I am currently at a writing residency in a small town in Vermont. It has been raining for most of the day but it’s slowed down so I thought I’d leave my studio, take a short walk, and have a cup of tea before returning to my laptop. I stepped out and found myself hit by a wave of nostalgia for Kolkata, a city I’ve never lived in.
My father is Bengali and lived in Kolkata until he was 17 years old, my paternal grandmother lived there until her death in 2010, and three of my aunts are there still. But the city has always felt alien to me; I don’t know the streets and I’ve never used any form of public transport. Memories of childhood trips involve being force-fed sandesh and lukewarm coca-cola in the homes of distant relatives. I’m the youngest in a long line of cousins and never knew anyone in my age group. It isn’t difficult for a five-, 10-, 15-year-old to get bored listening to old relatives talk about even older relatives and their various illnesses and ailments. And then in 2010 my grandmother passed away and I simply stopped going to Kolkata.
In the summer of 2014, feeling a blend of guilt, obligation, and hope, I decided it was time to claim the city for myself. I wanted to discover it and love it the way I had discovered and fallen in love with Delhi and Mumbai. I wanted my own relationship with it, independent of my family. I wanted to wander the streets and find the people and places that would make the city mine. My brother Karna spent a year in Kolkata working as an assistant director to the film maker Rituparno Ghosh, and I was envious of his changed dynamic with the city. Even after our grandmother’s death, he continues to visit twice a year and has friends in the city and knows streets and lanes that even our father doesn’t know. His Kolkata is his own.
That summer I arrived hoping to discover the same, but all I seemed to find was a city weighed down by its own past. The first day I thought I would get a sense of central Kolkata with the help of a guidebook. In all my years of exploring cities through guidebooks, I have never come across such a disparity between book and reality. Everything described in the guidebook was about what a building or corner or street once was. The pictures in the guidebook spoke to largeness, grandeur, and beauty, but the reality was messy, small, and crowded.
As much as I was disappointed by Kolkata, I was disappointed also by myself. Why was I unable to see what writers I admire so obviously see? What do Jhumpa Lahiri, Amitav Ghosh, and Amit Chaudhuri see that I don’t — that I can’t?
I went to visit a distant family friend. The front of the building was covered with blue tarp and large bamboo poles. “Are they re-doing the entrance?” I asked. She looked up to see what I was looking at and then, confused, said, “No.” I was annoyed that she wasn’t annoyed that the entrance to her home looked permanently like a construction site. I was annoyed that the citizens of Kolkata, these Bengalis that I so identify with, were all okay with the maddening traffic and the one-way streets that change direction in the middle of the day. Several narrow one-way streets in Kolkata change direction at 1 p.m., with only very small signs to inform the driver. As a result, around 1:05 p.m. every day, in small lanes around the city, taxis and rickshaws and cars face a standoff. The first day, in my aunt’s air-conditioned car, it made me laugh. The second day, in a hot, humid taxi, it made me angry.
One early morning, I went to wander the narrow lanes of Kumartulli, a neighborhood in North Kolkata, on the banks of the Ganges, where idols are made. With Durga Puja approaching in October, at 7 a.m. Kumartulli was already up and active. It was a nice sight — men of all ages and paunch sizes working to mold straw and mud and clay into the busts of Durga or the trunks of Ganesha or the bellies of Buddha. I felt, briefly, like I was wandering through the set of a Satyajit Ray film, and isn’t that what most of us go to Kolkata in search of? But then I turned the corner and saw two young men sifting through a huge heap of garbage and sewage to salvage decent looking discarded marigold flowers that they tossed to a third man, who strung them on to garlands that would presumably be used for prayers at some point. I walked down Gariahat, an average shopping street in Kolkata, comparable, perhaps to Colaba Causeway in Mumbai or Janpath in Delhi except that the most popular item on sale in Gariahat is women’s nighties. There are endless racks of these shapeless, floor length mummus in various colors and the occasional lace trim. Housewives across the city spend their days in these outfits that leave everything to the imagination.
I left the city that summer feeling disconnected, disappointed, sad, and angry — the way one does when expectations are not met. And then, the way one forgets about things, I forgot about Kolkata and my dashed dreams and disappointments. Life continued and filled in the spaces that I imagined Kolkata had left empty. I found and fell in love with other cities and other worlds.
I went back for a few nights last winter to have a reception to celebrate my wedding, which had taken place elsewhere. The trip was short and hectic and Kolkata provided only the backdrop, but something felt different. In my brief glimpses of the city, I loved it. The city hadn’t changed but I had missed it. In the few moments of solitude I had during those days I recognized that I was appreciating the city finally for what it was, not for what I felt it should be. But since those moments were only moments, I had little time to process it all and left the city and forgot about it.
Until now, when I stepped out into the post-rain dusk of a small town in Vermont. In many ways I am further away from it than I’ve ever been before, but it found me tonight — something about the way the earth smelled made me miss Kolkata the way I’ve only ever missed people. I gave up on Kolkata, but it didn’t give up on me. For that I’m grateful.
Image Credit: Flickr/Abhijit Kar Gupta.