Art of the Matter

Reflections of an Author at Work

Tag: Kolkata

Kolkata, Kolkata!

Coffee House KolkataWhen you first breathed the Communist air of hope and brotherhood, you were in your mother’s womb. You made a pledge unto me then…that you would never forget my ideals nor stop trying to make them your own.  You would enjoy the revelries of Durga Puja and Diwali with equal fervor. You would continue to cherish the old world charms, including the fatherly Ambassador taxis. I am Kolkata.

Through the gullies of Burrabazaar and the posh lanes of Ballygunge Phari, my soul found its multitudinous Avatars just like you did during your childhood years, mingling with neighbors of various castes and communities from all over India.

Sometimes you played in the well-manicured parks of Auckland Square and Minto Park with children you didn’t know, sometimes you admired the sunset at Outram Ghat with friends. Every time your cousins visited from other countries, you brought them to see the Victoria Memorial or the Indian Museum – as if their tribute would have to be still paid to Her Majesty of England for 300 years of British Rule. I am Kolkata.

Sometimes the lethargy of the city got into your bones also, and you preferred to spend hours at the college canteen just like your uncles did at the Coffee House on College Street. At other times, you were content roaming in New Market with your mother, bargaining hard for great deals. Not a single day went by during your college days at St. Xavier’s without a visit to Park Street, dotted and knotted with bars and restaurants, now a bit tired and rusty. But your favorite stop was always Flury’s with its fifth generation of Butter Cream Pastries and Chicken Patties. I am Kolkata.

You loved me and I loved you – without any conditions or notions. But then you had to grow up, leaving your teens behind and eager to explore the other worlds. Even the candlelight dinners at Peter Cat or the charm of the Academy of Fine Arts hosting art exhibitions or the spicy Jhalmuri and pungent Phuchkas at Victoria Maidan couldn’t lure you back. Marxism, which was your favorite subject at the college canteen debates, took a backseat. You no longer understood the philosophy of the Naxalites and wondered why there wasn’t ever going to be any new jobs or industries here. I am Kolkata.

Our love affair ended on a bitter note. I didn’t want you to leave,  but you did anyway, and chose not to return for many years. My streets didn’t want to change nor the colors of my springs or winters. I still felt proud of the aged Bihari rickshaw puller, who earned hardly a couple of hundreds of rupees every day.

I still loved the dancing fountains with their newly installed colored halogen lights at t the Victoria Memorial. I still embraced the beautiful sunrise over the Howrah Bridge. I still liked that tiny earthen tumbler of chai being offered for just a rupee. True, now there are some new shopping malls and fancy public transportation, but I still wake up more relaxed than other cities. I am in no hurry. I am Kolkata.

Your return was a surprise to me – and how do you think I felt? With your fancy clothes, your foreign accent and new money, all of which is against the ideology of our combined destiny, you came to see me again, but no humility. Am I not your favorite love story then? Could there be another one like me?

Now you love New York City I hear, but does it have a rich heritage like mine or the precious memories of your childhood? Have you forgotten the best of the Raj that I shared with you and still hold dear…including the innumerable Clubs and horse-drawn carriages? I am Kolkata.

Where have you been all these years, my beloved? The soul which you have today belongs to me, you know, full of all the poetry and romance, love and passion, which people want from you today.  Your education went beyond Shelley and Keats, and your social acclimatization wasn’t all about Deen Mistry and Lillete Dubey’s famous English plays at Kala Mandir. You have as much of Tagore in your blood as I have a loving tendency to give sanctuary to Bangladeshis. I am Kolkata. Accept it. Your love affair with me can never end. Because I am YOU.

Of Bengalis And Brotherhood

Goddess DurgaIt is hard to be a Bengali during Durga Puja if like me one has left the warm cockles of Bengal’s heart 18 years ago.  Come Durga Puja, and one is forced to reincarnate one’s universally appealing persona into native Bengali’s.  Like Tenualosa Ilisha (Elish Fish), the stalwarts of Bengal expect the natives to abandon the sea of anonymity (meaning other States of residence), swim upstream to spawn the eggs of Bengali Brotherhood in Kolkata, and partake of the ‘real’ thing…resplendent pandals, goddesses, gluttony, and including strangers.

Outside Bengal, it is a Herculean task.  If you must imprint these un-replicable experiences, then start early.  Seek out all the Bengalis in your neighborhood; count the number of Chatterjees, Deys and Gangulis in your office; and, if you are the sort to take it a bit far, reconnect with estranged friends (non-Bengalis) who have friends (Bengalis) affiliated to one of the few Bengali clubs or committees in the city.  However, your diverse attempts to swim upstream and regain your ‘Bengaliness’ could leave you exhausted.

To retain visibility like a fish out of water, float between Indira Park, Keyes High School, Banjara Hills and Kalibari in your finery at Hyderabad. Make a fat donation to the biggest samiti. Use colloquial phrases – “Dada, ektoo jaagaa deben?”  meaning “Sir, could you give me some space?” Greet grim Bengali brothers and sisters. You want to be ‘one’ with the community. Still, you go unnoticed, unappreciated and unanswered.  Self-doubts…Is this a Chinese New Year celebration and am I deciphering the riddles on lanterns in Beijing?

Suddenly, after hours in the cue for a splattering of afternoon bhog, an epiphany occurs.  Surprise, surprise! Every Bengali becomes an ‘outsider’ in local Bengali communities when out of Bengal. It is Bijoya Dashami.  Good triumphs over evil?  Involuntarily, you peer into the mirror.  At least, you still resemble an arty Bengali.

Uncle Sam’s Tongue

Statue-of-LibertyEnglish language, from England, is embarrassed to death in India. What’s official now is a hotchpotch of English, and what I call, “Americanese”. In 1994, the Indian telecom policy launched the ‘American Corn’ era. A slew of BPOs and KPOs started to cash in on fine English accents of educated Indians like you and me. And, lo and behold, Amerlish got conceived.

My tryst with pure Americanese began in 2004 at an American KPO called OfficeTiger. Until then, my world had been simple. I wrote perfectly crafted, grammatically correct, complete sentences in English. During childhood, I had even excelled in elocution contests at school (testimony to my penchant for perfect English diction). Americanese altered that – and even tampered with my value systems. Instead of saying, “I am fine”, I responded, “I am good” – whether I had been morally good or not that week.

As English speaking natives, we have become inarticulate in our efforts to adopt the fashionable Americanese twang, while preserving our English education. Star World soaps can’t help us get it right like Active English on Tata Sky can for British English. Now, Americans comment on our “interesting” accent, when actually they might be doubling up with laughter. Our expressions are bedazzled with American idioms, which our childhood friends (now settled in America) don’t approve. But, who are we to debate whether Amerlish is to be our new Indian-International standard of communication or not?

When I visited Kolkata last year, I half expected the Howrah Bridge to metamorphose right before my eyes into the Golden Gate Bridge that spans the San Francisco Bay. Having visited San Francisco a couple of times, I meekly acknowledge how ridiculous that expectation is. Now, if only all of us could also Americanize our skin-tones with fairness creams to match our accents. But we aren’t too far behind. The whole of India is keener to adopt fairness than a new accent.