Ghosts of Calcutta
Click on the heading below to navigate to the excerpt, which was read at Worlds Literary Festival, Norwich on June 17, 2014 –
Do you believe in ghosts? I do. Not the kind about which we read in horror stories: spirits of the dead doomed to inhabit places; my ghosts are of a different kind, for I see the spirits of dead places inhabiting souls of the living – cities alive in peoples’ minds, trapped in memories, travelling with them from place to place, hoping to find comforts from the past lurking in even the most remote corners of their present.
I write this piece from a place officially called Kolkata since 2001 – and to which those of us who remember the culture and legacy of the space it occupies are prone to refer as Calcutta. This is done out of necessity, lest we forget what it means to us. I do not inhabit that city; rather, it inhabits me.
It was something I did not realize until I came to live in India, for I was not born Calcutta – nor did I grow up in there. And, save for near annual trips back around Christmas time, I did not reside there until 2011, though people often ask me what it’s like to have ‘come home’. It’s an ironic question because I have not come home to a place I recognize but it does feel familiar and holds comforts that I cannot find elsewhere.
My connection to the city begins with my parents, who grew up in Calcutta, went to college there, and came into their own while living there as young adults. In my father, especially, Calcutta helped form his character, and he was molded, in turn, by its character.
My parents were at college in Calcutta during a vibrant period: legendary film-maker, Satyajit Ray was winning awards at Cannes and Venice; the name Bose was known for revolution and the Bose-Einstein Statistics rather than speaker systems; and conversation in the city was influenced by a vibrant intelligentsia, who could regularly be seen at The Calcutta Coffeehouse, located not far from my father’s home. This center of culture was where he and his friends, my mother among them, could be found absorbing the stimulating atmosphere after class at college. It was a time of cultural renaissance – the second one in modern times, its predecessor taking place during the British Raj in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The thoroughfare of Calcuttans was dynamic with the very ground shifting beneath their feet as the masses raced forward. Issues such as land reform and wealth re-distribution, began to dominate public debate, and far left politics emerged as a challenge to the ruling Congress Party, the party of independence, which had evolved into an instrument of oligarchy.
My father’s first job out of university was as a Government Officer at a time when such posts carried great prestige. He wrote speeches on the redistribution of land and wealth for a young Marxist minister, who would go on to become Chief Minister of West Bengal and the longest serving such premier of any state in the Republic of India. The Marxists’ rise to power was an event that my father, since departed from his country, watched with interest from afar. He followed their progress first with optimism, and later with disillusionment as corruption became the state religion. During this time he became a portrait of disassociation: his mind and his heart were back in Calcutta, so he created a microcosm of his childhood within the four walls that we inhabited. He kept pace with his peers in the North American corporate rat race, so long as he could return from work each evening, to the Calcutta in his home – and return during annual vacations to his hometown, the Calcutta of his youth, the house where he had been raised near the Coffehouse ‘Adda’ of college days. I became (at times an unwilling) passenger on these voyages, both the physical and metaphysical.
In retrospect, it seems quite natural then, that I should fall in love and marry a girl from Calcutta. Without going into the details of our meeting, we both became convinced it was a function of fate with Calcutta being the critical variable: the charm of its haunts; the expression of its life; the flavour of its foods; the mellifluousness of its melodies. So, after living for two years in Canada, my wife and I decided to relocate to that abode, which had (at least in our minds) become synonymous with our serendipitous union.
Upon arrival back to Calcutta, my wife was surprised at how much the metropolis, increasingly citified, had changed during the brief span during which she was away. Three years on, I feel that the Calcutta, which I knew, that anchor of culture on to which I used to grip during the daily tumult of crossing the border of our Eastern home and the larger Western World, is dissolving into ether – no longer a corporeal presence. A phantom. Those of us who can remember it, those of us who experienced it, are haunted by its presence whether real or imagined, which still makes an impression even as its impact fades.
While I do not wish to give a history lesson, to understand the extinction of Calcutta, and by extension its ghosts, one must have some sense of its genesis. Although ancient ruins some 35 km from the city’s center indicate that people inhabited the ground since ancient times, the city of Calcutta did not exist until arrival of British in the late 1600s. At the time, three villages sat where a city would stand: Sutanati, Govindapur and Kolikata – namesake for its successor. Its inhabitants were mainly weavers and fishermen, and it was ruled by Nawab Siraj ud Dulah, whose mostly autonomous state fell under Mughal Suzerainty.
The right to levy taxes was held by a wealthy family of prominent Hindu land-owners, who were close to the ruler, and helped him govern: the Sabarna RoyChowdhury clan. They sold those rights to a British trading house called The East India Company, and soon after the British Raj was born.
Between 1797 and the early 19th century, the Governor – Richard Wellesly was his name, ordered the draining of the marshes in Govindapur and Sutani, and built institutions, the great buildings that stand today as landmarks: The National Library, Writers’ Building, and Howrah Station among them.
They cultivated a class of literate Bengalis to write the laws, and the many documents required to administer them. Hence, their seat of power, the center of administration even today – Writers’ Building, is named for it. This class of elite needed to read and write in multiple languages but principally in the English. They were known as the Babus.
When the Babus realized that they were essentially running Britain’s Indian Empire, a national conscience set in: Why shouldn’t they rule the country, too? The first nationalist organization was formed in the city, and Calcutta became a hotbed of revolutionary activity at a time when writers and thinkers inspired a new generation of literate nationalist Indians. Included among them were Asia’s first Nobel Laueate in Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, the rebel poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, nationalist writer, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, and philosopher and founder of the world-wide religious and cultural institution, The Ramakrishna Mission, Swami Vivekananda – all of whom called Calcutta their home, at least for a significant period. This was the first modern renaissance, Western in form but Eastern in substance.
In 1911, by that time a firmly established empire ruling the whole of India, the British responded to Calcutta’s revolutionary movement by moving their capital to Delhi from where the ousted Mughals had previously ruled. Many important institutions and industries remained in Calcutta but they were slowly dismantled after independence as Independent India tried (with mixed results) to undo anything British. However, bricks and mortar remained, which explains why a small section of Calcutta – ‘White Town’, it used to be called, remains the closest approximation of London I have seen outside of England’s borders.
Much of Independent India’s story has been shaped by a contest between history and nationalism; in such conflicts, nationalism tends to win-out. This is as true of Calcutta as any place. So, not long after the turn of the current century, during a period when the people of other urban centers were reclaiming their ancient names: Bombay became Mumbai, Madras became Chennai, and so on – Calcutta became Kolkata.
Unlike other cities which had existed in antiquity, the name Kolkata has had no such history: the whole of its space was, until 2001 ever only known as Calcutta, leaving many to question, where is the homage to Sutanati, to Govindapur in the name Kolkata? Where is the connection to the past? I have come to believe Kolkata was a re-invention by politicians of the day to distract from broken promises and unattained goals. Perhaps (if unwittingly) it was a way to claim ownership over both progress and error since independence.
But enough of history and politics – let’s get back to the ghosts: I first saw one in my late twenties. Our annual trip to Calcutta had gone a little late, and crossed the date of the Festival of Saraswati, Goddess of learning. I remember seeing the idols of the Goddess being made and sold on the street. Many of them elegantly depicted her, sitting with her swan, in a whit Sari, holding an instrument made of wood called a Veena with a long hollow neck, several strings, and a large gourd-like base, designed to resonate deeply.
My father, a religious man (at least, ostensibly) who placed the highest of values on education, made sure that the ritual around this festival was strictly and respectfully observed in our Canadian home, each year. It was a ceremony, which he often performed, himself. To this day, I can still hear the drone of solemn steady Sanskrit incantations, uttered by him with intensity and concentration: “Om Sarasatai Namah. Om Sarasatai Namah. Om Sarasatai Namah.”
Yet, on that winter’s day near the turn of the 21st century, the sound of the mantras were interrupted by a loudspeaker, playing the popular western hip hop dance hit, “Who let the dogs out” – and this too, over and over again. The sound of it, the reverberation of the thunderous base, the turbulence of the blustering words, “Who, who, who, who let the dogs out,” violated the sacred space, he had created in his mind for the Goddess, owing to years of experiencing this day in the same way. The result was an obscenity, an anathema. It drove my father mad.
His back turned to me as he yanked a glass window pane shut, I watched his sense of loss manifesting as fluid, uncontained by his apparitional reflection sliding with the movement of his hand across the window frame. Until that point, I had seen him cry only once before, years earlier when his mother had died.
The childhood memories were soon streaming off of him, two estuaries beneath his eyes, his regret flowing into the sea of new and unwelcome experience. In Canada, he had been trying to preserve a ritual that had been observed in his home since boyhood days – but in the Calcutta of the 21st Century, it had just become another holiday. Dance, get drunk, get laid.
He has never returned to the city during any Hindu festival, since. His most recent trip occurred during Christmas, last year. He can only come back, it seems, when experience fails to defeat his idea of the city. And then, he leaves.
I have my own ghosts, too. I was introduced to this city during a period before the beginning of memory, at age six months when my parents brought their first born home from London, England – my birthplace, to show the extended family. I’d like to think I soaked in some of the culture of Calcutta, even then – but surely since. In fact, so much of the adsorption, which took place both as a result of both my upbringing and the renewal of repeated trips to Calcutta, remained that I returned there on my own to study my culture in my late twenties and early thirties.
I studied Hinduism at The Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, staying at their International Scholars House, during summers in Calcutta. The institute is located on an island of greenery in a sea of concrete, metal and glass at one of South Calcutta’s busiest areas: a place called Golpark where, at a roundabout, the statue of its founder, Swami Vivekananda stands saliently, perhaps watching the movement of souls. He would have watched over me, then, just as I would have wanted to take in some of his wisdom.
There, while contemplating the notion of renunciation, I became interested in the different paths to divinity outlined in Vedic texts.
I was particularly drawn to the idea of union with God through Karma or work, the concept of working for its own sake, without laying ownership to the fruits of that labor – a form of renunciation that did not involve removing oneself from active life. The practice is called Karma Yoga, and I was first exposed to it when reading the Bhagavad Gita, and later through the wrtings of Swami Vivekananda, who founded the Mission where I was studying.
During morning chats with the head of the Mission, Swami Lokeswarananda, I asked him how an ordinary person could reach such a state of even-mindedness that success and failure could truly be viewed as the same impostor, as Kipling, had so eloquently put it. He advised me that Karma Yoga was best practiced when the aspirant is engaged in activity that is in keeping with his own nature, else he risks it becoming a chore. He said, one ought to take pleasure in the doing, embody the action of acting rather than be preoccupied by the result. I could see the application of it in artists, musicians, some academics, and certain pro athletes – but could it happen at a mundane job? Surely this was an idealistic fantasy! In that sense, I questioned its practicality, and wondered whether anyone had observed it in the labor class? I could scarcely imagine a sweeper’s broom bringing him closer to Nirvana with each pass.
I was treated very well during this period, and thought very well of myself for coming to Calcutta to carry out these independent studies; after all, how many of my generation actually cared about Indian culture or took the time to understand Hindu philosophy on a deep level? I felt a little superior, I must confess. And then I met the Muchi of GolPark.
Having tracked some kind of sticky substance on my shoe, I asked some locals where I could get it cleaned, and was told about a shoemaker or Muchi, who sat on the footpath of the Golpark roundabout, plying his trade in the gaze Vivekananda’s statue.
It didn’t take me long to find his stall as so many people knew of him, and I soon found myself peering into his bony face, which hung under his dark hairless scalp. He was sitting, one wiry leg crossed over another, reading a book.
Upon seeing my predicament, he told me to remove my shoes and step on a piece of cardboard. The idea of baring my unstained feet, in the middle of a busy dusty filthy street corner and stepping on a surface that, no doubt, many others had placed their filthy soles, was something I found intrinsically repulsive. Naturally I protested, telling him it wasn’t a complicated job at all, that he merely needed to wipe the substance off with cloth.
Calmly, he put up his hand, showing me his pinkish red palm, and said ‘Please sir Aata amar Dharma.’ Please, this is my job – but the word Dharma didn’t just mean job, it meant divinely inspired job, sense of purpose or duty. I was taken aback: How could I now refuse? After all, he was saying his divine purpose in life was to clean my shoes. So, I took them off, and stood on the cardboard mat.
I watched the man, size up the stain, then slowly work the sides of the soiled shoe – first with a dry cloth – then mixing some tea-colored solvent with just enough water, not wasting a drop, he moved the cloth back and forth over it. After he finished one shoe, he did the other. It was different formula with different sequence but he managed to make them look exactly the same – all without shoe polish. He spent roughly half an hour to forty minutes in the burning sun on this petty little task when he could have easily gotten out of it by following my instructions to the letter, at first instance.
As the Muchi handed me back my shoes, I asked him how I had to pay, to which he replied, ‘ten rupees’. I was so impressed, I tried to give him twenty – after all it was less than a dollar for me, and he deserved so much more. He politely declined asking me why I should pay more when he had done nothing extra. I told him that I wanted to reward his professionalism.
He flashed a toothless grin, and said something that stunned me: ‘I know who I am. You needn’t tell me.’
In a land where the law of paying tribute or Bakshish ruled supreme, he was content simply in the doing.
It was at that moment that I realized that I could not say the same to him, for my work (at the time) was not my divine purpose in life. I did it for money. Did that make me a whore? No. But it didn’t make me a Karma Yogi, either. I knew, too, that I had found, at long last a laborer, who worked simply for its own sake without laying claim to the fruits of his efforts. More importantly, he seemed to have found something divine in the doing. I understood in that moment that, even unpaid, I should take up the pen, simply because it was in my nature to do, and was something for which I made too little time. It was a lesson, which, in time, I forgot after my return to the rat-race of working life in Canada only to be recollected and followed when I came to live here: a life-changing lesson from the streets of Calcutta – one which I seemed only to be able to implement in this wondrous city. I will forever be grateful to Calcutta for that.
I have looked for the shoemaker many times since but have never been able to find him, his spot occupied by another, his legacy unknown by the young merchants and laborers at GolPark. I can only conclude that today, he and his ilk are long gone from the sidewalks of Calcutta where the hawkers sit, many of whom try to cheat their way to a daily wage. In the meanwhile, he has become a ghost, haunting my retrospection of this place, and reminding me of what I loved about a city that truly could represent greatness within the seemingly ordinary.
I think of the Muchi during a sweaty afternoon as I research a piece I am writing on a different intersection in Gariahat, a stone’s throw away from Golpark, where roadside markets thrive. I watch as a dark suns-soaked man, squeezes dye made from an herbal concoction in a floral pattern, out of a plastic dispenser. It falls on the delicate arm of a young bride to be, named Sweta, a statuesque Punjabi, pretty with a milkish complexion, and large eyes lined with the black paint of Kajol. Her nose is an elegant, if excessively pointy, hanger for a gold ring, which rests above her full lips.
I ask the young woman if she is getting married. Nodding, she tells me her groom, Ashok, is Bengali, adding with a smile that her husband, whom she met in her engineering class at college, had to promise to give up eating meat before her father would consent to the marriage. In turn, he promised his mother that he not stop eating fish just because his bride came from a family of vegetarians.
Neither will be the wiser, for the couple are planning to move to Switzerland after marriage, where Ashok has been offered a job. Years later, I wonder how Sweta will view the city on a visit through the eyes of a Swiss resident.
I ask Shankar, the man applying the dye, called Mehndi or Henna, how long the tattoo will last. He says fifteen days, then it will take another fifteen days to fade off. This makes sense to me as I have seen the ugly blotchy mess that is fading Henna on many a woman’s limb.
He tells me that this is an auspicious act, representing new beginnings. He also says it is one the few things that unite the two major religions in the city, Hinduism and Islam, because its use goes back not only to the ancient Vedic period of Hindu ritual but has also been used extensively in the Arab world as a form of fashion, to accentuate female sensuality after marriage.
Sweta whose foot is being ‘Henna’d’, now, smiles, nervously at the remark, perhaps realizing she has exposed a section of her leg that stays covered most of the time.
I ask Shankar if this is a family tradition; “no,” he replies, his father was a farmer, he says, adding that he had to work his way for many years to this prime location at the corner of Rashbehari Avenue and Hindustan Park. I inquire as to exactly how he managed to gain the much-coveted position, knowing that such stalls are not sanctioned by the municipality. It is not a question that he seems comfortable to answer as evidenced by his folded hands, nervous smile, and head moving side-to-side. ‘It takes money,’ mutters one of his underlings to another boy who sits on a red stool beside the stall. They chuckle, knowingly.
Moving on, I wonder aloud about the demand for his trade as I know that in the state of West Bengal, where Calcutta is located, marriages traditionally use turmeric paste in the ceremony instead of Henna. I remember being affectionately ambushed by turmeric wielding female relatives and the wife of a close friend with the wash of good auspices – a tincture of yellow, that would also be used on my then bride to be on the morning of our wedding ceremony.
He tells me business is booming, that Mehndi has become so fashionable, that it is common even for Bengali women to apply it. In fact, in the line of five or six young ladies waiting for their turn, I see mostly Bengali-speakers.
A sari-clad lady buying a wooden bracelet at the bordering stall announces that the phenomenon is due to the decline in Bengali culture. Blaring Bollywood hits played on an unseen speaker punctuate her proncouncement. I, too, have noticed a homogenized Hindi-speaking culture permeating the city in a way that it never penetrated Southern India.
I turn back to the young ladies, asking how many of them are getting arranged marriages. Only one raises her hand – a young girl named Padma, also pretty but much shorter than Sweta, whose long lustrous black hair nearly reaches her knees. She cranes her neck from one side to another, looking at the others, and widens her eyes in disbelief that she is the only one raising her hand. Her English is not strong, and she prefers to speak Hindi, which my wife translates for me, saying she is a Marwari whose whose family migrated from Rajastan to Calcutta generations ago as traders.
I am aware of the community of merchants from the Marwar Region of South Western Rajastan, who have flourished in their many commercial endeavors since arriving. She is all but nineteen, and says that in her family, brides marry young in family alliances, which are made to maximize profits for all; her husband’s family is in real estate, and hers sells furniture. I think to myself that this is vertical integration, Calcutta-style.
A bespectacled Bengali girl behind holds a mouthful of smirk, which I cannot help but notice, asking her name. ‘I am called Jhinuk’, she informs me, elaborating that these days, among college-educated girls in Calcutta, only those who can’t socialize properly or come from extremely conservative families get arranged marriages. She says most kids date, sometimes in the open, sometimes in secret but whatever the case, families accept the consequences, even inter-religious ones.
I find this hard to believe. Still, when I get home to have lunch, I am confronted with evidence that seems to support what Jhinuk is saying. I arrive to the scene of our cook, who has been absent for several days, sobbing to my wife about her daughter. Between choking on certain words, she tells us that the girl has run off with a boy from a neighboring village.
The woman, in her mid-thirties but looking much older, travels around two hours each way by train from one of the small hamlets south of Calcutta to work in the city. It is a hard life, and she has many mouths to feed as her husband drinks too much, and cannot hold a job.
She explains that they had gone to a wedding reception of a distant relative, taking place at a neighboring village, and her daughter disappeared. After much searching, two days later, she found out that the girl had run off with a boy she met there.
She seems especially upset because the boy is a rickshaw-puller of little means from a poor family. And, they are not Bengali. They hail from neighboring Bihar, having come to West Bengal more than a decade earlier in search of shelter, when Bihar’s borders were virtually lawless.
My wife, a lawyer, asks if the girl was abducted, and quotes the sections under which complaints can be lodged at her local police station. The woman shakes her head. She says she already gone to the home of the in-laws, and was told by her daughter that the two had been planning this for some time. She is still reeling from the shock but, I can hear a quiet chord of relief in her voice: one less mouth to feed, one less daughter to marry-off; one less problem with which to cope in her busy life.
Even in the villages surrounding the city, the young are empowered. The voices of elders can still be still be heard but the words are seldom heeded. This is a young greater Calcutta; a Kolkata for the young.
Later, I visit an old interview subject, into whose forty year old first book, I am trying to breath new life. He is an iconic symbol of West and East existing in the same space: Professor Gaston Roberge SJ, 78, a Canadian Citizen and Jesuit priest, and former head the Communications Department of the prestigious St. Xavier’s College, now retired.
Father Roberge is a bit weary this afternoon, and it shows in his slow ginger movements and the sound of his heavy breath as he escorts me to his residential chamber at the college. White hair is pressed against his scalp. The large lenses of his specs, which look like the bulging eyes of a fly dart from me to the path in front of us and back to me as we walk and talk. The flesh on his once athletic frame has become deposited at his abdomen. His erstwhile erect spine leans forward like a young tree bending towards splinters of light coming through a forest canopy. But, he is neither a sapling nor lifeless timber. He is vibrant, active, alive – and young at heart.
A student passes him. “Morning father”, says the boy. The priest smiles and nods.
He turns to me: “Is it still morning for you? It is for most people over here. Early afternoon is a mystery. I never know whether to say good afternoon or good morning.”
I nod, replying, “Perhaps you should just say ‘hello’ or ‘good day”
“But what if I am having a bad day,’ he counters with a grin,’Would God forgive the lie? I’m a priest, after all!”
We laugh. His sense of humor is a timeless aspect of his character – one he and those around him are privileged to enjoy.
We are both Canadian citizens, and in his office, I tell him that, today, I miss my home, there. He says he seldom thinks about Canada, and describes a life story that is compellingly different from that of my father’s. Born in Montreal, to a newly widowed mother, he came to Calcutta more than five decades ago, and basically never left. He seems to carry no ghost from Montreal with him, though.
He is often asked why he would choose to live in a wretchedly poor, crowded and dirty place like Calcutta when he was born and raised in such a rich and clean country. In consequence, he has a well-practiced answer. “Fascination,” he says. He tells me as a young Jesuit volunteer in Montreal he was enticed by the spirits haunting his uncle, a Radar Engineer who had been posted by the Royal Canadian Air Force in South Asia. The boy, Gaston, who was a regular visitor to his uncle’s place became enthralled by stories of the east recounted dramatically by his mother’s brother.
“To put an exclamation point on it,” says he, “There was a stuffed mongoose on a side table, and a tiger skin on the floor!”
Notwithstanding my shock at the existence of such trophies from the wild, the sale of which would be illegal, today, I could understand well how the boy, Gaston might become hooked on the prospect of going to a land filled with such wonder.
He smiles and says it took him years to get here. When he got his chance, he prepared for the mission by first learning Yoga from the Montreal Chapter of the Sivananda Society, showing me pictures of his younger incarnation. In one he is sitting in the Lotus position, Padma Asana; in another, he does a shoulderstand.
“I was given five years to decide if I wanted to stay (in Calcutta). It took me all but five minutes to choose to make it my home,” he says
“I was ‘enculturing’ myself”, he proclaims, “When one is on a mission, one must not only spread the word of God but one must also try to learn more about God. That is the way I see it, anyhow. What better way to do so than through his children, regardless of the religion they follow – and the people were so Godly. Another might take a different view but I felt that it was essential to my cause.”
He mentions being exposed to The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa, the famous Hindu Sage who officiated at the Kali temple of Dakshineswar, located some 15 km from Calcutta, to whose works he became exposed at the time, adding that he appreciated the mystic’s use of parable.
He soon recognized in him the calling to the priesthood, and decided to take his vows, and he reflects on this crucial juncture of his life path, telling me about the trip his mother made, coming to Calcutta to see him ordained. His gaze now filled with nostalgia, he reveals that, save for a brief posting in the Indian city of Pune and two years as Vatican Communications Director in Rome, he spent the remainder of his life as a monk on the campus of St. Xavier’s in Calcutta.
I remark that he is truly a Global Calcuttan. He likes the label, and smiles in agreement.
He says his connection to Canada has slowly diminished with time.
“Initially, I missed my mother, my sister, friends from the Society of Jesus,” he confesses, looking up at the ceiling, “but one by one, God has taken them, and with it my interest in going back.”
I ask him when he was last there, and he tells me of a bewildering return trip taken around a decade back, “Everything was so American,” he says “I could not recognize our small parish on the edge of Montreal; though people spoke my language, it seemed very foreign to me, like I had gone to a foreign country. So, I was glad to return home to Calcutta.”
These days, he feels more Indian than Canadian, elaborating that some years back, he considered changing his Citizenship to Indian but was dissuaded when he realized that the Society of Jesus would lose the small pension, which he received from the Canadian government.
He gives me the manuscript of his latest book, and signs it, writing the word ‘Fadar’ beside his name in parentheses, the way father is pronounced by the locals, adding the moniker ‘Global Calcuttan’ to it.
Gaston Roberge seems a man with a firm sense of his place in the world. He has embraced circumstance and change just as my own father has had to begrudgingly accept it. He is a priest, who has exorcised the spirits of the departed metropolis of his birth. In that there is a certain freedom; and I observe with admiration, the ease with which he navigates a place where the residents consider him to be a foreigner while his own sense of identity is firmly ensconced by city of Calcutta.
Park Street, long renamed for Mother Theresa but seldom actually called Mother Theresa Sarani in common speech, is not far from St. Xavier’s, and I walk there, stopping at a cafe called Barista to cool off. It is a place that holds considerable nostalgia for me as my wife and I used to meet at these cafes before marriage. She never let me serve myself the coffee, and I felt the touch of her soft hand for the first time at Park Street Barista, as she held mine back to pour sugar and milk into the steaming brew contained in my cup. I was in heaven. And, I like going back there, periodically, especially when life seems stressful or drab or on a day like this, when I am looking back.
I find the eatery nearly empty as so many people flock to Au Bon Pain, the North American style restaurant and bakery that was opened when a money-losing Music World, long a landmark at this corner, became untenable. I notice it is even drawing traffic from Flurry’s, another Park Street landmark. I spend a hundred and fifty rupees on coffee, roughly the same as what I would spend in Canada and marvel at how people are willing to spend even more across the street. Calcuttans love their food and for those who can afford it, they are willing to spend money to eat well, this while the poor are still begging for their meals.
A woman asks me for money as I leave the security of Barista and my feet hit the crowded pavement. I give her the one and two rupee coins contained in my wallet. I can’t help but give money to beggars when they approach me on the street but manage to grow occasionally callous to them when they come knocking on my car window as if the glass between us insulates me from their plight and my own guilt at being able to live a fat, while so many skin-clad skeletons dwell in the city’s slums and on its sidewalks.
I remember the first time I saw beggars: at the airport in Dumdum, north of the city center. They were mainly young boys, who swarmed around us as we left he arrivals exit. I had no conception of poverty living in London at the time. The idea that people had to subsist off of the auspices of others, going without shoes on their feet, without clean clothes on their back, consuming perhaps a single daily meal of bread, maybe lentils to go with it, if they were lucky, was a shock. The injustice of it made me sick. Today, I am like other inhabitants of the city, sometimes sad for them, sometimes indifferent, other times annoyed, wishing they would just try to get a job. It is a necessary defense mechanism for the majority of Calcuttans, for living amidst poverty requires the maintenance of some psychological distance from it.
I have noticed a decline in begging in the city. A friend once told me that some manage to make a good living at it. I remember reading in a local English language daily, about one beggar who had amassed a small fortune, which was found only upon his death. Still, these are the exceptions, I suppose. The majority of beggars, it seems to me, are hungry, lack clothing and shelter, and when a ray of light causes them to smile it through a thick fog of misery.
This is why I cannot explain the excess, which occurs each year during the Festival of Durga. Durga Puja as it is called (secularized as Sharad Utsav or Autumn Festival) when tens of millions, Crores of rupees, as the locals say, are spent by neighborhood social clubs trying to out-do one another in putting on the best display or Pandal. Such structures can occupy as much space as a small castle, and are elaborately decorated.
The most popular image of Goddess Durga in Bengal depicts her slaying a buffalo-headed demon named Mahishasura. The image is meant to represent Durga, giving us the power to restrain or eliminate our ego embodied by the demon, which we must all strive to overcome on a path of spirituality. I cannot help but reflect on the irony of the often garish spectacles, passing for religious tributes, which only serve to feed the the ego of those who create them, and by extension the ego all Calcuttans taking pride in them. It makes me wonder how many mouths could be fed if even a fraction of the money spent on Pandals could go into a fund for the poor. In Calcutta, it seems that charity means giving a few coins to a beggar. Perhaps only coins are left in the purses of the many after the struggling to keep pace with untamed inflation, increased health care costs, paying of festive bonuses, seasonal gratuities or Bakshish, double parking and taxi fares illegally charged, not to mention the shakedown by this authority or that. By the end, even the haves feel deprived, and reluctant to part with much more than the crumbs on their table. For the poor, those many morsels are sufficient – they have to be. Just enough to survive for another day.
It is evening by the time I reach home. My driver who had gone to Jamshedpur for the weekend has not been able to return. His wife called us in the middle of the night to say that he had imbibed far too much, and failed to get out of bed much less make his train. So, I have had to go through the frustrating ritual of flagging down a taxi with most of them rejecting my pleas to be picked up in the searing heat – even those, which bear signs saying ‘no refusal’. Yelling that this is illegal is of no use. “There’s a cop over there,: points one of them, laughing, “Go ahead and tell him; see what he does.”
In India as in many a place, the border between cop and petty criminal in porous. Salaries are insufficient to keep pace with rising prices, so many supplement, and public ‘service’, policing especially, provides ample opportunity for an earning additional, once surreptitious – but now, all too common income stream from bribery. Unfortunately, this is taken as a fact of life, and despite the occasional public campaign against corruption, people are resigned to the view that like the ugly Indian cockroach, bribery it is something they will never be able to stamp out.
I am aware that the large open space across the street from our flat, which is located between Triangular Park and Deshopriya Park in the high priced suburb of Ballygunge, is being used for a funeral reception or Shraddha. The main meal, lunch, has been over for hours and most of the chairs of this makeshift reception hall are empty. Still, as my cab approaches our flat, I see some poor youths lounging in the party chairs in the middle of the street, drunk. The taxi comes to a stop in front of our gate, and I get out, noticing that the youths are arguing, and it ends up in a melee of shoving and blows. I wonder when it became acceptable to behave in this manner. In the Calcutta I knew, such behavior would be looked upon with great shame. People would prevent it, police would be on the scene; it simply wouldn’t be tolerated. Today, it is commonplace, and bystanders watch or go about their business. In Kolkata, which is turning out to be a city of increasing abundance for the privileged, with its BMWs Audis and Mercedes flying over the streets, shame seems to be one thing that exists in ever increasing scarcity.
An elevator ride up to our flat, and soon I am in the bathroom washing up. I look in the mirror, and can see Calcutta fading off of me like a henna tattoo. It is messy – far from the pristine image that was tattooed on the surface of my consciousness as child and young adult. It still has a distinct presence but how long will it be there, I wonder?
Even my in my wife, the opulent portrait of the city, once so brilliantly painted on her being, is beginning to lose its luster.
As for me, I have come to understand my identity as being born of many mothers. And so, I long for different things at different times: from the sound of ‘mind the gap’ to a large plate of batter-fried haddock as I glance the sight of modern and medieval architecture existing in one space through a London window-pane; the smell of fresh warm bagels from Montreal that are so delicious they need not any topping, the sight of maple leaves turning color in autumn, and catching snowflakes on my tongue during Ottawa’s first snowfall; the ‘swoosh swoosh’ sound of the Calcutta street sweepers waking me up in the morning, followed by the call of the local fish seller, announcing the morning’s first catch. I am a man, today, of many homes, and I realize, I ache not so much for the physical sensations of them but what they evoke in me: moments in time, parts of my life, which I hope to relive for the joy and comfort they bring me.
I realize, too, that one cannot go back. The desire to do so can be injurious to the soul as exemplified by the sadness my father feels of a life that has passed him by. I conclude that we are bound to move forward in much the same way as Father Roberge has done.
My thoughts turn to Sweta: in a few years, I wonder if, on a visit from Switzerland, she will reflect back on how things were, when it was so safe and easy for her to get her arms painted on the sidewalk of a busy intersection in the city. She may see the floral patterns on another girl, and recall the feel of the paste on her own arms as she prepared for her marriage. She may even remember the curious Indian-looking foreigner asking her and the other young ladies questions about their lives as they all waited in line to be ornamented for change.
And, I will become one of the city’s ghosts – not of my Calcutta but of Sweta’s Kolkata on the day when it becomes something and new and different for her.