It’s almost every day that one takes a stroll down the memory lane, but even more so during a heart-wrenching pandemic and lockdown. This is unexplored territory for most of us millennials, who have been living their teens and adulthood through the golden period of India, in terms of economy and culture both. We never had to face the horrors of the 1984 riots, the Emergency or the grotesque wars fought by India, post-Independence. I wonder if we’ll come out of this pandemic a bit more mature and stable, or just more reliant on the virtual world for sustenance.
I find myself one early morning after the lockdown, woken up by the sheer tirelessness at 6 am; only to witness a swathe of cotton candy shaped clouds and the Sun so calm, for it is March in Delhi. It was unlike anything I had witnessed before.
After a good half hour of staring at the silence clinging to the walls of my house, I make myself my ritualistic cup of lemon tea and cross another day off of my calendar, until this is all over.
As I sit and blow on my tea for the thousandth time, I hear a voice from a recorder coming from my neighbour’s house. They were playing a famous Satyajit Ray song, that they do often but is usually drowned out by the jingling utensils of the neighbourhood and the hasty vehicles. I can faintly put any words together, but the calming music makes me get off my bed and lean against the wall to listen a little more clearly.
I clamber on my couch, with my black laptop and fiddle through the folders to finally find the one I was rummaging for, named Kolkata or Calcutta, as most snobby Kolkatans would insist. I look at the pictures nostalgically and I’m back in the streets of the city of joy, where I can almost smell the salty fragrance of fish and the rust adorning Victoria Memorial’s old doors. For a good five years of my life, in fact, for as long as I can remember, I have dreamed of going to Kolkata. Maybe it was Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore, Anupam Roy’s sweet sitar music, the movie Piku, Kolkata’s iconic yellow taxis or my love for Mishti Doi (sweet yogurt).
For someone hailing from Delhi, Kolkata hits you like the fresh respite of mint lemonade on a hot summer day. A lot more scanty and calmer than the fast-paced city of Delhi, Kolkata, for me, was a sight out of a Michelangelo painting, an architect’s candy land if you may. Wherever you look, across three-sixty degrees, beautiful colours adorn the old buildings; not one is left white. There is something about the buildings in that city - they’re as old as time, but they stand strong, bold and speak to you if you like all things old.
Kolkata is one of the metropolitan cities of India, with the 7th largest population and a bustling cultural milieu, yet it feels as if time has not moved there. The city has heavy influences from its colonial past, which can be seen in the wide roads, intersections, pavements, and the touch of white on the big, stellar monuments and museums. There is a mix of old and modern Indo-Saracenic elements in Kolkata, but a huge part of it dates back to the late 19th century when it was the major cultural, economic and commercial capital of colonial India. From the old rusty doors on its buildings, the yellow taxis around the city, to the cramped markets and street vendors selling the famous street food called* Phuchka*, there are parts of Kolkata surviving still, as authentic to its culture as it could’ve been.
The tradition of the hand-pulled rickshaws is still going strong and extant in the tapered lanes of Kolkata’s Bara Bazar (literally ‘big market’) where men labour all day long, pulling these rickshaws with people for survival. These rickshaws were introduced in Kolkata by the Chinese Traders around the 1900’s who inhabited the Bara Bazar area primarily to carry goods. The present-day pullers are either third or fourth generation pullers carrying the colonial heritage with their heredity.
The government of Kolkata has tried time and again to eradicate this practice, which some consider vile and inhuman, by banning it throughout the city, however, the rickshaws can still be spotted across the town. They say it’s their heritage and legacy, and it’s the only work they know. Hence, Kolkata stands as the only city in India to still have hand-pulled rickshaws in a working environment.
When talking about a monopoly on things, Kolkata is also the city of the Tram Car. These trams are the oldest operating electric tram system in Asia, which has been running since 1902. They are little yellow and blue carriages, usually in a pair of two that run on electricity from overhead lines and tracks laid down throughout the city; from right next to Park Street to the Fort William, their expanse is widely spread.
Although these trams are old and rough around the edges, they are still chosen as a means of transportation by a significant number of lower-middle-class people, as it costs less than rupees ten to travel in this delightful little vehicle. Sitting in a tram takes you back to the 70’s and you can suddenly hear an old Hindi song playing in your head. They’re slow yet still efficient and environment-friendly and sit right in the heart of Kolkata’s culture, defining the city since time immemorial. And if you’re in Kolkata, I promise you can tell by the metallic tracks hugging the road and the muffled ringing of its bell that you’re near one.
However, undoubtedly, Kolkata’s culture is what it is known for across the globe. During the late 19th and 20th centuries, Kolkata gave birth to what later came to be known as the Bengal Renaissance. It is said to be initiated by the famous social-religious reformer, Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who led Kolkata to greatness, along with fellow reformers from this period - Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda, and many others.
Whilst the British authority over India was incrementing every day, Bengal decided to step out from this period of darkness and towards the light. Reconsideration and reassessment transpired in the culture and philosophy of Kolkata, which is the very soul of a renaissance. This renaissance increased the importance of Kolkata by folds when it became the capital of colonial British India. Education, literacy, and civilisation flourished throughout the city which led to the birth of Kolkata’s literary realm, producing impressive pieces of literature and concurrently writers like the Nobel Prize-winning legend Rabindranath Tagore or Rashsundari Debi who is considered to be one of the first Indian women to write an autobiography and the first Bengali woman to have ever written anything. The Bengal renaissance not only brought literature and knowledge but reforms, technology, science, and enlightenment.
The rise in Bengali culture during the time of colonialism is a watershed for Indian feminism because of the remnants that some of the women have left behind. Kolkata has witnessed women like Begum Rokeya, the author of the feminist utopian story Sultana’s Dream, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Mother Teresa, Bina Das and Aruna Asaf Ali who laid a firm foundation of a feminist example for India’s posterity.
Back to the streets of Kolkata, I was not only staggered by its beautiful museums and churches but the art that lives in every corner of that city. Be it music, books or food, Kolkata aces the chart on every ground. It houses India’s largest library - The National Library of India, which provides a serene environment for any bibliophile, and College Street, a mile of bookshops and bookstalls spilling over each other, where a large majority of publishers are situated. It became the heart of all-things-books after the Kallol *movement, started around the beginning of the 20th century, witnessed the arrival of postmodernism. One of the greatest achievements of the Kallol* group was in establishing a new generation of writers and thinkers in Bengal, especially Kolkata. This also gave rise to Kolkata’s cinematic scene theatre and by extension, art films, known worldwide.
I remember seeing the oldest building in Kolkata situated in the centre of a jostling market called Lalbazar, lost and unmarked, shown to me by an old man, a lawyer, whom I met in my Uber-pool. It had red bricks and white pillars with curved white-painted windows. Before he left, he told me the best time to enjoy all that Kolkata has to offer is mid-October, during the period of Durga Pujo, a time of week-long festivities and food. The city lights up like a cluster of fireflies and rejoices with music authentic to the soul of Kolkata.
The city lost its colossal importance after the capital of the Indian subcontinent was shifted from Calcutta (back then) to Delhi on December 12, 1911. However, it still strives to mesmerise its inhabitants and travellers from across the globe. It’s unlike any other city, soaked deeply in immense history and culture, which is reflected in every building, every pavement, and every bite of its delectable roshogollas. The sweet Bengali music from the house adjacent to mine stops as the world wakes up and dives into the everyday hustle of life again. I close the window into my memory jar of Kolkata, rush to the kitchen and pour my nostalgia into a hearty Sunday treat of Mishti Doi.
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