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
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.