Most modern Indian cities strive to rise above ethnicity.
Tell anybody who lives in Bombay that he lives in a
Maharashtrian city and (unless of course, you are speaking
to Bal Thackeray) he will take immediate offence.
We are cosmopolitan, he will say indigenously. Tell a
Delhiwalla that his is a Punjabi city (which, in many ways,
it is) and he will respond with much self-righteous nonsense
about being the nation's capital, about the international
composition of the city's elite etc. And tell a Bangalorean
that he lives in a Kannadiga city and you'll get lots of
techno-gaff about the internet revolution and about how
Bangalore is even more cosmopolitan than Bombay.
But, the only way to understand what Calcutta is about
is recognize that the city is essentially Bengali. What's
more, no Bengali minds you saying that. Rather, he is proud
of the fact. Calcutta's strengths and weaknesses mirror those
of the Bengali character. It has the drawbacks: the sudden
passions, the cheerful chaos, the utter contempt for mere
commerce, the fiery response to the smallest provocation.
And it has the strengths (actually, I think of the drawbacks
as strengths in their own way). Calcutta embodies the
Bengali love of culture; the triumph of intellectualism over
greed; the complete transparency of all emotions, the disdain
with which hypocrisy and insincerity are treated; the warmth
of genuine humanity; and the supremacy of emotion over all
other aspects of human existence.
That's why Calcutta is not for everyone. You want your cities
clean and green; stick to Delhi. You want your cities, rich
and impersonal; go to Bombay. You want them high-tech and full
of draught beer; Bangalore's your place. But if you want a city
with a soul: come to Calcutta.
When I look back on the years I've spent in Calcutta - and I
come back so many times each year that I often feel I've
never been away - I don't remember the things that people
remember about cities. When I think of London, I think of
the vast open spaces of Hyde Park. When I think of New York,
I think of the frenzy of Times Square. When I think of Tokyo,
I think of the bright lights of Shinjiku. And when I think of
Paris, I think of the Champs Elysee. But when I think of
Calcutta, I never think of any one place. I don't focus on the
greenery of the maidan, the beauty of the Victoria Memorial,
the bustle of Burra Bazar or the splendour of the new Howrah
'Bridge'. I think of people. Because, finally, a city is more
than bricks and mortars, street lights and tarred roads. A city
is the sum of its people. And who can ever forget - or replicate
- the people of Calcutta?
When I first came to live here, I was told that the city would
grow on me. What nobody told me was that the city would change
my life. It was in Calcutta that I learnt about true warmth; about simple
human decency; about love and friendship; about emotions
and caring; about truth and honesty. I learnt other things too.
Coming from Bombay as I did, it was a revelation to live in a
city where people judged each other on the things that really
mattered; where they recognized that being rich did not make you
a better person - in fact, it might have the opposite effect.
I learnt also that if life is about more than just money, it
is about the things that other cities ignore; about culture,
about ideas, about art, and about passion. In Bombay, a man with
a relatively low income will salt some of it away for the day
when he gets a stock market tip. In Calcutta, a man with exactly
the same income will not know the difference between a debenture
and a dividend. But he will spend his money on the things that
matter. Each morning, he will read at least two newspapers
and develop sharply etched views on the state of the world.
Each evening, there will be fresh (ideally, fresh-water or
river) fish on his table. His children will be encouraged to
learn to dance or sing. His family will appreciate the power
of poetry. And for him, religion and culture will be in
inextricably bound together.
Ah religion! Tell outsiders about the importance of Puja in
Calcutta and they'll scoff. Don't be silly, they'll say.
Puja is a religious festival. And Bengal has voted for the
CPM since 1977. How can godless Bengal be so hung up on a
religions festival? I never know how to explain them that
to a Bengali, religion consists of much more than shouting
Jai Shri Ram or pulling down somebody's mosque. It has little
to do with meaningless ritual or sinister political activity.
The essence of Puja is that all the passions of Bengal
converge: emotion, culture, the love of life, the warmth of
being together, the joy of celebration, the pride in
artistic ex-pression and yes, the cult of the goddess.
It may be about religion. But is about much more than just
worship. In which other part of India would small, not
particularly well-off localities, vie with each other to
produce the best pandals? Where else could puja pandals go
beyond religion to draw inspiration from everything else? In
the years I lived in Calcutta, the pandals featured Amitabh
Bachchan, Princes Diana and even Saddam Hussain! Where else would
children cry with the sheer emotional power of Dashimi, upset
that the Goddess had left their homes? Where else would the
whole city gooseflesh when the dhakis first begin to beat
their drums? Which other Indian festival - in any part of
the country - is so much about food, about going from one
roadside stall to another, following your nose as it trails
the smells of cooking?
To understand Puja, you must understand Calcutta. And to
understand Calcutta, you must understand the Bengali. It's
not easy. Certainly, you can't do it till you come and live
here, till you let Calcutta suffuse your being, invade your
bloodstream and steal your soul. But once you have, you'll love
Calcutta forever. Wherever you go, a bit of Calcutta will go
with you. I know, because it's happened to me. And every
Puja, I am overcome by the magic of Bengal. It's a feeling
that'll never go away.