Thursday, June 4, 2009

The city that flows in my veins..

A city I feared as a child. hated as a teenager, and understood as an adult.

Having always lived in small and peaceful cities, Calcutta was a nightmare to me. My fears gripped me as soon as the train pulled into Howrah station. It felt as if the hungry, desperate maddening rush at the platforms would gulp me down and I would choke and drown in its boiling belly. I clung to my mother's Saree for dear life till we were inside a taxi. Even then, I dared not look outside the window. My parents pointed out various sights of the city to me, but all I did was just slide down the seat slowly. The loud voices of the people all around, the beggars, the barely clothed mad woman hitting on our taxi window smiling a toothless, sinister smile, the street fights, the long rallies with men and women shouting slogans and waving red flags were too much for me. We usually went to Calcutta for 15 days in the summer months and then we would head to Patna where my maternal grandparents lived.

Those 15 days seemed like eternity to me. More so because the moment we set foot in this city, Baba was transformed. I almost became secondary to him. He was always going somewhere or the other. He was rejuvenated here. I guess I also saw Calcutta as my competitor. Not that he did not ask me to go along with him, but I was too scared to travel in that city and preferred to remain at home. I counted days when we would catch the train to Patna. I sulked and clammed up and remained an unfriendly and snobbish little girl to my relatives in that city.

Whether I liked Calcutta or not, did not matter at all, as every year the trips continued. By the time I reached my teens, I got used to the mobs at the stations and on the roads. I also got used to the dirt and the stark poverty. I resented the narrow lanes which had me, a rickshaw, a diseased dog and a skinny cat and at times even a cow together at one single point in time, with just me being the uncomfortable one. I walked the roads worrying that a running bus would at any moment spray the immensely dirty sewerage water, that had logged the streets onto me. My skin crawled each time a beggar sitting on the footpath would touch me and ask for food or money. I could never shoo them away, neither offer them anything, but the faces haunted me at nights.

The city dwarfed me. I remained an outsider who marked each day on the calender waiting for the 15 days to get over. I often heard Baba say, "you can't escape loving this city, someday you will understand its spirit, that day you will never be able to say no to Calcutta. This city lives, it has a life." I just about managed to bear the comment and hurriedly got into my train for Patna. leaving him behind in the city of his rejuvenation. As the train moved out slowly, his wave would be my focal point and I would deliberately make myself feel that the horrendous and bad mannered crowd of Calcutta was enveloping my Baba and taking him away. Even then I knew it was a silly thing for me to think, but such was the hatred for the city.

As fate would have it, as an adult, I had to come and live in this very city. There was no Baba now, but his love for the city made me take my first step towards getting to understand it. I had just started my career. The office and the home being on either ends of the city, ensured that I travel the entire length of this city twice everyday. The crowded buses gave me anxiety attacks to begin with, and yet my ears perked up at the wit of the people. The trademark one liners and repartees of the bangali were scattered like gems every where. Till then I had thought wit belonged to the elite. As days passed, warmth was added to the wit. I came across the genuine warmth that this city has. The only city probably in our country that has time to stop and give a detailed direction route to a complete stranger, that too on a scrap of paper. The only city where a phuchka walah will look at a kid and ask if she would like to take home some phuchkas for her old grandma. who probably is too old to come all the way, adding that he would give it for free. the city with its theaters and book shops was something I was discovering for the first time.

The second hand bookstores that abound here were my paradise. At any given excuse, I would head for them. Spending hours here and being offered cha(tea) and a stool to sit so that i can peacefully browse through their treasure. Not only this, the stall owners were extremely knowledgeable about their products and were happy to discuss authors and books at length without even once giving the impression that I needed to make a purchase. It was always a smiling "come again" that they said as I left their stall.

The Red road with its beautiful greens and the majestic Victoria Memorial soothed the tiredness out of my eyes. The old world charm of The Esplanade and the Chowringee made me reluctantly fall in love with the city. Park street with its lights and happy bustling people made me proud I belonged here. The various homes of Mother Teresa humbled me. The city of trams and the first metro, the city of cobbled streets and horse mounted traffic police, the city that napped in the afternoons and had about 3 bandhs each month, the city with dreams washed in the Ganges and the city of indefatigable spirit. I still hated the station, but had started loving the rest. This was a city that would never leave me alone, it would walk towards me and poke me, nudge me, share with me its troubles and encourage me to do the same. This city can never be indifferent, and neither could I.

I just took a tiny step towards it and Calcutta in turn embraced me for life!!