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Kolkata Kaleidoscope: Profiling the City of Joy

Evenings in Kolkata are for love, and love only.
Kolkata Kaleidoscope: Profiling the City of Joy by Rohit Prasad
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You need the heart of Sisyphus and the soul of Baudelaire to saunter through the nooks and crannies of Kolkata. Patience and ardour–– a rather contrary pair–– are traits that you must inculcate. Everyone in this city is an artist, or an aficionado to say the least, who understands life (or at least claims to understand it) through art. If you are strategic enough; if you know where to walk in, where to stop, and when to leave, the city will reveal itself to you–– ready to be read like a book.

The city has a different aura before the break of dawn— before the florists return from Mullickghat market (near Howrah) to their respective selling spots spread across the city like stars arranged strategically in a constellation; before the pauruti wallahs (bread vendors) begin their Ulyssean journeys on their three-legged chariots; or, before the newspaper shops magically crop up, abutting government offices. In the duskiness of the witch hour, these aesthetically pleasing buildings that accommodate the offices will relate to you, stories of a remote past— in the absence of sound and daylight— if you pay a little attention.

Speaking of bread vendors brings to mind the venous wrists and the ridged nails of Mr. Razzak of K. Ali Bakery in Mominpore. Mr. Razzak is one among the last few remaining artisans of the city who have kept alive the craft of baking traditional Baqarkhani (spiced flat-bread introduced by the Mughals in Calcutta) as well as Bauernbrot (traditional German bread that was introduced to the city during the second world war when the Japanese air force bombed the city in 1942).  In the post-liberal, hyper-commercialized dystopia that we inhabit, where automated bakeries and fancy cafés, selling flaky French croissants and cheesy Neapolitan pizzas, are sprouting like wild mushrooms with every passing day, Mr. Razzak is struggling to keep an artisanal culture and waning cuisine alive. If you manage to stride your way through the mob perpetually occupying the Mominpore crossing; if you manage to withstand the stench of carcass dominating the neighbourhood and continue slithering through the intestinal lanes that usher you to Choti Bazar, you will find an ancient, decrepit shop selling handmade breads, cakes, and biscuits. That is Mr. Razzak’s atelier. You will find the angel of history arriving there for tea sometimes if you become their regular customer. Carefully balanced on the crumbling shelves of the outlet, are large aluminum trays stacked with bread— plump, golden, and oblong like a cuddly body-pillow. Their proportions are so delicately balanced that intuition alone— and no mould— could have shaped them.

***

 If you ever happen to travel to Esplanade via Khidirpore in the afternoon, and you decide to take a CSTC bus, instead of a cab, there is a high probability that you will encounter Bholu in one of those buses–– a 14-year-old boy singing to the tune of his mouthorgan. His favourite — from his self-curated playlist which contains around twenty, odd, routinely-rehearsed-songs— is a melody set to tune by Kishore Kumar, ‘Gaata rahe mera dil’ (Let the heart keep singing), from the movie ‘Guide’.

‘Why do you like this song?’ I once asked him. ‘Because it’s a Karta-da (another name for musician S.D. Burman) melody’ he told me, almost instinctively. ‘And what is so special about Karta da?’ I followed up. ‘Keno ki o amar desh er lok’ (Because he is from my native land), he told me. Bholu had left his former country long ago when he was still a toddler. Set amidst the verdant valleys of Bandarban in Bangladesh, his place of birth is not even a distant memory. Fatal floods and landslides snatched away his father’s life and their home, his mother once told him. This is why they moved to this big city, many years ago, in search of a home. So, when he said he liked Burman’s songs because he was from his desh, I could not understand if he meant West Bengal or East Bengal.

Bholu works for Mr. Shah Nawaz, the owner of a seven-decade-old-shop at Mirza Ghalib Street selling vintage gramophones and vinyl records. It is here where Bholu trains his voice while tending to the needs of his employer and the customers who flock to the shop in search of vintage music. Bholu’s mother works at a road-side eatery serving Bangladeshi food, right across the street where Bholu works. She is a petite woman. Her skeleton is as thin as the bones of the fishes she cuts every day.  This mother-son duo has lived here for more than thirteen years now without citizenship, or identity. ‘When your belly is as empty as your purse, food takes precedence over identity,’ she told me when I first spoke to her.

Bholu is no different from those Muslim kids you find on the streets of Park Street, who adopt neutral-sounding Hindu names to avoid suspicion. After months of knowing him, I asked him what his bhalo naam (real name) was. ‘Mohammed Gulzar’ he answered glibly. I am sure he did not know what his name meant. Had he been aware of its meaning–– ‘blooming’ or ‘flourishing’ –– he would have a hard time trying to accept it.

‘What does it take to master this song?’ I asked him once, out of curiosity. ‘An empty stomach’, he said, in a playful vein.

***

Evenings in Kolkata are for love, and love only. If you ever happen to visit Victoria Memorial, Prinsep Ghat, or Rabindra Sarobar at nightfall–– highly coveted spots for urban couples–– you will find a swarm of sedentary couples completely immersed in passion; palms interlocked resembling entwined roots of a tree; unbothered of the decorous eyes that watch them. Whether the lover is a bona fide consort, a paramour, or hired flesh–– who cares?

Plato, in one of his dialogues, said that humans were originally conjoined beings–– two souls merged inside a single body. Their ‘wholeness’ was so threatening to the gods that they decided to cleave them into two. I am sure Plato must have dreamt of Calcutta couples sneaking behind bushes when he postulated his theory of conjoined soul mates. Their “desire” is, in fact, so legendary that it can scare any god belonging to any pantheon.

The shringar (or make-up) evoking the foreplay is legendary too. I find myself supremely amused every time I see young men and women play dress-up whenever they set out to meet their dates. The amount of thought and effort they put into it is really commendable. Women with caramelized faces, kohl-lined eyes, ruby lips, coiffed hair, flamboyant attire, and tawdry jewels look like human equivalents of a Jamini Roy painting. And the men with their rolled-up shirt/kurta sleeves, matted hair, eye shades, cologne, and a whiff of restrained arrogance resemble their favourite movie star, all set to re-enact the machismo their fathers perform at home.

But, if you look closely, beneath all these embellishments–– the powder, the concealer, the rouge, and the sunglasses–– you will see loneliness. One might think it is antithetical to associate loneliness with Kolkata (it is called the ‘city of joy’ for a reason after all) –– a city whose streets are almost always teeming with people, a city renowned for its addas, a citywhere there is so much physical proximity.  But sometimes mere physical proximity is not enough. Loneliness is not the absence of company but the lack of desired intimacy. People here are afraid to lay their souls bare. People in Kolkata, I feel, are too scared to admit that they are unhappy, frustrated, or defeated; that deep down, something is troubling them–– like a thorn in the heart. So, they hop from one partner to another, putting on all that glossiness, thinking that a lover’s embrace will put an end to all their misery. 

Walking through the streets of Kolkata is an exercise in liberation; in learning the skill of letting go. ‘Letting go of what?’ you may ask. Of the self. Each one of us is hurt in some way or the other. Everyone is struggling to keep themselves relevant. Everyone’s hungry for recognition. Each one of us has suffered heartaches. But all of this remains trivial unless we find a way of using it to connect with other people’s pain. By letting us witness their adversities, by showing us what it takes to endure life’s onslaughts, people like Mr. Razak, Bholu, his mother, or the lovelorn couples, help us suffer less. Helping us suffer less!… but isn’t that what artists do?

Rohit Prasad is a doctoral scholar and UGC Senior Research Fellow in the department of English at Jadavpur University working on underground comics and their negotiations with gender. He also received an M.Phil. from Jadavpur University for his research on post-independence women cartoonists and their contribution to the visual political culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Thus far, Rohit has studied, presented, and published on the art and politics of visual communication by marginal groups. Much of his ruminations on existence, survival, and friendship(s) are motivated by real-life experiences and deeply coloured by feminist and intersectional queer politics. Art keeps him afloat.

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