Sunday, November 26, 2006

Calcutta: A Love Story

All cities should have their stories chronicled. In some medium or the other. And some of them already have.
Bombay, for example. The glamour capital's story is a Film. And quite aptly, it has been made by a South Indian.
Delhi is a Novel. A long-drawn saga about the political intrigue that has come to symbolise the city. And despite the city's purported cosmopolitanism as the national capital, it has been written by a Sardar - India's most famous one at that!
Chennai should be a Comedy - and only R K Narayan could have documented the quirky balance of modernity and tradition. Maybe the small town of Malgudi in some ways was touched with the flavour of the largest small town in the world!
In the same vein, Calcutta can only be a love story. For what is love if it is not passionate and blind? What else is it if it is not the stuff of folklores? What is it if it is not at first sight? And what is it if it is not unforgettable? And such love stories abound.

This is not to say Bombay does not have its share of lunatic lovers. It does. But to remain in Bombay for all your working life, there is no sacrifice involved. You can move up your career and life staying in the financial capital of the country - and romanticise the cosmopolitanism of the city.
Ditto for Delhi.
But Calcutta has more than its fair share of lovers, who have abandoned fame and fortune to be with their muse. And the ones who have left have created a body of tragic literature from their distant outpourings.

In cocktail parties, in job interviews, in college reunions, I have praised the youthful spirit of Bangalore, the ease of living in Hyderabad, the work ethic of Bombay and the beauty of Delhi. Logically, I have held forth on the living standards, the entertainment options, the career possibilities and other scientific parameters. At the end of it, I have chosen from among these wonderful cities, a place to go back to.
Very rational.
What is irrational is the gut-wrenching urge I inevitably feel when I walk out of Subhas Chandra Bose Airport into the humid air. Is it the Anandabazar billboard with a catchy headline? Is it the sea of Ambassador taxis? Is it the Bengali on the road-signs or is it the WB number plates? What is it that makes me want to chuck up everything and just move to this city? Surely, it cannot be the traffic jam at Baguihati.
There is not an iota of logical reasoning in this. And yet...

Urchins at traffic signals in Bombay peddle pirated copies of Shantaram and Opal Mehta. In Calcutta, it is Orhan Pamuk.
When out-of-towners return to Bangalore, they are dying to hit the latest pub. Ex-residents of Calcutta go back to Peter Cat for the157th time. (And needless to say, order Chello Kabab for the 156th time.)
The P3P of Delhi are dying to get photgraphed with Rohit Bal. Calcutta P3P are attending a book-reading session by Taslima Nasreen.

The more I expect Calcutta to lose itself in the brand-new maze of apartment blocks and swanky malls, the more it remains exactly like the seductress I left behind 10 years ago.
The first time I saw a live cricket match. The first Smoked Hilsa I had. The first time I saw the Apu Trilogy. The first time I went to the Book Fair. The first time I heard Hariprasad Chaurasia play Raag Malkaus. The first time I was told the Naxal ideology. The first time I boycotted class to protest against the unfair system.
All come back to me for the simple reason that neither the players nor the place seem to have changed. The genial uncle would still be seated at Light Horse Bar of Saturday Club, recounting the romance of his college days. If I walk down College Street, the screenplay of Meghey Dhaka Tara would be still be hidden under the pile of Time magazines. If I walk into my college, the grafitti against the ineffective system would still be as vivid.

As a Calcutta songster said,
"Ei shohor jaaney aamar prothom shob kichhu
Palatey chaii joto shey ashey amar pichhu pichhu..."
This city is privy to all my firsts. The more I try to escape, the more it engulfs me...
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