Calcutta Once More

C.Y. Gopinath marvels at the revival of a city that loves itself too much to let itself die.

Bandopadhyaya was definitely following me. He had been on to me since I got off the tram at Dalhousie Square. Of course, he might have been a Chatto-padhyaya. Or a Ganguly. Or a Sanyal, for all I knew. The only sure thing was that he was as Bengali as they come: a mustardy old man in a starched panjabi and dhoti, with straight black-framed glasses, skin supple and shining from the morning's oil bath, lips reddened by paan. And mind, by the way, clearly riveted by the confused-looking stranger from the western half of the country.

It was my first trip to Calcutta since crossing into legal adulthood. College was behind me, but employment still somewhere ahead. To pass the uneasy interval in between, I had taken on a part-time project with a Bombay market research firm which wanted, of all things, a survey done of letterpress printing presses in Calcutta. I had a list of about 30 of these dark, clangorous establishments, worked no doubt by ancient bent-backed men with thick glasses and nimble fingers that deftly assembled the leaded messages of revolutions and indefinite strikes on composing trays.

It was the perfect opportunity—revisiting the city of my boyhood with all expenses paid, but more importantly, a chance to pay homage at my generation's holiest of holies, the offices of the stupendous JS magazine, which fed the spirit and imagination of the entire flower-power generation in India.

But first things first, and that meant finding my way to the New India Press in Dalhousie Square. In the crowded tram, I had anxiously pestered a half dozen Calcuttans to tell me when the stop arrived. A chorus of voices ushered me out of the tram. And now that I was peering anxiously around on the hard pavement of the business end of the city, I knew I was being watched. It was Bandopadhyaya, who had definitely been on the tram with me.

I walked away briskly; any direction would do. Bandopadhyaya hitched up his dhoti and followed, full of determination but always 20 paces behind. Presently, he hissed at me.

"Laift!" I heard.


I turned back, and there he was, frantically jabbing leftwards into the air. I should turn left. I did. He continued following me. "Rhite!!" he said presently. Right. I was now in a lane.

Forwaard. Laift again. Another rhite. The directions were crisp and authoritative. Bandopadhyaya knew where I should go, even if I didn't. Navigating me thus by remote control through a warren of lanes, he led me to the gate to the New India Press. I turned back to thank my benefactor, but he was already hobbling away, throwing a crooked smile at me over a crooked shoulder.

This is the avuncular Calcutta that I now know will never change no matter what else does. In my many years there, Calcutta has transformed itself from the misty and warm cloister of my childhood to a teeming, helter-skelter metropolis shorn of self-respect. Thence, from the bottom of hell, it has risen of late like some invincible minor deity, smiling, disciplined and ready to re-launch itself into its future.

There was a time, in the 80s, long after JS had closed down, when I would say a small prayer that Calcutta was a part of my past. Its chronic power cuts, its mounting garbage hills, its tiresome lethargy and its hollow rhetoric about its own glory. What a city! Fit only for Mother Teresa, I would think. Even the muri masala shops that used to put together Calcutta's addictive spicy puffed rice snack had died in passage from father to son. Then, miraculously, I heard travellers' tales about the improving power situation. Fewer electricity cuts, it was rumoured; and then one day, an end to them. Calcutta was now lit at all times. Uncleared garbage became first a rarity, then an impossibility. The streets were actually not merely cleaner, but clean.

In my few stray trips there, I would walk the tried and tested pathways of memory, to assay the changes. And sure enough, I found them. On Rash Behari Avenue, the south Indian enclave with its bustling Deshapriya Park, some things were forever but others had changed. The smell of jasmined evenings by Lake Market, with the tolling of the bell from the nearby Kali bari, flower sellers, Kundu Pharmacy (no doubt in the hands of the younger Kundu now), Komala Vilas with its perfectly set curds, scrubbed families taking the air—these were constants. But Operation Sunshine, the government's determined project to clear hawkers from the sidewalks had suddenly freed the avenue. Shopkeepers could look out and see the world instead of a melee. People did not crawl any more at bottleneck speed.

On Park Street, once so gloriously unattainable, the music and the musicians had long gone to the recording studios of Bombay, and for a while Moulin Rouge, the Sky Room (now closed) and Trinca's had stood like the only survivors in a ghost town. But now, even if the music was not back, the leisure was. A new generation sat on the steps of the church. Families ambled with nowhere to go and lots of time to do it in. And wonder of wonders, within Flury's, the freshly baked bread had not changed a whit, and the grilled chicken sandwich, kissed with French mustard, was as perfect as it had ever been. I recognised the toothless old waiter grinning at me, though I doubt he remembered the young JS reporter who would stop by for a cuppa on his trudge home after work. He shuffled about, seeing only another tipper who might add another few rupees to his old Calcutta life.

And, of course, Calcutta's Metro Railway, maintained resplendent and spotless by an unexpectedly vigilant Calcutta. Even a casual ticket crumpled on the platform could start a public lynching, and woe betide the casual spitter of paan. By the time JS closed down, forcing all us devotees to seek less luscious pastures, Calcutta's underground project had become a joke, a project the city should never have undertaken, one that would never end, one that would always slide back two steps for each advance. It was a monumental icon to the city's fading glory.

I retract everything we said then. Like old Bandopadhyaya, whose affection embraces everyone in distress, Calcutta loves itself too much to let itself die. And this is why, I think, after all the years and days, when the rest of the country is crashing about our ears, Calcutta smiles, stirs itself, and stands up, bright, fresh and newly born, ready for another thousand years.

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Himal Southasian