Queen of the East?
Calcutta, with its clustered cinemas and 'maidans', seems to be lost in oblivion but not so much to prevent her from attracting passers-by
It was famously written of Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt that "Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety…" A similar ode can be sung to Calcutta, the ageing diva of the East, yet resting timelessly on the banks of the Hooghly River, enticing passersby with her infinite variety.
Calcutta first enticed me, Cleopatra alike, to her many charms in the summer of the 80s when after finishing school, I arrived in the suburb of Behala to spend some time with my cousin Remona and her family. It became a memorable interlude for one last fling with boyhood before the real business of life took over.
My cousin's husband, Amal da, was a typical middle-class office-going Bengali 'bhadralok' whose utterances rarely exceeded a few indistinguishable grunts when conversing with me. This, I realised many years later, was how most husbands usually converse with male siblings of their better halves. Every morning, he would step out of the house with his umbrella tucked firmly under his arm, hop onto a rickshaw before boarding a bus to his Calcutta Municipality office. The umbrella was a permanent multipurpose adornment for hailing rickshaws, stopping buses and waving frantically at the many dogs that chased anything on wheels or two legs in the Behala by-lanes! In the office, he spent the day as most middle-class Bengali office goers do, looking sternly at files as if each contained a conspiracy against the working class, in between, sipping tea and keeping up with the latest developments in the Maidan. The return journey followed the same pattern except when he would stop to buy his favourite fish from the local fishmonger. Only on two occasions did Amal da let his guard down in my presence. A lifelong follower of Mohan Bagan, he let his mask slip when the famous red and maroon shirts lost a match to their arch-rivals — East Bengal. The home was shrouded in misery as the master of the house went about sulking and sniffing stifled sobs, refusing even to dip his Marie biscuit in the evening tea. There was of course no fish on the table that night and the relationship between 'maachh' and match in Bengali households became clear to me.
The second occasion arose when I innocently informed Remona di that I would be catching the Tram no. 35 to spend the day in the city. Amal da, whose aural faculties were apparently sharper than his vocal cords, sprang up like a startled deer and proceeded to cry out in anguished angst, "City? City? What does he mean? Is Behala a village? Tumar bhai ki bolchhe?". Of course, like a true husband and the gentle soul that he was, he refrained from directly addressing the question to the perpetrator.
Beyond Behala, Calcutta held many spell-binding wonders for me. The tram ride from Behala snaked its slow and rambling way past glimpses of the Race Course, Fort William and other slow-moving carriages, none of which, like the tram, betrayed any intention of urgency before grinding to a final stop at Esplanade. For me, that was the entry point to Chowringhee and its myriad alleys and back streets which housed cinemas, hotels, bookshops and pubs ranging from the pavement variety to the iconic Oberoi Grand. I was drawn to a host of cinemas that had in-house bars where you could actually enjoy a glass of chilled Kalyani Black during the interval to counter the frontal attack on the senses by the latest Bollywood inanity. Lighthouse, New Empire, Roxy, Paradise, Globe, Tiger, Elite to name a few were the cinemas clustered around each other, and one could walk across from one to the other gawking at the posters and stills of the movie running inside, to while away time. At times, you could perhaps catch the general essence of the movie and make a good guess of its beginning, middle and ending simply by taking a good look at the stills and the posters and thus save both money and time which could now be spent on better things like cold beer!
My favourite watering hole as an adolescent let loose in paradise was Oasis — a bar on Park Street that served beer accompanied by shrimps loosely advertised as prawns. It was a pocket-friendly place with the added attraction of air-conditioning. Oasis also had a section on the mezzanine floor named the Family area. It was a no-go area for me but I often craned my neck between sips to witness young couples climb up the stairs with furtive glances backwards. For someone just out of school, the beer and the spectacle of young couples sneaking in for clandestine meetings was a heady mix.
The debris of many years and countless bottles of beer has drifted past the Howrah Bridge since that summer. Amal da is no more, having rested his respectable bones in his beloved Behala some years back. The ghosts of the old East Bengal and Mohan Bagan perhaps still kick the ball around in the Maidan but I am told that the wooden stands and galleries are silent. Sponsors have replaced supporters and I wonder if anyone still mourns a loss in the Calcutta derby. The old cinemas and pubs are also mostly gone and those remaining have reinvented themselves to keep up with unaccountable tastes. And family rooms are now meant for just that as parents hustle their young kids quickly past amorous couples who crowd the tables in the general area!
I never returned to Calcutta for such a long break ever again. Though each time I visit the city, I do stroll down Chowringhee and adjoining areas, searching for familiar phantoms from the past, most of whom seem to have disappeared or merged into new entities which, alas, do not quite have the same lasting allure as Cleopatra. But like the Egyptian Queen, I am sure that Calcutta continues to entice and entrap unsuspecting travellers who pass by her way with glimpses of forbidden fruits!
Views expressed are personal