Jug Suraiya, the brilliant writer who grew up in Calcutta tries to sum up the city in this beautiful statement:
"In many ways, Calcutta or at least, the Calcutta I knew found an apt metaphor in a derelict, tuneless piano once grand and imposing but now consigned to cobwebs and memories, difficult to accomodate in any practical scheme of things, yet defiantly enduring: pathetic to some, poignant to others, sufficient to itself."
I was born in the city but had then moved out to Gujarat, making only summer vacation visits to my birthplace before finally taking up a job there after graduation. I too have struggled to define what still pulls me to this chaotic city where nothing seems to be going right and have found an apt metaphor in something similar to Mr. Suraiya's train of thought though not exactly the same.
My maternal grandparents lived in the Salt Lake area of Calcutta so far removed from the city that it is its own municipality. But for someone like me coming in on a train from the western fringes of India, this was Calcutta enough for me. The little flat that they lived in ever since I was born was a treasure trove of wonders. They hadn't ever needed a fridge so the butter was kept floating in a bowl of water to preserve it, a unique thing that I had observed and for some trivial reason appreciated during my stays at my grandparents' house. There was a camp bed which was put out in the centre of our drawing room in our honour as we kids loved lying there in the curtain darkened afternoons as mom or grandma spun tales of how we were in the depths of a jungle as a tiger prowled outside our camp.
The wire mesh cabinets in the kitchen held goodies concocted by my grandma especially our all time favourite the sweet and tangy tamarind pickle. The book shelves often coughed up crepe paper covered story books from my mom's childhood which we read with relish and smelt that divine old book smell though sometimes it triggered a sneeze or two. Every year when we came there, the immediate neighbours who were a brother-sister pair slightly older than my sister and me were a big draw too. They used to mark our heights on the wall of their drawing room causing the incomparable thrill of finding out how much taller we had grown over the past year. Their pet pomeranian was as good as ours for the period of time that we lived there.
Then there were the sweet shops of the Labony Colony market in which I'd love to gaze lovingly on the offerings, and the 'mooriwalaa' (Puffed rice seller) who'd come to the flat with his huge basket and I'd be amazed everytime by his physical capabilities only to be reminded by grandma that his 'bostaa' (sack) really weighed nothing at all. The "Chuttii Chuttii" vacation programs on DD Bangla where we'd wait with bated breath for the next installment of the Feluda adventures by Satyajit Ray carried a special thrill when watched in the drawing room of the G-5/6 flat while we munched on 'moori' and 'beguni' (A flour caked fried goody with eggplant inside). The Tortoise slides at the other end of the colony where we'd beg our parents to take us were nothing more than two stone tortoises for kids to clamber over with a big slide on the same ground yet it meant the world to us. The Mother Dairy milk machine, the 'Jahaaj Baari' (Ship House) and a million other oft seen wonders would await us every time we stayed over at our grandparents and would thrill us just the same everytime.
Now that my grandparents have long passed away, a visit to my grandma's flat is not the same but the memories still come flooding back. The dust is wiped off them and they are burnished to a new shine everytime I quietly pass any landmark near my grandma's house that had excited me no end in the past. The coolness of a place lies in the intimacy someone shares with the place, with the stories that pop out of every corner of the streets. It's quite difficult for someone to appreciate who didn't have a part to play in those stories.
Similar to my relationship with my grandparents' house is the bond I share with the city of Calcutta as a whole. The trams clattering their idiosyncratic way through the hellish jams, the chime of the rickshaw puller's bell as he runs through the alleys getting little children to school or fat ladies to the New Market (which actually is at least 120 years old), the welcome relief of Red Road after the choking traffic of Esplanade, the traffic rumbling through the old skeleton of the Howrah Bridge, the crumbling buildings of North Calcutta, the short walk to the Oxford Book Store from my house - a journey which I undertook with joy for the rewards that lay at its end and the sudden rain showers that I love to get caught in - all this and more define my Calcutta. How do I explain this to a person who lands in from the vibrancy and swankiness of Delhi or Bombay (Both cities which I love and appreciate)? How do I get inside their head and ask them that when they are all done with the shopping malls and the late-night partying, whether there is some place they are familiar with from their days of innocence, a fortress of calm and comfort that they'd always turn to? Because that place for me with all its lovable and not-so-lovable flaws is Calcutta.