Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Palace of Memories

I came to Calcutta after a very long time. And after an even longer time, the taxi driver did not take the usual route via the EM Bypass and went through the city. Despite the crawling traffic in sweltering heat, this turned out to be a very beautiful trip because I passed through the places of my earliest memories of the city - after a gap of nearly three decades.
Navigating through places where you have spent only your early childhood is a slightly disconcerting experience. Distances that were supposed to be long - almost interminable - turn out to be a few steps. Open fields that were shortcuts are now crammed with multi-storied apartments. Deserted construction sites are now shopping complexes. Open markets with slushy lanes have now become Pantaloons.

I passed an auditorium where I gave my first stage performance, wearing my first pair of trousers (dark brown) along with a pink full-sleeved shirt. Like hundreds of pre-schoolers down the ages, mine too was a rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and I still have a B&W photo of myself with my hand pointing skyward. I am quite sure such a photo exists in almost every Indian household.

I passed what was earlier a saloon - called Kesh Karu (in the Bengali poetic tradition) - where I had my first haircuts and whose penchant for crew cuts defined my hairstyle preference ever since.

A cinema called Alo Chhaya has now folded up with a rusty collapsible gate protecting the brood of dogs peacefully sleeping on the lobby. This was the place where my parents went one Sunday afternoon in 1975 and watched a film called Deewaar and discovered the phenomenon that is still ruling the box-office. I remember going to watch Yaarana in the same hall with my mother, while returning from school one day. (Yes, she is a cool mom!)

I went past the massive walls of Loreto Convent - whose lush compound is probably one of the most beautiful campuses I have seen and is only visible when you are on the flyover beside it. This is still as beautifully green as I remembered it.

On the road approaching Park Circus Maidan, Detective Training College and Forensic Training Institute still stood opposite each other and brought back my childhood thoughts when I always wondered if Prodosh C Mitter or Byomkesh Bakshi were invited as guest lecturers to these places. 

Christ the King Church may have a lot of religious significance but for me, it is a venue for quizzes. This and Dalhousie Institute are the places where the best and brightest minds  of Calcutta pitted brains against each other. In a moment of pompousness, some quizzer proclaimed that the buses of Calcutta called the halt outside DI 'quiz stop'. In my many years of travelling to DI by buses, it had never been referred thus. Truth be told, however culturally evolved Calcutta bus conductors were, they were unlikely to stop buses for 'quizzes' which - even in DI's busy calendar - happened only a few days in the year! This was - what we called - a 'home-made' question.  

The stop outside DI is known for the institution on the opposite side of the road - Modern High School of Girls, though the name is mangled beyond belief. This school is the alma mater of many worthies ranging from Aparna Sen to my sister and is considered to be the shrine of nyakaness. Every time I have said this, Modernites have jumped up and counted out many examples who are not nyaka - thus proving my point conclusively because you can only count exceptions!

Before we finally turn in to the road to my house, I leave behind Cakes - a store which was earlier Kookie Jar, which has to be (without exaggeration) the world's best pastry store. Cakes does a fair replica of KJ's products and the difference between the two is only palpable the  morning after. Kookie Jar's Macaroon Tart's crust holds even after a night in the fridge while Cakes' crumbles.

So what is the point of this nostalgic rambling?
Nothing because Calcutta is not about bullet points. This was just a recounting of memories that now exist in a different form.

The city has changed beyond recognition physically and yet when I walk down a lane - any lane - in the early evening, I still hear strains of tanpura, harmonium and voices practising Rabindrasangeet.
Shiamak Davar classes have started but students at Mamata Shankar's dance academy still cause a traffic jam in my lane.
Professionals return to the city only to work with corporates based in other cities of India. But they are happy. Probably because their office is 'right opposite the office of Dover Lane Music Conference'.

It is still the only Indian city where there are roadside boards with the day's newspaper stuck on to them. Though, it is no longer Ganashakti (the Left mouthpiece). It is Jago Bangla, adorned with the new Chief Minister's pronouncements.
The witty Anandabazar hoarding outside arrivals gate at the airport is no longer there but the print advertisements for the paper - "Pujo shonkhya manei Ananabazar" - is reassuringly erudite.
New bookstores have sprung up and many lament that their favourite para bookshops have shut down. But it is still the only place in the world where the bookstore attendants actually read in the store and recommend additional titles when they see your purchases.
It follows the Great Indian Malaise of changing the names of institutions of public usage - airports, bridges, colleges, train stations. But they are not named after members of one dynasty or one party. Intellectuals and patriots ranging from diverse fields are chosen instead. I was very impressed to find that the Institute of Printing Technology is housed in Upendra Kishore Bhawan (named after one of the pioneers of modern printing in India, who is also Satyajit Ray's grandfather).
And speaking of Ray, his fictional creations have now ensured that Bengalis don't have to depend on Che Guevera and The Beatles for t-shirt art. Professor Shonku (who turns 50 this September) and Feluda have now started an industry by themselves.

None of these things have any tangible value and yet I feel illogically happy that this is the place where I was born.
And this is where I will have to come back to die. 
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