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Through the Lace Screen of Memory: A Life in Two Cities

Childhood memories are like lace screens, filtering the past into fragments of light and shadow.
Through the Lace Screen of Memory: A Life in Two Cities by Champa Ghosal
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Childhood memories are like lace screens, filtering the past into fragments of light and shadow. These days, my childhood in Delhi comes to me in hazy glimpses. It was in the country’s capital that I grew up, earned my degrees, and even taught for a while before marriage took me to Calcutta (now Kolkata). We lived in three different houses in Delhi until my father, the Principal of the Central Institute of Education at Delhi University, retired. We then settled in our own house in Chittaranjan Park.

Delhi University, in the 1960s and 70s, was a world apart from its bustling present. Back then, it was a very quiet place. There was very little traffic. No buses, except school buses, ran outside our home. The only sound that occasionally broke the stillness was the clip-clop of horse hooves pulling a tonga, a gentle reminder of a bygone era.

Living in the University Campus, Old Delhi held a special place in our hearts, its familiarity surpassing that of the newer districts. Journeys to New Delhi were rare treats, typically reserved for visits to Connaught Place or Janpath. While Connaught Place dazzled with its upscale boutiques, Janpath was a veritable treasure trove. There, students like us could unearth high-quality export rejects at bargain prices – a boon for updating our wardrobes without breaking the bank. Even today, Janpath retains its lively essence, pulsating with a kaleidoscope of hues from garments, beads, and an endless array of trinkets. It remains a sanctuary for students, though Nirula’s, the haunt that introduced us to the marvels of pizza alongside their delectable cutlets, has likely undergone a considerable transformation since our days of going Dutch to split a pie.

Our cherished shopping haunt was Kamla Nagar, a quintessentially middle-class Punjabi market, bustling with skilled tailors and an array of tantalizing culinary delights and unique merchandise. Its crowning glory was the annual Durga Puja, where I first encountered the concept of Ananda Mela. Years later, after settling in Kolkata, I ventured back to this nostalgic spot, only to be shocked to see the once-familiar puja being conducted in Hindi, with Hindi bhajans blaring in the background. While the market had undergone upgrades, it still retained its timeless essence and character. This experience taught me the folly of expecting old places to remain frozen in time.

Kashmiri Gate held a special significance in our outings, particularly for my father. While the main attraction for him was the abundance of fish, primarily from the carp family, my own interest lay in a small establishment offering puri with sabzi that my father would often get for us. Our ultimate culinary destination, however, was The Khyber, a restaurant renowned for its Northwest Frontier cuisine. Sadly, my recent inquiries revealed that it now serves Chinese and other fare. The thought of revisiting it holds little appeal to me now. Occasionally, we ventured to Moti Mahal in Daryaganj, a place that still exists, I have heard. Daryaganj wasn’t just about dining; it was a hub for second or third-hand books, both legitimate and pirated, lining the footpaths. It was here that I acquired a copy of Midnight’s Children, believing it to be an original. However, when Salman Rushdie graced our university with his presence, he politely declined to sign these copies, revealing with a playful twinkle in his eye, that they were pirated versions. It was a revelation to me, learning first-hand about the world of book piracy.   

Chandni Chowk held a special allure for my mother and me; it was my mother’s favourite haunt. Meandering through the Meena Bazar near Jama Masjid was a delightful pastime, even though we seldom made purchases. The array of prayer mats, traditional fez topis, and hijabs fascinated us; the bedcovers were garishly coloured and the dupattas were glittering but they had their own charm. Among the bustling lanes, Annapurna Sweets stood out with its delectable kancha gollas, the best I have ever tasted. Nestled near Ghanta Ghar, it remains a timeless gem in the heart of Chandni Chowk.

Guests, particularly relatives from Calcutta, would often visit us; welcoming them filled our home with excitement as we played tour guides, showcasing the rich history and cultural heritage of Delhi. Visits to iconic landmarks like the Red Fort, Humayun’s Tomb, and the majestic Qutub Minar that offer glimpses into the city’s illustrious past became cherished traditions. Occasionally, we took them to Agra and Haridwar, creating lasting memories amidst the tapestry of India’s historical marvels.

The late sixties and early seventies were an era of extensive changes. Multi-storied buildings had started dotting the city’s skyline while the advent of Doordarshan brought a novel entertainment experience, notably featuring a weekly Hindi film broadcast every Sunday. Witnessing the construction of Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1969, I couldn’t help but feel the palpable sense of change permeating the landscape.

While these developments unfolded, I remained oblivious to the tumultuous Naxal Movement sweeping across Bengal. However, our visits to Kolkata provided glimpses of the underlying tension, manifested in hushed discussions and an air of apprehension. It was during these visits that I first encountered some unsettling sights and sounds – bombs strategically arranged on walls and knives being sharpened in the dead of the night – stark reminders of the unrest simmering beneath the surface.

The year 1971 etched itself in my memory as the year of the Bangladesh War, which stood out in stark contrast to my earlier encounters with conflict – the Indo-China war in 1962 and the India-Pakistan war in 1965. In the 1960s I was too young to understand war though I recall the routine of pasting thick black paper on the glass sky ventilators, and of switching off lights swiftly at the blaring of sirens. But by 1971, I was old enough to grasp the gravity of war. The events of that year left an indelible mark, shaping my understanding of war in ways I could not have fathomed before. And then came 1975, the year of the Emergency. Amidst the backdrop of stringent discipline pervading every aspect of life, I, like my contemporaries, viewed it as a marvel. Trains ran punctually, buses adhered to schedules – it seemed like a miraculous transformation for my country. Yet, it was only later that the true face of the Emergency revealed itself to me. The veneer of orderliness masked a darker reality, one that unfolded gradually, shedding light on the complexities of power and governance.

After completing my university education, I taught in schools for a few years. In 1984, a new chapter unfolded in my life as I married and relocated to Kolkata, then known as Calcutta. I found its people warm and helpful. Public transportation was abundant, with buses stopping at designated stops, ensuring seamless commutes. Though auto-rickshaws had not yet appeared on the scene the city boasted an extensive tram network, with the Metro already under construction. The city seemed to pulsate with activity, with roads undergoing renovations and the cacophony of colossal construction machines echoing through the streets. It was a period of dynamic change for Calcutta, and I found myself swept up in the energetic rhythm of its evolution.

Calcutta was the cultural centre of the country. Every household seemed to exude a sense of cultural accomplishment of one kind or the other. Unlike Delhi, where quality music, dance, and theatre were reserved for a niche audience, in Calcutta, these were readily accessible to common middle-class families. The city had a vibrant cultural scene, inviting everyone to partake in its richness. Moreover, its residents were politically aware, their discussions invariably gravitating towards the state of politics. This engagement with political discourse was a stark contrast to my experiences in Delhi. I had never seen a students’ union in college. The only union was in the University, and we had never voted during any University election. In Kolkata the atmosphere was charged with activism, and it was commonplace to witness impassioned debates on socio-political issues.

My experience of teaching in a college in rural West Bengal, near the Bangladesh border, far removed from Kolkata, introduced me to the nuances of a life I could not have imagined. Speaking a dialect that differed from the Bengali I was accustomed to, my students tasked me with teaching English literature in Bengali — a challenge that pushed me out of my comfort zone. However, I gradually familiarized myself with the nuances of the region, and even started enjoying my journey by the Bongaon Local, both journeys fraught with their distinct set of challenges. After a decade in this college – a phase that offered me some significant life lessons and insights – I received a posting in the heart of the metropolis, where the profile of college teaching was vastly different, requiring a readjustment of my perspective and approach to teaching.

My relationship with Durga Puja, the most celebrated festival of Kolkata, also evolved over the years. Despite being in the heart of its grandeur in Kolkata, I had found solace in returning home each year to the quieter, more understated celebrations in Delhi. However, even that familiarity has shifted with time. The landscape of Delhi has undergone a dramatic transformation, surpassing Kolkata in terms of crowd, extravagance, and opulence during festivities. Strangely, neither place feels entirely comfortable to me now.

Returning to Delhi annually, I am now confronted with monumental changes — new flyovers, renamed streets, and once-familiar landmarks rendered unrecognizable. Only Old Delhi seems to have preserved its distinctive charm and character, though my sentiments towards it have shifted. In contrast, Kolkata’s evolution since 1984 has been more subtle; while changes have occurred, they have not been as pronounced. It remains a bastion of religious tolerance, a characteristic that sets it apart from New Delhi. However, with time my sense of belonging to either city has become more nuanced, reflecting the evolving nature of my relationship with the places I once called home.

Indeed, the journey from 1984 to 2024 spans a vast expanse of time. As I gaze back upon this long personal journey, each phase feels like a different life, woven together with the thread of memory. From the bustling streets of Kolkata to the dynamic landscape of Delhi, from the quietude of introspection to the cacophony of life’s myriad adventures, each phase has left an indelible mark on the canvas of my existence. Each phase is marked by its own trials and tribulations, its own joys and sorrows; but each phase bears witness to a life lived to the fullest.

Champa Ghosal is an M.A. in English from the University of Delhi, who obtained her M.Phil. in English Literature from Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata. Formerly a faculty member at Gobardanga Hindu College, she retired as an Associate Professor of English from Jogesh Chandra Chaudhuri College in 2022.

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