Friday, August 12, 2011

OH CALCUTTA....


I love these quiet, middle class and eminently residential neighbourhoods of Calcutta or ‘’paras,” such as Garia, the one we live in. There is somehow a sense of permanence here… something unchanging about these unpretentious houses… they’ve been like this for years, perhaps for generations, maybe since the time of the grandfather who built it, with only a few minor changes here and there. The son who lives there now with his aged parents has perhaps brought in a few innovations, may have fitted an AC in the master bedroom or so, but by and large, the decor, the fittings, etc all remain eminently respectable and middle class, just as it was in his father’s time … and even perhaps, to a certain extent, in his grandfather’s..
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No signs of the noveau riche here, no flashy cars, no wooden floors… You might still hope to find the “lalmatir mejhe” or the red flooring that was so common in Calcutta homes of the seventies ( and earlier) that shone like a mirror when mopped and lent a feeling of coolness to the interiors, especially in summer...
And you might even find a metal, spiral staircase if you're lucky, winding upwards to the Mezzanine floor...

In an earlier time, specially  in  smalltowns   such as ours, in summer, people used to sleep in the terraces at night…. Under the coolness of the open sky… and it could grow quite chilly towards the early mornings…
 This practice had reduced to a large extent when we were kids and is perhaps, unimaginable in this age of AC’s and coolers…  till you think that there are still many  places in this world that are without electricity, where people are still close to nature…
Even now, here in these solidly moddhobitto (middleclass) bangali paras of Kolkata,  you often see all windows of the house  left open in the evenings to cool down the furnace like interiors, sometimes affording a peep into the homes, as you pass by... and you would almost invariably see familiar patterns on the curtains, bedspreads and  the sofa backs…  probably bought off the much frequented  stalls at Gariahat Market, like their predecessors had done before them … solid middle class stuff, nothing flashy again. We’ve all grown up in this ambience and there is a certain  timelessness to it that is very relateable…
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Life in the average “Bangali” household…  the trip to the “Bajar” (market) in the morning to buy varieties of fresh fish, vegetables and fruits. The conch shells at dusk. The little ones’ “ankaar” and “gaaner” class (art & music classes), and as he grew older, the preparations for the Joint Entrance Exams  for a passport to study  Engineering or Medicine at the prestigious old colleges of Calcutta…  the Chaitra (Bengali Year End) Sale and the Nobobarsho (Bengali New Year)  and  Ponchishey Boishakh  (Rabindranath Tagore’s birth anniversary), Durga Pujo, and  Bhai Phonta …  years sped by past these familiar landmarks  on the Bengali calendar … and  as the little ones grew up bit by bit , unnoticed,  the patriarch aged… almost imperceptibly  at first,  as day to day life went on, while the general attitudes and broad framework of life remained largely unchanged through generations, in sofar  as the average “Bangali Bhadralok” (Bengali gentleman) was concerned….

Malls have sprung up, slowly…. but in these quiet neighbourhoods, the “parar mudir dokan”  (the local grocery shop) still flourishes…. as does the “parar mishtir dokan”( the local sweet shop) and the “parar oshuder dokan,”  the local medicine shop. Institutions that have served the families of the locality for generations… not to mention the “parar phuchkawala” (Golgappawalla)  and the local dhopa (washerman). That is why there is such a feeling of permanence about these neighbourhoods,   a feeling as if you’ll never go away, as if things will never change even if you do.. .

Of course people go to the glitzy new  malls now...  and to the shopping arcades and restaurants… but generally they are elsewhere, not in these neighbourhoods …   the new Calcuttan is of course, buying  penthouse flats for Rs 90 Lakhs without batting an eyelid and you see  big, flashy cars on the roads now, much more often  than you did before, but basically, even in the midst of change, things have essentially remained the same, in this city of ours…

Many generations of young people have gone abroad from here and made a great life for themselves, bought their upmarket Townhouses and SUVs and built up  healthy bank balances, to a great extent, on the strength of their  educational qualifications that were initially earned in this city…  and deep down, they all love to come back to their small, sometimes  cheek by jowl, cramped middle class homes where their parents still live…

And its still so easy to feel at home there that they hate to go away… to the space and luxury of their new lives. Given a choice, some of them would  perhaps, still  go running right back… at least for a while anyway….

 That’s the strange appeal of Calcutta as it grows on you and makes you one of her masses… There’s actually a certain “lack of affluence” here, I wouldn’t necessarily call it poverty, because everyone is a bhadralok ( Gentleman), that does not allow an ostentatious display of wealth as in some of the cities I’ve lived in. Although again, that is not necessarily to say that it is not there…
 Of course, there are some old clubs here, relics  from our Colonial Past….some more than 250 years old,  that are fiercely guarded bastions where you can’t get a membership for ‘love or money’ as one of my friends fondly loves to say. But even there …things are muted, understated in the finest traditions of The Raj… and I would imagine that upstarts are generally frowned upon…



Kolkata also remains an amazingly convenient city to live in, with almost anything that you need to buy, from refrigerators to laptops, medicines to haircuts, all available within easy walking distance… including all manner of services from mobile repairs to doctors to coaching classes… I really can’t think of any other Indian city where life is so affordable… right from houserents to food, to domestic helps and drivers. Almost every middle class Bengali household employs a maid, a cook and even a driver, if they have a car… sometimes even a house nurse for their ageing parents who seem to be there in almost every other home…

And I sometimes get the feeling that in this sense, Kolkata is an ageing city as well.. Many of these elderly people live alone, their children are abroad and over the years, the things they could do without a second thought, like going out and booking a gas cylinder, or a train ticket,  or doing it over an interactive voice response system, have grown increasingly difficult, as hearing has diminished, eyesight has diminished and the mind is no longer what it used to be. Many of them lead lonely, shut in lives with only the weekly telephone call, or an internet chat with a faraway son to look forward to… 
The same son whom they so diligently brought up and took from music class to cricket coaching to private tuitions… just   a few years back.. Now all they have are the memories….. and the phone calls…

 And when they are gone, their sons will  probably sell off or pull down the Ancestral House… the one that his parents and grandparents had so painstakingly saved for, and built up, brick by brick…  through little luxuries and even necessities denied... or deferred to another day.
And partitions and walls  will spring up where there were none… till one day, these old houses will be no more… and we’ll only have ugly, matchbox like blocks of modern  flats , where you don’t know who lives next door and don’t particularly care…

 And these solid , middle class neighbourhoods with their fierce community feeling,  like the joint families of yore….will slowly cease to be… redundant and no longer required in this day and age….

Kolkata meanwhile, continues to  remain as culturally rich and vibrant as ever… 150 years of Rabindranath… such a privilege to be in the city on that day… music (Rabindrasangeet) festivals, plays and poetry readings everywhere… and all of it so amazingly well rendered, even at the local “para”(neighbourhood) ‘cultural evening’ level…
Bengalis everywhere are so marvellously talented in their music, art and literature… and when you open the engagements page of the newspaper here, you are spoilt for choice…can’t really think of any other Indian city where this would be the case to quite such an extent…

And  same is the case with the lavishness of fare and variety of its eating places and cuisine...and all  this mind you, at much lower prices than that what you would pay elsewhere…
And of course, the sheer number of books and music CD’s on sale at various places in the city, and its   sheer craze for sports...  that has to be experienced to be believed.


Given a choice, I wouldn’t like to live anywhere else,  nor would countless other Bengalis like me I guess… and that’s why we all look forward to coming home from different parts of the country and the world... and once we’re here, many of us wish we didn’t have to go back.. Probably because of the warmth it exudes, that grows on you, in so many different ways… and probably because it takes away your isolation and gathers you into its fold with its friendliness…. and the affection of family and friends… and sometimes that of even  complete strangers…

I’ve been in Kolkata  these past few weeks... met a lot of the extended family... got to spend time at home with my parents, roam around Gariahat, Park Street and Esplanade… privileged to be there the day the Red Bastion finally fell.. after an amazing 35 years of Communist rule in the state. I guess the people finally got a little fed up of their policies and most importantly of their constant interfering in almost every sphere of the day to day lives of  ordinary folk..

And one day, the ordinary folk showed them the door.. 


And now the wait..  for the promised change.. for life to improve… for  accelerated development and greater prosperity for  ordinary people … and  a deliverance from the the cadre-ization of the state perpetrated by the comrades. The comrades have of course,  vowed to come back to power, but on  present form it looks unlikely for  quite some time now..  unless the new government messes up big time… which will be a shame if it happens, considering the massive mandate the people have given them.

35 years is a long time for one party to be in power and it’s a pity that West Bengal hasn’t quite developed the way it should have. Yes, Calcutta is still by far the cheapest metro to live in and you can still get by fairly comfortably on very little.. but come to think of it, aren’t the prices low because the buying power of the common man is also proportionately low? The public transport system in Calcutta is so much better than other Indian cities and so much cheaper.. but isn’t that also , to an extent because fewer people can afford their own vehicles compared to other cities? And so on…

 So its really time that a lot of things, a lot of mindsets and attitudes changed… most notably the poor work culture that has for years, ridden on the back of a militant trade unionism which seemed to decree that not working was okay, so long as you belonged to the Party…since the “Union makes us strong” and no one can throw us out.
And so…the closed factories,  the out of work dads… their bright kids doomed to a life of mediocrity for want of opportunities to grow and prosper… the appalling conditions at Government Hospitals.. and the general apathy at Public offices where the corridors reek of  the stench of negativity….

A lot  needs to change…and fast… and that is the burden that the New Government carries. Will they deliver? Will the state find its place in the Sun again? Or will it be back to the Comrades again after a while? Only time will tell…
Today the state of West Bengal looks to a New Dawn…at New Beginnings, as thousands of middle class and lower middle class families pin their hopes on a diminutive lady in a plain cotton saree and rubber slippers, to give them a better life…
And that is why we all fervently hope that this time around , things will change and promises  fructify, making it a truly wonderful place to live in and come back to…

Till then…we live in hope and dreams…


you can reach me at arijitghosh7@hotmail.com


2 comments:

  1. Piku (Jayanta Sanyal) says " just finished reading... wonderfully evocative.

    Just to throw in my two cents...

    Remember the cricket matches played with a rubber ball and "brick" stumps, pick-up games organized on-the-fly by buttonholing random people, especially after final exams in the winter, relishing the komlalebu after taking a shorsher tel-mekhe shower and listening to Ajoy Ghosh's sumptuous description of a cricket test at the Eden...

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  2. Thanks Piku, I'm so glad it reminded you of the eenter wicket- rubber ball games that we played at Panditia and toder paray. Babu and Jiji used to be pretty quick those days... and Imon was stylish...remember that cricket book we'd once seen at his place, God knows how many years ago , with the photograph of Father Time putting the bails at Lords? That's actually the wind vane there. And of course, the unforgettable ''Nomoshkar Eden Uddan theke bolchi...'' still gives me goosepimples.... and the shorsher tel and komlalebu... it was all so firmly 'feet on the ground' middle class... to me that is the abiding quality of Kolkata... and of our upbringing where so many people contributed in so many different ways... dida , dadu, mashi mesho , mami mama, jethu- jethima,cousins, parar bondhura... ma baba ra to chiloi.... sometimes I feel today's kids don't get that kind of support with just two extemely busy parents to look after them...
    All these people made us what we are today....and we I think owe them a debt of gratitude...

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