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Musings on the Ceaseless Charms of Kolkata

Kolkata teaches me to embrace ‘Unity in Diversity’ every day in its unique way.
Musings on the Ceaseless Charms of Kolkata -Sneha Das
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‘Where else could you belong except in the place you refused to leave’

Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide.

While spring’s vibrant colors inspire romance and winter’s chill sends shivers down spines, Kolkata offers a unique charm in every season. Each October, the city transforms into a fragrant haven, enveloped by the intoxicating scent of coral jasmine. Known locally as ‘shiuli phuler gondho’ in Bengali, this floral perfume fills the air, creating a truly rare and beautiful experience.

Shiuli is the flower that fills you with memory and desire, hope and regret, love and sorrow yet never lets you lose sight of a better tomorrow. These milky white blooms, adorned with a reddish-orange center, resemble a loving vermilion dot on my mother’s forehead. It is a familiar sight that carries the news of a homecoming, like a sweet whisper saying, ‘pujor gondho eseche,’ meaning, the fragrance of pujo (Durga Puja) has arrived.

As I stroll along the cherished lanes and alleyways of my city, the scent of Shiuli interlaces with the steam rising from a hot cup of tea, served in a small earthenware vessel that I adore. With each sip of tea, I find myself humming the bluesy lyrics of Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered Am I,’ encapsulating my profound connection with Kolkata, a sanctuary for dreamers, poets, artists, and everyday individuals like myself. Amidst the bustling symphony of urban life, even the melancholy of solitude evolves into a harmonious melody. Whether succumbing to the tantalizing temptation of the street-side phuchka or indulging in the irresistible allure of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah’s biryani, Kolkata boasts of numerous attractions that enchant and captivate.

We, Kolkatans have a penchant for nicknames, referred to in Bengali as ‘daak naam,’ as a means of overcoming our subtle sense of insecurity. Perhaps it is our way of bridging the expanding gap between memory and forgetfulness. Above all, we strive to ensure that the sights, sounds, and scents that define ‘Home’ for us remain etched in our hearts, refusing to fade away like cherished individuals, places, or melodies we do not wish to let go.

While Kolkata may be dubbed ‘The City of Joy,’ I prefer to christen it ‘The City of Refugees,’ for it consistently offers sanctuary to dreamers and romantics, echoing the sentiment that not all who wander are lost. Whether amidst the dusty alleyways of North Calcutta or the scenic boulevards of South Calcutta, this city has led me to discover love and beauty in the most unexpected nooks, unveiling the brilliance of the world in ordinary spaces.

It is intriguing to observe how the etymological roots of both ‘Calcutta’ and ‘Kolkata’ are veiled in mystery, akin to the mysterious allure of a woodland deity vanishing into the captivating darkness of a forest. From Abul Fazl’s Ain-i-Akbari to Job Charnock’s colonial narratives of the city, ‘Kolkata’ and its Anglicized counterpart ‘Calcutta’ are deeply interconnected, sharing a historical umbilical cord.

Kolkata’s roots are steeped in myth. The Bhavishya Purana tells the tale of Goddess Kali, believed to be the protector of the city, earning it the nickname ‘Kalikata Kshetra’ – the Land of Kali. Goddess Kali, also known as Kalika, is believed to preside over as well as protect the city. The revered Kalighat Kali Temple serves as her abode within the city, a constant reminder of her watchful presence. Transcending its mythical origin, this vibrant metropolis has emerged as a melting pot of cultures and religions. Temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues coexist harmoniously, showcasing the city’s remarkable religious diversity and attesting its religious tolerance.

Kolkata teaches me to embrace ‘Unity in Diversity’ every day in its unique way. Nestled in the alleys of Tangra lies Kolkata’s one-of-a-kind Chinese neighborhood where a Kali Temple stands. Here, Chowmein is offered as ‘bhog’ on the divine platter of the deity, a departure from the traditional sattvic Hindu platters served in other temples. Similarly, the ‘Firingi Kalibari’, a Kali Temple named after a foreigner who embraced Hinduism, stands as a testament to the city’s inclusive spirit. This temple has been named after its association with  a Portuguese Christian man affectionately known as Antony Firingi by the locals. His deep devotion to the Goddess transcended religious boundaries, exemplifying the belief preached by Ramakrishna Paramhansa: ‘joto mot toto Poth,’ meaning,’ ‘as many opinions, so many paths,’ or simply put, ‘there is more than one way of attaining salvation.’

No matter how hard you try, Kali and her enigmatic charm will keep eluding you like a labyrinth. She is limitless. She is boundless. She is like a mother who ruthlessly admonishes yet silently protects without expecting anything in return. The formidable majesty and awe-inspiring grace of Goddess Kali give way to a resilient benevolence, endearing her to all, regardless of social status. The cult of Kali is deeply rooted in Bengal’s ethos, gaining momentum during the independence movement when Bengali revolutionaries found inspiration in her dual nature – a nurturing mother and a fierce warrior. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay likened her to a formidable socio-political force. Swiftly, both the Argumentative Bengali and the Anglicized Bengali embraced the cult of Kali. Images of Maa Kali adorn buses, autos, trucks, rickshaws, eateries, and even meat shops across the city, symbolizing her omnipresence and role as the refuge for every refugee in the cherished yet embattled city of Kolkata.

Kolkata exemplifies resilience in unexpected ways, embodying a spirit unbound by conditions or limitations. During the 1947 Partition and the 1971 Dhaka riots, a wave of refugees from Bangladesh sought shelter in Kolkata, which welcomed them with open arms. Along the banks of the Adi Ganga, where Tollygunge now stands, once flowed a massive stream. It became the site of numerous refugee settlements, which gradually evolved into thriving communities. It’s heartening to see how this city possesses the innate ability to transform temporary shelters into enduring homes, imbued with their sense of warmth and character.

Kolkata, ‘Kallolini-Tilottama-Kolkata,’ embodies the tranquil flow of a river, yet possesses the potential to ignite a passionate tempest. It’s a city of paradoxes, of stark contrasts. Whether it’s the mellifluous verses of Tagore or the cinematic masterpieces of Satyajit Ray, Kolkata, to me, will forever remain the bastion of hope, the sanctuary for refugees, the haven for dreamers and romantics alike. It is a battleground where revolution and romance intertwine, embracing like feuding lovers. Kolkata serves as a poignant reminder that life, love, and beauty are like timeless rivers, forever nourishing us with their essence.

Mirza Ghalib, who fell in love with Kolkata, had composed a Ghazal as an outpouring of his love for the city. ‘Kalkatte ka jo zikr kiya tune hamnasheen,/ Ik teer mere seene mein mara ke haye haye.’ His words poignantly convey the sentiment, ‘As you mentioned Kolkata, my friend, An arrow you shot straight into my heart, alas!’ Even amidst cynicism and despair, Kolkata whispers a persistent message: give peace a chance. This city thrives on the romance of love, the very idea of being swept off your feet. It compels you to search for light even in the deepest darkness.

Kolkata’s laughter echoes like the gentle lapping of the Ganges – sweet, melodic, and imbued with a quiet resolve. Here, the ancient and modern seamlessly blend. Whether you wander down bustling neon-lit avenues or explore labyrinthine alleys bathed in the warm glow of lampposts, Kolkata always guides you home.

Sneha Das is currently pursuing her Masters in English Literature from St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. She is a blogger, writer, poet and thespian who plans to pursue a career in public service. She graduated with Honors in English Literature from St. Xavier’s College Kolkata. She completed her schooling from Modern High School for Girls, Kolkata. She has scripted and worked as a thespian in several stage productions namely a postmodern retelling of Sophocles’s Antigone as a part of one of the Consulate of Greece’s international exchange programmes. Her multilingual play ‘Love In The Times Of War’ won the Sombhu Mitra Memorial Prize for Best Script at TheaXav, organized by the Xaverian Theatrical Society. She is currently a freelance writer penning articles for e-papers like The Telegraph’s ‘My Kolkata’. She occasionally juggles the role of a Bengali elocutionist with elan. Poetry and Music are her confidantes and Cinema her refuge.

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