Returning to Kolkata after more than 30 years was a mixed experience for us, as we found some things very different and others exactly the same
I stick my tongue into the mud pot and lick off the hard-to-reach bits of mishti doi. It is déjà vu. I would often do this on my way back from school, way back in the 70s. I would get off the bus at Santosh Sweets, buy myself doi and trudge home. The same route number 37 would bear me off to school in the mornings from the opposite side, in front of Hindustan Sweets! The wonderful reality of life in a bhadralok para of Calcutta — sweet shops wherever you turn.
I am showing my daughter and a friend around my childhood city of joy. I am amazed that so much of it remains the same. The Dey brothers still run the New Alipore Book House. The shop from where I bought Anchor embroidery skeins and knitting needles for my needlework classes looks as dark and gloomy as it did then. Kowloon, the Chinese restaurant, smells as familiar. And the park is still there. After school, we would hastily change out of our uniforms, bolt down food and rush there. We played ‘running catching', ‘chain chain' and hopscotch. All of us had to be back home at exactly a quarter to seven. Of course, curfew was relaxed during the pujas. When we got a little older, we would sneak glances at the boys in the park and giggle.
But so much has changed, too. Dr. Sanyal in his crisp white dhuti panjaabi and his homeopathy clinic are not there. We loved him because he gave us sugar globules. I couldn't find the house where Tapan Sinha lived either (he was our para's celebrity). And Pannalal Music Academy is no more. I would drag myself there in the hot afternoons during the holidays to learn typing, and sitar. The front window of my home where I would sit and read for hours is now bricked up.
Thankfully, National Library (once home to Warren Hastings) still sprawls grandly with its steps sweeping up to the door. I remember as a kid hanging over the upstairs gallery, looking down at solemn people reading from great big books. The hum of ceiling fans and the scratch of pens on paper were the only sounds that filled the cavernous hall. The children's library, on the other hand, was a cheerful place with an aquarium and pink round tables and cane chairs. I first read Tintin there. Sadly, the old library is locked up and all the books have been moved to a modern building.
College Street still looks the same. It is in the part of Calcutta that has defied time, the Calcutta you see in “Kahaani”. Presidency College, the more-than-a century-old Dasgupta and Sons bookshop (where we three buy books as mementos), and Tagore's home at Jorasanko, with its wide verandahs, open courtyards, cool floors and windows to the ceiling…
Didi cha khaaben?
Down the street, a Bengali man with his wife cheerfully invites you to have tea. Rickshaw wallahs, retired men reading the newspaper, women taking a moment off before the hurly burly of domestic chores takes over, skinny youth on their way to an akhara, and tourists such as us gather in companionable silence to sip hot, sweet tea out of mud pots. Big glass jars of arrowroot biscuits are kept ready for anyone who wants something with their first cuppa. We drink roadside cha so many times each day. In markets, outside the metro, while waiting to cross the road, at Victoria Memorial and at Kalibari. We eat puchkas, jhaal muri and alu kabli in between shopping for beautiful tangails and kaantha saris in Gariahat and ridiculously cheap earrings from the roadside shops. Shops wrap up hot singhadas (samosas to the rest of the world) in leaves to eat on the go, as Rajesh Khanna did in “Amar Prem”. Speaking of which, we also go up and down the Bidyasagar Setu looking down at the muddy waters of the Hooghly. We do the same on the beautiful Howrah Bridge. My daughter watches bemused, as trams clang past. I tell her this is the only city in the country that still has them.
I take an instant dislike to anyone who says they hate Cal, and I know there is a legion of those. That's because they haven't seen Park Street lit up during Christmas, they have not eaten baked beans on toast at Flurys, they have not heard Usha Uthup sing at Trincas. They have not shopped at New Market and followed their nose to Nahoums for still-hot buns from the bakery established in 1916. And I bet they have never, ever heard a kabadi wallah sing baul geet as he weighs old newspapers, or seen the guy selling him the newspapers murmuring “baah baah”.