What do I miss about Calcutta?
I miss the sarcasm of the traffic snarls.
Unlike the silent aggression of Bombay and the obtuse obscenities of Delhi, the Calcutta traffic-participant is humourous. Trenchantly so. A jaywalker is asked if he has left home with his wife's sindoor box. Conductors are prone to stop buses for pregnant women with a mischievous "Slow down - kid alighting".
I miss the sophistication of humour.
While all of India is going ga-ga over Ajit jokes, Calcutta moves in a higher plane of humour. A Sardar taxi-driver in a bright turban is Sikh Transit Gloria Mundis. The reality of Jesus Christ's end is no longer a Crucifixion, but a Cruci-fact. If you know what Gul means in Bengali, you would understand why Aesop's Fables is called Aesop-Gul!
And of course, the subtlety. Where else would road names be changed to have the American consulate be located on Ho Chi Minh Sarani?
I miss the erudition of the common man.
Taxi drivers quote historians to explain origins of road names. Cinema ushers talk about the symbolism of jerky camera movements in French New Wave films. Booksellers give you recommendations for gifts if you tell them the age & medium of instruction of the giftee. Traffic policemen quote Galileo to stop entry into one-way streets. And bank clerks save money to fund their annual Book Fair purchases.
I miss the humility of celebrities.
Satyajit Ray, till he was too ill to do so, answered the phone himself and replied to all his fan-mail personally. Famous authors sit in batches during community lunches along with fans and patiently answer questions on their characters' motivations in between the fish and mutton.
I miss the missionary zeal in gastronomical matters.
Columbus, on sighting dry land, was not happier than the Calcuttan who discovers a hole-in-the-wall near his office which serves the world's best fish fry. People travel miles on Sundays to get mutton from one particular shop. Men come to blows while discussing the best biriyani joint in town. Inability to distinguish between Ganga hilsa and Padma hilsa is deemed to be a curse on the dynasty. Vegetarians are treated with a sympathy usually associated with terminally-ill patients in other parts of the world.
I miss the ability of the populace to assimilate the entire living universe into Calcutta.
Apart from obvious suspects, even people with extremely tenuous links are accorded honorary citizenships on account of spending an infinitesimal period of time in the city or with any of its citizens. Amitabh Bachchan. Steve Waugh. Rahul Bose. The latest being John Abraham.
To take refuge in a cliche, you can take a man out of Calcutta but...
... You cannot make him forget the beautiful girls of Presidency.
The phuchka-s near Deshapriya Park.
The glitter of Park Street.
The verdant green of the Maidan.
The same Maidan erupting in a million-strong celebration with the Book Fair.
The multitudes who brave malaria & pneumonia to attend the Dover Lane Music Conference.
The innocence of theoretically analysing political ideologies.
The incessant flow of coffee & conversation.
The helplessness in seeing the city's lifeblood seeping away.
The pleasant incredulity of seeing the life coming back in.
The joy of seeing people browsing at Landmark and Crossword, taking down a wish-list and then going back to Barun-babu in the para to get a 10% discount. AND a critical appreciation on the wish-list!
To quote an ex-Calcutta poet...
Calcutta - if you must exile me, wound my lips before I go
Only words remain and the gentle touch of your finger on my lips
Calcutta - if you must exile me, burn my eyes before I go
Before I go into the night
As the headless corpse in a Dhakuria bylane
The battered youth his brains blown out...