That feeling of homecoming hasn’t diminished any over the years.
The three-hour drive from Puducherry to Chennai on my way back to Kolkata from the Auroville Literature Festival, where I’d been invited to speak about the acclaimed Welsh National Opera production, Migrations, I’d co-written last year, and my latest, well-received book, also about journeys, Handle With Care, allowed me time to think about this long trek called life, and why, on attaining my half-century this August, I chose to mark it with a return to the land of my birth.
Born in Kolkata, and a misfit from the start (robindrosongeet ain’t my favourite music, ilish not my first choice of ‘feesh’, and “ki nyaka!” I’ve only recently learnt to say with relish!), I’ve always revelled in flouting expectations. Coming from an unconventional family (no shakha pola in sight, shorbonash!) sent me off the straight and narrow early, and extensive travel in my youth had me careening farther off the grid.
Distance (a quarter-of-a-century spent 5,000 miles away) hasn’t made my heart grow fonder either of certain inconveniences. I travel at least twice a year to India when pandemic bugs aren’t performing their tandav nritya, but with each trip I find myself lamenting, “Mosha, maachhi, uncouth-man, keno dile bhogobaan?”, paraphrasing a pernicious chant from my childhood.
But you can’t blame creepy-crawlies for just being themselves, when the actions of creepier-still bipeds are beyond the bounds of normal behaviour. Such as that of the man recently skulking in the doorway in a respectable Kolkata ‘para’, who decided, unprovoked, to spit at two women walking past him. Spotting him lurking, they’d fortunately moved out of range of his projectile, but was left no less shaken for it.
What about the goon who refused to vacate my reserved seat on the Chennai to Kolkata flight? Ultimately, it took three women (me and two air hostesses) to dislodge him from the ‘godi’ he’d unapologetically appropriated. Mounting misogyny in once-bhodro Kolkata is heartbreaking.
Yet, I find myself overlooking these horrors to eagerly return to India biannually (where in the world, after all, these days, is hassle-free?). That my parents live in Kolkata is the obvious reason for my attachment, but Kolkata, and India, draw me back repeatedly for other reasons as well. These cannot be bottled or bagged, sadly, to smuggle back to my British home, because they are intangible.
That feeling of homecoming hasn’t diminished any over the years, although my parents no longer dwell in the tall, thin, pink house of my youth. But their new apartment does stand on the patch it always did. I would have said patch of green, but my grandmother’s garden has gone, with only the plants my mother could hang on to lining their balcony and flanking the car park. Which is true of Kolkata generally, where concrete monstrosities like the sky-marring flyover in Minto Park have decimated the greenery.
Nevertheless, if I crane a little from our back-bedroom window, it’s still possible to spy swaying fronds of palm and coconut trees. The sun too seems to slant into this room the way it did in our childhood, illuminating its new walls of calming azure.
In the quiet of the afternoon, the tap-tap-tap of a kingfisher or ledge-loping monkey can sometimes still be heard. Even the hubbub of the local bazaar is a pleasantly muted rhythm when filtering in from afar. But when cacophonous pujo or election loudspeakers are added to the din, now a near-constant, no expanse is distance enough! Pujos themselves, big and small, seem never-ending and mundane and joyless as a result. What a load of unbecoming piety for previously-irreverent Kolkata — eesh!
Fortunately, Kolkata continues to adore food; evident in the mushrooming of cafes and bistros at every corner, and a desirable development for a change! But I rarely step into these, however inviting their lit-up fronts and quirky signage, because the repast I return for every year is lovingly made in our own kitchen by our longtime cook, from a treasure trove of ancestral recipes collected by my mother. Malpoa, kochuri, begun pora, chingri maachher malaikari, chitol maachher muthiya, mangsher jhol and tomato-and-khejur-er chutney — I could go on, but haven’t the column space for it!
What makes these spreads special, apart from their glorious taste, is that they’re rarely indulged in alone. In Kolkata as in Britain, we have always sat down to meals as a family, with phones switched off and food, family, and adda, our sole focus. In Kolkata, however, family extends beyond the nucleus and bread is broken regularly with meshos, pishis, dadus and didas, and friends so old they’re family!
Serendipitously last month, every cousin was visiting Kolkata simultaneously, leading to many gleeful gatherings. Get-togethers over Coorg mutton roast at the Tolly, and Indo-Italian at our pishi’s baari, bubbled with good-natured ribbing, laughter, and the pizza-stuffed delight of our clan’s newest generation of teens. On the penultimate day of our trip, my 50th birthday arrived before I could blink. With it came friends from every phase of my life, some even gatecrashing (uninvited but very welcome), to help me cut and eat my three different scrumptious chocolate cakes, and sing to me rather beautifully (all that robindrosangeet-singing pays dividends, clearly).
For the duration of that commonplace enough birthday ditty, the joy of belonging created a moment of intense beauty. I would’ve bottled this if I could, to unstopper and enjoy frequently, but I also know that some things are made more special by their rarity.
Like milestone birthdays, and revisiting the fading Kolkata of my youth.