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The Calcutta Connect

That ‘Calcutta’ is an anglicized name, cast by the colonizer, is no secret. Yet it sounds undeniably homely.
The Calcutta Connect by Paromita Sengupta
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In many novels and films cities are not just a backdrop for the narrative events but characters. Would it be wrong to say that cities can become characters in our real lives too? As we live and travel through cities, wittingly or unwittingly they become a part not just of our lives but of us too; and perhaps, we also become a part of them. Yet not all places leave a mark on us in the same way or become equally entrenched in our minds and souls. Having lived, worked and traveled in numerous cities, both big and small, in India, USA and Europe, I can’t deny that they have each played a part in shaping my persona and psyche. Yet if I were to pick a city to write about, nothing but Calcutta comes to mind. 

I was born in Calcutta, more than 45 years ago. At three months I was taken away to Shillong, a small hill station in Meghalaya, in the north eastern part of India. There were brief mandatory homecomings every winter, but we only came to ‘permanently’ settle in a Calcutta suburb only when I was twelve. The year was 1990. The year of my puberty.

That ‘Calcutta’ is an anglicized name, cast by the colonizer, is no secret. Yet it sounds undeniably homely. There is some kind of an old-world charm, some strange nostalgia in Calcutta that the new ‘Kolkata’ seems to be missing for people of my generation and age. Calcutta was our youth’s city of brick-colored Writers’ and yellow-colored taxis. Tram cars and maidan. Street side chowmein and egg roll. Kolkata, formally spring-named in 2001, seems quite so different – very white and blue. Very high rise. Very flyovery too! Kolkata seems more Momo and Mio Amore than chowmein, phuchka and jhalmuri. More Milan Mela than boi mela. More Newtown than Shyambazar. More Uber than Metro. The list can go on… but in essence, millennial, as opposed to old-world.

But, but then for all the nostalgia (which admittedly is a Calcutta cliche), but for all the romanticism, all the shine or the lack of it, is the Kolkata of today really so different from the Calcutta of yesterday? Is nostalgia a favorite pastime of the privileged like me? We who grow up and go away. We who do not come back for all that matters. What about them who constitute the city’s guts? They who cannot or do not go away? A city’s underbelly is its streets and what do the streets of this city – once called the ‘premature metropolis’ – say? What difference does the difference in naming make in the life and living of the daily wage earner in Burrabazar or the ragpicker in Sealdah or the Hijra at Park Circus crossing begging for a living?

Strange that my mind has wandered off on this stream of consciousness – if these are the images that the name of my city inevitably conjures up, what does that have to say? Is the Calcuttan mind prone to be stuck in a time rut? Is that ‘so typically Calcuttan’! And why then was I enraged just the other day when, ‘another’ person, a well-traveled, ‘well-educated’ Irish colleague whom I was meeting face to face for the first time, when he heard that I am ‘from Calcutta’, asked me “Oh! So you’re from Calcutta? How’s the poverty there?” Stunned beyond belief, dumbfounded, embarrassed and angry all at once, it was nearly impossible to conceal the tears that had immediately welled up. Is that all that my city is known for? Poverty? I felt tremendous, seething anger, immense, numbing pain days after the moment had passed. I felt awful shame. At moments like these we can sometimes be angry at everything or anything and I felt suddenly angry that Pather Panchali had won international acclaim. Though set in a Bengal village, and not in Calcutta per se, the film has created an enduring image of Bengal that simply refuses to go away. I was also suddenly angry that Mother Teresa had been conferred Sainthood. At that moment it didn’t matter to me that I have a deep personal connection with Shishu Bhavan and Nirmal Hriday. I was just very hurt. Very, very hurt. It is unfair, I wanted to scream out loud. Yes, there was and there is poverty. But there is also so much more to my city and why does no one seem to know about it? Why is the city’s image so permanently stuck up?

It took me a couple of weeks to calm down and to finally be able to reiterate to myself the simple fact that people’s perceptions are not something that I can control or change. And then I also realized that if something triggers such strong emotions it has to have more psychological context to it than just being a stereotypical racial comment from a randomly rude white guy. What he said, and the way he said it, says as much or more about him as a person than about Calcutta or the typical Western perception of Calcutta. I also realized that perhaps what lies below my anger is guilt. The guilt may or may not be unfounded but it is there. The guilt of having come away. The guilt of habitually indulging in nonchalant nostalgia in a faraway land instead of simply just having stayed back and being there. Of not being part of the narrative. Of not doing more. The guilt of choosing head over heart. Practical convenience over emotional connect and meaningfulness.

It’s actually quite strange how life has somehow always taken me away from Calcutta. In spite of my deep love for her. Despite the fact that I never really wanted or consciously aimed to be anywhere else. And I am saying this because I distinctly remember how when in the final year of college, my friends were preparing for GRE exams, I had not even momentarily considered the thought of going abroad for higher studies. ‘Home-bred and home-made’ – always be proud to be so, my father used to say when we were kids, and that thought had been very deeply ingrained in me and my brother since childhood.

But to be honest, I must admit that I had not taken to Calcutta immediately. When we had moved to Calcutta in 1990, she had almost repulsed me. The crowd, the humidity, the traffic – it was overwhelming to say the least. Add to that the often-cranky passengers on public transport, eager to pick up a fight and battle it out in full gusto. It was difficult to find one’s foot, and quite literally so. It was difficult get a grip on this gutsy city’s nerve. But it’s a taste that can grow on you. And so it did. It was actually during my Presidency College and subsequently Calcutta University years that the camaraderie blossomed – for it was then that I began to discover, know, understand and love my city’s quaint smells, sounds and sights. Its myriad, flavorful tastes. And most of all, its pulse. The true spirit of its diverse peoples that has so much more to it than what often comes across as a ‘cholchhe cholbe’ culture caught up in a time warp. It is a city whose largest religious festival – Durga Puja – is not so much a religious as it is a psychosocial necessity that cuts across class and caste. It is the city of hullor and hujug and ‘hokkalorob’ – and often all at the same time. It is a city where the clamoring cacophony can be strangely calming; a city where Nakhoda Masjid stood as tall as St. Paul’s Cathedral or Jorasanko, and did not fear a demolition.

When I was falling so deeply in love with my city, little did I know that I would have to leave very soon. Not once but again. And again. And again. In between came Mumbai, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Evansville (a quaint and charming small city in Indiana), the picturesque Alpharetta near Atlanta, and Chicago. But they just didn’t stand a chance. I went back each time. Drawn magnetically to my city. Yet, I had to come away every time too. Drawn away by some force of life. And now, here I am, in livid Limerick, the third largest city in Ireland, with a population that’s less than any Calcutta suburb worth its name. We have bought a beautiful house here; and I’m supposed to have settled down. But the mind wanders. And wonders…

I miss Calcutta. I miss it utterly. And I cannot help it. It is not enough consolation that I know that I will never outgrow this city that lives in me no matter where I go. Or that I will always be ‘from Calcutta’, and proudly so. Or that the next time I encounter a random racist comment, I will not cower in guilt or shame but stand to the test.

Paromita Sengupta (PhD, English) is an academic, author, translator, independent film-maker and life coach. She is keen to publish herself in various creative forms including the audio-visual media. Some of her documentary films are Migration and Memories (2020) and The Unknown Spring (2021). Her book publications include an edition of The Persecuted, (the first drama to be written in the English language by an Indian, Revd. K. M. Banerjea), Bimukta (published by Eka, Westland Amazon in March 2020) a Bengali translation of Volga’s Sahitya Akademi Award-winning collection of short stories The Liberation of Sita, and an English translation of Dalit writer Sharan Kumar Limbale’s Saraswati Samman- winning novel Sanatan, published by Penguin Random House in April 2024. At present, Paromita lives in Limerick, Ireland, and works as Director of Studies in Griffith Institute of Language, Griffith College Limerick.

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