My morning ritual of waking up at 6 am,sitting in the portico and watching Calcutta waking up was becoming a habit.
I met an elderly gentleman from England who had spent 3 months in Varanasi and he could understand Hindi. When I asked him where is home to you? He smiled and said India is home to me,not England,not anymore.
I was supposed to meet Indrani- the same gal whom I met on my train to New Jalpaiguri. She graciously invited me to her place that day but just then I got a message from my Sandakphu trekmate Kinshuk saying he would be in Park Street area by noon so I had to cancel my meet up with her. I apologised. Next time I was here, I would definitely meet her.
I was not in a mood to rush,not at all inclined to checking popular tourist spots and get tired. So I followed my heart and took a route what my mum took. Visit Indian Coffee House.
This iconic coffee house on College Street was a hub for intellectuals,poets,authors, revolutionaries, freedom fighters and more. One can imagine how the atmosphere must have been those days. Electric,super charged,the youth then,their ideas,ideology,and planning for a New India.
It was 5 kms distance so I decided to walk and here is where I got a glimpse of Calcutta away from fashionable Park Street.
I walked through Mirza Ghalib street observing the lanes, the really narrow by lanes with colonial British buildings that were now in a state of decay with residents.
Calcutta was bursting with destitutes and the pavements was occupied by them making their homes with whatever little space they had. It was not like the slums of Bombay. I marvelled at their dwellings. Good cooking smells emanating from the pavement with the open fires. I was walking through their shelters.
There was so much character and tenacity in the people. It reminded me of an incident, a person who gave me a description of the people of India.
I was talking to Ron Haviv- a renowned photojournalist.He and his friend,a Times Magazine photographer visited my cafe couple of years ago with their friends and we were talking about Trump and other stuff and more about India. I asked his friend about the move he made to India with his family. Why?
I still remember that look, his crystal blue eyes piercing and saying, The DNA of Indians is something else. Even in the poorest of the poor, I see hope and life in their eyes.They are alive in every single membrane. They don’t have the dead pool eyes of the people I see in the subways,trailers back in my country. I love India and I want my children to experience it all. This man knew it, didn’t he?
I crossed a predominantly Muslim community area filled with Butcher shops and slaughter houses going about their daily lives with Mamatadi( the current chief minister of West Bengal) posters plastered all over,everywhere even on the walls of the mosque. It was quite a walk and quite an experience.There was also a Bangladeshi corner lane and one knew instinctively that there were not locals.
I kept walking and I reached a wider road suddenly opening up. It was bustling,crowded and then I saw it. The historic Pram! That sound, that bell, people getting in and out, it was surreal and it felt like I was in a time warp. I kept staring open mouthed in wonder. How many times I dreamt of seeing it!
I crossed open fishmonger stalls,provision shops, the women with their bags haggling over fish and vegetables,the truck drivers washing their lorries and taking baths in a big open pipe gushing water,it was as if I was a part of their daily lives.
As I kept walking imbibing the smells and sounds of Calcutta I saw the Human Rickshaw puller. It churned my stomach. This still existed in nooks,corners and lanes of the city.
The movie Do Bheega Zameen came to my mind. Directed by one of the greatest filmmakers of Hindi Cinema Bimal Roy, it gave a gut wrenching portrayal of farmers losing their land in their villages and seeking employment in big cities,crushing the dreams of a post Independent India. A shadow of their former selves,they became just a spot in this landscape.
It was a world of contrasts to me,a past and the present and somehow the past and the present seemed to be overlapping here.
It’s like Calcutta, this woman wanted to let it be that way. Not shaking the past away but holding on with a tight embrace and reluctantly moving towards the future with a grimace. She didn’t like it but she couldn’t help it either.
The more I walked, the more I was falling in love with her. It was beautiful,scary and a kind of intoxication really. It was an epiphany.
Finally in a small lane I came in front of Indian Coffee House. So tiny at the entrance and so amazing! The open electric meters, the hundreds of wires hanging, old cycles placed nearby, the old steps, everything was adding to it. I went up the staircase and it led to a wide hall with tables,chairs, old fans and a stunning vintage portrait of a young regal Rabindranath Tagore.
You have no idea what such places do to me. I had goose bumps as I sat down and looked around.The energy, the atmosphere was different. It was as if I went back in time just that the people were from the present. There were the old regulars with their newspapers to the young collegians.
And the waiter will always talk to you in Bengali and expect a similar response no matter what. An example, One coffee please? He asked Ekto Coffee?? This went back and forth until I gave in and responded with Ekto Coffee and then only he took my order! Hell if I had my way I would love to be a Bengali any day! 😁
Over a fluffy delicious omelette and two coffees I completely relaxed. There were a couple of in house cats and they gravitated towards me under my table. As I fed them neither the staff nor the people batted an eyelid. I felt I belonged here and it was meant to be. I was pleased to be here,pretty pleased and I didn’t want to leave. Maybe Calcutta and me had some karmic connection,a previous life, who knows?
I got a tiny glimpse on the inside of Calcutta by walking which I never would have found out otherwise.I was falling hook,line and sinker for her.
I opted out of visiting touristy kind of destinations and took a detour this time.To a place,to a house, to this gentleman’s residence.
To be continued..