“In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order.”- Carl Jung
It was not so long ago that I was following a conversation about Kolkata between a writer and a traveller friend of his. As it is, I always enjoy listening to people talking about my city. But this time it was not such a pleasant experience. The traveller, an NRI from a bustling metropolis, shared his harrowing tales about Kolkata when he made his way home through the city. In his words Kolkata was no more than a dead city – disorganized, desultory and deluged by people from all corners of the globe.
It left me somewhat disconcerted. I searched for words, for impressions to defend Kolkata. But nothing came to me – no riposte, no denial, not even a sigh. For a long time I felt nothing. Was I sad? Was I angry? Was I disappointed? Was a part of me silent in resignation? Why was there a void? Why wasn’t I up in arms defending a city so dear to me? For a long time I didn’t know why I didn’t want to react.
And today as I sat absorbed in a listless afternoon, waiting for the calm to lift, waiting for a breeze to lift my spirits, waiting for the vagrant clouds to thicken and darken again, for lightning to strike and the sky to rage with the gathering storm, it came to me. I realized my affection for Kolkata ran too deep to be impelled to lash out, to be provoked by comments made by somebody who happened to be passing through Kolkata at the wrong time of the year.
I presume that to understand and love Kolkata, or any other aging city in the world, one has to accept that decay and chaos are integral to an old city. And having accepted the crumbling city, look deeper into the soul, search for its music, map its streets, taste its spirit, trust its people and love it in spite of its faults. Having thus resolved the storm within, memories of my home, my city, my Kolkata came to soothe me like the rain. I was not fighting a battle anymore , only reminiscing about my Kolkata and why I love her so.
My memory of Mahantaji and his brotherhood of monks in my first school, a Buddhist missionary institution tucked away in the middle of the Chine Para, the Irish convent I graduated to in the heart of Anglo Para, wandering through meandering by-lanes, discovering new alleys on longer summer afternoons, walking home through alleys that have been denied the invasion of daylight – was growing up with Kolkata. Climbing over walls to invade the neighbour’s terrace to visit a friend, the songs I learnt to hum because our neighbour loved to listen to his radio loud, watching the same people exiting the same rundown doors forever, the parar Durga Pujo, the para cricket, the adda at street corners or in our baithak-khana – was being a part of the Central Kolkata lane where I grew up. The boi para, the neighbourhood theatre that ran only old Bangla classics, the eroding facades of mansions echoing their former glory hidden at every bend of each lane, extravagant lattices, wooden shutters on arched windows, elaborate balconies – these and many more gems strewn at nooks and corners of a Kolkata urging to love. Getting wet under the open sky on an open terrace on a rainy afternoon, watching colourful kites flying in the lazy summer wind, lying on my back on the terrace and counting stars with my sister on a clear autumn night, the Palash that awaited me every spring with its flame coloured flowers ouside my college gates or just waiting for the Kaal Baishakhi after a scorching day – was a Kolkata that made me a dreamer.
Another Kolkata also remains embedded in my memory. A Kolkata of poets, painters, story-tellers, singers, of thinkers – people who make Kolkata proud, a Kolkata that was a distant dream in my youth but which never made me feel isolated. I was very much a part of the same Kolkata, very much absorbed in this artistic abundance.
And inspite of the undying spirit of this city of palaces and shanties, bridges and temples, trams and metro rails – to most Kolkata remains a dying city, beyond any hope and beyond any repair. Kolkata, the city which like a stubborn child has refused to change with the changing times. The city that continues to draw ire from us, and other out-of-towners, scornfully thumbing its nose at all as it digs in its heels deeper and refuses to mutate.
It is this one thing, this reluctance to change too much too soon, the resistance to molt and obscure the past that keeps me going back to Kolkata. My Kolkata remains just the way I had left it on a sultry afternoon, in June, eleven years ago. To me seeing the same roads, the same people, the same buildings, the same careless beauty – brings back a sense of belonging, to a city stuck in a time warp. The faded photographs in a torn album, the nooks and corners of the streets I have traversed for as long as I can remember; the smells that have forever stirred the same memories in me, all resonate a sense of homecoming for the soul in search of roots. Kolkata has always allowed me to remain myself, has compelled me to retain my identity. Like Kolkata doesn’t feel the need to change for anybody and unlike most of the other cities that I have either visited or lived in, Kolkata doesn’t compel me to concur with the change outside .
An old door in my neighbourhood, waiting for a breath of fresh air….
The lone tower of Kolkata Corporation Coin Museum, on College Street (Bidhan Sarani), after the rest of the market was demolished.
A balcony from my past.