OPINION

Oh Calcutta!

February 02, 2010
a traveller

When friends, particularly non-Bengali ones, visit Calcutta, I'm usually filled with feelings of jealousy. But when they come back with tales of Park Street, the best continental or Italian restaurants in the city, partying nights, or having luchi-aloo at Oh Calcutta (!!), I invariably feel like they're talking of a city I've never been to.

In all the years I've been to Calcutta, I've visited Park Street exactly twice, and the promised visit to Flurry's has never yet happened. Calcutta for me has always been about relatives and my mother's college haunts. Visits there tend to get restricted to the same beloved places.

It's about the pavements of Gariahat and the maze that is New Market. The Sardarji at the purse shop who always smiles in recognition when he sees the mother, remembering vociferous arguments and long-drawn negotiations in the years gone by. The rolls at Bedouins, the jhal-muri at Nandan. Convincing my grandmother to skip cooking a heavy Bengali meal for one day at least so we can take her to the Chinese shop at the corner - which we enjoy far more than any 5-star restaurant my uncle wants to take us to; I get that from her. Strolls down College Street, and cutlets at Coffee House. The tram rides where my uncle insists I sit in the Ladies section of the compartment, away from him and the brother - even though we three are the only passengers in the compartment. Riding the metro to Esplanade simply to ride up the escalator and come down again - it was the only station with an escalator in those days. Stopping to pick up Ujjaler chanachur on the way to the airport or the station, with the father looking grimly at his watch.

Visiting my mother's numerous relatives, all of whom exclaim how much I look like their niece - even though my mirror tells me I take after my father. Speaking on the phone with the numerous relatives I haven't been able to meet - and hearing in great detail every ailment they and their spouses have had in the past year. Hearing my grandmother's neighbours yell at each other from corner of their house to another - all of which can be heard through the open walls between the two houses. Going to her neighbour's house to visit Doctor Dadu and Didu - the elderly couple who've been in that house for as long as I can remember and who always manage to make me feel so loved, even though there is no blood connection between us.

I love Calcutta, I do. But more than four days there, and I'm yearning to get away from all the questions. But those four days are usually a little piece of heaven.

My grandmother moved last year from the tiny little house she's lived in for nearly three decades to a high-rise building. I haven't visited her there yet, and in some ways I'm dreading it. Calcutta with no music coming in from the neighbour's houses in the morning and the evening? What is that like?

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