One cannot have enough of Kolkata, earlier known as Calcutta. The vast, versatile and vibrant metropolis, owing to its unique and lively character cannot be covered adequately in a feature. Even a book on this highly cosmopolitan and interesting ’city of joy’ would fall short of its potentials and expectations. It is not that books or articles, sometimes highly critical ones, have not been attempted. Both exercises have enhanced the prestige, name and fame of the writers, apart from highlighting the unforgettable key players. A few Bengali, Hindi and English films based on life in the city and its historical & artistic traditions do always see the light of the day. Since this writer is fresh from a visit to the city, why not make a humble attempt to get enrolled in the exclusive group or be on its fringe even?
One has visited Kolkata even when it was Calcutta, when a single left wing party ruled this intellectually inclined, artistically gifted and politically volatile State for over 25 years. One also saw the beginning of decline of the said party from close angles in April 2009.Change anywhere is good to talk about but sustaining the change should be equally significant. There are not many success stories on this count. The World, however, moves on. It should.
First thing that immediately catches one’s attention on arrival in the city is the combination of prominent and all pervading blue & white colour, a favourite of the person who fires the shots at present, but subsequent to years of struggle. The present colour scheme has replaced the earlier favourite of red. If my active and talkative driver Jhantu Das is to be believed, pavements, railings, boundary walls, poles, fly overs etc. are painted afresh every 6 months and the contract for same is awarded to close followers, if not sycophants, per se. In the same way, tiny Chinese electric bulbs of same colour combination try to make a statement at night in public places. Perhaps another redeeming feature is the recent fixing of poles having three flower shaped lights not to overcome darkness but to add to the burden of the fragile State Exchequer in the name of aesthetics. Almost all of them are located right below existing tall poles already having functional yellow Sodium Vapour lamps. More than Rs 200 Crores of the tax payer’s money has been reportedly spent in the process.
Also known as the city of palaces, Kolkata had the distinction of being the first Capital of the country till 1911. The huge, imposing and attractive Gothic structures all over lend a certain regal and feudal touch. Some of them would make it to the ‘heritage’ league. They both impress and inspire. Be it Maidan, Espalanade, Park Street, Camac Street, AJC Bose Road, Elgin Street, G.T.Road, Shakespear Sarani, Middleton Street, C.R.Avenue, China Town, or Mirza Ghalib Street. The city is full of life even late at night, apart from having a relatively low crime rate. A person placed in any income group can survive here due to easy availability of low priced meals, which are paid for willingly without any distinction, based on class or paying capacity. A plate of five mini Kachoris and a Jilebi for Rs. 35/- at Sharma Tea House near PG Hospital is worth mentioning. Its football and strike crazy populace cannot possibly have any competitor elsewhere in the world. Lately, Cricket too has found a pivotal place in the daily life of people. Fans and followers if they love you, they love you from core of their heart. The moment there is a cause for feeling hurt, they can go to any extent.
Despite rapid improvements in power, infrastructure and road fronts, expected level of investment is not taking place. There are handfuls of multinationals setting up shops and the old city based giants, such as, the Birlas, Tatas and Goenkas do not miss an opportunity to migrate to other green pastures. Its remarkable cultural and tourism assets hardly receive the attention they deserve; rather, the local residents dominate the lower and middle class tourist groups in all the known tourist destinations and circuits elsewhere. If it comes to being vibrant and cosmopolitan, it can beat any other place, big or small. One is no longer required to learn the local Lingua Franca. One gets adjusted easily if not submerged or integrated.
As far as following, maintaining and sustaining the old Indian ethos is concerned, Kolkata will have no match. Burning example is Durga Puja. By and large, one sees well behaved people, fewer instances of rash driving, negligible road rage etc. While a few leftover Trams remind of the bygone era, hand pulled rickshaws, despite official ban, bring embarrassment, more so, due to continued awareness about the human rights. Giggling girls with ear phone on are seen talking on cells while crossing the roads or with a boy friend in toe, or sipping tea from an earthen cup with a shared & cherished cigarette. Married ladies, by and large, wear beautiful bright shade silk and handloom Saris. Some do fall for decent Salwar-Kurtas. However, college going or call centre type boys and girls invariably settle for tight pants & tops with thin sweaters or half/ full jackets. Morning walk cutting across all age groups is fast catching up. Like the early Ninetees in Mumbai and Delhi, here too ladies wearing Saris or other Indian dresses have begun using more comfortable sports shoes. One sees all this variety in equal measure in the bazars, temples, social gatherings or a Book Fair.
Last named placed is extremely lively even if the setting is crammed up, with relatively narrow passages and no fixed or earmarked area for eating joints, water, toilet etc. The portrait makers and girls and boys writing catchy slogans on the T Shirts on the spot do impress. Another noticeable feature is visit by nuclear families as an unit and equal emphasis being given to responding to book or entertainment or ‘Tiffin’ needs of everyone. Some groups after getting exhausted do indulge in impromptu song and merry making. If you develop headache while browsing through books, many vernacular TV Channels are there to entertain you on the spot. Even a minor encouragement or instigation has the potential to gather a good crowd within minutes.
Kolkata has a plethora of great personalities. Be it the domain of science, art, literature, dance, drama or films. By making a passing reference to Ramkrishna Paramhansa (RP),Swami Vivekananda (SV),the Belur Muth and Dakshineswar temple in this piece, some justice is proposed to be done.Much against the apprehensions pertaining to traffic jams, rushing through famous Howrah Bridge, leaving behind the splendid Howrah Station building and now narrow G.T.Road, I made it to Belur Muth. What impresses to begin with, is that vehicles have to be left far behind. Thus devotees or the tourists from all walks of life have to walk together in a clean and green campus. Within no time, simplicity and serenity take over, overlooking the Ganga River (How the Hooghly takes this name is difficult to comprehend).The main temple having RP as a presiding deity, is a magnificent specimen of Hindu architecture. Even while undergoing renovation it leaves an impact. The general ban on photography, nevertheless, dissatisfies. A good walk follows for 15 minutes. Soon to be seen are gigantic Ganga River (rather clean for a change), boats, steamers, bathing people and roaming Saints or Mahants.
Visit to the museum was an eye opener. What I could not get inside the temple or surrounding areas, I could gather here and that too to my utmost satisfaction. One learnt afresh about RP, his mother, how he felt after his deep and long Tapasya and subsequently began getting worshipped as the reincarnate of Goddess Kali. The almost original models of the ancestral houses of RP, and Narendranath, his disciple later known as Swami Vivekanand, displays of speech delivered by SV at the World Assembly of Religions at Chicago, New York Hall, nine of his disciples who took Sanyas to carry forward his work etc. leave one simply amazed. Exhibits of some Britishers, such as, Sister Nivedita, who took Indian names while pursuing social work, too captivate.
By taking Ballygunj Bridge (probably first of the three bridges over Hooghly) one gets closer to a very eye catching yellow coloured Dakshineswar Temple. Situated on the banks of River Ganga, it was reported to have been built by the efforts of a Woman Zamindar after she was denied entry into the famous Peeth of Kolkata-the Kailighat Temple. On an average, 400 to 500 devotees stand in queue at a time for a 'darshan' of the Goddess Kali. In contrast, I make it in five to seven minutes, thanks to the administrative help rendered by an ASI of State Police. Photo opportunity at the courtyard of the main temple, surroundings and the vast Ganga River is a real treat. Later an attempt to see the home of SV in a congested area proves unsuccessful. Though the giant statue at the entrance was awesome, the whole complex was reported closed for lunch. I could have seen the home of late Manna Dey, the famous singer at the nearby Shimla Street, but time was not on my side. Hurriedly I collect a handicraft item from 'Tantuja' (W.Bengal Handicrafts) as a souvenir from Kolkata.
No account of Kolkata would be complete unless one mentions pony rides, romantic pairs, budding sportsmen and mouth watering street food, all around the Maidan. Artistic Graffiti, Maach-Bhaat and lively footpaths too should not be ignored. The supply of fish reportedly at present falls much short of demand and the issues of encroachment on footpaths together with mushroomed growth of slums can never be resolved. Whichever party has attempted to touch these has had severe setbacks. And on a footpath of Shakespear Sarani, very close to the home of Sri Aurovindo, one evening I got what I was looking for-a haircut. Goolam Rasool, probably a Bangladeshi, rendered a very good service by his experienced hands when almost all the saloons of the locality were either shut or had 'Unisex board' hung outside them. Before I sat down, he agreed to use a new blade and my hanky instead of his over used and dirty 'apron'. Without getting any hint, my moustache too was trimmed to my requirement. Unlike in other places, he refrained from talking about making weekly contributions to Police, toughies and petty Municipal staff. At the end of the session, he just charged a paltry sum of Rs.25/.I was simply shocked keeping in view the time devoted, effort made and overall quality of service. I, therefore, paid him double of what he had desired.
In a few minutes, leaving behind the human world of footpath, I head for the ultra modern Airport. Getting into the flying machine I kept thinking about simple and kind service providers like Rasool, who manage to survive in our cunning and mischievous world without making a fuss.