During a recent visit to my hometown – the city that defies definition, a couple of scenes, framed by the rattling windows of the city’s cacophonic local buses, stay frozen in my mind.
The first was outside a graffiti-covered public conveniences opposite a medical college, where the integrated easings of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Isahis, aided by a mild shower, was inundating the cratered sidewalks. A series of strategically placed half bricks formed a bridge across this stream. A bevy of pretty young leftist student activists, saris delicately lifted with one hand, placards clutched in the other doubling as umbrellas, protecting their heads from the drizzle, balanced precariously while crossing this bridge all the while loudly heralding the death of American imperialism in sweet falsetto. On the way, the revolutionaries passed a nameless wayside shrine. In flagrant contempt of the indoctrinated instructions, the arms raised in slogan were brought down in genuflection, paying obeisance to the opium of the masses. The traffic jam eased. My bus moved on.
The second was the mouth of a micro narrow lane called, say, Baker Street, leading off a busy thoroughfare. This lane was famed for its many gourmet ethnic eateries. The street was evenly paved with slime. A few feet from the entrance, on a ledge on a wall, a kebab joint did roaring business. A plastic sheet held up by a contraption of ropes, poles and bricks, protected the customer’s eye – but presumably not his nose – from a huge pile of festering garbage a few feet away. Numerous people stood in the slight drizzle devouring prawn cutlets and tangri kebabs on the lee side of this sheet. Right opposite a dimly lit signboard on top of a dull red doorway proclaimed: “Valentino’s Bar (airconditioned)”. A two-foot square space outside the door was paved with red tiles and was free from slime. A uniformed doorman stood passively by on one side. The graffiti covered walls on the sides were adorned by many posters, some torn and fluttering. Prominent among them were two identical large posters, fairly new, advertising some sports magazine which displayed large attractive blow-ups of Steffi Graf. A nude lunatic, one of the city’s many such strays, was staring entranced at these. He next gave each poster in turn a smacking kiss and seemed entirely pleased with himself. My bus moved on, shifting the scene from my window.
This was not a cliché from a pseudo-surrealistic film at Nandan (or Sakuntalam, as the case may be) but a frozen scene from the drama of Calcutta. This, it seemed to me, was the essence of the city we hate to love. —
(This piece was published by the Times of India in 1993)
Post Script :
Almost two decades later, Calcutta Cameo remains unchanged.
It is a bit of a cultural curiosity fossilized in time. The posters of Steffi
Graf are replaced by Sania Mirza, but nothing else has changed,
Metro, Mamata, Buddha and Bibekananda Setu notwithstanding.
As usual Rabindranath continues to be ‘relevant’ when he wakes up
(or wakes us up?) from a dream and tells us that
– Kolikata ache sei – kolikata tei !