Calcutta Chronicles

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The long, meandering line of lights blinks, burns and finally stands still at a cross-road. The passengers inside the hatchbacks-Chevrolets, Hyundais, Fords-mostly in their thirties, fretter and fume with routine indignation. They are the stalwarts in IT giants, just coming out of the newly built Salt Lake Sector-5 who spends most of their waking hours clock-working with task-force round the globe. For them, halt is stagnation. Time is money. Moments later, the bizarre honks at great scales surpass all words of profanity, making the lone traffic policeman even more confused than he already was. Dusk descends quickly in January, cooling down the vast patches of dusty terrains lying in between tall corporate towers. The street vendors running in between the waiting cars sell strawberries these days instead of popcorns and chips as per the emerging taste of the growing crowd.

A couple of kilometers ahead, thousands of people attend the opening ceremony of Book Fair. Keeping up with the spirits of nineteenth century, Calcutta still boasts its women authors. People flock to catch a glimpse of Bani Basu, Suchitra Bhattacharya and the evergreen Nabonita Deb Sen. They talk about the changing and not-so-variant facet of the  society, Bengali society most of the time, year after year with equal élan. Saying so, it doesn’t mean that the male literary members are any less popular. For the dreamy eyed Bengali, Budhhadeb Guha still brings the fragrance of the virgin forests and who could let go the eminent Sunil Ganguly? But for some vague reason, the younger population find themselves expressing better in English rather than vernacular. While one witnesses a growing trend amongst the youngsters to come up on print with their perfectly anglicized stories every now and then, one would still wait for the graying novelists of yester years for fresh write-ups in Bengali.

The colonial mansions of the British Raj in Calcutta downtown are buzzing with freshly renovated showrooms. The suave, soft-spoken, foreign educated Marwari gentleman who owns many such showrooms at various corners of the city took a long walk from the one-room residence of Girish Park. His grandfather would walk down from that house to his 10feet by 10feet office in the dilapidated corner of a dingy lane in Burra Bazaar every morning; the place where every commodity changed hands and crores of rupees got exchanged in the loop of supply-demand. But the current business tycoon has a permanent frown and his age-lines are deepening fast. His only daughter wants to be a doctor, not a business owner. Money-making is been synonymous with the Marwari community for centuries here. Commerce is in their blood and with the pumping of their heart beats it proliferates in the nook and corner of this vast, eclectic city. The two-storied Gupta Brother sweet shop in Behala juts out like a diamond necklace amidst crumbling ruins. Appalling the by-stander it writes a dazzling epitaph for Girish Chandra Dey & Nokur Nundy in the old Bengali quarters of Shyambazaar. Their progeny insists that the Nolen Gur (novel jaggery of the Winters) can not be preserved with its right taste and flavor and fragrance, hence can’t be exported to other parts of the country. His maestro sweet-maker wont delve the magic formula adhering to family tradition. As the proud shop owner of this historical sweet shop he can’t possibly compromise on the quality, can he? So he refuses to expand and branch out.

However, ‘nolen gur’ is not dying. It’s here to bloom with emerging global presence. ITC Sonar Kolkata presents Nolen Gurer Praline in its bakery shop. So does many new designer gourmet dessert shops.  Globalization is not new to Calcuttans. They have had their moments in the nineteenth century itself. They adapt fast. Immerse in the changing winds with acute sense of open mindedness.

The dingy lanes close to the Nokur’s shop still have some of the monumental mansions of the Bengali babus. A social class which rose in wealth and status by being apprentice tradesmen and collaborators of the British. They earned fast money so little did they appreciate the value of it. The long, winding mosaic corridors, the broken chandeliers, crumbling living rooms and doorways still bear witness to their lechery, debauchery and historical dissipation of wealth and integrity. Kaliprasanna Sinha portrayed a wonderful picture of that generation in his book Hutom Pachar Naksha (The Observant Owl Hootum’s Vignettes of Nineteenth-century Calcutta-translated by Anu Kumar). It mentions one babu Nabakrishna Deb who spent nearly a million rupees at his mother’s funeral. Some would have garden-houses where they would invite nautch girls known as khemtawallis and drown themselves to death in alcohol and promiscuity night after night. The huge red-light area lying close to Shyambazar carries the lineage of some of those dancing girls.

In the south, Ballygunge slowly emerged as the chic habitat of the affluent in those days. Rabindranath Tagore’s elder brother Surendranath and his wife Gnanadanandini once had an estate there. They were noted for bringing many a change in the Tagore family and Bengali society at large. Gnanadanandini was the first woman from the family to sail in the foreign waters and visit England. She perfected Western culture and etiquette inculcating foreign lifestyle in her household. They threw lavish parties and entertained guests like the British elite those days. Those elegant halls and the massive wrought iron gate is no more. In it’s place one sees lofty high-rises harboring nouveau riche coming from various culture and creed. The interior of their apartments showcase ample glass and artifacts. They drive by in expensive new sedans.

But, the city also keeps its old and dying and preserves the rustic rubbles, the fragmented heart and soul of the bygone like a possessive lover. Its people are in peace with the opposite polarity of material influx, the spiritual quest, the cultural depth and the rising voices of political change. The people still laugh their heart out at their wants and desires and unfulfilled wishes. Singer Anupam Roy describes this mindset very beautifully in his very successful number for the movie Autograph:

Amake Amar Moto Thakte Dao
Ami Nijeke Nije Besh Guchhiye Niyechhi
Ja Chhilo Na Chhilo Na Ta Na Pawayi Thak
Shob Pele Noshto Jeebon;

Let me be the way I am, the way I have settled down to
What I didn’t have, let it remain that way, Life is a waste if you have had it all…

(As published in New Global Indian, Feb issue)

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