For my sister and me, visits to the zoo and a circus show were almost mandatory in winter. Once a year, on the bare stage of New Empire theatre with the uncovered wall clearly seen on the back, magician PC Sarkar made a red Impala convertible filled with beautiful women smiling and waving at us vanish in a trice. Then he would himself disappear from the stage and materialise at the last row on the balcony before one could close one’s gaping mouth.
In December 1957, Prime Minister Nehru inaugurated electric trains at Howrah. The EMU coaches with their big doors, green and beige exterior, and no toilets, were no less magical. They had no stairs and would stop only at stations with high platforms. Unlike steam locos, these would pick up speed within seconds and zoom out of the platforms as passengers and onlookers watched dumbstruck.
Father used to take Ruby and me for short journeys on EMU trains on Sunday afternoons. (Taking one’s wife out was yet to become fashionable.) As air rushed in through large windows and swept our faces, we would go past the suburbia to green villages and watch men ploughing, women tending babies, and children playing under a boundless sky. We would get off at any station that caught baba’s fancy and walk down to a roadside eatery to eat rasgullas. Baba used to say it was always safe to eat rasgullas outside, they could not be made with stale cottage cheese. One of his many business ventures had been to run a canteen. He ought to have known!
Those weekend outings are some pleasant memories that will remain with me till the end. At the risk of sounding like an old fogey, I must add that the middleclass children of the twenty-first century, for whom good times mean taking some convoluted rides at an amusement park or buying unnecessary trinkets at a glitzy mall or eating out at overpriced restaurants, are deprived of many simple wonders that abound in this world for free.
Like Colonel Aruliano Buendia, I too was taken by my father to discover ice on an autumn evening. An American troupe of ice-skaters had come to town to perform a programme named Holiday on Ice. As the red, purple, and blue beams of lights reflected from the resplendent floor, young men and women in gorgeous costumes wove brilliant patterns on a temporary ice rink, with equally polychrome sashes flying from their arms and waistbands. It was a brief journey to another world. For the month or so while the troupe was in town, and for months thereafter, people talked of nothing else.
Bhawani, a friend whom I met much later, had shared the city of my childhood. After reading one of the many drafts of this, she reminded me of an experience that was in a way more fascinating than the Holiday on Ice. It was called Circarama, but I am not sure how it was spelt. It was a circular theatre in which the audience stood and watched images projected on multiple screens all around. The images had been captured by 360° cameras. As part of the audience, we felt we were travelling on a bus in the city of New York, with the Hudson and the Empire State Building whizzing past us. This would be old hat for the people who use Google now, but back then, it was a technological marvel beyond compare.
These days, when heads of states visit India, they usually give Kolkata a miss. Some years ago, beside a handbill promising cheap and hassle-free abortion in a public toilet in Hazra Park, I saw a hand-written poster: “Go back, Bill Clinton!” I wondered why whoever stuck the poster chose that particular place. There was no chance that the American president would pass water anywhere in Kolkata.
In my childhood, every dignitary visiting India would come to our city, and at times, hold public meetings here. Nikita Khrushchev came along with Bulganin. So did Zhou En Lai and Dalai Lama. These visits caused new ripples in a city that was not short on excitements even otherwise. The biggest ripple happened when Queen Elizabeth II came in January 1961. A big crowd had gathered on the terrace of my pishemoshai’s office in Ganesh Chandra Avenue to see her. It was a three-storey building. Below, footpaths were packed with eager onlookers. The queen, in her mid-thirties, looked exquisitely beautiful in a pink dress. She stood in a roofless convertible saloon, smiling and waving, as the car moved slowly by. The bald headed prince consort in funeral black stood beside her and waved too, but no one cared much for him.
Pishemoshai had, and still has, a penchant for doing the unusual. As refreshment for the crowd that had gathered on his office terrace, he provided extremely hot peppery chanachud in a jumbo paper cone. I could watch the queen only through my tears. There were “oohs” and “ahs” all around.
Another event that had left an impression on my young mind was Yuri Gagarin’s voyage to the space on 12th April 1961. The next day’s newspapers brought the news. I would have missed the school bus that morning. Motilal-da took me to school. As we walked the two miles, we discussed what exactly was meant by going to the space and how it could happen. I am sure that that morning, we discussed some hypotheses that would not come to the head of any space scientist. Incidentally, Gagarin too visited Kolkata towards the end of the year. So did Valentina Tereshkova, who piloted a spaceship for three days in June 1963. Her visit was an inspiring moment, partly because of her gender and partly because hers was a journey from a textile factory to the space. She had been a factory worker before being chosen to be the first woman astronaut. Students of many schools, particularly girls’ schools, lined up the streets of Calcutta to greet her.
Calcutta has not only become Kolkata. She has also lost touch with much of the world that speak other languages.