The Calcutta I Love
I have never lived in Calcutta but I love the city.
What I love about Calcutta is not the places to visit but the spirit of the city. I love it’s people, it’s history, it’s antiquity, it’s culture, it’s flavors, fabulous cuisines and it’s multi-culturalism. People are passionate about what they feel and do. Life feels vibrant!
The first time I visited Calcutta was in the late 1970s. I was a teenager, had just completed my grade ten, and was on the way to a sleepy village in Assam, Rajapra, with my parents who were visiting the village to help set up medical care. Calcutta was a direct contrast to Rajapara in certain senses.
Rajapara was like a beautiful green gem beside a lake which yielded the tastiest Chitol ( Indian featherback) fish I have had in my life! It was a tiny village a few hours drive from Guwahati. I remember how darkness descended suddenly in Rajapara the first evening. We had just arrived. It was daylight and then it was pitch black. You could see the stars glimmering like diamonds in the night sky. My eyes had grown up with city lights in New Delhi and here, there was no electricity. There was no dusk in Rajapara. Day and night…a sudden transition! The sudden onset of darkness scared and surprised me. I started to cry.
Calcutta never instilled a sense of surprise or fear in me. The only strange and likeable thing, I found was that everybody used my mother-tongue, Bengali. Women were also more respected than in Delhi, where I was growing up. I liked that too. Of course, I do not know if that is more an East Indian thing. In Rajapara, I remember women played a pivotal role in the village and were involved in the decision making. I remember one funny thing. Married women were not allowed to ride elephants. So, I could take a tour of the village on an elephant but my mother couldnot. My father preferred to keep off the ride as he is always apprehensive of animals and their reactions.
In Calcutta, the most unique ride we had was in the tram. It chugs along slowly and you can pretty much get on and get off as you please. My father loved the tram ride. It reminded him of his university life in Calcutta in the 1950s and 60s. What I found unique about buses and trams in Calcutta was not just the way they accomodated women, children and old people and catered to their needs but also the political and cultural discussions among passengers who didnot know each other and would probably never meet again.
My father also spoke highly of the Esplanade. He compared it to the speaker’s corner in Hyde Park, London. I had not been to London as yet and, to me, Esplanade seemed like an overcrowded field. In retrospect, I think he was referring to the spirit of the places. Hyde Park and Esplanade both have an interesting ambience of antiquity. The last time we were in Calcutta in December 2014, I remember there was a political rally in Esplanade. That was the day we decided to visit our favorite landmark in Calcutta near that area, the Victoria Memorial. Our friends and relatives advised us against it but we went ahead. Not only was the traffic very well managed but there were no disruptions or delays faced by us. The only thing that we did experience was that the museum and the grounds were more crowded than usual but, it was a well-organised crowd.
Victoria Memorial, I feel, is one of the most emblamatic places in Calcutta. It has the old and new merged in it’s essence. The exhibits are really antique and fabulous, including the manuscripts on the first floor but the crowds are new and vibrant. The gardens surrounding the museum are beautifully laid out and very well maintained still. I have been there thrice in the last three years, twice in February and once in December, and each time I was impressed by the vibrancy of the flowers, the people and the museum.
The Victoria Memorial is about a century old and was paid for by the Indian princes and members of the British Raj. It was proposed by Lord Curzon as a memorial to the dead Queen Victoria. Despite the freedom movement in India which was aiming at independence and nationhood by Indians, people did pay their respects to the monarch as a ruler and a historical figure by coughing up generous amounts of cash to build the museum. The contribution by the monied people of India at that point is a unique characteristic of what builds great civilizations. They could think in terms of mankind and not of boundaries that are being drawn all the time in the name of nation, culture and religion.
A visit to Victoria memorial calls for a lunch at either Peter Cat or Mocambo. Every time I think of Peter Cat, I dream of their scrumptious Chelo kebab. They serve chicken and lamb kebabs with butter rice and a poached egg. It is the most mouth-watering dish I have ever eaten in my life. When I think of it, my mouth starts salivating automatically and I experience throws of hunger pangs! Last year, we visited Peter Cat on New Year’s eve at lunch time. There was a huge queue. My hungry sons agreed to wait two hours for lunch… An unheard of occurrence in any other restaurant in the world! And when the Chelo kebabs came, it was like manna from heaven…Peter Cat with it’s lurid red interiors has an ambience of the nineteen sixties, when it came into being. Interestingly, it was named after a cat that prowled the Lords’ cricket grounds in London from 1952 to 1964 and Calcutta is cricket crazy!
Mocambo is famous for it’s bhetki fish( sea bass) steak. The bhetki is domicile of the Bay of Bengal and is plattered into fantastic recipes in Bengal. Mocambo has adopted local foods and given them a twist of the multicultural society of Calcutta. The restuarant started in 1956 and featured European managers and crooners. Now, what remains are the fabulous recipes, a mixture of Bengali and western food. Calcutta is historically known to have hosted not just the British but also the Armenian, Dutch and French among it’s vast plethora of conquistadors with their specific areas of interest.
Calcutta came into existence as a city when the East India company began to use it as their trade outpost. Earlier, it existed as three villages till it was united into one city for trade purposes. The name of the legendary Job Charnock who lived and worked for the East India Company in the 1600s comes into ones mind when one thinks of Calcutta. However, in 2003, his name was wiped off as the founder of Calcutta by a High Court ruling and Calcutta was respelled as Kolkata.
I have never been able to figure out the need for a compulsive national identity. My identity lies in being a human being, and hopefully a good one. Even if they spell Calcutta as Kolkata, the flavour of the city continues multicultural.
Calcutta was the home to many illustrious nobel laureates, like CV Raman, Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen. I visited the home of one in Jorasankho, Rabindranath Tagore. My mother-in-law who was with us and is an avid admirer of Tagore’s songs and poetry, sang his lyrics sitting in his courtyard. It was really a very inspiring experience. This was where he wrote in his early years and Santiniketan University was the product of his later years.
There are so many places to visit in Calcutta that despite making half-a-dozen trips, I have a vast number of things that I would still love to see. This time at last my sons had a glimpse of the famous Hooghly river on the way to Botanical Gardens to see a Banyan tree that is more than 250 years old and has lived through the rise of Calcutta. The river Hooghly is a tributary of Ganges in it’s lower reaches. We crossed on the famed Hooghly bridge. This is something I had wanted to do with my sons for many years. I was sad to see the disrepair the utilities in the Botanical Garden have fallen to. The bathroom was disgusting and unusable.
It is also heart wrenching to see the way some live as one approaches the Tagore mansion in Jorasankho. The poor in this area live in tiny tenements on the drains. They do not seem sad about it. I wonder if they lived in the same squalid state in Tagore’s times. Looking at the dirt and the tiny hovels, I can figure out why many would react badly to Calcutta, or for that matter, to any city in India. Perhaps, over the years, having lived in a diverse variety of cultures and countries, I find the calm acceptance of poverty and filth by people who are wealthy a little alarming. It is great to have. But, it is a happier experience to be able to give and to make ones surroundings clean and pleasant.
Despite the sombre notes of the city, I love the happiness and optimism one sees among the rich and poor in the city. Everybody has a smile for you. I would go as far as to say that it is one of my favorite cities in the world!