Tag Archives: Vagabonding ft. Chai

“CALCUTTA”

Jodhpur Park, 5: 35 p.m.

The burner was rain-splattered. There was a tear in the blue tarpaulin overhead, which went uncared for unless rainwater plopped into the tea that was slowly simmering. Simmering now; it would boil over soon enough. But Bablu da turned down the knob at precisely the right moment, before it did. 8 rupees for a bhaand.

The burner took a break. Calcutta is a city that often seems to be, to the outsider, on an endless break. You’d be envious of its languid vacation. Men women children yellow cabs mini-buses hand-drawn rickshaws sprawled across the asphalt bed, inhaling the tar and the light blue sky all at once. That’s Calcutta for you. The City of Joy, of culture and heritage and music. To her lovers, Calcutta’s cacophony is music. Hot debates over steaming cha-shingara is an orchestra. The dull hum that sets in every night, as the brown oil-soaked paper covering the egg-chicken rolls sticks to the plates, is a lullaby. Calcutta’s lovers are probably among the most possessive. After all, it’s the city with a soul. Argue with that, and you may subtly or not-so-subtly be labelled vapid.

It was all very laughable for a while. A city with her people and their eccentricities. It was cute, almost. But for how long does one laugh at isolation? For how long do you find yourself amused when you’ve walked the entire stretch from Park Street to New Market and felt nothing but empty and alone?

I was always asked why I don’t say ‘Kolkata’. ‘Kolkata’, ‘shohor’- names given to a city by her lovers. Excuse my gendering of it, but Calcutta to me has always been feminine: the bashful beloved, the cruel mistress, or the cool and aloof singer at the downtown bar. Or it could be conditioning. I don’t know. I haven’t bothered to find out. That is how it has been, you see. My romance with Calcutta, however fleeting, has always felt like a hand-me-down raincoat. Friends who had inhabited this metropolis for years had often resembled condescending, elder siblings. The things they own are simply…better. And now that I have them too, I better value them, love them. The lack of romance, however, was more my own. Never felt second-hand. And that bothered me. I struggled to experience Calcutta. I went to College Street, strolled among the lawns of Victoria, sat sipping cha at Princep Ghat as dusk resisted the night. Calcutta did not become shohor.

Coming back to nomenclature. ‘Calcutta’ is endearing, yet foreign. My relationship with the city has been an exhausting and persistent process of inching closer and shrinking away. I was always heavily aware of being on the outside. Calcutta doesn’t belong to anyone, but her people do belong to her. I yearned for the sense of belonging that I never felt, be it in Maidan, in Coffee House, while flicking the ash off a dying cigarette, or in the by-lanes of Shobhabazaar. Park Street remained a blur of neon lights and Chinese food and debates over the steak at Oly Pub. Despite living in the southern part of the city, it never grew into my go-to place for a night-out. Yellow cabs flitted in and out of sight, from my 27th floor balcony. The world down below with a million people, dreams in their veins and coals in their hands, did not have to make sense to me. If only I could get a little closer.

Romance is Bablu da’s steaming bhaand of perfectly coloured tea in rain. But Calcutta and I were locked in a long-term relationship, and there was no love lost between us. We gave each other space, and too much of it. We were respectful to each other, and did not stop its turning into cold civility. I had typed ‘but’ instead of ‘and’ in the previous two sentences, but hit backspace each time. Because I don’t know if there is any regret anymore. I knew regret. I had seen it on the face of the old manager of Paramount, as a twenty-something abused Lenin, and ordered sweet lime juice instead of daab-er shorbot. Regret was Au Bon Pain in place of Music World. Regret could be spelled out.

How do you spell nothing?

I can be apathetic. I can be distasteful. But I can’t refute Calcutta. Every time the air-hostess welcomes me to Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport, the city and I greet each other like old lovers who neither accept nor reject one another. We are going to spend some time together now. Struggle, to tolerate, if not love.

Image by Deyasini Chatterjee


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Vagabonding ft. Chai
Ramblings from the life of an insomniac Lit major living by Stevenson’s aphorism: “The great affair is to move”, and trying to make sense of life and its squiggles.

Written by Deyasini Chatterjee

Updates monthly

Of Carols and Crayons

Midnight at Marine Drive, pavbhaji on various chowpattys, a stroll through the Hanging Gardens: most of the Mumbai Darshan items and more, had been ticked off, having lived in the city for five years. However a little hamlet remained unnoticed, undiscovered. Enclosed in a blink-and-miss by-lane of Charni Road, Khotachi Wadi is where Bombay pauses to breathe. It’s a world of crayoned bungalows with wooden staircases, of chrome walls and mosaic murals, and armchairs and floors polished by daylight. With each step into this pastel palette, the din of Girgaum chowpatty ceases to be muffled background noise. There are no cars, no autos and no two-wheelers squirming their way through the crimson BEST buses. Only one little boy calling out to another to fetch a new cricket-ball. Only an aged man reading the newspaper in the sun, his morning tea steady on a rickety wooden stool. And a cat escaping Mrs. D’Souza’s wrath as she hangs out the day’s laundry to dry.

It was Christmas when I visited Khotachi Wadi. A time of repose and rejoicing. The village, with a predominantly Christian population, had decked itself with fairy lights and porcelain figurines of the Babe in the Manger and the Three Wise Men. I sat on one of the benches outside the chapel and noticed, that in a world of unfeeling anonymity, the inhabitants of Khotachi Wadi were known to each other on a first and surname basis. A Mr. Pereira had been invited to dine with the Mistry family. Unfortunately for Mr. Mistry, the guest had not been mindful of the invitation and Mrs. Mistry’s loud grievances of having fried the surmai in vain were now upon the old gentleman.

Taking in snippets of the lives of the families who resisted the mad rush outside so effortlessly, I felt the balmy sea-breeze graze my face, as did the high-rises looming over Khotachi Wadi from all sides. I wanted to pinpoint where the beauty lay, whether in the seamless blend of vibrant colours, the quiet quaintness or simply the gentle assertion to hold on to heritage.

It is fashionable to visit the English countryside and put up a ‘check-in’ on Facebook. There’s also no doubt that Juliet’s casa in Verona can enrobe one in a romantic reverie at any time of the day. However, the window-sill above me, with flowers longing to swing down just a little lower, shouldn’t have to credit itself any less. It is just as beautiful. Khotachi Wadi is a small space, and there isn’t much to see. It does not overwhelm you; it may not inspire you to compose a lyrical ballad. But it does allow you to forget the blurred chaos for a while. The quiet here is the sweetest sort of silence. Maybe Khotachi Wadi does not make Bombay what it is, but it certainly is the oasis the metropolis needs.

Images by Deyasini Chatterjee


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Vagabonding ft. Chai
Ramblings from the life of an insomniac Lit major living by Stevenson’s aphorism: “The great affair is to move”, and trying to make sense of life and its squiggles.

Written by Deyasini Chatterjee

Updates monthly

Seven Days of London

“Walk straight down the road, and you come to a nice little pub…”

The beginning of most of the responses I received on asking for directions in London. London is a big city. It is an endless sprawl of white, terraced houses and centuries old red-brick buildings with a generous sprouting of towers here and there. And parks. Lots of parks. Parks in which I could see myself ten years down the line, unwinding after a day spent in a cab, calculating which of the twenty-one Gloucester Roads to take, before the well-meaning driver decided to lunge down a random side-street for no apparent reason. That’s the thing about cab-drivers in London – they are extremely polite, friendly, and safe. However what’s slightly (only slightly, mind you) odd, is their absolute reluctance to admit that they don’t know the direction to your location. Hear the overtly casual chuckle in their voice once they finally have it figured out, and you’ll know why it’s said that the British have certain idiosyncrasies which you come to accept with time.

For instance, you don’t talk on the tube. You don’t talk on the tube when you need to ask what the next station is in case you’ve missed the previous one; you don’t talk on the tube if your fellow passenger’s bag occupies more of your lap than his; you don’t talk on the tube if you’re about to die. And while in the tube, you certainly do not have the ultimate luxury of making small talk. As a foreigner I had a hard time, nearly choking myself on occasion, trying not to laugh at the hilarity of the dumb silence. But it’s a different world above altogether. Londoners love conversation once they’re out of the bowels of the earth. Although a reserved sort, most of them love to chat you up about the most unusual and insignificant of things, such as seats on the London Eye and bacon sandwiches. And the weather. Always, the weather.

Perhaps it was these very peculiarities that made me feel the way I did about London. The way the parks looked like places I could come back to. The other side of the planet, a different timezone, the very people whose ancestors had colonised my country. Yet geography and history faded into oblivion as I waited at the bus-stop in Knightsbridge. During my weeklong stay, I had turned a hundred identical street-corners, walked a hundred alleys – alleys which promised quiet and shadows, alleys in which you missed a lover; alleys, also, which reminded you that you were enough on your own. Enough to read London in Blyton and Dickens, and enough to explore it all by yourself with a little help from strangers and Harry Beck of the London Underground Map repute.

London was unique in the way it functioned as a metropolis. In a foreign city, you’d expect to experience a constant dissonance from ‘home’, and/or the fear of missing out. Never having had a home-base in twenty years, the first was out of the question for me.

But London, a city bubbling over with history and art, never made me choose between the Tower Bridge and Portobello Market. There was an air of familiarity in getting treacle pudding from the cafe across the street; a sense of accomplishment in figuring out which Eastbound train to board. And the final triumph of childlike glee came at being asked for directions to Westbourne Terrace. In seven odd days, London had a made a home out of itself. It was the most satisfying blend of heritage and modernity, of vinyls and headphones, headphones patiently waiting at a traffic light with no cars in sight. It was a blend of silver rain and silver sunshine. In seven odd days, London made me want to stay, and that was enough.


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Vagabonding ft. Chai
Ramblings from the life of an insomniac Lit major living by Stevenson’s aphorism: “The great affair is to move”, and trying to make sense of life and its squiggles.

Written by Deyasini Chatterjee

Updates monthly


Column icon by Sanna Jain
Featured Image by Hitashi Arora

Napkin Notes from L’Etoile 1903, Champs Élysées:

i.
A girl comes and sits across from me: a porcelain face framed by a razor-sharp fringe, as sharp as the edges of the cracked caramel of my crème-brûlée. The waiter asks if I’d like to order something more – more wine maybe? Everything in this city seems to be crackling and crisp: the wine, the faces, the leaves even. Where was the sepia softness of Paris that I had read about? I looked for it in the Luxembourg Gardens, on Île Saint-Louis, behind the facades of the huge gates barricading the residential buildings. The personal, the out of sight. You could lie dead in one of those and no one would come to know for days, I thought with a grimace as I turned one corner after the other. A bicycle parked here, a vendor of crêpes there. It was Postcard Paris. Still, I searched for the softness. Paris, mon amour.

No sign of that one.

ii.
What was it that I was looking for? A couple gathered in an embrace in front of the Eiffel Tower? No, I certainly wasn’t naive enough to have made a twelve-hour long journey for such a sight. Not, at least, without a monochrome filter. But all the filter that I got was Paris’ overcast skies, which did not look pleased at my arrival in the least. Why else would you give me a locked up, blank slate instead of the azure? I had even chosen the time of travel carefully: springtime. So you see, my disappointment was legit.

iii.
I thoroughly disliked Paris. The apartments growing in alleys, stuck to each other like leeches, looked monstrous and malevolent. They said the Seine was flooded. Parisians’ idea of floods seems laughable to anyone from the Indian subcontinent. What a privilege, I thought, again (read: obviously) with a grimace. By now I was restless and impatient. I wanted to turn away from the cold and damp. From the passing of time that acted as a constant hindrance to the longing I felt. I wanted to love Paris. The cobblestone streets snaked and stretched endlessly, welcoming all the gentlemen in their tailor-made Armani and all the ladies in their jewel toned coats and camel-coloured pumps and all the pooches with their engraved collars.

All but me. I stood at the crossroads between Bastille Stalingrad and Gare de Lyon wondering if I should photograph the woman in polka-patterned stockings with a bag of art supplies lying open at her feet; wondering if I should cross the damn road. If I should cross over at all, to the Paris I wanted to experience.

iv.
“All you have to do is write one true sentence.”

This article so far, has been honest, if nothing else. My apologies for the stark lack of shine. Of the shimmering lights of la tour Eiffel, any mention of children running around on the promenade of Notre-Dame, faces smeared with chocolate. You see, I saw all of that. But somehow, I do not feel like I know Paris at all. There is no end to Paris; that I can tell you with certainty. But this is the end of my first, most basic tryst with the city that seemed so different from anything I had ever read about it. The fragments I find myself now holding in my hands are more than incomplete. There are sweeter stories to be read on the padlocks, stories I read as ‘mishap’ at first glance. The banlieues of Paris where men and women let the tar spiral down their lungs, lungs panting and heaving their way through, were not places to romanticise. You don’t take a photograph of a ghetto add some noise make it monochrome, and call it ‘art’. Art must have been the writing on the subway walls I shrugged off as gibberish because I had a shoe-bite on my left foot. That writing must have been the words of prophets. Who knows?

For all I know, I was so busy searching for the Paris of my imagination that I had missed the city that actually lived and breathed. So you see, my disappointment was legit. Or so I thought.


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Vagabonding ft. Chai
Ramblings from the life of an insomniac Lit major living by Stevenson’s aphorism: “The great affair is to move”, and trying to make sense of life and its squiggles.

Written by Deyasini Chatterjee

Updates monthly


Column icon by Sanna Jain
Featured Image by Deyasini Chatterjee

Shifting Frames

When I moved to Bombay at the tender age of eight, I gradually discovered it to be a city of striking paradoxes. I have grown accustomed to hearing the adage ‘Mumbai is the city, Bombay is the emotion’. It’s true. Bombay reveals what the City of Dreams keeps hidden. Bombay is the gamut of emotions I experience while quietly strolling across Bandstand, looking out at dappled brushstrokes on an aquamarine palette. It’s the frenzied honks of cars and auto-rickshaws and motorbikes at Sion Junction. It’s the pearly white shrouding the tops of Haji Ali on a full moon night. It’s the gales of water that soak the city to its bare bones, purging it of all its pretence of order; and it’s the sighing calm after, when the city emerges gasping and alive.

Alive; it’s always alive. There is a thrum in the air as I sit on Marine Drive, sprayed by the waves that crash relentlessly onto the rocks, as if to chastise them. It is there when the sea remains oblivious to the mad city rushing past; oblivious, also, to the ever-changing landscape. It is there when Virar Local screeches to a halt at Borivli. Amidst the slight shock and inertia, it is present, quivering.

Bombay is accelerated heartbeat; it can also be a gallery of peace. It is the city that grows on you. At first, the filth, the noise, and the sad excuse for infrastructure (that goes to hell during the monsoon) might be disheartening. But wait for the old waddling lady who feeds the dogs of her locality every single day of the year. Wait for the dabbawalla who delivers tiffin-boxes full of love and sweet nothings to offices stuffed higgledy-piggledy in a by-lane of Peddar Road. Wait for the group of fifty-something financial brokers calling you to join them in the general compartment to solve the sudoku in the Mumbai Mirror. Maybe then, the traffic stuck in potholes won’t seem so bad.

If you can live in Bombay, you can live anywhere in the world. It teaches you to be a survivor, like itself. When you catch the glittering skyline smiling down on you, you won’t recollect the horrors of 26/11. When you drive across the Bandra-Worli sea-link at 100 kmph, you won’t be reminded of the floods of 2005. Bombay has battle scars, like all great cities. But it is the city that never sleeps. It never dies down.


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Vagabonding ft. Chai
Ramblings from the life of an insomniac Lit major living by Stevenson’s aphorism: “The great affair is to move”, and trying to make sense of life and its squiggles.

Written by Deyasini Chatterjee
Updates monthly


Column icon by Sanna Jain
Featured Image by Stuti Pachisia