Of Parineeta and the city of joy.

July 2007

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Quite long ago I had seen the movie 'Parineeta', Sarat Chandra's classic slightly tweaked for a happy ending. If u see the movie, the beginning that is, u'll find the voice of Amitabh Bachchan giving a very illustrative and poetic account of this city along with matching shots in the background. According to me that rendition of his, along with the background shots captured the mood and beauty of Kolkata to perfection. The reason I'm so intoxicated by the beauty of this city is because I have just left it for my hometown Bhubaneswar, after spending around a month there. And I have seen it all. And believe me in these thirty odd days, this city captured a piece of my imagination. And although my first love still remains Bhubaneswar to the core, I can't excuse myself from describing the enchanting beauty of this place. Some of the stuff worth mention, I write below:

Traffic Jams: I repeat I've seen it all. I lived in this huge mansion exclusively inhabited by Parsi families (my aunt is married to one and hence the privilege). It was located in the most central part of Kolkata namely Moulali. And needless to say it was bustling the whole day. Buses, trams (more bout that below), taxis, people on the move, u have it all. Even the metros are crowded now and do little to help. The city just never slept.

Culture/Architecture/Cuisine: Nostalgia still prevails here. The mansion I mentioned above is almost 70-80 years old but still would put many houses of today to shame. It really has class with its high walls and windows the size of doors. What i intend to say is the architecture of yesteryears is still there in most parts of the city with British influence very much apparent most notably in the Victoria Memorial. And the Parsis are indeed one of the most peace loving communities as I saw. Pity its dwindling with only about 500 odd left in Kolkata. The best part is the food. During festive occasions that's served in traditional banana leaf. To me that beats sophisticated cutlery and fine dining any day.

Intellect: There was a saying once upon a time - 'What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow'. After all, this was the place where the freedom struggle started and the Congress was born. Greats like Ram Mohan Roy, Vidyasagar, Michael Madusudan Dutta (according to me the greatest Indian writer of all time though very few people know of him), Sarat Chandra himself, the list goes on, are connected to this place. Lastly this city has produced three Nobel laureates. And this was the city Mother Teresa called home. I guess I need not say more.

Presidency college: Satyendranath Bose (of Bosons and Bose-Einstein Statistics fame) hailed from here. This man was awarded 110/100 in his math exam as he had not only solved every question but also in every possible way. Einstein wrote his reco. Jagdish Chandra Bose taught here without taking his salary for three years as a mark of protest as he was paid three times less than the British professors while he considered himself as good as them. The British had to relent after 3 years. That was some courage of conviction. Netaji, its most famous alumnus (the most inspirational national leader according to me) had slapped a British professor for insulting a fellow Indian peon. A board on the staircase mentions this with pride in the exact location where it happened. And it all happened in this institution.

Trams: Probably Tokyo and Hong Kong are the only other Asian cities that have it. And believe me trams are some nostalgia. I traveled in them extensively just for the ride. My favorite route was the one that ran parallel to the Ganges shore with Babughat and Princep Ghat on one side and the Maidan on the other and the Calcutta skyline (Chatterjee and Tata building) beyond it. Take this route during sunset and its like honeymoon in slow motion (I had to put this in a corny way to make u feel the bliss of trams!).

Howrah Bridge (the old one): The busiest bridge in the world. Not a single nut and bolt has been used. It’s all sealed. Probably now u can fathom why I mentioned traffic above.

The Maidan: I guess u wont find such a huge open space in the midst of bustling traffic right in the middle of the city in any other place in the world. They say it’s bigger than Central park in New York City. The Ganges is on the left and downtown on the right. Probably the only place in the country where Football rules instead of Cricket in the evening. There is a Taanga ride (horse-driven-carriage) that people take in front of the Victoria Memorial near Eden. Believe me, for those 10 minutes, you feel like a royal basking in the adulation of lesser mortals on the street.

City centre: There’s something for the youngsters too. On the weekends the entire young crowd, the software people in particular gather here. And you do find love in the air! And yeah, the largest Pantaloons is in Kolkata too, though in a different area. You get spoilt for choice.

Boat ride in Princep ghat: This is how Rajesh Khanna expressed his love for Waheeda in Khamoshi (Woh Shaam Bhi Kuch Ajeeb Thi) and Sharmila in Amar Prem (Chingaari koi Bhadke). A 30 minute ride costs 100 bucks. But take it from me it’s worth the ride. U get to pass under the Howrah bridge if u pester the boatman a bit or lure him with some extra money. The boats actually have a lantern hanging from the arched structure and the boatman uses just the long bamboo to row. Made me realize why some things look so appealing when done the old fashioned way.

Propaganda: Rather communist propaganda. You see the red flag everywhere. The strikes though openly criticized by the 'intellectuals' are secretly reveled by them all the same (with me as a partner in their crime for the free holidays). Gorky Sadan, Lenin Sarani, Tolstoy Bhavan - these people just love Soviets. If Castro dies i reckon they'll get the corpse here. One of the last strongholds of Communism in India. Lastly where else would you find Che Guevara right from college walls to almost every T-shirt worn by students as if it were uniform as a mark of protest against something they don't like. It really confirmed what I had heard often - that Che is the most tattooed and T-shirted face on the planet.

Roshogolla and mishti doi: The first one is often used to signify a beautiful girl. It’s so beautiful indeed! Recent fusions include a variety where Mango flavor is infused in yogurt (Aam Doi). As for 'Roshogolla', these guys apparently stole the recipe from Oriyas and claim it to be their own (Wikipedia). Realize why I said propaganda above !!!

Park street: The half century old restaurants are still there. And u still have the Flury's (Sanjay Dutt treats the whole family here - sorry I can’t get off this movie). A slice of bread still costs a fortune. These guys supposedly openly admit to having opened this exclusively to fool rich foreign tourists living in Park Street. Oh and yes, there’s Moulin Rouge too!

And lastly, the Durga puja: I once heard that UNESCO declared this as the biggest Autumn festival in the world (to me it seems more of a rumor spread by the Bengalis to assert their culture - but not too of the mark though). This takes the cake for me. More for the social than the religious aspect or the rituals. On the social side its' the annual get together of relatives, pretty much similar to the annual reverse migration of the Chinese during the Chinese new year. And the most joyous time of the year where people indulge in merrymaking  dining, shopping and of course 'Adda' (Bengali for get together of friends after a long time). On the religious, men actually dance like Sanjay Dutt in Parineeta in traditional Dhoti Kurta. And the women look traditional draped in their red sarees. It's also here that matches are made for the people of marriageable age for the coming year. There is a slight whiff of flirtation  in the air as guys and girls decide on their future mates (or at least fancy them !!). I have faced a traffic jam at 3 in the night. It’s electric. I don’t think any other festival or carnival livens up any other city like what the puja (pujo in local dialect) does to Kolkata (maybe the Rio carnival comes close).

They say that if u live in a city long enough, u eventually begin to like it. Well in my case, it took just one month to make me fall in love with 'Anondonogori Kolkata' - The city of joy.