Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Calcutta

Calcutta.

Perhaps one of the last of my truly nostalgic posts.


The city's contours are fading even as I trace them lovingly with my own hand. My childhood flashes by, outside a speeding car on Park Street. It used to look so big a decade back- hesitant, not decadent, not crumbling, not going up bit by bit in tired smoke. It flashes by again on Gariahat- impossible Gariahat where huge crowds jostled for clothes, and gaudy jewellery, and chicken rolls. I close my eyes and I have reached home, Jodhpur Park, which has changed beyond all recognition. The old houses are no longer there, monstrosities have been built on their pyres, and the ashes lie scattered in the murky zones of memory, memory and sorrow, and regret.


Phulu pishi passes me by. Many years back, she was young and innocent with two young boys a bit older than me, and she looked after me when my mother and father were away for work. She would cook for me and clean my room, wipe my nose, wipe my tears. She would smuggle in puppies into the house, and smuggle them away again, resting on her warm breast. I went with her many times to her one little room in the nearby slum, Gobindopur, and played with her sons, and laughed and sang, and did not know that she was poor and I was rich, for she never told me. But one day, she could come no longer to our house, her husband Busto was living with some other woman, but that did not matter, I forgot her I think, and then Nondo pishi came, Nondo pishi who cooked prawns in mustard and cream, who smuggled in chocolates and put me to sleep on her lap, who never made me feel like the child of working parents. Nondo pishi who embraced my grandmother when dadu died and she came to live with us, who cooked her meals which was better than non vegetarian ones. Nondo pishi who woke me up everyday for school by throwing off the covers and screeching in my ear...I don't know when I began to love her so much, until she was too old and weak to work, and then she retired and went to live with her nephew because she was unmarried. She was willing to stay with us without wages and for only food (as a member of the family as she rightfully was) but my parents-still young, foolish and unsentimental- sent her off to the nephew and kept on sending her money and clothes, until he stopped communicating with us. Perhaps she was dead.


I think after that I grew up, and went to high school, and gradually my heart hardened, and I stopped thinking  that I had an imaginary dog called Bhulu. My little Lucky dog was dead by then, and then I had a cat called Kopalkundola who also died, mewing pitifully at my feet. I was eighteen, and I still remember how helpless I felt. I couldn't eat for days, but crying had also become difficult by then...I dealt with things with the help of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, the works. Or so we think. How charming and exciting Calcutta seemed then! How entirely vast and miraculous! New Market, Park Street, Camac Street, Prinsep Ghat, Salt Lake, North Calcutta! I had no sense of boundaries, and the biggest adventure was Jadavpur itself. I was in university, and it felt like all my life I had spent within four walls, and discipline, and now I knew a taste of anarchy, and I liked the taste. Until anarchy threatened to be an addiction.


I started reading seriously and soberly and systematically. At 19, I fell in love all of a sudden for the first time, and it was startling and strange. Perhaps it was delightful. I realized that one must look good. All of a sudden I realized I need to dress well. This was a difficult period because I did not know what a relationship should be like, and so we went ahead furtively, foolishly and beautifully. But ambition does not flourish in Calcutta. Calcutta is on the fringes of ambition and hard work. Sultry, humid, dreamy and yet argumentative, it lies in the liminal zone of freedom intersecting with anarchy, desire and memory. Perhaps we should have moved on to better pastures, but this idyll was so extremely idyllic, until it crumbled...because everything crumbles.


My father's white hair has not given him much wisdom, I used to think. H told me how she knew another man in the 70s who was flamboyant and defiant, a committed Marxist who actually read Marx and therefore decided that he needed to go to Oxford, a man who dated beautiful women and told them that they bored him on their faces. He was petulant and pithy, always blithe and always cynical, but a man who would never give up without a fight. H told me that people either hated him or loved him. The only things that have changed: marriage since 1982 and the colour of his hair. I asked him about this. He then told me something that has shaken me to the core.


"I might be successful, but I am not great. I have made no lasting contribution to society, and I do not know who exactly will remember me. Those who are remembered are those who do change, who move on with the times, who accept the unknown and challenge it, who transgress barriers and boundaries...they are the ones who cross frontiers-of land, and knowledge, and people. But that does not mean you must forget. If you forget, you are dead a hundred times over."


And this time I know I leave Calcutta for good, but it lives within me, those eternal afternoon hours of sunlight and puppies and later, of music and love. I have laughed and cried and lived and breathed this city and its people, but its boundaries are shrinking, its barriers have stifled me, but the people I have loved will not fade- they will live and shine in the pages of my autobiography as I write it on borrowed typewriters in distant lands-and I will remember an elderly maidservant hugging a scared and teary ten year old on a full moon night in 1998. I will remember rolling about on the sand in Goa with my grandmother staring at eternity in the guise of a serenely endless sea in 2006. I will remember closing my eyes and tasting tongue in 2008. I will remember many things and hope that I can translate these into words some day.


I will miss Calcutta. As my friend M said, "To the city of joy, or what lasts of it."
Let it last, dear God, let something last. Let me not claim to have known the city entirely. 

5 comments:

little boxes said...

khub kadale.

Anoo. said...

*hug*

Strawberry Amma said...

I like this post of yours - it talks about Kolikata.

Louise said...

I loved reading your blog. I may live thousands of miles from where you are but I can relate to the many of the things you write about.
I too have a blog and my view of the world may be very different from yours but I so appreciate your view point Thank you for sharing.

Louise from Canada

Su said...

Your writing makes me feel like a foolish bumbling child lost in things that will never matter. I severed myself from Calcutta for she would not have me anymore. And I thought I was free. Then I read this and the distant bells of Dakshineshwar temple I never heard ring in my head. The streaming tears from a dingy puchka place under the Gariahat flyover in complete darkness fill my eyes. And I crawl again through the busy streets in trams with no conception of time. The blue-lungied rickshaw walas, the double-deckers, the vibrant bylane houses doused in every possible colour and I know I never left. Thank you for taking me back.