Wednesday, September 30, 2009

City Of A Thousand Dreams | Jayabrato Chatterjee

What is it about Kolkata that evokes the strongest reactions from visitors and residents? The traditional view of the sahibs through the nineteenth century has been one of cynicism. Currently, as far as the media in the west is concerned, everything in Kolkata is wrapped up in controversy.

Cunning black and white photographs in Western newspapers of pot-bellied and disheveled children begging off the main thoroughfares, emancipated pavement dwellers, cooking and defecating in close proximity, under-nourished sex-workers with garish make-up loitering under hazy street lights, lepers begging outside posh hotel facades and old people withering away on park benches are some time-tested and sure-shot 'hits' that have kept tongues wagging. (I often wonder what sort of perverts actually click such photographs and why? Maybe Circuit in Munnabhai MBBS had a point, y'know! Would they like it if people would click their photographs as they did their morning business or cooked or spent time with their family? The biggest loss of the poor is their right to privacy...) Wives of American Presidents, Hollywood stars and British royalty have made brief stopovers to lend their sympathy - one eye on the paparazzi's popping flashbulbs and the other cast shrewdly over their spaghetti-strapped shoulders to ensure that their entourage is taking copious notes for future press conferences. City of Joy, City of Nightmares, City of Dreadful Nights, City of Love - kolkata is anointed every day with an epithet that keeps the controversies alive and kicking. Yet, for the citizen, it is often business as usual on any given day. By and large, Kolkata finds the labels attached to it amusing and irritating by turns.

Satyajit Ray (see picture below - right) , the city's most celebrated film personality had once said that, "I don't feel very creative when I'm abroad somehow. I need to be in my chair in Calcutta!" Perhaps a little more emotionally, another eminents film director, Mrinal Sen (see picture below - left), has called Kolkata his 'Eldorado'. However, the common man takes the city for granted, just as you would your family and those you love and trust. (For me it's just home...)

Kolkata is unashamedly young. It was even supposed to have a conclusive birthday till the ruling authorities summarily stopped it from blowing out the candles on its annual anniversary cake. August 24, 1690 was acknowledged as the day when an English adventurer, Job Charnock, formally founded the city. Today, a little lost, Kolkata operates on many levels. A delicious millefeuille, rich in content and multi-layered, it needs the bite of a true Braveheart who is not embarrassed to let the jam and the cream dribble down his shirtfront. For me, the city hasall the advantages and disadvantages of any metro, anywhere in the world. I have seen unmarried girls openly beg with their babies in their arms just outside the Russel Square Underground Station in London. Old and bent bag ladies are part of the New York landscape, along with horror stories of violence and crime. Crowded shanties and dirty streets are part of Hong Kong's innate character. East European beggars infest the sidewalks in Paris. Rome is famous for its devastatingly good-looking pickpockets. And whores solicit openly, driving past in swanky cars, in Berlin. (I remember giving alms to a beggar at a tube station in London - that guy had talent! He was playing an 18 string electric guitar!)

So what is wrong with Kolkata?

Perhaps it is the images that have stayed in Western minds without people bothering to counter them. (here it West should imply the rest of the country that lies to the west of Calcutta... it is disheartening to see the sheer disdain that even other Indians have for Calcutta! Most people who are transferred here term it as a punishment posting - open your hearts people....) The city is full of contradictions and often operates on extremes. Even the weather is mostly hmid, with temperatures soaring over 40 degrees Celcius in summer. If you are not used to heavy downpours, the monsoons can be trying, with flooded roads and a sense of chaos. The
autumn months usher the city's biggest festival that venerates the Goddess Durga. Suddenly, the environment is laden with the fragrance of shiuli flowers and joss sticks. The city gets into a veritable Mardi Gras mode and children and adults worship without too much care for caste or creed. (Check my previous post for more about Durga Puja)

Wintertime, of course, is temperate and, by and large, good-natured and indulgent. Memsahibs bring out their best chiffons and jamevars and gossip over lunch. Dilettantes discuss Tagore and Che Guevara. Leftist students debate over the relevance of Chairman Mao. Artists come in droves to display their canvases at the art galleries. The annual book fair keeps the city's writers and a strange breed called 'intellectuals' in a state of perpetual animation. Classical musicians and dancers hold regular soirees. Sahibs hit the golf course from the crack of dawn. Racing regulars fight over their bets and their favourite beasts. And some of the finest partieis of the season are thrown with abandons that keep guests rollicking into the wee hours of chilly December and January mornings.

Physically the city is no beauty. Kolkata is no Suchitra Sen, the metro's very own Great Garbo. (In my opinion, the city is more like Uttam Kumar - the Clark Gable of Calcutta - universally adored and accepted) Yet, if you allow the river Hoogly to entice you on a humid monsoon evening or let some of North Kolkata's old buildings speak to you in the afternoon hush of winter, reliving old tales of gilded butterflies, you would find the exposed bricks or the chipped Portugese wrought iron balconies come alive. And, of course, it is the magic of its people - warm, wonderful and often heartbreakingly romantic - that makes the miraculous difference.

So come, celebrate the spirit of Kolkata with reserve this festive season.

I came across this beautiful piece in a magazine recently about the city that I shall always call home. This is written by Jayabrato Chatterjee - though I have taken the liberty of adding my two-bits (in italics) - my apologies Mr. Chatterjee. I think Mr. Chatterjee has articulated the magic of Kolkata and dispelled many misplaced myths about our Mahanagri in his article.

Jayabrato Chatterjee is a film-maker, corporate communicator and author. His debut novel Last Train to Innocence won the Hawthornden Fellowship. He was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Stirling, Scotland, in 1999. His films and documentaries have played to international audiences and he is managing editor of Kolkata’s first lifestyle magazine, Inner Eye
(where this article originally appeared). He began his career with the Hindi film Kehkasha. Jayabrato Chatterjee lives in Kolkata. His literary exploits include:
* Last Train to Innocence {1995}
* Beyond All Heavens {2003}
* Kolkata—The Dream City {2004}

Here's the article in its original form - please click on the image to zoom in...