Friday 2 September 2016

Of Kolkata - City of Joy

Kolkata, the erstwhile Calcutta.

Founded by the British over three hundred years ago, Calcutta was the prestigious capital of the undivided India till 1911, The city is now the capital of the state of West Bengal, and the main economic hub of eastern India. Through centuries the city has been the playing ground for great thinkers, revolutionaries, poets, writers and musicians who greatly influenced India's freedom movement and whose contributions to society has permanently embedded a deep sense of cultural awareness within the general Bengali populace. However, not unlike many of its developing contemporaries, the city tries desperately to cling on to its heritage while it struggles to cope with the constant onslaught of rural migration and almost a primal need for modernisation and economic development required for its own survival. It is a city where the rich rub shoulders with the street dwellers while shiny new sky scrapers come up beside dilapidated buildings and tarpaulin covered shanties. No wonder to the outsider, the experience can be of utter confusion and frustratingly overwhelming. In the world map, Kolkata is not a happening tourist destination. It is seen as a poor, disorganised city, frequently crippled by political and industrial strikes, a city of failing infrastructures, a city very unfashionable to stay in.

But then ask the off beat traveller who has ventured into this unknown, disoriented city. Their first visit may have been on a whim or simply out of curiosity, but for some that first trip has been followed by many more.  Ask the expatriate, well settled in a land of opportunities, be in a different part of the country or abroad, living in a fast paced world with the well oiled machinery of a social system non existent in their home city, where the daily comforts they take for granted is almost impossible to perceive. Even for the most hardcore Probashi Bangali, the heart wrenches for a touch of their homeland, a constant attempt to create a piece of home away from home.

There must be a reason that visitors want to return to the city again and again, why residents find it difficult to leave. A reason that has brought the reputation to the Bengalis as the most homesick among the huge diversity that is India. A reason, which probably lies deep within their culture, very difficult to explain, and can only be felt deep inside.

Here is my take on what keeps the Bengalis close to their favourite city.

Bengalis love their food

And fish and rice it is. The fertile silt clay of these humid delta region is perfect for growing paddy while the abundant fresh water bodies, vast crisscrossing rivers and the closeness to the sea means an easy access to a multitude of fresh aquatic food. No wonder a vegetarian Bengali is hard to come by as is finding one with a slick waistline. Add to that the Bengali's love for anything sweet. A sugary chutney is characteristic of Bengali cooking, as is the rosogolla, cottage cheese balls soaked in syrup. As like every region of India, Bengal has its own unique cuisine of bhaja, bhate, jhal and jhol which broadly uses mustard oil as the cooking medium, a love for fried food and goat meat and with an overindulgence, inching towards obsession, for poppy seed paste and potatoes. This is what every Bengali wants to come back home to, to their mother's cooking which can give the best chefs in the world a run for their money.

And when the Bengalis are not eating at home, they have their Bengali version of world food at their door step - Chinese in Tangra, where the original Chinese community has probably been more Bengalised than many Indians living in the city, and so has their food. The Lucknow Biryani of the Nawabs has been transformed for the Bengali's love of potatoes, their sumptuous kebabs wrapped in fried parathas for lip smacking rolls.
What's not to love here?

Family time

Practical reasons in these modern times have resulted in nuclear families splitting away from the larger joint families, now settled around and across cities. It is only family occasions that bring everyone together and considering the size of the extended families, there is no dearth of occasions. It is not just the extended families of Kakus (paternal uncles), Mamas (maternal uncles), Pishis (paternal aunts) and Mashis (maternal aunts) but the extended family of grand-parents (Dadus, Didas and Thakumas). Impressively, every relative is addressed by a unique qualifier before the basic uncle, aunt, grand father, grand mother. The standard list stands as Boro, Mejo, Sejo, Chhoto and running into innovative ones like Phul, Kone, Notun, Sona and anything else when the standard list is exhausted. To the uninitiated, it is daunting, but to a seasoned five year old it comes as easy as breathing. In this plethora of family members, it is very easy to slip into one's childhood, to become a kid again.  

Arts and culture

There is a saying that there rarely exists any Bengali household where one cannot spot a harmonium and a tabla, the basic accompaniments of a budding musical aficianado. Bengalis thrive on arts and culture and every child is trained in some form of it from a young age, whether that be music, classical dance, instruments, painting or all of them. Every celebration and occasion is incomplete without the performance of the songs of the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore or the revolutionary poet Kaji Nazrul Islam. Even a private family celebration will try to stage a play, pulled together by the family members. Arts and culture binds one to their roots, so no wonder it is difficult for a Bengali to tear away from it.


And there is no suitable English word for it. This is what happens when two or more Bengalis get together. They talk. They talk about anything and everything. But then this is not idle gossip, it is a critical dissection of everything that is happening in the world, with or without valid statistics. sometimes even with complete disregard to the facts, yet a forceful acceptance of one's opinion. Passions can flare over the performance of the local football team to the selection of the national cricket team and on Trump's stand on women and Mexico. And no adda is complete without cups of unlimited tea accompanied by jhalmuri (spiced puffed rice) and aloor chop (potato fritters). Where there is a group of Bengalis, friends or acquaintances, in any part of the world, there will always be time for adda.

What's in a name

Because Bengalis have a daaknaam too, a name only relatives and people who have known them as a kid have the privilege of calling. Even their better half may not use this informal name, such fierce is its propriety circle. Daaknaam, literally translates to 'called name' compared to bhalonaam or 'good name' which the world knows them by. This informal name is the identity very personal to a Bengali, which they can embrace only when they come back home, to the place they were born or have grown up.

The joys of shopping

Present day shopping malls and departmental stores are fast becoming the popular destination, though still for the well heeled. For the common masses and also for the discerning shopper, what better place than to head for the shopping treasure troves in New Market and Gariahat. The variety is overwhelming and a little haggling never hurts. And for the brave at heart willing for an adventure, and daring a bulk buy, there is always the option of heading off to the mysterious maze of Burra Bazar where one can land bargains at wholesale prices.  

Durga Puja

The annual festival of the Bengalis, when the Goddess Mother descends on earth from her heavenly abode in the Himalayas to visit her children. For the Bengalis, this is the time for homecoming. Five days of festivities is preceded by months of preparation.The festival not only has its religious significance but is also a social occasion when people, irrespective of their religion come together in the celebration. It is a celebration of everything that is Bengali - family, friends, food, shopping, adda and culture. For five days the city comes to a standstill, roads are closed as millions of revellers dressed in their festive best come out to visit the pandals (temporary structures built as the abode of Durga, each an exquisite work of art). The artisans showcase their skills in every aspect of the festival, in the modelling of the deities, the building of the pandals, in the beats of the dhak. It is a unique celebration of arts and culture in a religious and social background, the identity of a Bengali.

The personal touch

Personal space does not exist in Kolkata. It is not uncommon to be surprised by unsolicited opinion from a complete stranger while one is having a private conversation in a public place. This intrusion is not at all unwelcome to the adda loving Bengali. He sees it as another opportunity. In a different city, the same Bengali finds himself in a land of zombies, surrounded by people going on with their daily life, impersonal and he craves to get back home .

Your knight in shining armour

Driving in Kolkata requires psychic skills, to be able to predict what the other drivers may be up to. Finding a parking place is like winning a lottery and more often than not, it will just about be the length of the car. You have tried every possible angle for the perfect parallel parking without success and now on the verge of giving up. In comes your saviour, a very unimpressive looking guy who first guides you into the tiny space. It doesn't work. So he takes over the driving seat, and your car is tightly packed in, all done for free. Now who would not want that?

Durga Puja
Durga Puja

Dakshineswar temple
Dakshineswar temple

Howrah bridge
Howrah bridge

Victoria Memorial Kolkata
Victoria Memorial

Vidyasagar setu - 2nd Hooghly bridge
The second Hooghly bridge - Vidyasagar setu 

Princep ghat
Princep ghat

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