I left Kolkata – for the first time – in mid-2010. I can’t say I was sad or even depressed. I was going to visit the city frequently enough. A year later, a slow realization dawned on me. As a working professional, my visits to the city would become restricted. Ever since, I’ve been moving in and out. Once for couple years, mostly for a few days.
My most recent visit was more than a year after my last one. Even at half past midnight, traffic was quite heavy. As the Uber glided past the Big Ben replica, the defiance of the city struck me. She just doesn’t change. Neither does she want to.
Tall skyscrapers, complex flyovers, snazzy restaurants, malls, et al have failed to snuff out her essence. She’s a city of chaos and conflicts. Warped in time. Static, yet dynamic. If you spend even a year here, it’s hard to get her out your system. Let alone, spending a good quarter of your life.
Our short stay was over in the blink of an eye, with an overdose of maach, mishti, and more. What remains though, are some quintessential experiences and visuals that is the City of Joy.
People are ever inquisitive and talkative. A visit to the nearby parlour elicit questions on where do we stay, if the accommodation is rented, how long do we intend to stay in the city and so on. The local bank is more a clubhouse than a centre for financial dealings. We are offered ‘kalo cha’ and the tea leaves come out of the manager’s drawer, neatly wrapped in a little brown paper bag. He refers to an elderly couple as Jethu- Jethi and tells them: “Bikele cha khete ashbo.” And in-between, he attends to our queries. The conversation is peppered with snippets of his personal life: “3 bocchor bou ke berate niye jai ni. Ei bar na niye gele, divorce diye debe!”
One evening, we end up in Sector V, bustling with people and honking cars. There are high-end bars like 10 Downing Street – to which we are refused entry because the husband is in Golf Shorts – to casual (and somewhat seedy hangouts) like Opium, where we eventually end up. A part of the same stretch is lined with a depart store and sanitized kiosks of momos, tea, and sandwiches.
But the thelas selling oily Chinese, roti sabzi, rolls, and dosas give the ‘economic snack stalls’ a stiff competition. White collar employees and ragged men in torn ganjees and lungis huddle beneath plastic sheets. They tuck into their plates. Their uncovered backs drenched by the constant drizzle. For that brief moment, class divides disappear.
Another afternoon, we are stuck at a crossing. I look out of the cab window. The pavements are occupied with bhaater hotel. Makeshift benches double up as tables and chairs inside bamboo structures covered with dirty tarpaulins. Steel plates float in a drum-full of greasy water. Rickshaw pullers, bus conductors, auto drivers devour on a mound of white rice mixed in watery dal, topped with some bhaja. The maccher matha sits pretty in dented bowls filled with a thin reddish-brown curry. The flies and muddy mess don’t bother the haggard men relishing their meal.
We meet some friends on a Sunday at Acropolis Mall. It is slowly turning into the new South City – which by the way is under renovation – with papri chaat and shikanji stalls stationed right outside the entrance that opens on to the side lane. Nobody takes a second glance at attractive, young girls puffing away on cigarettes. We wait for our Uber on the main road. Every 20 seconds an auto passes by and shouts of ‘Ruby-Ruby’ ring in our ears.
A couple of days later, we are sitting in Barista near Deshapriya. The small café is full to the brim. A young, bespectacled girl is deep in conversation with an elegant elderly lady clad in a stiff cotton sari; her angular features accentuated with white cropped hair on a high temple. A young unkempt guy with a shaggy beard discusses film notes with a girl in a beanie cap. A middle-aged man sips at his espresso before taking a long deliberate drag on his Classic regular. He looks rather striking in his white shirt, denims and brown boots. A neat parting divides a mop of salt and pepper on his handsome head. He is in no hurry, neither does he seem to be waiting for someone. As we leave, he is still sitting there, fiddling with the cup.
We cross the street and walk through an alley. Run-down old buildings stand in unison with apartments. The colonial structures have bricks jutting out, and shoots climbing up them. The contemporary ones have exposed cement patchworks and paint peeling off the facade.
Taking a turn, we reach the main crossing. People have formed a long queue to avail autos. A woman makes a dash for a relatively empty bus. The conductor leans out, extending his hand: “Didi, egiye ashhun”. The woman reaches and takes the steel handle instead, probably dashing the poor fellow’s DDLJ dreams. We discreetly step on the footpath, walking languidly to catch the evening show at Priya. Bangla cinema at a ‘hall’ after ages. The seats are not too comfortable but it’s a satisfying watch.
A couple of hours later, we are looking for an Uber. The rates are outrageous. We try our luck with the Yellow Taxis. They ignore us and we start walking towards Gariahat in the light drizzle, in the hopes of getting one. Within minutes, the rains come down heavy on us. We have no choice, but to take shelter under a hoarding. Most of the shops have shut down. Hawkers are nowhere to be seen. A few men run helter-skelter wrapped in Polythene sheets. An old man makes his last batch of tea. Drops trickle down the hole-ridden cover above. Some fall into the simmering pan of dark, milky fluid. He doesn’t care.
The downpour doesn’t stop and we eventually book a cab. As the husband tries to explain our whereabouts to the driver, a man shouts out from the darkness: “Dada, Hindustan Park bolun”. A while later, the car arrives. We get in. The old man starts to scrub and clean his stall.
On the last day, we are determined to satiate our pork momos craving at The Blue Poppy. The outlets in and around Salt Lake have closed down. We brave the humidity and traffic to get to Middleton Street. Its peak hours and there’s this typical smell that hangs about in the air. Of fried onion, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. The crowd mostly consists of college goers. It brings back memories. Of friends, squabbles, and dutch treats. Such a long time ago.
We reach Jaipur at midnight. A cool breeze welcomes us. There is no humidity or chip-chip. The wide roads are clean and devoid of traffic. Not a single street light is dysfunctional. Nor do I see any dilapidated buildings. No shanties and tea stalls at the junctions. A city pleasing to the eye.
And yet, I miss the dirt, the sights, the sounds, the strangers, the familiarity. Kolkata…