& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Oh! Calcutta

I’ve never quite figured out what is it that creates a bond between a city and its inhabitants. The bond has a distinctly paradoxical dimension because it’s at once intangible and palpable.

The bond develops into a lifelong sense of belonging and gives an identity to the inhabitant – I’m a Torontonian. I was a Bombayite (or, the better sounding Mumbaikar).

Howrah Bridge
Even the most liberal-minded amongst us tend to become a bit jingoistic about our cities and compare them to other cities that we visit – and always feel infinitely superior about it.

When I lived in Bombay, and visited other cities in India, or even outside India, I always felt that my Bombay was incomparable.

It's an emotional thing. So, while I definitely love Toronto more than I love Bombay, I still feel that Toronto doesn’t measure up to that magnificent island city on the eastern end of the Arabian Sea.

Bombay is in so many ways similar to that other amazing city on the western coast of the Atlantic – New York City – the undisputed capital of the world.

Every time I’ve been to the US, I made it a point visit New York – to live and breathe for some time the sheer vibrancy, sassiness, audacity, impudence of a city that defines freedom, expression, energy.

I think Delhi is like Washington DC, Bombay is like New York, Chicago is like well, not quite any other city I’ve visited, although some parts of downtown Chicago do remind me of downtown Toronto, perhaps because both cities are beside a giant water body erroneously called a lake.

And then there’s Calcutta – quite unlike any other city in the world.

For reasons that are known to many who know me (and therefore entirely unnecessary to reiterate),  I’ve had a long and enduring relationship with Calcutta – a city I first visited in 1977 and then several times from the late 1980s to mid-1990s.

It’s a city that makes you fall in love – with itself and with its people and with the Hoogly and the hand pulled raft boats, with the majestic cantilever Howrah Bridge (Shakti Samanta’s Amar Prem, Mani Ratnam’s Yuva), with the imposing Victoria Memorial and the sprawling Maidans, the Eden Gardens, the rusty trams and the gleaming metro, the decaying buildings and the smoke-belching Ambassador taxis, New Market, K.C. Das, Flury’s, Chowringhee, the Puja.

But my relationship with Calcutta is not merely because of my personal connection, it’s a city that is important to anyone who is interested in postcolonial phenomenon because Calcutta defined colonial Bengal, which in turn defined modern Indian sensibilities (G.K. Gokhale’s famous quip: “What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.”).

Writers' Building

Bengal’s influence has been and remains ubiquitous in all spheres of human endeavour – from politics (a wide variety – my choice: Jyoti Basu), economics (Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis and Amartya Sen), literature (Rabindranath Tagore), the arts (my personal favourites: Jamini Roy in the past and Bikash Bhattacharya more recent), movies (Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwick Ghatak in the past…Rituparno Ghosh now), religion (my favourite: Ramkrishna Paramhansa), activism (Raja Ram Mohan Roy) to journalism (M.J. Akbar).  And this, as everyone will agree, is only an illustrative list.

For me Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar and Shankar’s Chowringhee are the two artistic interpretations that capture the true character of Calcutta’s identity.

And somehow, for me it’ll never be Kolkata.

Recently, after a gap of many years I had an opportunity to return to the Bengali milieu with Tagore aficionados in Toronto at a Tagore film festival organised by Kathleen and Joseph O'Connell of the U of T and saw Rituparno Ghosh's interpretation of Rabindranath Tagore's Noukadubi, Satyajit Rai's documentary on Tagore, Shey by Buddhadeb Dasgupta.

It was an absolutely splendid experience.

Then, during the last week, I read Kwai-Yun Li’s The Palm Leaf Fan and Other Stories (Tsar). Kwai is from Calcutta’s Chinatown and her stories are set in the city.

It revived my memories of Calcutta, and with that revival of memories also a disturbing realisation – that the local Chinese population never quite figured in all my encounters and memories of Calcutta, which seems to strange because they’re quite unmistakably a part of the city.

What’s more, I’ve had one of the biggest dinners of my life at a Chinese eatery on Calcutta’s Park Street. 

Kawi’s essay A Brief History of Chinese in Calcutta talks of the steady decline of the Chinese population.  This is a collection of heart-warming stories of human beings no different than anyone else in Calcutta, and yet treated differently, neglected and forgotten.

It made me realise that we see only what we want to see, and in the way we want to see. Also, I doubt if I’d ever have become as aware of the different minorities that make our world and societies had I not become a part of a minority myself as a Torontonian.

Images: Sketches of Calcutta: by Sameer Biswas

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