Saturday, May 8, 2010
This has been a long time coming. Two and a half years, to be exact. No one questioned me when I went, no on wondered why I wanted to leave the city of my dreams, the city of my language, my friends, my foes and my desires behind to find employment a thousand miles away. It was but natural; Kolkata was a dying city, a withered shell lying on a bed of its former glory, inching towards doom. Choked with smoke, clogged with garbage, plagued by bandhs, skewered by politics, Kolkata was one more agonizing wheeze away from….what? Destruction? Implosion? Total, complete breakdown? Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to be good. Yes, I was well rid of it.
Funny thing there. Kolkata has been dying for centuries now. It’s always dying, just like we all are. It’s dying because it’s alive. Alive with the maddening rush of commuters in the early morning buses, alive with people complaining about politics and traffic jams as they inch their way home in the evenings, alive with bellows of the hawkers as they take up half the footpath offering everything from underwear to over-the-top promises, from pirated DVDs to original one-liners. They compete with each other for your attention and once you stop to look, for you, for you only they are willing to sell the cellphone pouch at fifty rupees….yes sir, it’s that cheap…and it’ll last forever, even better than an original Nokia….hey, hey why are you going away….forty rupees, come on that’s what it cost me…maa kalir dibbi
When I announced to my friends in Delhi I was going back home, reactions were mixed. Friends, REAL friends were happy. They knew what I wanted. Others were shocked. How could I leave a steady job, at a national news channel to go back to the festering hole of Kolkata, a place where careers go to die? A place where shopkeepers take afternoon siestas instead of serving customers? Where babudom is the most popular religion and productivity is sacrificed at the altar of politics every single day? I don’t blame them. There is no point denying Kolkata isn’t all those things, and some more. Nor were these people saying things to hurt me, I like to believe some of them saw me as a promising young man throwing away his career for a waft of nostalgia. People who love Kolkata were hopelessly trapped in the past, as was the city itself. Trouble is, they had nothing I hadn’t heard, and felt before.
For every reason I hear to hate Kolkata, I can supply naysayers with ten more. But much like those who say video games are not and never will be art, Kolkata critics too deserve just one response. You just don’t get it. And I mean it in the nicest way possible. Oh sure, I could sit here and make list after list on what there is to love about Kolkata, and you could listen to them, but you wouldn’t feel any of them. Because if you could feel what I feel, I wouldn’t have to explain them to you.
How could I explain WHY it’s wonderful to walk along a crowded footpath, shops to the left of me, shops to the right of me, and revel in the sights and sounds of a people who habitually love to make a noise? How could I make you feel what I feel when I enter a bookshop and see it stuffed mostly with BOOKS, not just cards and CDs an DVDs and posters and stuffed toys and plastic toys and coffee shops and crayon sets and key chains and doorstops and everything except books. How would you know why it is delightful that even at ten thirty at night, my locality will be bustling with activity? Shops would still be open, people would be arguing about the fish, and I would slip into Priyo Robindro Mishtanno Bhandar to buy sweets for dessert. How could I even explain why it’s a joy to be certain that no matter what area I am in, impoverished or opulent, I KNOW I will find a veritable array of roadside eateries serving up roll, chop, jhalmuri, kathi kebab, fuchka, dahi bara…..the list goes on. And how could I EVER explain the joy when, during an argument with a co passenger about Sourav’s exclusion, or the political futures of Sonia and Rahul, or America’s fiscal policy, a complete stranger makes an emphatic point, looks at you quizzically and says ‘ki bolen?’. In an instant you become part of a group, a gang discussing worldly affairs with more earnestness than the directors of major multinationals during the annual meeting. But only until the next stop, of course.
I don’t want this to be a knock on Delhi, my adopted city for nearly three years. Maybe a colleague was right when he said that not being a student in Delhi had robbed me of experiencing the nuances of the city…exploring it the way it’s meant to be explored. But for all its magnificent architecture, and its grand shops and malls, and its splendid roads and a wonderful Metro (if you lived in the right parts of the city), Delhi never spoke to me. For others it was surprising that I was coming back to Kolkata. For me it was as natural as breathing. Kolkata had corners I could call my own. In Delhi, I couldn’t even find corners. So I packed my bags, said goodbye to an enviable job and far, far more enviable friends and caught a flight for the city of joy.
I wasn’t born in Kolkata. Didn’t grow up here (just grew sideways, but that’s another matter). So when I started living here at the age of sixteen, why did it feel like coming home? Maybe because Kolkata has something for everyone, even awkward outcasts like me. Maybe because somewhere, in its pollution choked skies and garbage strewn alleys you can find secrets that have been left there especially for you. It’s a city where if one person falls down, ten people will pick him up. Oh, of course one of them will also try to pick his pocket, but hey….that’s Kolkata. The ugly, fetid, putrid, glorious, beautiful, exquisite city of my dreams. Sure, Kolkata is dying. Maybe someday it WILL die. But for now…it’s living one hell of a life.