Calcutta ... in its sounds, sights and colours

Calcutta ... in its sounds, sights and colours

There are too many cars, and too many flyovers, in Calcutta. As with flyovers as also metro rail links in a good number of cities in our part of the world --- think here of the metro rail structure overshadowing the DhakaUniversity area --- it is the beauty of precious places which declines somewhat.

In large areas of Calcutta, that is precisely what has been happening. Add to that the increasing number of vehicles, thanks to a growing middle class, that now define life in this sprawling city.

Beyond and above everything, though, is the sense of continuity which keeps Calcutta linked to history. Calcutta remains a moving vehicle of history; and this is a truth which reasserts itself when Andalib Elias, the suave Bangladesh deputy high commissioner, takes you on a tour of the mission grounds.

It is that seminal moment of 18 April 1971 which comes alive, with recollections of the move by Hossain Ali and his staff to switch their allegiance to Bangladesh a day after the Mujibnagar government was sworn in at Meherpur.

And what's the story behind the two flag poles on the premises of the deputy high commission? Elias explains. At the top of the mission the flag flutters on the pole as a commemoration of the history of April 1971. The pole at the slightly lower level displays the Bangladesh flag in line with standard diplomatic practice.

History is thus a brilliant coming together of past and present at the Calcutta mission. The deputy high commissioner operates from the very same room where Hossain Ali engineered the functioning of the place in those heady days of the War of Liberation. 

The wide lawn is a reminder of the difficult yet enthusiastic ways in which the Bangladesh governmental structure, administratively speaking, worked in a set of tents in those crucial days. Beyond the mission complex not far away is of course where the political leadership conducted the war. The old seat of the Mujibnagar government is today Sri Aurobindo Bhaban.

The Bangladesh deputy high commission is thus a significant landmark in Calcutta. And then there is the excitement which pumps life across the city, even in areas adjacent to old graveyards. The narrow road leading to Gobra, where Muslims have been buried through the decades, reverberates with the haggling which goes on between sellers and buyers.

Arguments fly around the food items, vegetables in particular, snaking along the two sides of the street, compelling the driver of an old Ambassador yellow cab to bring all his skills into play as he navigates his way to and back from Gobra.

Calcutta's beauty comes through its cosmopolitan personality. Malls have arisen all over the city, competing with similar places anywhere on the globe. But while such development is appreciable from the perspective of modernity, there is that old world charm which remains glued to old homes, those which have refused to buckle before the onslaught of the apartment complex culture.

The old structures --- windows and doors and buildings which surely came up in the 1940s if not earlier --- convey that unmistakable sense of the magic which cultural history always is. Old street names, such as Ripon Street, Bentinck Street, Camac Street, Elgin Road, are for students of Calcutta history an attraction that cannot be left unexplored.

The second-hand bookshops on Mirza Ghalib Street, formerly Free School Street, are gone. But a walk down it revives not only one's interest in the past but is also for many a retracing of the steps of parents who shared quarters here in their bachelor days in the run-up to the vivisection of India in 1947.

You go past the Maidan, and you think you hear the old roaring crowds cheering politicians on in times when Mountbatten rushed the country to partitioned independence seventy-five years ago. You move on, indeed journey to College Street, to look for books you need to take back home.

You take a peek inside the old Coffee House, where intellectual discourse once flowed --- and still flows --- hoping to find a place to sit and sip a cup of coffee even as you conjure up images of the generations which sipped coffee there long before you did. An empty chair seduces you. History has you walk to that chair. You are giving shape to new history, your own.

Interaction is integral to Calcutta. Publishers cheerfully bring forth their new works, which are a delight because of the subjects covered as well as the excellent editing marking them. The elderly and the middle-aged reminisce on the times they have been to Bangladesh, recalling with that faraway look in their eyes the hospitality showered on them in Dhaka and elsewhere.

There is talk of the ramifications of partition, of the slow death of hope in those who trekked all the way from East Bengal to West Bengal, convinced that they would soon go back home, that the political division was but a brief aberration. The aberration assumed the shape of permanence; and all these men with hope said farewell to life, away from home, one after another. Their grandchildren, themselves on the verge of twilight, relate the tales.

Calcutta is nostalgia. It is also a vibrant embodiment of these moments of present import. Billboards proclaim what clearly is the aura of Mamata Banerjee. There she is welcoming delegates to the G-20 conference. And here she is celebrated by her acolytes on posters.

DidirDoot, Didi's envoys, have fanned out across West Bengal to carry the chief minister's message to the grassroots. And in Calcutta, Amartya Sen whips up a new squall through his statement that Mamata Banerjee is fit to be India's prime minister. BJP sensitivities are swiftly aroused, with a party spokesperson letting people know that no vacancy exists in the prime ministerial office.

There are the voices --- Bengali, Urdu, Hindi, English, Punjabi --- one hears in Calcutta. A composite mix of cultures greets you as you step out into the street. This image soon translates into lunch in Park Street, where friends pursuing different faiths recall their school and college days and will themselves young again.

Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh --- they relive past springtime in their greying autumn. Across the room, at all those tables, everyone is engaged in conversation, polite and soft and low and dipped in urbanity.

This is Calcutta, forever old and yet forever new. Contrary to Rajiv Gandhi's reference to it as a dying city, Calcutta throbs and thrives all day and all night long.

You make your way to the old Christian cemeteries, for a conversation with the likes of Madhusudan Dutta and Derozio. Voices rise from the ancient graves, to remind you that your present is your path to what soon will be your past.


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