If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Snapshots from a city called …

The following memoir has grown into what can be a slim book. It is far too big to be posted on a blog at a time. I have been serializing it on my blog as Fragments of a broken mirror since 31 March 2010. I would be delighted if you read the expanded version.

[The immediate provocation to write this memoir was some comments by Kaushik Chatterjee on my previous post. Thank you, Kaushik. I have added a small bit to this today, that is, 8 June 2008. I might go on adding bits and pieces to this memoir.]

If one looks from a historical perspective, one can say I missed being a midnight’s child by a whisker. I was born less than four years after Saleem Sinai. The bleeding wounds of the Partition (and the preceding communal riots) hadn’t healed yet, but as a child, I did not experience the stark realities seen in Ritwik Ghatak movies like Subarnarekha and Meghe Dhaka Tara. My father came to Calcutta long before the Partition. Although he had to struggle through his life to make ends meet, we lived in relative comfort in a second-floor flat.

The lake in South Calcutta served as the southern periphery of the city. Some of our relatives uprooted from East Bengal found new homes in a sprawling refugee settlement called Bagha Jatin Colony, way beyond that boundary marker. I remember an evening when we went there. There was no fly-over across the railway tracks at Dhakuria. It was an unending journey through semi-darkness along a dusty road. In the end, we stopped at a place where, in the middle of a field, there was a road-side teashop with a solitary kerosene lamp throwing more darkness than light. From there on, we walked though narrow, slushy alleys to a settlement of rudimentary huts made of shaved bamboo strips and cheap tiles.

That was my only foray into Ritwik Ghatak’s world of grinding poverty and deprivation. We lived rather comfortably, but the situation in my childhood was far from the affluence or even the opulence in which many middleclass children grow up these days. When we went to buy clothes, my mother would size up a frock for my sister and a pair of shorts and a shirt for me. We would try them on and look proud and prim in our snugly fitting clothes. Then my mother would invariably tell the shop assistant, ‘Give the same things, but two sizes larger.’ Consequently, neither my sister nor I have a photograph of our childhood where the frock or the shorts didn’t extend well below our knees. When I was a child, children were not allowed to outgrow their dresses.

The Calcutta where I grew up had cleaner roads; the main streets were washed by water jets every morning. In the evening, gas lights would be lit in lovely little parks that were seen perhaps only in a dream. The transistor radio was yet to be born, and the days of the omnipresent TV were a thing of a distant, almost forgotten future. In the afternoons, languid housewives switched on their massive GEC, Phillips, Murphy, and Bush receivers and listened to plays broadcast by the All India Radio while enjoying their well-deserved siesta.

Telephones, invariably black and with circular dials, were heavier than dumb-bells. They could be seen only in a few privileged households. Individual owners of cars were the equivalents of billionaires today. The gramophone was more common, and was a defining symbol of middleclass happiness. The HMV jingle said: Shukhi grihakon, shobhe gramophone. (Happiness is shown, if there’s a gramophone.)

Happiness became visible in our house when I was seven or eight. With enormous patience we would wind the heavy teak-wood gramophone every time we played a song for three to five minutes. A cousin of my father gave us a record of Pandit DV Paluskar: it had Chalo man, Ganga-Jamuna teer and Thumaka Chalata Ramachandra. It was much bigger than ordinary 78 RPM records. On Sundays, that uncle would visit us and listen to the song with a wistful look on his face. Much later, I heard Tamal Kaku was a hugely talented singer who forfeited his musical career as he had to take care of six younger siblings.

The Calcutta Tramways Corporation was still among the best transport systems in the world, the spanking tramcars were always clean and packed to capacity most of the times. Inside, above the wide windows, there was a broad panel with neat, hand-painted advertisements. Outside, the shape and colour of the lights above the driver’s cabin would tell you which depot the tram was headed to. The first tram rolled out at four in the morning and the last reported to depots only when the city was fast asleep.

Taxis – some of them Fords and Buicks – were driven by amiable stately Sardarjis with flowing white beards that fluttered like a flags of eternal peace. If you happen to write a history of the city, please mention that no sardarji taxi driver ever cheated a client.

There were private buses when I was very small, but gradually, they were replaced by state buses. These buses were all red, and many of them were double-deckers. Chief Minister Dr. Bidhan Chandra Roy, the last major Bengali politician that wasn’t insane, established the Calcutta State Transport Corporation, and mostly employed refugees from East Pakistan to run the buses. The vehicles were also known as “Bidhan Babur bus”.

But for Dr. Roy, it is possible that the world of art would have been poorer. It is well known now that at one stage, Satyajit Ray had to stop shooting his first film because of shortage of funds. While his child actors were growing unacceptably bigger, he approached Dr. Roy for financial support, and it was granted. According to an apocryphal story that I heard being narrated by Adoor Gopalakrishnan many years later, Dr. Roy asked his Public Works Department to fund the film as Pather Panchali, and its English title, Song of the Little Road, had something to do with roads!

I travelled by a Bidhan Babu's bus daily for a year. Victoria Institution, where my mother taught, was my first school. It was a girls’ school, but they admitted a few boys up to the fourth standard. It was a good way to begin schooling: I had a number of girl friends, and among the bevy of beauties, had an almost serious relationship with a girl called Leena.

The Bus No. 3 that my mother and I took every day carried a notice written in English in bold red letters. With much effort, I deciphered its meaning. It read, rather, I read it as: “No some king!” That was my first lesson in proper behaviour in public: on a bus, one wasn’t supposed to behave like a king.

There were no ice cream parlours; vendors sold Magnolia ice cream from yellow push carts. Magnolia meant authentic quality, there were fakes too: Mangolia, Magnola, and so on. The pretenders used the same colours and font to paint their logos. But we were smart; we learnt to spot imitations as soon as we learnt the English alphabet! For some reason, the men who sold kulfi malai were always in dhotis and short white kurtas. They called out the name of their product with an extended m-a-l-a-i b-a-r-a-f in a somewhat ghostly voice.

Movies were rare gusts of happiness limited to Ben Hur, Ten Commandments or Do aankhe baara haath. Sport meant football: East Bengal, Mohan Bagan and the Mohammedan Sporting. We were prepared to kill and be killed for our team, but even in those days, the glamour sport was cricket, which was restricted to a solitary affair of an annual test match. And the enduring memories of a test match are a Kanhai hooking with disdain and a helmet-less Roy or Contractor ducking away from Davidson bouncers in an ethereal Garden of Eden.

The spectators were serious and knowledgeable. Once, there was a controversy about the Australian left-arm fast bowler Ian Meckiff. Many thought he used to throw, but Indian umpires, possibly because of a colonial hangover, wouldn’t call him. During a test match in which Meckiff was bowling, a spectator shouted from the stands – and the rest of the crowd heard him in hushed silence – ‘Mr. Meckiff, next summer, English umpires will tell you that you chuck. A chucker is a chucker is a chucker!’

Fortunately for Meckiff, he was left out of the Australian squad to England in 1961. But two years later, an Australian umpire no-balled him in South Africa four times in his first over, and that was the end of his cricketing career.

Only some people actually saw Rohan Kanhai, Pankaj Roy, or Allan Davidson in flesh and blood. (I was among the fortunate few because my Gandhian dad, who always wore khadi, was crazy about cricket and tennis.) The hoi polloi had to be satisfied with the running commentary given by Berry Sarbadhikari and Vizzy in English and Kamal Bhattacharya, Ajay Bose and Pushpen Sarkar in Bangla. The last named trio were icons, they added to the five days of a test match an aura that was perhaps matched only by Durga Puja. Mr. Ajay Bose was a class by himself. At times he would start describing a flotilla of clouds sailing across the azure winter sky, and so enchanted would he become with his own eloquence, that he would forget all about the match for a few overs. (I can understand Mr. Bose’s predicament; I have a similar weakness for my writing!)

In 1961, my mother’s youngest sister got married in Kolkata. The next morning, she left for her new home in Shillong. A large retinue of family members trooped to Dumdum Airport to see her off. (Those days, among my relatives, only those going abroad, or to the North East travelled by air.) The airport terminal was a small one-storey structure then, perhaps with an asbestos roof. She and her hubby checked in with minimum fuss. There were no policemen around. No one stopped us as we accompanied her beyond the check-in desk to the door to the tarmac. There we stood, right on the tarmac, waiting in the crisp December sun for the Dakota standing a little away to be ready for boarding.

My aunt was crying copiously through the process, holding my hand like a drowning woman would clutch a straw. After reaching the tarmac, I said, ‘Enough is enough, I think it’s time you stopped crying.’

She snapped in chaste Sylheti, ‘Sup kar! Amar ki fattharer pran?’ (Shut up! Do I have a heart made of stone?)

In my childhood, the Statesman carried their stories in impeccable English. Usha Uthup sang at the Trincas. The city was known as Calcutta to the world outside.

04 June 2009


  1. A Calcutta I've missed no doubt, but one that is idly floating in front of my eyes now. But has this heady, warm and gushing romance for a time and place been completely lost? Comparing today's Kolkata with yesteryear's Calcutta obviously underlines the massive change (for the worse) that has happened. And yet as I browse aimlessly in the book-stalls of College Street or walk on a mild breezy winter afternoon around Wood street and Middleton street, the past occasionally peeps back. Yes, inspite of the pollution and the maddening intensity of Kolkata's humdrum existence, there is something that draws me to it.

    A strange thought: the day has changed, but how refreshing the memory still is! Isn't it one meant for eternity? :)

  2. That was very rich and candid commentary.I got the feel of the era, though it sounds like a true bygone times. I do remember times when having a TV was enough to be considered rich. And colour TV was a novelty. I remember listening to the big box radio, and the AIR, hindi and Malayalam movie songs, and folks waiting for 1pm for it.

    During my times it was Amitabh bachchan who ruled.I remember our outing and Army open air theatres, lounging on the concrete floor, watching Sholey, Deewar, Mr.Natwarlal. The sporting event(my earliest remembrance) that I recall is the 1986 worldcup football and the power of maradona. He was god like, and was our hero for a long time. We switched to football for a time and collected maradona photos.
    It was nice reading your memoir. :))

  3. Once again, a very beautiful post :-) Reminds me of all the stories my mother tells me about her childhood in Madras. The old timely grace of all the four major metros have been undeniable, something almost comforting in its innate calmness, something which gives people of my generation (who can only dream of the haven that a Calcutta was or a Madras was)glimpses of just precious it used to be, like old microfilms you watch of your parents and your grandparents, something that you at once have never before experienced yet can wholly relate to in such a deliciously comfortable way :-) But I also love my city as it is now, I can gladly take the dirt, pollution, traffic, blah blah for the utter joy that Chennai gives me :-)

  4. And, of course, if you haven’t spoilt me already with your indulgence, let me vent out a few of the collages still crowding my mind, on and off, making me soak in their warm, quaint, childhood charm.

    Do you remember the soft cakes that were carried in the biggish black trunks, head loaded by the vendors sweating it out in the Calcutta bylanes ? And the pink flosses neatly arranged in frosted glass cases carried by the candymen, enticing the small ones with the soft tinkle that would invariably draw hordes around them ?

    And Santanuda, do you recollect the half-famished faces of the Chinese (were they?) showing the tricks of their Madareer Khel ? With heads half- buried under and their feet ‘dangling skywards’, they used to remain spread-eagled for, it seemed, an indefinite period and the little girl who would , with a slight nudging, accomplish the job of a professional funambulist with perfect non-chalance ! And most of us, eager onlookers, enjoying the spectacle with bated breath, already leaving in ones and twos as the feat drew to an end to eventually find the old man rummaging his metal container un-believingly, a few odd bit of clanging coins, bringing out a faint, pensive grin from him!

    And I still remember, even before the days of regular load shedding pounced on us with full fury, the entire city plunging under darkness with the onset of dusk, yes, you guessed it right, during the December ’71 days of the Bangladesh war ? The windows and doors had to be creaked shut, lest even a small pencil of light freaked out into the open, drawing streaks of shouts from the para-dadas? And the half blackened headlights of the ambassador cars making pockets of ghostly shadows in the dark as the cars negotiated stealthily, almost hornlessly, along the Calcutta streets ? And the emotion ridden, tremulous voice of Debdulal Bandyopadhyay on the radio telling us of the heroic exploits of the Muktibahini ?

    And yes, we have that LP 331/2 RPM D.V Paluskar disc. The songs “Payo ri Maine Ramratan” and “Raghupati Raghava Rajaram " played out in the anachronistic turner still manage to ruffle us, stoking a rusted mind out of its stupor.

    Thanks Santanu da.

  5. Santanuda,

    This and the previous post are just wonderful, especially to me, as I just LOVE these memories of old Kolkata/Calcutta.

    Although I grew up in the 1970s/1980s, the 'impeccable English' of the Statesman was a constant factor even then, something to aspire to.

    And the various street cries were a soulful companion on long summer afternoons.

  6. I 'missed' the part about "No some king". What did the line actually read?

  7. Thank you for this post. Though I do not belong to the time which you describe but it aided my nostalgia. That resulted in a new post on my blog too.

    Kolkata was never the best city in the world but like every old times it had its uniqueness. I did think though it was among the most cosmopolitan cities in India hosting not just Non-Bengalis but also Baghdadi Jews, Armenians and Chinese.


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