Nostalgia tastes rather sweet on a trip back to my old home town
Nearly three years ago now, I wrote a column on how folks like me who can't go back home -- because that home is now long since gone -- are destined to re-create it in their imagination, populate it with their memories and make it the stuff of their dreams. I had confessed my dread of revisiting past haunts for fear that they would have changed beyond recognition; my terror of subjecting my memories to the harsh test of an ever-changing reality.
Which explains why I have stayed away from the stomping grounds of my childhood and youth, choosing to remember them they way they were, rather than come to terms with how they are now. Until last month, that is...
That's when I went back to Calcutta, or Cal as it is always affectionately abbreviated by those who love the city (sorry, but I am only going to call it Kolkata when I speak Bangla), after nearly a decade of staying resolutely away.
But the moment I landed at Netaji Subhas Chandra Airport, it felt as if I had never been away. There was the same air of nonchalant chaos, the same good-natured jostling, and the noise of a hundred-odd people bellowing into their phones to call their drivers ("Kothai achho? Ato deri lagche kano?").
Our own driver, sent by the literary festival that was hosting us, took his time coming. When he finally pulled up, he gave our luggage a disgusted look and muttered, "Baba, koto bhari bag!" The two young people who were there to receive us went a bit red in the face, and helped with the luggage, while he continued to grumble discontentedly. Oh, the joys of being back in Cal!
Only it wasn't the Cal I knew and loved that whizzed past my rolled-up window. Instead of the sleepy road bordered by little huts and corner shops, there was a busy, bustling highway, flanked on both sides by glittering high rises that housed everything from malls to cinemas to hotels to up-market residences. If I didn't know better, I could have sworn I was in Gurgaon; there was even signage for DLF, for crying out loud.
Talking about loud, our extremely disagreeable driver was venting his frustration about being stuck at a red light by honking incessantly. "What is the point of using the horn?" I wondered aloud, "It won't make the lights change, will it?" His response was immediate and pithy. He rolled down his window and spat vigorously through it. Ah, that famous Bengali temper. How I had missed it!
It was sheer serendipity that our hotel was just a quick stroll away from my old college. So, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to walk down to revisit it between sessions. A million memories ran through my head as I made my way down Middleton Row and saw the familiar green gate of Loreto College before me.
I made my way down the curved driveway, entered through the side gate and went up to the first floor library that had been my sanctuary for three years. It looked a bit smaller than I remembered it, and my favourite desk which I had stockpiled with books, now had an ugly computer sitting on it, but the smell of books was just as intoxicating.
A few deep breaths later, I walked down the staircase and got the biggest surprise ever. There on a big black board were the names of all the gold medal winners over the years. And half-way down the list was mine: glittering in gold letters. My husband, who was even more excited than I was, insisting on taking many pictures, even as groups of bemused college students walked past us.
By then, I was quite sold on this nostalgia thing. So, we walked across the lawn and through the back gate to get to Jyoti Vihar, the venue of many a cheap and tasty lunch during my college days. The idlis, vadas and dosas were just as excellent as I remembered and even passed the test of the foodie husband.
All went swimmingly until we asked for paper napkins. No, said our smiling waiter, they did not provide any. We pointed to the next table, which had paper napkins. Ah, he said, they had brought in their own. Then, clearly taking pity on us, he walked across to the cashier's desk, tore off a bit of newspaper and presented it to us with a flourish. The gesture just about summed up the spirit of Cal for me.
The next day was devoted to revisiting familiar ground. The Bata store on Chowringhee where I had bought my school shoes at the beginning of every new academic year was still stationed to do duty by the next generation of students. The National Museum looked better than ever with a fresh lick of whitewash. And then there was the timeless beauty of Victoria Memorial, soaring majestically at the fringes of the Maidan.
Post-dinner, we decided that a spot of live music was in order. So, off we went to Someplace Else, to sit and wait for the band to show up. Finally a group of middle-aged hipster-types turned up and began playing blues standards from the 50s (circa Muddy Waters). A couple of youngsters in the front asked for a Beatles number. "Sorry," said the band leader, sounding anything but repentant. "We are stuck in a time warp here."
Which is, in the nicest possible way, also a good way to describe Calcutta itself. And long may it stay that way.