It isn’t like one of those cities, Calcutta: dazzling, shocking, astonishing. Sandip Ray said in one of the sessions in the literary meet this year, “Calcutta is about having dinner at home”. It won’t shock you with the power it has over you, over your life. It will not damage you with its claims of money and power. Calcutta will get into you. It will become a chunk of your heart, a loss in your memory. It will confuse you every time you call it Calcutta and some stranger from far away asks you, “Isn’t it called Kolkata now?” But is it?
I remember when the first mall in Kolkata, Forum, opened. I remember how I would be so excited to go watch a movie there and then puppy-eye Papa into buying me ice cream from Baskin Robins. Today, Papa and I don’t really go to that many movies together and malls seem to be plain boring. Calcutta was in Papa buying me ice cream. Calcutta is in New Market. Kolkata is an illusion.
Calcutta is the way you can just stop while walking on the road and wonder if you really want to go where you are going. It is giving up your seat in the bus for the old widow with broken spectacles and a faded, bordered, white saree who will say “Na ma, tumi bosho” with her crinkled, wrinkled smile. Calcutta is the way all the buses stop at the wave of a hand and conductors yell, “Aaste! Ladies pete bachha!”, all those rickshaw wallahs and the trams that are too slow for Kolkata but perhaps just fast enough for Calcutta. It is in eating jhaal muri after shopping at Vardaan Market, buying a chocolate softy outside Treasure Island after a satisfying day spent at New market. It is in leaving office early to go to Victoria just because you suddenly felt like it. It is in all those ideas that won’t seep into words and then all those silences, which would be crippled by a search for meaning. Calcutta is in the conviction with which you will reply after a pause, “No, it will always be Calcutta to me.”
Calcutta isn’t like the other cities. It isn’t an addiction. It won’t haunt when you are gone. It will calm your nightmares. There might be a day when you will feel like leaving it, leaving behind your daaknaam, to go away to where you could do something more with your life because really, Calcutta seems to be forever in a dream, cut off from the pace of other cities, giving its people a pause, a moment to bring back hope. Time is irrelevant to it, an insignificant formality to define life with.
You know how all through our lives we keep moving to bigger, better houses? Calcutta is the first house you ever knew, the one that had practically no furniture and patches of paint would keep falling off and yet it was home. Calcutta is peeping behind the walls of that house playing hide and seek with your first friend ever. And when you are long gone, a resident of some bigger, better city and are standing in a shop buying a cigarette, it will come to you in the memory of your girlfriend back home asking you to quit. That’s what Calcutta does to you. It gets into you. In the way you will order dinner at the last minute even though you aren’t hungry as such because you remember Ma asking you to eat properly with tears in her eyes when you were leaving and the bag full of food she manipulated you into carrying.
But mostly, Calcutta will teach you to be in love. Your first dream, your first crush, the way you would hide being in love like you were 5 and it was a chocolate you didn’t want to share. It will teach you to love faces and places and then it will teach you to love life, just as it is. It will teach you that this is it, that no matter what you get from life now, will not be greater than this gift of being in love, knowing that you would give everything, every inch of your universe for one thing. And you will ask yourself on some days, in between cups of cha, if it’s all that mattered. Isn’t there supposed to be more to life? But is there?
Calcutta may try to become Kolkata, try to fit in but perhaps, it never will. It will always be the sunlight seeping in through the leaves of trees, the stars that you will pack in your bags when you leave. It will always be Calcutta in the song on its roads, in the dance of Durga Puja, in the way you will love and let go, and love again.
Yes, it will get into you. It is, inside of you.
Can you feel it?