Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Esoteric Kolkata


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.