I hope that Didi wouldn’t put me in jail for misspelling Kolkata. I say misspelling because Kolkata was always pronounced and spelt in Bengali as such. Who knows, in these days of intolerance and capricious politicians, anything might happen.
Amar Shonar Bangla (My golden Bengal), said Rabindranath Tagore in 1905. How apt! I fondly recollect the Calcutta of the late 1960s and early 1970s during my formative years as a teen and as young adult. Life was so simple then. As school students, we used to hitch a ride on the ubiquitous tramcars from Lake Market to Deshapriya Park in South Calcutta, just one stop away. We used to plead with the conductor, “just one stop please.” Sometimes, the conductor would take us all the way up to Gariahat, a good four km away as a punishment for our audacity to take a free ride. Still it was fun.
We used to look forward to the pujas during September/October every year. The excitement starts right from Mahalaya Amavasya. All India Radio broadcasts Mahshasuramardini recited in the deep and baritone voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra at 4 a.m. All Bengali households are awake and the radio plays the sonorous voice, Ya devi sarvabhuteshu……, of Birendra Bhadra.
I remember, once AIR experimented with the recital of Mahishasuramaridini (Chandi Path) by matinee idol Uttam Kumar. There was a riot-like situation in the AIR Studio. How dare AIR replace Birendra Bhadra by Uttam Kumar? He might be a famous film actor, even God to some. But the Bengalis would have none of it. Then AIR apologised and restored the original recital by Birendra Bhadra. The first such programme was broadcast live in 1932. Even to this day his recorded programme is being broadcast every year.
Srabajanin Durgotsab (community Durga Puja) used to be celebrated with gaiety and fervour. We used to collect chanda (contributions) from various households for the expenses. I remember having gone to a Tamil household along with my Bengali friends. After a hard bargain. we could collect Rs. 2. While coming back, I called out, mami, adutha varusham thirumba varom. (We will be back next year). The lady was shocked. She exclaimed: Parthela, namba Tamil pasangalum iva kooda sernthundu padutha arambichoota (See, even our Tamil boys have joined the locals to trouble us). We all had a hearty laugh!
It was a five-day gala event right from Sashti (the idols are usually installed in the pandals on panchami the previous day) to Vijayadasami, when the idol is taken in procession for immersion in the Ganga, with accompanying Dhaki (traditional drummers).
Calcutta never sleeps these five days. The streets will be crowded day and night with people visiting one pandal (temporary structures usually made of bamboo & cloth to house the idols) to another, admiring the pandal designs, lighting and the idols themselves. (I even heard that once J.K. Rowling sent legal notice to one of the organisers for having designed a pandal after the Hogwarts castle without permission.) On Vijayadasami day, women bid a tearful farewell to the Devi with Sindur Khela (sprinkling vermilion on one another) as a symbol of celebration of victory over evil and also for the well-being of the people.
Life in Calcutta was never complete without the evening adda (a meeting place for youngsters) with muri and telebhaja (puffed rice and vegetable fries). We used to tease passing girls. Those days even girls wanted to be teased, for they believed that it enhanced their stature and acceptability among boys. No ill-will, no malice; just pure fun.
I want to remember Calcutta as it was. Warm people, the large-hearted traditional Bengali Bhadralok (gentleman) and a magnanimous Bengali society. I am afraid of coming to terms with the changes it might have undergone over the decades, including its name.
Forty-five years hence, we reminisce about our Calcutta life whenever we gather in Chennai. Where has all the innocence gone? There is a pain in the heart somewhere when we realise that those days will never come back.
(The writer is senior branch manager, Vijaya Bank, Nizamabad. shivkumar.b1957@gmail. com)
Keywords: life in Calcutta