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Chiaroscuro Reveries: Memories in Motion

The mist melted away, and history like a pang in the heart loomed before me.
Chiaroscuro Reveries: Memories in Motion by Sukanti Dutta
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Have you travelled in the rear part of a moving car with your face looking down the road, which gallops backwards, away from you every second?

It is fascinating to watch the road, as if unfurled by the speeding car, beating a hasty retreat. Keep your eyes riveted to the road which either tapers into a streak or snakes into curves hiding itself from sight. It looks like an unending sheet of paper uncoiled from a huge scroll stretching further and further back as the car moves on. The road as it unwinds backwards, carves a vista between two speeding rows of human establishments, trees and open spaces, but now and then it curls and bends, folding and curtaining the view from sight. And in connivance with the winding road as it were, memory falters sooner than ever as it meanders around the curve, wiping away beyond retrieval the remnants of what is still alive.

As time rushes relentlessly on, the world hurtles along leaving behind events and milestones at its mercy, which are pushed backwards and backwards till they fade completely away. But the nostalgic mind craves everything in retrospect. Every minute spent becomes a thing of the past. It is joined by hundreds of minutes, which are pushed further back by a hundred more minutes. There is a mystique about their retreat which they do in a rush because once they are beyond your orbit, they either tease you by their gathering haze or leave you derelict. Your progress is thwarted by this growing sense of loneliness as you navigate more and more bends which swallow these memories with tiresome regularity.

The days spent and the memories cherished continue to fade away once we are on the road. Whichever way we move it leaves behind an avenue of ever-burgeoning memories. They come thick and fast; they overlap; they drift; they run counter to each other and in the process often erase each other. They glide down a long vista that cuts across the accumulated space left behind and relegated into the coffers of time. We remain witness to their procession as they pass by, dwindle, glimmer and melt.

Can we retrieve the time? Can we stretch the vista further and further back to the time we have only heard of and never seen? I would love to do that because imagination, always eager to latch on to what it has missed, seeks to fall back on the vestiges of those lost days to retrieve their flavour and, if possible, re-live them. It keeps us within our known peripheries; only it expands and abbreviates the scope to help us live in a fascinating time warp the like of which we cannot experience in our more mundane moments. But allow me to be less vague.

Last Sunday, I was rummaging through a collection of images of the once-upon-a-time Calcutta, published in a book on the city. Initially, it was a perfunctory exercise, this routine of flipping through pages, but slowly the snow screen lifted. The mist melted away, and history like a pang in the heart loomed before me. As I delved deeper into the pages, each photograph became a portal to another era, transporting me to the bustling streets and colonial architecture of old Calcutta. With each turn of the page, the city’s rich tapestry of history, culture, heritage, and resilience unfolded before my eyes – a poignant reminder of the city’s evolution over the years, stirring within me a sense of nostalgia and appreciation for its storied past.

As the sepia-toned, as well as black and white images, seemed to whisper tales of bygone days, I felt I was being taken through a galaxy of monochrome vignettes: A row of ramshackle buildings, a near-empty promenade along what you call Esplanade, a puffing locomotive stranded at an excuse of a platform, a disorganised dotting of trees along long stretches of land.  A fleet of dreary-looking mastheads tugged together at a solitary river bank with a desultory flight of steps leading to it and meekly dipping into the water. A caravan of horse-driven carts chugging along what looked like Central Avenue, a tramcar trundling into a dingy corner, a wizened rickshaw puller waiting wearily for a customer under the porch of his cart and a none-too-impressive-looking person waiting at the doorstep with a bowl in hand.

It was the face of nostalgia in miniature! But it gripped you like anything. The apparent lack of what you might call sophistication was all the more attractive for this very reason. I felt I could spend hours on the pictures, plant myself into each of them separately to assess myself, to check where I could fit in. But I had a sudden brain wave! Working on a whim, I started peopling the blank spaces, raising buildings, high-rises, swank malls and auditoriums, planting gardens and entertainment zones, positing coffee joints, restaurants and eateries, stretching four-lane avenues, creating theme parks and artificial water bodies and what not. It was, in short, wild fantasising which you might call insane. Call it a quirk or whatever you will.

In an instant, the available space seemed to shrink, with the old city metamorphosing into its present avatar – an epicentre of frenetic activities! Suddenly there was everything that could sketch a magnificent and vibrant cityscape! It was enough to make you feel at ease, at home, and at peace, as if finally finding yourself in your own sacred space. This was life after all, life that weaved a hundred dreams and pulsated with ever-intensifying rhythms that prompted you to go for the moon! This was life, a chequered reality, a palimpsest with everchanging inscriptions, which kept you guessing while it challenged its own parameters and went for the unknowable….

Surprisingly, as I struggled to acclimatize myself to this metropolitan cityscape, I somehow felt poorer, gagged, and short of breath! It was as if someone was denying me my own space, and robbing me of my identity. I felt bemused by the suddenly changed scenario and alarmed by the abundance of gifts around me. Searching for a way out, I hit upon a ploy: in a move which you might term ‘reverse evolution,’ I started ruffling my mental map, depopulating the city, erasing the monuments to their barest minimum, dimming the overall gloss, restoring the blank spaces, and Charnock’s city came back to its own!

Solitary streets fringed with trees, wheezing locos, honking Austins and Landmasters, commonplace-looking shops, run-down shanties, unmacadamised and potholed roads, large unmown fields, a generous sprinkling of ponds, dozing evening lanes, timid-looking night lanterns, all came alive! I seemed to have worked wonders with my invisible brush because the world suddenly looked larger in this monochrome masterpiece with ample space where you could freely weave a thousand dreams and reach out for the apparently unreachable. The brilliance of the moment enveloped me like a spell. A weight lifted from my shoulders, and I breathed in the fresh air with newfound clarity!  

Dr Sukanti Dutta is an Associate Professor of English at City College of Commerce & Business Administration. His career spans over 35 years and apart from teaching, he is associated with the academic bodies of the University of Calcutta. His area of interest is English Fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries. Though the topic of his doctoral thesis was Late Victorian Fiction, he worked extensively on the fiction of Kazuo Ishiguro, especially on the language of silence in his novels. He is currently working on the late fiction of J. M. Coetzee. Dr Dutta takes a keen interest in creative writings and intends to work in this area in near future.

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