As the plane begins its descent, objects detach themselves from the general golden haze and begin to exist again as individual entities. The undulations that ‘could have been’ hills and brown-and-green patches of earth assume their proper identities. The furrows on the broad silver river, ploughed by ferries and large boats, become visible; smoke spirals rise from the obelisk-like structures of the numerous brick kilns that dot the countryside.
Being in Eastern India is always a homecoming of sorts for me. Having grown up in industrial towns, I’m at home with massive chimneys vomiting ugly dark smoke into serene blue skies, or pink smoke into star-sprinkled black nights. Small towns delight me with their stolidity, with their propensity to be excited into a flurry of activity once or twice a year during a festival perhaps, only to retreat into their shells once the burst of energy has run its course. Neighbours hail each other in the morning across the fence and talk while they’re watering their gardens. Happiness is more about knowing that someone you know has made it to the “city” and gone to a good college, than flaunting a sedan or designer clothes- for the quintessential ambition of “small town” parents is to see their children get out of the confines of the colony they’ve grown up in.
Calcutta isn’t a small town, but despite- or because of?- its size and bursting population, there is a quality to it that makes it very warm and human. I felt at home on my first real trip to the city- maybe it helps that I am a little familiar with Bengali, having heard it quite a lot while I was growing up- and I wasn’t stuck with the unpleasant task of having to peel off a façade to expose the skeleton to my wondering eyes. Calcutta isn’t a city caught in the rabid clutches of impersonal modernity and progress, unlike a couple of others I’ve lived in.
Calcutta has a large South Indian population, particularly around Lake Market. A small shop, tucked away between stately buildings and nondescript stalls, sells everything that a homesick Tamilian population can ask for. On a nearby wall, a poster advertises the Telugu movie ‘Orange’. And for a moment, you could well imagine you were in a street down south in the peninsula, and not traipsing through the eastern parts of the country. The old juxtaposed against the new; cultures mingling and acquiring a new identity. This is what Calcutta is about.
At the Esplanade, where buses from the states around West Bengal converge (there are even buses to Bhutan here), there is a flurry of activity. The roads are packed; a few hundred metres away, red flags are being held up and men are climbing aboard a van in preparation for a rally. Some distance away, a rival party readies itself for its own rally. These converging masses of men will bring the traffic to a standstill. More traffic policemen will be pressed into service to deal with irate motorists near the New Market area.
The New Market is perhaps one of the oldest shopping areas in the country. Bustling even on a Sunday morning, it doubles up as a flea market and up-market shopping destination. Vendors quote outrageous prices for their wares, and it takes all your bargaining skills to bring them down to a reasonable level. What I’m really looking forward to on my next trip to Calcutta, though, is a visit to College Street- that haven of secondhand bookshops. On the pavements of Gariahat, a number of rickety stalls sell pirated editions of Chetan Bhagat, Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown. People here like to read and to learn- I can barely remember an edition of the Bournvita Quiz Contest, Mastermind India or University Challenge without a contestant with Bengali affiliations (not forgetting the quizmasters, of course- Derek O’Brien and Siddharth Basu respectively).
Timeless charm, grace and tenacity- this is what Calcutta is all about. Vast tracts of slum land surround the city and the airport is in desperate need of a facelift. The government has plenty to deal with in terms of the Maoists and industrialisation glitches. It struggles its way to progress and may not strike a newcomer fresh from the glitz of swanky glass and steel as the most exciting holiday destination. If you don’t care to delve beneath artifices, though, Calcutta is the city for you, because it lays itself bare and isn‘t confused about its identity.