In point of fact, it was more than a month – just before the pandemic – that I spent in Kolkata. It wasn’t easy to start with. I had to be awake precisely the time I sleep in Washington. I walked around like a zombie for a few days as a result. Friends were gracious enough to overlook my vacant look and fading voice.
The air took a few more days. The acrid air literally took my breath away. I gratefully accepted the offer of a mask, but using it seemed like a Sisyphean ordeal. Not only I looked like Darth Vader, I felt like a dog on a leash. I decided to brave the oncoming waves of airborne pollution like a patriotic martyr.
The streets took even more days. A once-a-year visitor, I was determined to walk around, see things for myself, watch the people, explore the stores. The city seemed just as determined to present itself as an obstacle course. The sidewalks were broken and uneven, studded with cracks and cavities; even where repaired, there were hidden traps for unwary heels. In Kolkata, moneyed homes and shop owners have the right, amazingly, to wreck the sidewalk and reshape their front-yard.
All this is where the sidewalk exists. Mostly it doesn’t exist at all. The sidewalk has largely become a shopping arcade, vending snacks and sweets, books and bangles, tea and trinkets. Where there was a tiny gap between the shops, where a pedestrian could walk, small vendors have spread their wares and hawk pencils to panties. In this town, you don’t walk, you negotiate quick turns between stalls.
When I visit India, my usual stints in Delhi and Mumbai invariably include lodging with my two brothers. I don’t think of alternatives, for they are cool hosts and warm company. In Kolkata, I stayed often with an old friend who combined hospitable hosting with considerate allowance of space. This time I chose a bed-and-breakfast place that offered a remarkable combination: a large, quiet place with a lively coffee shop and a popular restaurant. I had a noiseless room – as noiseless as it ever can be in a raucous town – with a couple of animated meeting places.
The latter brought an unexpected advantage. An Uber or Ola cab was never more than five minutes away. I had always thought of not having my car with me as a handicap; now I saw it as a great benefit. What could be better than having a vehicle accessible at any hour, without having to drive it? I could be anywhere in the city for the princely sum of a dollar or two. I tipped heavily, if only for the refreshing exchanges with the chauffeurs.
One or two may have been taciturn, but the rest spoke volubly, spiritedly, of their speedy urban life and the contrasting quiet of their village, usually in backwater Bihar. One spoke of the nasty bank officer who reluctantly lent him money to buy his taxi and another told me of his purblind mother whom he feeds by hand every night. My favourite was the driver’s tale who defied his adamant family and married the winsome lass from another caste who had caught his eye in a village fair. Google’s self-driving cars and Tesla’s electric vehicles may one day save the world a lot of gasoline and environmental havoc, but I will miss these spirited storytellers who made a performing art out of a prosaic trip.
I attended events of many kinds, social and cultural. All seemed well-attended, by people who seemed enthusiastic. And all served a lot of food. They started late and tarried long, and even memorial meetings smacked of joie de vivre. If daily living in the town is harder than in some western cities, the events possibly are occasions for people to loosen their belts and savor the fun of being together. I saw the modern version of a fifth-century Sanskrit play and was thrilled that the theater world of Kolkata – to which I owe my abiding love of drama – remains as vibrant as ever.
I have to confess that, for someone from a Washington suburb, Kolkata is a difficult place despite many improvements. Filth repels. Unpainted, unrepaired old houses offend the eye; ugly new buildings are a growing eyesore. Traffic is chaotic and cacophonous. Anybody like me, who grew up in Kolkata and experienced its invincible charm, finds its overpasses and shopping malls scant compensation for its old-world seductiveness.
Stubbornly, I return to Kolkata for an annual pilgrimage, bypassing the call of Venice, Paris, Rio or Dublin. I want to see my friends, many of whom, alas, have moved to another city or another world. I cherish the ones who remain. They are a memento of the past that has vanished and the affection that has survived. Whatever we shared has narrowed, but whatever we loved has deepened. I acquire, too, new friends, who bring a new dimension to my old bond with my birthland.
But, strangely, even beyond friends and relations, there is something in the city that I cannot turn away from. It stays with me, it pursues me. It is a daemon, a supernatural spirit that is now intertwined with my flesh and bones. Beyond all reason, it pervades my being and draws my body to its muddy, murky shores. The further I go, the longer stretches its grubby arms, its tentacles go deeper in my frame, its aroma lingers, its images haunt my dreams. No wonder a poet, as dear to me as the city, wrote:
Calcutta if you must exile me
wound my lips before I go
only words remain and the gentle touch
of your fingers on my lips.
The writer is a Washington-based international development advisor and had worked with the World Bank. He can be reached at [email protected]