Oh! Calcutta!

by Suresh Subrahmanyan

Suresh Subrahmanyan revisits the city of his childhood, university education and the cradle of most of his professional career. He finds that much has changed in Calcutta, not all for the better.

I’ve kissed the girls of Naples, I’ve kissed them in Paree,
But the ladies of Calcutta do something to me.

I was in Calcutta recently after a gap of over fifteen years – a city that was my home for almost four decades. I know the bustling metropolis has been officially renamed Kolkata, but old habits die hard. In this respect, I appear to be in excellent company. The Telegraph masthead continues to refer to its ‘Calcutta edition’, the universal airlines code for the City of Joy is still CCU, and not KKU. The venerated, and a tad moth-eaten, Calcutta Club has not become Kolkata Club, and the sporty Calcutta Cricket & Football Club retains its moniker of CC & FC, not KC & FC.

After a tedious morning flight into Calcutta, I wended my weary way through the maze of baggage carousels and trolleys one must necessarily encounter in a modern airport. Walked into the gentlemen’s loo, and was assailed by that familiar noxious pong – a heady admixture of phenyl and urine. To say nothing of the wet and slippery floors. I did a quick about turn and postponed the urgent ablution. I was soon ensconced in the car that ferried me into the city. My eyes were peeled for nostalgia to claim me. I was not prepared for what was to follow.

For the first forty minutes of the drive, I could not recognise even the teeniest bit of landscape. Shiny, new skyscrapers were ranged on both sides of the roads, like some poor man’s Manhattan. Logos of familiar brand names whizzed past. Was I in Calcutta, or erroneously transported to some futuristic, brushed aluminium, sci-fi jungle? I put it to the driver. ‘Amra kothai?’ I enquired, eager to inflict my rusty Bengali on my unsuspecting victim. He smiled at me patronizingly and declared, ‘This is Rajarhat, sir. New Town, it is the new Kolkata’. All in perfectly good English!

Thus enlightened, I waited for something vaguely recognisable to hove into view. After driving over a sleek flyover, we descended on terra firma, and what looked like Park Circus. I checked with my genial driver Arjun, who nodded in assent. Finally, traffic jams, ramshackle buildings, antiquated buses, clattering Jurassic trams, yellow Ambassador taxis that had seen better days, hand pulled rickshaws, street pavements lined with stalls selling everything under the sun – I was home! My joy knew no bounds.

As I was proceeding towards Alipore, I prepared myself for a misty-eyed drive through memory lane – Park Street, Chowringhee, Theatre Road, Red Road, Victoria Memorial, the Maidan, Eden Gardens, Race Course, the Zoo, National Library et al. What I did not bargain for was another flyover, which obfuscated many of those landmarks, and took me in a trice towards the race course. I barely glimpsed two outstanding architectural relics, Victoria Memorial and St. Paul’s Cathedral. I reached my destination much sooner than I had expected. But then, who wants to get to any place in Calcutta in a hurry? The whole idea was to wallow in the snail’s pace traffic and soak in the sights. I felt short changed.

It’s another matter altogether that when you actually live in Calcutta for long periods, you are constantly carping about the grime, sweat, crowds, jams and many other blots on the landscape that are peculiar to its denizens. Once you take up residence elsewhere, those very blots become endearing quirks that you want to return to. Distance lends enchantment!

You can’t stop thinking about kaati rolls at Nizam’s,  pucchkas and jhaal muri almost anywhere, rum balls at Flury’s, crisp dosa and filter coffee at Jyoti Vihar, prawn cocktail at Skyroom (RIP), Olympia Bar on Park Street – my ad agency colleagues’ daily watering hole, the clattering No. 24 tram that ferried me early morning from Triangular Park to Chowringhee / Park Street Crossing – thence the trek to St. Xavier’s College, endless cholbe na processions and power cuts, the ecstacy of kalbaisakhi, the agony of the monsoon floods, streets being hosed down at the crack of dawn from roadside hydrants, the powerful water jets picturesquely arcing across the roads, a newspaper vendor on bicycle bellowing ‘Teshmann’, as he hurls a rolled-up, weighted newspaper with pin-point accuracy over a third floor balcony while still in motion!

Checking out the latest record releases at Harry’s Music House on Chowringhee,  listening to Musical Bandbox every Sunday afternoon on AIR Calcutta with BK, Ita Jane and Jija Bhattacharya!  And who can forget the mildly erotic Italian thriller, ‘Blow Hot, Blow Cold’ at the New Empire? It ran for nearly 60 weeks, for all the wrong reasons – censorship notwithstanding!  And Satyajit Ray – my college mates were livid that I had not seen a Bengali movie, and took me straight to the top of the class – a Ray film called Ashani Sanket (Distant Thunder) – about the Great Bengal Famine of 1943. All I recall was the camera drooling over a drop of water from a leaf, indicating the onset of the monsoon, for what seemed an eternity. The emotional and technical significance of this scene was discussed threadbare by the film buffs for the next three days! They did that with Bergman and Kurosawa as well. A motley, random list from the memory bank, but it is what it is. Nostalgia, with a pair of rose tinted glasses.

Never mind about rose glasses, I was now trying to grapple with an obsession with the colour blue, that Calcuttans had apparently become addicted to. Driving and walking through the streets of Calcutta, there was this ‘blue madness’ that appeared to have gripped the city. Now blue is a colour I am quite partial to, in moderation. Blue sky, blue sea, blue eyes, the song Blue Moon, blue films – these we accept as part of our everyday existence. But miles of blue coloured walls, lamp posts draped in blue and white bulbs that shone so brightly at night that you were unsure about your geo-stationary position in the city. Even the peripheral walls of Alipore jail were swathed in blue paint. Consequently all roads looked the same.  Under a different political dispensation, one was accustomed to seeing red in various parts of Calcutta – in more ways than one! So now you can whiz around Calcutta till you are literally blue in the face!

However, some things never change. The ageless Usha Uthup, nèe Iyer (The Trincas girl), was still belting out Jambalaya at the Calcutta Club. The dulcet strains of Rabindra Sangeet from the recorded voices of Suchitra Mitra and Pankaj Mullick, or S.D. Burman’s folksy boat songs, even now waft through the iron barred windows of Bengali homes in north and south Calcutta, the vegetable vendors in Lake Market still speak a smattering of broken Tamil, Mohun Bagan is even now jousting with East Bengal in the local football derby, and the oleaginous pimps on Free School Street continue to whisper salacious invitations conspiratorially into your earhole. Hogg Market, more familiarly referred to as New Market, was almost unrecognizable, but for the brick red façade.

What about street names? They keep changing them, but I refuse to address Free School Street as Mirza Ghalib Street, any more than I would acquiesce to calling Lower Circular Road, Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road. Or, just to rub it in, Lansdowne Road as Sarat Bose Road, Dharamtolla as Lenin Sarani and Harrington Street as Ho Chi Minh Sarani. Even the taxi drivers stare glassily at you if you do not employ the old names. And does anyone, other than Calcutta’s celebrated quizzards at the Dalhousie Club, know that glitzy Park Street is now officially Mother Teresa Sarani? For crying out loud! ‘Hey guys, let’s go on a bender and get sloshed at Mother Teresa Sarani.’ That doesn’t even sound politically correct. And when did the cannon at the New Market centre vanish? And why? Where Lighthouse once was is now a déclassé departmental store, and New Empire shows Hindi movies.

For the icing on the cake, Dunlop House on Free School Street being renamed Pataka House is an intolerable abomination; the builders vainly attempting to erect a faux façade that is an apology for the venerable tyre major’s frontage. I had worked for many years in Dunlop, and this affront to the city’s heritage architecture was galling. All this and more have been captured on camera for posterity. But then, how do you capture the absence of a cannon? That’s a question for the ages.

My friends in Calcutta exhorted me to return to the city of my halcyon days. They were quite persuasive and I was moved by their eloquence. However, reason returned to its throne. It is never a great idea to rewind the clock to ‘way back when’. Visits to my early haunts like Rash Behari Avenue, Lake Road, Keyatala, Southern Avenue, Alipore, Belvedere, Ballygunge Circular Road, Camac Street, Sunny Park and so on, did catch me in an epiphanic trance, but only for fleeting, stream of consciousness, moments. Rather like Irish mystic poet and singer-songwriter Van Morrison, going back to his roots in hometown Belfast, and being memorably ‘conquered in a car seat’ and ‘caught one more time, upon Cyprus Avenue’.

The problem, dear reader, is that Calcutta is no longer Calcutta. It is Kolkata. Another place altogether. 

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Suresh Subrahmanyan is a Bangalore based brand communications consultant, deeply interested in a variety of musical genres. As a columnist he contributes on a regular basis to some of the leading dailies and periodicals in India. An avowed P.G. Wodehouse fan, many of his columns are in satirical and humorous vein.


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