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