Calcutta Sojourn – following the trails of the past

[This is a republished version of an old blog I wrote in 2005 as a five-part series]

Kolkata skyline
The Kolkata skyline. Picture credit: Wikipedia

 

Before the gulf between Calcutta experienced and Calcutta remembered widens, I’d like to ink down whatever my heart longs to say with regards to my recent visit to the city. This particular piece of writing is less an account of my week-long stay at the place from Dec 24 to Dec 30, 2005, and more about my childhood association with this city.

I was brought up in this city of large-heartedness, this city that puts on a façade of joy to hide the sorrow beneath…Five years ago separation came when my family moved to Chennai as dad had got a job transfer. But this December, when I’d the opportunity to visit Calcutta all by myself, the experience was thoroughly refreshing and provided ample scope for personal reflection on the years that had been spent here. The city in itself was redolent of my childhood and early adolescent years, a rather impressionable phase of one’s life.

I could somehow relate this experience of going back to Calcutta to meeting an old intimate lover. A string of memories was my sole possession and almost no physical evidence remained to testify the relevance of the relationship that had once been. I had lost the love with the lover when I left it. Time’s axe had rendered such a strong blow that only bits and pieces of the past remained, and I had to bend low to gather them all…

I wonder why one must adhere to such perceptions as “familiarity breeds contempt” when the whole angle of viewing is negative. For the more familiar you become, the more you understand or at least make an effort to understand and when this happens, a relationship evolves…and as long as the persons involved are enjoying this process and benefitting from it, there can be no room for contempt. I realised these truths only after I went back to Calcutta this time. I know, I know, it is ‘Kolkata’ now, but I’d still prefer Calcutta. I like it better that way!

Part 2

Going Back

The fifteen long years of association that I had with Calcutta led to a familiarity which I’d not been conscious of until I went back to this city. Each time a familiar face greeted me with a sweet smile or expression of surprise, kemon aacho? and all that, my heart went out instantly to them. This was the place I’d left behind, the people I’d separated myself from and little had I realised that this would turn into a huge void that could never be filled up in my life. Readers may feel this a bit too exaggerated, but the truth is that when one begins to identify oneself with a place and its people, a strange sense of security develops from within and often displacement can put one off balance. Regaining one’s inner sense of security in a new place, among unfamiliar faces can be quite a challenging task.

Even today in my dreams when I visualise home, the picture of the one-room apartment in Lake Gardens which had given me shelter for fourteen years appears before my eyes. In a few months, we would be shifting to our own two-bedroom flat in Chennai, but that is only a house…home was in Calcutta, in that literally toota-foota (broken) one-room apartment where water used to leak from the broken ceiling when there were rains…

The brick-and-cement structure that was home to us was originally a godown which our landlady used as a store-house. When my parents moved into that house, I was yet unborn. The tin roof of the godown was replaced with a false ceiling, its walls patched up with some cement, its floors cemented as well, and brick tiles were placed above to form a gabled roof. Fine, it was a liveable house now. But there was a natural enemy who lived up there. A tall coconut tree spread itself right above our house and every time its huge fruits turned ripe, it came crashing on top of the house, breaking the brick tiles and creating fissures on the surface of the ceiling and thereby providing ample scope for water to seep in when there were rains.

As a child I used to love the rains (and still do). The best thing about living in a house with a broken ceiling facing the wide and open sky is that one need not step out of the house to enjoy the rains. Tiny droplets of water used to fall from different points into the house and my sister’s and my favourite pastime was to carry small vessels and catch the falling drops to fill up as much water in them as we could. I used to love the music of water droplets falling on the steel vessel.

When our landlady, addressed to as maashimaa by all in the neighbourhood, refused to run necessary repairs in the house, my father, a typical Angry Young Man, began to pay the rent to the High Court instead of the house-owner as an official record of the sufferings borne by us during the tenancy. Maashimaa was not a bad woman, my mother often used to tell me. She was old and wretched and could have been convinced to come to our rescue if dealt with in the right manner. In the manner of most old people, she required some coaxing and cajoling, but dad was the type who wouldn’t bow his head before anyone. He only believed in giving an ultimatum before launching a foray…and because of the case running in the Court, the rent also remained low; a few hundred rupees only…

Anyway, today that is history; history with no official document to prove its relevance but for the memory that lives in the mind…and before this memory gets erased, I thought I’d better capture them in words. Maashimaa is no more; I think she died when I was five or six years old. She was survived by her two daughters who still live in and around Lake Gardens only. Between us, today, there is immense cordiality. Once we vacated this house, we became friends with our house-owners. Separation has a strange method of reconciling relationships. This time when I went to Lake Gardens, I stayed with the elder daughter of maashimaa, whom we addressed with love as Poplaa aunty. Her husband, Mr. Banerjee, is a very cordial man, aristocratic in demeanour. At their place, I enjoyed the warm hospitality that is the highlight of Bengali bhadralok culture and utilised all the opportunity I had to reconnect with the city and the locality, in particular.

Separation has a strange method of reconciling relationships

A lot had changed about Lake Gardens…the biggest change for me was that within the innermost compound of Joy Villa, once consisting of a huge building and our house in the corner, a separate structure crouching behind it, was now situated an Ashram. And there was not even a trace of that brick-and-cement structure which had once been home to us… only a long tennis table sprawled across that piece of land. The verandah in the front of the bigger building, where we all used to assemble when there were load sheddings (power cuts) in the evening and all the neighbours used to get together play anthakshari or do gup-shup, was now converted into a room, kept closed when I saw it… The huge ground in the front, thankfully, was still there. It reminded me of all the games that we used to play as children there, catch-catch, chain-chain, hide-and-seek, even cricket at times (in which I was always declared dudh-bhat or dummy player!).

There were gardens on either side of the compound with beautiful trees and flowering plants. There was this croton tree with multi-coloured leaves, the dominant colour a deep sort of red, that stood out elegantly on the front garden, now no longer there. A tall mango tree rose behind it, whose unripe fruits, the children from the nearby slum used to stone and pick to eat. But it had now been chopped off. A petite jasmine tree with tender white blossoms stood at the back side of the garden, and close to it was also a jackfruit tree; nothing of which remained now… On the right side garden, right in the front, used to be a pomelo lemon tree with huge fruits, which in Tamil is called bablimaas naarangai. That tree died a natural death it seems; its roots had rotted… The garden on the right side was not a well-maintained one and therefore grew to be a home for wild botanic species and some animals too. And this garden ran along the walls of our home up to some length. So, mice of all sizes, great or small, lizards, mosquitoes and cats were regular visitors to our house! These mice used to store their food at the corners of the roof of our house and could often be spotted running along the electrical wiring from the back of the shelves up to the roofs…!

The truth is: sometimes even the relics of the past don’t remain; only their ghosts lurk in the mind…

It was indeed a big jolt to my heart when I found that the house was no longer there. Nor were the trees which had been my friends once. There used to be a garage for cars on the right side before the garden, even that had been removed and the ground had been extended for the Ashram’s children to play. The truth is: sometimes even the relics of the past don’t remain; only their ghosts lurk in the mind…

Behind this compound was a basti or slum which was home to a number of poor people migrating from the villages. Even our Bengali maid, Murari maa (Murari being the name of her elder son, she was called Murari’s maa or mother) lived in this basti. For the sake of convenience, we used to call her Mu-maa, an abbreviated version of Murari maa!

lake-gardens-railway-station-kolkata (2)
The Lake Gardens railway crossing

Now that I have mentioned the basti, how can I not talk about the romance of the railways! Oh yes, the local railway station that was some 3-minutes’ walk from home; the railway tracks running right in front of the basti (the basti itself was an illegal occupation of the land belonging to the Eastern Railways) and at the back of our humble abode, along with the passing trains, had literally interwoven itself with our very lives. The heavy goods trains made a thunderous noise along with a trembling of the floor and the walls between 3:00 and 5:00 in the morning every day. There used to be three goods train and the last of them, crossing past us at about 5 am was my mother’s daily morning alarm… I recollect now how once, my sister had read a geography lesson on the Earthquake, the previous night, and thought the earthquake had really hit, when the 3 o clock monster shriekingly halted by for a while!!

Part 3

The Cost of Living

Now, the basti has been completely removed from there. The eviction process, a long drawn out one actually, had been completed only three days before my reaching there. Even the small basti dwellings near Charu Market had been destroyed, said Maanta, the doe-eyed girl in the neighbourhood. It has been proposed that a road be built running parallel to the railway track connecting Lake Gardens to other points in the city. But frankly, I feel so long as the basti was there, it formed a protective covering around Lake Gardens. Now if a main road is built along it, with the easy connectivity, the area would become susceptible to attacks. Earlier there used to be small incidents of theft or robbery here and there, now there’ll be crimes of larger proportions. There have already been many such cases in the recent past. A Marwadi woman was shot dead inside a shop in broad day-light in Lake Gardens in 2005. Looting is on the rise. It had sent a chill of panic down people’s spines. The tailor, Mullick, too was threatened by the goondas for hafta (protection money paid to gangsters) so much so that he had to vacate the shop. Earlier when such incidents took place, people conveniently pointed a suspicious finger at the petty criminals in the basti. Now when such incidents will rise numerically (and they already are), where will they point their fingers to? The basti is gone…

But many hold opposite views too. These are the ones that innocently believe that all will be right now. They feel that the basti went for the right reasons, for it has put an end to the menace of the basti people. But I have my own doubts. The basti people were poor and miserable and even if there were crimes, they were small ones, but now with a main road running so close along the railway track, there are wider opportunities for the criminals to explore and it is not too difficult to imagine too. At least the basti, spread out along the tracks, blocked the residential plots inside, now with this layer being removed, the residential plots will lie vulnerably exposed…

I think this is the right opportunity for me to reflect upon the current issues relating to Calcutta. Development projects are being initiated by the Government that benefit the rich but deprive the poor of their opportunities. Economic liberalisation has had its impact everywhere. Whole lifestyles have changed and therefore, the need to move along with the times has affected Calcutta too. Old babu moshai is shedding his old Socialist mentality now. Like any other metro-city, even in Calcutta, the cost of living has gone up. While coming by train, I was telling my train friends that Calcutta was a city for the poor man, it had a large heart, was accommodative, etc. etc. But traveling by taxi I realised as to how the prices have actually gone up. Five years back I remembered paying ten rupees for travelling from Lake Gardens to Deshapriya Park; this time I paid twenty bucks. Only puchka was as cheap as before, as for the other things one can’t say… Earlier when prices were hiked in Calcutta, the Government used to crouch in fear, anticipating a public strike and violence all over the city. I remember how once, when there was a hike in bus fare, angry commuters along with some Party protestors had burnt down many buses! But now the people there know only too well that the cost of living is surely going to go higher up and that nothing much can be done to either withhold or revert the process…

yellow taxis_kolkata
The iconic yellow taxis of Calcutta

When I was coming via taxi from Howrah Station to Lake Gardens, I was stunned to see as to how the city’s exterior has undergone a complete transformation. We took the Toll road along Vivekananda Setu (the 2nd Howrah Bridge) and the flyover that commenced thereafter was simply brilliant. I don’t remember going via that route before. The city had surely become more polished or, so it seemed to my eyes. As long as I was living in Kolkata, I had been a frog in the well, smugly satisfied in my cozy Lake Gardens. So, I hadn’t explored much of the city then. The few areas I was familiar with were Lake Market, Gariahat, Ballygunje, Jodhpur, Russa Road, Sarat Bose Road & Hazra.

This time I saw as to how the city had been influenced by capitalist development. Plush shopping malls were mushrooming everywhere. In fact, to Mrs. Banerjee, the latest excitement is the recent coming up of a departmental-cum-luxury store called Arambagh in Lake Gardens and an upcoming Mall, hailed the largest-to-be in Eastern India, close to Prince Anwar Shah Road… My cousin, who lives in Ballygunge, showed me the Gariahat Mall, while we were on our way to Gariahat for shopping. It stood tall, flanked by ad-hoardings of Westside. I had raised my eyebrows and said,” Not bad! Apna (Hindi. Our) Calcutta is improving yaar!!”

In a developing country, foreign funds are attracted by fashioning the image of a city, like the clothes of a model.

But it is the other side of development that one gets to see in such events as the eviction of the basti. I wonder if I sound like another Arundhati Roy, talking about the perils of capitalism and Globalization, but this is nevertheless the truth one has to reckon with. As capitalists intrude into a city, the poorer sections lose out on their space. I guess, right since the basti came into existence, the Government knew that the occupation was illegal, but the authorities slept over the matter and Mamta Banerjee and her like vociferously exploited the slum dweller’s cause to gain political mileage, but the sleeping ones opened their eyes, all of a sudden when the need to makeover the lazy city’s image became pressing. In a developing country, foreign funds are attracted by fashioning the image of a city, like the clothes of a model. Slums and the people living in them are unwanted elements; they are like the scraps that need to be removed and dumped in order to keep the city clean. And foreign investment won’t happen in unclean cities…

 

Kolkata-Arambagh-Food-Mart
The urban middle class is excited about new shopping venues coming up in the city

So, Mu-maa is gone, along with the basti…yes, when the eviction had become an obvious reality, the likes of Mu-maa had to vacate. Lake Gardens is now becoming a haven for the rich, for those who can go to Arambagh and buy groceries. Right opposite to Joy Villa now, there is a multi-storied residential complex coming up. “A lot of multi-storied buildings are coming up in Lake Gardens”, said Banerjee uncle, beaming with pride. That is really the first sign of capitalistic development, the Real Estate industry flourishes as the bourgeoise and upper-class scramble for space in the city and in this scramble Mu-maa loses out space, the basti loses out its space. I heard from Mu-maa’s daughter, who is thankfully still there in Lake Gardens in an old dilapidated house, that Mu-maa had gone back to her village in Bankura and so did most of her family. The alternative accommodation provided to them by the Government was too distant from the city (somewhere near Garia) and it’d become impossible for them to retain their jobs in Lake Gardens, requiring travelling so far…

Part 4

Mu-maa

I would love to tell some things about Mu-maa. Her proper name was Kajol. She was a woman of petite built, dark-complexioned with small, sunken eyes and high cheek-bones. Her teeth were stained red from chewing paan but her heart was crystal clear. She had been our maid for fourteen years, appointed at the time of my birth to help mother with the household chores. Mu-maa would sometimes not wash the utensils properly, requiring mom to wash them all over again, yet mom kept her for work, because, she knew that she was very honest. She never stole money or gossiped about our family matters outside. But often Mu-maa brought interesting stories to entertain mom from other houses…Mom’s favourite tale was that of pagli Boudi (‘pagli’ meaning mad and ‘Boudi’ a respectable form of address for adult women in Bengali). This pagli Boudi was perhaps widowed and took to drinking due to the poor circumstances of her life. But women in the neighbourhood had made her the butt of their gossip. Mu-maa would often whisper confidential matters into mom’s ears and I used to crane my neck towards the kitchen in an effort to hear!

Mu-maa used to take me in her arms and we used to go out for tata. She loved me a lot and often brought sandesh (a Bengali milk sweet) and taal-mishri (sweets like kalkand made from palm jaggery) after doing puja in the temple. Also, during the festive season, Mu-maa used to bring a bottle of aalta (a red coloured dye) and paint designs on my palms and feet. She liked to dress me up because I was fair. Often as a child, I used to talk to her in a mix of Bengali, Hindi, and Tamil! I was a very imaginative child and often framed my own imaginary characters and stories about them. One such character was a funny Lokash. Mu-maa would patiently sit with me and hear my Lokash stories and the little poems that I made in my strange undecipherable tongue…I was very small then.

So that was about Mu-maa. There are so many other things that I wish to tell but the details are so blurred in my mind that I can’t frame them exactly in words. Nevertheless, I really cherish these small memories; it is the secret chest box with golden treasures hidden in them…

Part 5

Little Things Remembered

There are aspects of day-to-day life that become so much a part of our life that we often end up taking them for granted; but in revisiting Calcutta, I recollected certain things that were such intimate aspects of my life, that their very reminiscence brought me joy. I remembered what Jai Prakash, our Bihari milkman and a taxi-driver, had once said about me. He used to regret about my losing milk teeth as a child and having permanent ones because he felt it spoilt my beauty (actually I have slightly protruding upper front teeth!) I met his family this time; they are still put up in Pappad Galli only (a lane in Lake Gardens where hand-made pappads are manufactured in a house and left for drying out in the sun).

I remembered my immediate neighbours in Calcutta, Mr. & Mrs. Chaudhuri, whom we used to call Bada Mama and Bada Mami. They were Biharis speaking Maithili at home. Both their sons were doctors and married to doctors too. When I used to suffer from convulsions, as a baby, their sons took great care of me. Bada Mama used to love me and my sister a lot. He would call sister, Indira Gandhi, and would call out to me, “Vidiya Dadati Viniyam”. He was a man of weird habits; a great fibber. He would often tell us stories of winning the Ranjit Trophy in cricket, of shaking hands with Gavaskar, etc, much to our amusement! He had a mocking tone in speech and often addressed my father as Kalua (Hindi. “blackie”) as he was dark-skinned. Even as a child, my blood used to boil with rage, when he addressed dad thus, but dad never seemed to mind much; ‘cos they shared a very good rapport. Bada Mama would often invite him home to have a few pegs of whisky and do gup-shup. Bada Mami used to carefully place a plateful of fried groundnuts on the low table to go with the drink. And I used to stand and watch all this, relishing the groundnuts, but at the same time cautiously counting the number of pegs of whisky that went down dad’s throat, so that I could go back home and give mom accurate reports of how much he drank…! I heard that the Chaudhuris are somewhere in Patna now…

Lions Safari park
Lions Safari Park, Kolkata

I remembered going to Safari Park close to the Jogger’s Lane by the Lake. How I used to eagerly wait for mom to wake up from her afternoon nap, and quickly get dressed by 4:30 pm so that we could go to the park! I used to love the small hill there which my sister and I used to compete to climb up fast. There was a huge sand pit too, in which I used to build my dream castles… and of course, the usual swings, slides, see-saws and all the child’s innocuous games…

I remembered savouring those exquisite Bengali sweets. Behind Bangur Park, in Lake Gardens, is a Mother Dairy milk booth where my sister and I used to go together in the evenings to buy milk and there we used to relish the packed mishti-doi (sweetened yoghurt) available in various flavours. This time I went with my cousin to Bancharan’s sweet shop in Gariahat, hailed to be one of the best dealers in pure milk sweets and relived the experience of relishing creamy mishti-doi (a more traditional preparation, this one) and spongy soft roshogullas… it was yummy! This time had gulabjamuns too, asli Bengali ones, at Srinka’s place. Oh, how much I miss those sweets here in Chennai, also raajbhog, cham-cham, potol sweet (esp. the ones from Bharatmata in Lake Road), and many more…

I also remembered, most fondly, going to school (National High for Girls in Sarat Bose Road) with my friends. For a brief while dad had arranged for a school-van driven by a Bihari man called Raamlal, but later on, when dad found out that he made the children push the van when there were upward slopes on the road, he stopped it. From then on, we only walked to school. It took about 15 to 20 minutes by walk. Sometimes if we overslept and were running late for school, I used to take a hand-rickshaw from the stand near the teen-number railway crossing. But now the hand-rickshaws have been removed from there; there is a taxi stand instead.

This time, I walked through those lanes again and it was sheer joy! The crossing the teen-number gate, walking past Lily Pool, walking past the Dhakuria Lake, walking past the Jawaan Stall which sells extremely well-made egg rolls (yumm!J), crossing the Southern Avenue Signal, walking past Maharani’s Tea Shop, walking past Khushboo, the shop that sold gift items, crossing the Gariahat mode (crossing) with tramlines running across, walking past Deshapriya Park and the long row of shops on the foot path by the side, glancing at the sky every once a while, wondering if its silence was also secretive as mine and reaching school at last … of course with the coming of the flyover in Lake Gardens, the road routes have changed a bit, yet the touch of the past still remains. How do I express to others what strange satisfaction I had in walking past those familiar places again?

School was closed for winter vacation, so couldn’t meet my old teachers. But remembering school, I remembered my friends, the best of whom was one Srinka Mookerjee, a rotund, five-feet three inches tall, fair-complexioned, wide-eyed girl with wild curly hair, coloured jet black. She was the only daughter to her parents, lived in a joint family and was much pampered and protected. But Srinka was an intelligent girl, popular in school for her leadership qualities. She became the school pupil leader too. Srinka is important to me because she was my first friend in life, right from Kindergarten to class 9 (about 14 years) we studied in the same school, same class. The first friend is always a golden treasure in one’s memory books… when I left Calcutta; I scarcely had an idea as to how much I was to miss her. So, coming back this time, the very next day, I went to Srinka’s residence at Tilak Road, behind Deshapriya Park. Unfortunately, she was not at home then. I got her number from her dad and met her two days later.

Together we recollected the days when I used to go to her place to relish fish curry. I used to love having cooked rice with maacher jhol (fish gravy) and Srinka’s mom knew that pretty well. Srinka always used to come first in class and I stood second. Once when Srinka had malaria in 4th standard, I came first instead of her. Such was our friendship that I couldn’t tolerate taking her place and cried for days together mourning over it…Srinka’s eyes beamed in delight and a lovely smile streaked across her face, every time she remembered some of the incidents that had happened in school, “Hey remember that boy Brahmadev? We used to tease him as Brahmaputra naa?” and we both would go hee…hee…hee. We also recollected how she used to be the class leader and me, the assistant leader; we used to bang the duster on the table (to maintain silence) and write the names of disobedient students on the board if they made too much noise. Many a times, the principal used to declare the class “Noisiest of All” and make us all stand up on the bench holding our ears… But those were the days of innocence, days of sheer fun…

We spoke about the present too- about coping with life, present education, future career and everything else that had to be caught up with in these five years’ gap. Things had changed, of course, but still we hadn’t lost our old rapport. Srinka expressed great surprise when I told her that my first book of poetry was awaiting release from Writer’s Workshop, Calcutta. She requested me to recite one of my poems and I recalled from memory, an old piece named “Gratitude” which she listened to with genuine pleasure. It was really great being with her, remembering school, remembering old friends and those days of complete innocence.
There are just so many things that I had remembered, like this, while in Calcutta- memories spanning fifteen long years that have formed an unfathomable void in the mind. Some of these are memories that I don’t even remember now. Flashes of the past just went across my mind, made me stop for a while and reflect, and then vanished again… I don’t think it is possible to list them all here; it’d take too long then, maybe an entire lifetime…I have been writing this piece for the past two weeks, squeezing out time as and when possible and have not been able to stop!

Think I’ll conclude now with this poem that I wrote in Calcutta on Dec 28, 2005:
Coming back

Life was moving ahead,
Hopes were running high,
Dreams dreamt in lonely corners
Were becoming true;
I came back to you.

It took me a long time to realize
That every moment, once it is lived,
Is gone but not lost. It remains somewhere,
Buried within the forgotten layers of the mind,
Until we experience it again and every single
Moment to us comes rushing back…

These tiny bits of memory
Swirl within our minds,
Whirl among our thoughts.
They are like the wrecks of an old ship
That lay in the wide sea drowned
And in time’s tide to the surface
Keep coming back…

 

 

 

Published by Vidya Venkat

Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at SOAS, London. Formerly, journalist at The Hindu, Chennai.

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