and sidestepping the hand-pulled rickshaws and cows, that roam abandon to the most thunderstruck logic, make up for Calcutta, with a collateral symphony of noise—honks, clatter, clamour, rumbles and shouts all mixed and shaken together into a bottle of sound-pickle. Taste it!

True Calcutta is all this and more. There is salvation in this chaos. All you need is to face the claustrophobia for the first 48 hours and then the city grows on you with its old world charm. You are titillated by the histories that lie strewn in every corner and nook of the city. You will be amazed that Calcutta is not the result of half-a-day’s stay by some East India Company trader. In 1783 when the foundations of Bethune College was being laid, 200 Gupta Dynasty coins pushed back its civilization far beyond. To the more real and recent, Guru Nanak had come to these parts in 1503 and preached at the crossing of Chitpur and Harrison Road. Guru Tegh Bahadur bought the place in 1666 and built Bada Sikh Sangat Gurduwara. Abul Faisal (1585-1596) mentions Calcutta as ‘Satgaon’ in ‘Ain-i-Akhbari. In 1575 Manohar Ghosh, a gomasta or land collector of Raja Todarmal settled in Sutanati. All of these and many more romances make up for my Calcutta.

The warmth of the city exudes not in its streets, but among its people. There is warmth in its narrow lanes and green frames of giant colonial windows that lie closed so staidly in the hot summer afternoons. There is a kind of genial fondness and intellectual fervour in the uproars of coffee-house, in the adda sessions on the porticos of old houses in north Calcutta, in the admiration of a hitherto unknown footballer in the maidans. Calcutta is a living breathing city, unlike a fast one like Bomaby, a techie one like Bangalore or a wannabe like Delhi. The city boasts of a heart, bigger than all of its problems put together. It is a living city, it breathes life onto others and sits and wakes with its people.

  Calcutta has far more poets, than novelists ever existed in Dublin. And the vivacity and courage of putting pen to paper makes it so special. And then you turn your head around towards Maidan or Nandan and you have Mukta Prangon, a cultural carnival, where poets share their verses and composers open their voices to the ballads composed recently. It is the land where the mind is indeed without fear and where the head is held high.

It is the land where after a day’s struggle people will rather listen to Raga Jayajayanti or Todarmal and stay in rapt attention to the ‘alalankars’ of a sarod or sitar recital. Here drama unfolds on streets and stages with equal venom as people celebrate life with Luis Bunuel Portoles and Satyajit Ray. Here you rummage through miles of second hand books in the biggest book-bazaar of the world and yet feel charged to see more, despite the petrifying jungle of automobiles, people, houses all mangled into one.

That is Calcutta. As true as the nausea of the first sight, is its sense of life. It pulsates and churns and swirls in all direction. It can march angrily and viscously in the traffic clogging rallies, but it also laughs idiotically and infectiously. In all its staggering misery, it is dreaming and drawing for something bigger and better. It rebuilds minute by minute, it brandishes its sheen and dominates in the hearts.

At its alarming and despicable best, it startles you with its fearlessness and vivid humanity. It is the City of Joy amid its stark poverty; it’s a city of renaissance amid its colossal decays, a modern heartthrob in its medieval living. Perhaps it’s this paradox and its people that make for an enticing charm, people so fondly call ‘amader sohor Kolkata’.


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