Monday, September 04, 2006

Kolkata is kind to me

It’s a strange kind of sadness that sweeps over you when you hear a young man singing Rabindrasangeeth for small change on a train. We were on our way to Bolpur and he climbed into our compartment. The maudlin of his songs and the unrealistic green of the paddy fields made me feel like I was in art film. (Yes, I can get most dreamy sometimes, but it might well have been the thought of Santiniketan and all that’s associated with it that did this to me.)

I’ve often travelled by train to Kolkata from South India. Sitting by the window, I’d watch the countryside through the shaded blue tint of the glass. (Ma insisted we travel by AC and I only discovered the joys of the general compartment when I started travelling on my own.) As soon as the first chaiwallah announced himself to the sleepy compartment, I’d jump down from my Side Upper berth (still a constant) and push my mother’s feet impatiently aside to press my forehead to the window.

Since then I’ve looked out at the countryside bathed in the light of the winter mornings, summer evenings, spring twilights and monsoon afternoons. And I’ve noticed that the countryside there has only one colour in all those seasonal mornings. Green. A hundred million shades of green. And small clumps of trees in the middle of the artificial-looking bright green paddy. Trees that give way to houses and villages, and as the train passes by, you see tiny dots of people in the distance, coming to the field from the warmth of their morning chulha or readying to light the night’s fire. And then it blends into another village miles away. A whole new shade of green, a new clump of trees, a differently coloured pond - a whole different world in the space of a train-minute.

So when the harmonium strains faded and the singing ended, the wandering musician stood silently in the middle of the aisle with his palm outstretched. As I handed him my appreciation, I wondered if he actually supported a family with his singing. As I wonder with rickshaw pullers and cobblers and people who sit on the footpath with just a few fruits placed neatly on newspaper for sale.

Kolkata was the same and not quite. I’ve discovered that the monsoon was born in Kolkata. I’ve come to believe that Calcuttans consider waiting at a traffic light for a little over two minutes as the equivalent of being stuck in a ‘traffic jam’. (And is it just me, or is every city now greener than what used to be the garden city?)

I love Kolkata’s weathered buildings and the ubiquitous black umbrella that everyone carries with them as soon as they step out (Chaata nite bhulo naa kintu!). I love that everyone has time for a chat. I love the jade ponds that dot the landscape, the people bathing at water fountains on the sidewalk, the children splashing soap water in delight at having beaten the sultry heat for a while. I love maati bhaarer cha – sipping steaming tea from the cool dry clay, smelling the earthy bottom of the cup once the last drop has been drained. I love the shocking red of hibiscus that garlands the Ma Kali idols and photographs. The shocking red of shindoor in the parting of black hair.

I love the bazaar that dadu visits to get three different kinds of fish for a single meal. Even though he’s past eighty and has to take a rickshaw back home when the groceries are heavy, he hasn’t given up his authoritarian task of fish-buying. I’d go to the bazaar with dadu and carry the groceries back, forcing him to walk the return trip, insisting he needed the excercise.
He’d wave out to the people in shops on the way and call out, This is my naatni. My older daughter’s girl. From Bangalore!
And they all nodded and said they could see the resemblance. The tea blender and the mishti shop owner. The chemist and the tailor. Everyone down the entire street.
Surprise visit! We didn’t even know! And my ear would be twisted playfully.

I asked the man who was descaling our ilish where his fish came from.
Madras, he said, matter-of-factly.
Really? Where in Madras? But there’s no ilish in Madras.
Andhra, dadu clarified quietly.
Oh, Andhra, I said loudly.
Madras, he repeated.
I seemed to have forgotten that anywhere south of Orissa is Madras for some people.

And then I got back on a train and watched the landscape change from audacious green to red mud. And I didn’t know which way was home for a while.