Monday, March 17, 2014

10 sacrosanct things about Calcutta

I am yet to come to terms with NRI life and NRI gossip. A few years ago a Bengali movie called "The Bong Connection" had provided quite a sneak peek into the NRI bong's life where the only thing they discuss is fish, Kolkata and gold jewellery. In case you do not know, half of the world's economic crisis will be solved if all the gold stashed into the average Bengali's bank locker is liquidated and traded in the open market. The comic insanity of all the discussions strike me more nowadays as I have begun to attend these kind of gatherings nowadays. The first and the last thing that everyone discusses is Calcutta.
These men and women have decided for good (for Calcutta's good, not theirs), not to stay in the shit hole of a place called Calcutta. But I have no words to describe their obsession about her.

"Arre Chhaya di, did you buy this new Dhakai from Calcutta...and this pretty, is it from P.C. Chandra?"
"Uff! it was so hot this time in Calcutta...and all those loudspeakers blaring Rabindrasangeet. Isshhh! Tagore would have died"
"Did you knowI have purchased an apartment in New Town...I appointed an interior decorator to do it up. But that area is a so infested with mosquitoes."

Now. This is one logic I have failed to understand. All these NRIs have a fancy apartment in either South City, Lake Gardens, Jodhpur Park, Salt Lake and New Town and what not, but they are never going to stay over there. All their lives they will cook, clean and complain about the snow in New Jersey but that show piece apartment needs to be there. Why? Only because your mother's sister's cousin's daughter will come up to you in one family wedding and say-
"Uff Chaya mashi, your apartment is so nice...."
And because you will over hear somebody in that wedding saying to somebody else- "Arrey, she is an NRI, no dearth of money...just showing off her Dollars...have you seen the Sitahar she is wearing? Must be worth a few lakhs" and the sadistic pleasure derived from that hushed sigh that follows is an overwhelming feat.

A few days ago, I was stuck up in one such gathering where people were discussing sports and suddenly it was all about Sourav Ganguly. One person who thinks he is the only fitness freak Bengali born in his generation disclaimed - "Oh! cricket? that is not even a game. and if there was one lazy sportsperson ever born, it had to be Sourav Ganguly"
Whoever reads my blog frequently or knows me, will by now know what was going inside my head. I felt this inherent urge to slap him but I decided to behave civilly and not pay attention towards him. But it was not meant to be. Another quipped- "Oh! yeah, Sourav...ask anybody from Calcutta, they will say there never was a much better captain than Sourav." And everyone started laughing.
That was it. I decided not to be a party to the conversation any more and moved towards the thing which pacifies Bongs like me, the most. Food. And then I decided to write a few pointers about things which are sacrosanct about Calcutta. Ones which we do not like to be snubbed about. Chances are that you might meet someone like me who will not take all that lying down. Read on.

1. Calcutta's tram, buildings and just everything about the old world charm of the city- While the 'noveau riche' will sneer at the old mansions at Chowringhee and call it dirty and what not, do not ever (EVER, ever in Arnab Goswami style) try to crack that joke in front of a true blue Calcuttan. Because, for him or her, that tram ride from Shyambajar, that boat ride over the ganges from Bagbajar ghat, those narrow alleys of Mohunbagan Row or those old Mansions in Pathuriaghata or Janbajar will never lose its charm. You either know it or you do not.

2. Food- Ok! this should actually be on the top, but nevertheless, this is THE most important thing for a Calcuttan. When you are in Calcutta, be sure that you are in Food lover's paradise. Be it the Kosha mangsho of the famed Golbari, or the High Court para street food, Haldiram's chaat, Peter Cat's iconic 'Chello Kabab', Mocambo's 'Prawn Cocktail', Arsalan's Biriyani, Azad Hind or Balwant Singh's dhaba, or be my Lords more's Kalpana Sweet shop's famous "nolen gurer sondesh", never ever argue about food with a Calcuttan. Period. There cannot be anything better in terms of variety and price like the food you find in Calcutta. We can fight among ourselves about whether "Arsalan" is better or "Aminia" but you say one thing against Calcutta style Biriyan's potato, you are gone!

3. Phuchka- I could have clubbed "Phuchka" along with the food part, but a true blue Calcuttan will know how much emotionally connected are we to the Phuchka and our favourite Phuchkawallah. While I write this, I am having almost a Niagara Falls bursting out of my tongue thinking about Rajender's phuchka in Dakshinapon. I attended college and later worked for sometime in Hyderabad. One common mistake that everyone used to make there was- "What is so different about phuchka? Arey that's same as Panipuri/Golgappa/Panibatasha etc etc" And every time they said that, I used to pity them. Because they do not know what makes Calcutta's phuchka so special. My mom often tells its the dirt, but if it is so, let it be :)

(Image Courtesy: Me)
4. Football- Nowadays I see people saying- "Oh! I am not interested in Indian football, I am more into European football". My husband was one of them. A die hard supporter of Manchester United, who even though was a Bangal by birth, never supported East Bengal in a match. You must have guessed that he now keeps track of every match that the Red and Gold brigade plays. Also, when in Calcutta, you have to be eitehr East Bengal or Mohun Bagan. Have to. You have no other choice.

5. Love for everything English and Imperial about the city- Many people say "why do you make such an icon out of the Victoria Memorial? It reminds of the imperial past." May be, probably, yes. But the city where I come from was also once the Empire's second city and there is no denying that many things good about the city is a gift of our imperial heritage. If only destroying Victoria Memorial, or not taking your daily cup of tea while basking in the sun at Tolly Club during the winters could make one more patriotic and wipe out a chapter of our country's history as such, then probably we would be in the same league as the Talibans who thought that by destroying Buddha statues in Afghanistan could actually mean that a historical fact like presence of Buddhism in the country, could be denied. We are, thankfully, not that obnoxious. And for us, USA might mean all the money nowadays and all the new sprung clubs in the city may give you membership at the drop of the hat, "Bilet" remains London and memberships of "Calcutta Club " or "Tolly Club" remains the ultimate measure of your social standing.

6. Sourav Ganguly- As discussed above, Sourav is Sourav. Dada is dada. At leats he had the courage to fly his jersey in the epitome of English stiff upper lipped bastion aka "the Lords balcony", what did you do apart from fleeing the country at the best possible moment?  And you still do not believe what a great he was? Check this.

7. Living conditions- "oh! Calcutta is so dusty, so dirty, so unclean". Yes. Agreed. But then have you ever considered the population density of the state? The next thing that comes is "There is nothing in Calcutta. No economic revival, nothing". Yes, we have our problems. But we do not fudge our GDP figures. Also, why do you always end up talking about the high living costs in other cities and that even if you got a lower package, you would not mind shifting back to Calcutta? because, even if you argue about high property prices, rents and very high living costs in the city, you still know, that it is one city which is cheapest to live in. And have you ever bothered to visit Salt Lake's Sector V or New Town?  Besides, name on Indian metropolis where these problems are not there and the costs are as low?

8. Culture and College Street- This is one thing that every Calcuttan will swear by. And if you think anybody who is into 'culture' in Calcutta will be a jhola carrying middle aged man, think again. Times have changed and we have rockstars with long hairs and driving a brand new SUV in the scene. Fact is we love finer things in life, and there is no harm in flaunting it. If you do not have it, it is entirely your loss :) And we may have so many "Starmark" and "Crossword" stores across the city, but in case we do not find one particular book that we are so desperately looking for, we know where to search for it- "College Street" or "Boi Para". If it is not there in College Street, it is probbaly not published. And while in College Street, how can you miss a trip down the romance of the turbulent Calcutta of 70's in the iconic "Coffee House". I can give you a secret tip here. If you really want to woo a true blue Calcutta boy or a girl, take him/her for a date there. He or she will be blown away...completely! No CCD or Barista can do that for you.

9. Festivals- A friend of mine was once shocked to hear that I, even after being a Bengali Hindu, eat meat during the days of our biggest festival- "Durga Puja". The thing is, for us Calcuttans, festivals are more about celebration of life. Yes, we are religious. I offer my prayers and I believe I am a good Hindu. And that is why I celebrate Eid and Biriyani and Christmas and Plum Cake with equal fervour. Recently, my German laguage teacher asked me to write an article about Carnival in my hometown. I told her we do not have a "Stadtkarneval" (City carnival), because we have many. Durga Puja is one of them and so is Christmas in Park Street.

10. Christmas and Park Street- I was saving the best for the last. One person who had no idea about what Park Street was all about was terribly disappointed about "Someplace Else" since the people performing over there did not belt out many Bhangra or Yo Yo Honey Singh numbers. Please do not get me wrong, I love Bhangra, but you surely need a much better understanding of Music to fit into the Park Street class and elegance (I am aware that nowadays Trincas play raunchy music to attract crowds, but I hope that is an one-off scenario). Also, if you have not seen Christmas in Park Street, you have not seen how a city's population which goes to sleep while remembering the names of some or other Babaji and votes for Communists (?) during elections, celebrate a festival which is a reminder of the days of the Raj, with such elan.

(Image Courtesy: Me)
I am sure there are many more. I will be glad if anybody wants to add to this list. And for those NRIs who cannot stop musing about Calcutta, I have understood one thing they sorely miss in life- the life they have left behind, the charms of the city which was once their first love. One separation they are yet to come to terms with. Calcutta is like Waheeda Rehman. She grows on you. Love her, hate her, you just cannot ignore her. And while I wrote this down, a sense of Happiness and at the same time, longing, engulfs me. I hope I get to see her soon. Because, Calcutta is the only place in this whole world that I will ever call home. Happy reading :)

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