Sunday, January 30, 2011

And going back in time in the City of Joy






It’s such a joy to be in Calcutta, the city where I was born and spent two decades of my formative years. Of course, my view is not that of an outsider – someone recently said she vomited every time her father took her there as a child (she probably meant the sights, sounds and smells at the Howrah Station), and I was just trying to keep my temper in control. Yes, we all have heard of Rajiv Gandhi providing that ‘dirtiest city’ label. Let me say that over the years I been there, after leaving the city in 1983, I’ve not really spotted mounds of garbage or offal rotting in the streets. Kolkata that is Calcutta, garbage and all (which city doesn’t have garbage?), has a soul of its own, its residents are some of the warmest you can meet anywhere, the most helpful, and there are few cities that can beat the range of delectable eating fare it offers.

I usually visit the city once a year, except for the odd year when that doesn’t happen – blame it on work or lethargy. Now, after moving on to work that offers me quite a bit of flexible time, I’ve decided to find time for more travel and Calcutta is where I’m likely to head when the time is right. My sister being there is an added incentive. I have a place to stay, there’s lovely home-cooked food, I get fussed over, and the place where she stays is just right for me – away from the city, more than a flavour of the suburban, palm tress all around, sparrows you hardly find nowadays, eagles, a pond… and quiet, especially after evening, which I so very much love. That she and my brother-in-law do not switch off television past midnight is another story, but the past week I’ve got used that rhythm as well.

This time, I caught up with an old friend, a very close one at that. He’s been through some tough times in life – business taking a plunge, a failed marriage, father and uncle dying in quick succession, his mother imprisoned after a legal case was slapped on him by a bride who looked as sweet as sugar (when I saw her years ago) and her family. Whoever said women cannot make life difficult! And stoop to levels that you would not expect of them. Anyway, he’s gone through hell and been able to bounce back, albeit slowly. And we met at the Exide-Haldiram crossing past Camac Street where my brother-on-law has his office.

The City of Joy is very special to me. My father had arrived here in the early 1950s to begin his working career. Calcutta was the place to be in those times (other than Bombay) - for work, that is. My dad must have helped at least 20 of his relatives find employment, including youngsters who didn't know a word of English or Hindi. For example, there was a cousin of mine who would call my dad 'Big Father', after the Malayalam equivalent of it - Valiyachhan. There was a large group of Malayalees that was part of the weekly card games, a very serious business for most of them. My mother would play host many times and I can only wonder at her dexterity in cooking meals for so many! Our house was a sort of refuge for many and I grew up in awe of my dad...

Over masala chai, seated on a bench, we went back in time and then forward. The confidence was back on his face and he was now focused on his business that had picked up. And then as we inhaled and exhaled cigarette smoke and as the wintry Calcutta air blanketed us as we walked past the Birla Planetarium and Rabindra Sadan packed with Republic Day crowds, it seemed like school days once again. Am hoping there will be many more of those evenings.

Now back in Chennai, I’m missing Cal and my sister and all the food (I had an egg roll for Rs 12 at Nawab’s in Gariahat) and the warmth. With my daughter’s camera playing truant (the flash overworked), I couldn’t take many pictures.

Pictures show the pond as seen from my sister’s flat window, palm trees and where sparrows made merry, the buzz at Gariahat junction, the daily newspaper for all to read, and Gariahat by night…

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