Kolkata comes back in my blogs recurrently. I go to Kolkata in my mind, to roost perhaps, when my reality gets too overwhelming. Writing about Kolkata, thinking about my time there, gives me a strange sense of calm. Quite ironic really, considering the controlled chaos that Kolkata is.
Whenever I go back home, I look for continuity. I search for the city I left behind. The fast changing face of the city baffles me mostly. Like a typical Non Resident Indian, I lament the loss of the city’s uniqueness and despise the generic look of it with gated communities, huge, impersonal, air-conditioned malls, McDonald’s golden arches and KFC’s red and white General’s face, coffee shops in every nook and cranny. Kolkatans snort at such romanticism. It is easy for you to romanticize, you don’t have to deal with the daily inconveniences, they say. And they are right. No city stays frozen in time. They develop, they move up and move on.
My yearning for my old Kolkata remains, though. I desperately seek out the old city and find it still hidden beneath. I find the iron filigreed balconies in old mildewed buildings that have escaped the real estate developer’s greed (It is a matter of time). The conference of crows on the antenna of our neighbor’s terrace, the dome of the Science city as I sip my afternoon tea on the terrace of our building and look towards the horizon, the lonesome coconut tree that reminds me how green Kolkata used to be, the little boy completely immersed in flying his kite, the intense cricket match on the street in front of my house, the woman of the house stretching out her laundry on the laundry line on her terrace, Ram Krishna Mission’s dome standing tall in its white splendor and the smiles that envelope me in its warmth as I step off the taxi with my luggage ‘Didi, kotodin thakbe?’ (How long will you stay, big sister?)
I found such continuity in the general demeanor and even the physical frame of the conductors of public buses. The customer service is still as I remember – impersonal, very effective, functional and rough around the edges. The physical appearances seem the same – lanky, young and somewhat reckless. My main means of transport, when I go back, are the rickety mini buses, public buses and auto rickshaws. I observe, with amusement, as the conductors continue to do the ‘phraaaaak’ sound with the tickets in their hand, reminding the passengers, with that sound, and their voice ‘Ticket, ticket!’ The bus drivers still drive recklessly, overtaking the bus in front to get more passengers.
One tradition continues, I discovered. The conductors continue to slap the side of the bus twice as the bus approaches a stop helter skelter, and yell, ‘Ekdom bendhe debe. Ladies, baccha ache!’ (Come to a complete stop, there are ladies and children who will get off)! Men don’t get the special treatment. As a fiery feminist in my young days, this discrimination made my blood boil. But now, this gesture brings a smile to my face. I smile because I have learned to pick my battles and also perhaps, I find another facet of Kolkata that remains unchanged.
I remember the tight grasp of my young mother’s hand, as she unsteadily made her way to the door of a moving bus with me in tow, shouting to the young conductor, ‘Bhai ekdom bendhe dao, baccha ache!’ (Brother, bring the bus to a complete stop, I have a child)! I did the same with my children. I held Ryan’s hand tightly and made sure Sahana held on, as I made my demand to the conductor, ‘Ekdom bendhe dao, baccha ache!’ The reply was standard as well, ‘Haa didi, ashun!’ (Yes sister, come) !
It was raining as we made our way back home from the bus stop. Monsoon in Kolkata is beautiful to watch from a high rise building and terrible to endure if one is on the road. As we carefully avoided the dirty water, potholes, garbage on the streets and rushing traffic, Sahana touched my arm gently and said, ‘This city is so full of love, Ma!’ I smiled in the fading light of the cloud covered sun. ‘Where did you find the love?’ I asked.
‘Did you see how the conductor cared? He brought the bus to a complete stop for us and even helped Ryan get down by holding his hand!’ She said.
Despite the gloom, I found my sun. And despite the squalor, Sahana found love.