‘A’ got back from Kolkata yesterday. He really liked the city, except for the traffic. (that might be true of most cities in India. You take away the traffic from Mumbai and it’s gorgeous and grand) It got me thinking about Kolkata and this great old city that stands strong in the East of India – though many people feel that it has lost it’s way.
There is something of a statement in saying you like Kolkata, and most people I know want to be in that ‘elite’ group. Kolkata stands for vintage slowness, a sensitive appreciation of art, literature and cinema along with a depth of knowledge. It stands for a love for all things Floyd, for adda conversations, for night-long sessions of philosophical ‘going-no-where’ conversations, and a very deep love for food. Who doesn’t want to associate with that, if not for true love, at least ‘coolness by association’? Also, there is a need to claim ‘discoverer’ rights in your set of people. I take great pride in nodding my head and saying, “Oh but I always thought Kolkata was quaint and lovely.”
Yesterday’s conversation with ‘A’ got me thinking about Park Street, Howrah, the airport, the slow tram, someplace else, the kathi rolls and the puchkas (isn’t that the best name for paani puri, golgappas – it does seem like a puchka in your mouth!) anyway… so yesterday’s conversation got me thinking about my last long trip to Kolkata. It was in the middle of my two month sabbatical from work, when I travelled and travelled and travelled all across this incredible country. I stayed with a local friend for ten days in Kolkata, roamed around so much that I could feel a little Kolkata seeping into my veins… That’s more than 5 years ago and what seeped in has all slipped out.
I had just read “Chelebele” or “Boyhood Days” by Rabindranath Tagore. This is a set of stories about his childhood in Kolkata and also some of his early days as an adult. It is a wonderful book filled with antics, emotions and casual mentions of events that probably went on to shape one our greatest literary minds. Once in Kolkata, I felt the urge to go and see where this story had played out.
It was a long, dusty and frustrating trip to the tiny lanes of North Kolkata. We waded through this maze of lanes, lost in our confusion, blinded by our frustration with the lack of informed guides. Rather astonishing you would think, as Kolkata is Tagore’s home.. but then again, we often bypass our own treasures, and while all Bengalis might all love and revere Tagore, maybe not everyone knows where he lived.
After this parched yet perseverant drive, I finally reached an old bungalow with the green slatted windows, yellowish-beige walls that were coloured by purpose and time and trees that shaded the courtyard inviting you in. As I walked in, refreshing my memory of the book and it’s references to this house… There are many small signs that you can pick up. Below the ground level of the house and I could see the windows of the cellars where Tagore’s family would save water in large cisterns from the ‘Gongo’ or the Hubli river for the dry summer months. If you know the gossip in Tagore’s life, the kitchen of his bhaudini or sister-in-law is also there for all to see. In the corridors I saw young Tagore running, escaping his parents. I saw the rooms that he might have used to write his initial pieces and I walked around what was what he called home once. You can see the book coming alive around you, like leaves flying off to take their place in the history of this house. There is a room where they have artists singing Rabindra Sangeeth, but somehow I have never taken to that form of music – so I skipped those sessions.
It was in this trip that I began to enjoy cities through the books I had read. Books about them, or about someone in the city, or a story set in that city. I have done this only a few times when I have travelled to a new city. I do wish it would blossom into an entrenched travel habit in 2014. Makes discovering the city a wonderful experience, as you see it through its emotions and not through its empty monuments or history. I think it helps you feel a city.
Rabindranath Tagore lives ON in Kolkata. Go visit the next time you are there, but don’t forget to read Boyhood Days.
Address: 246 D Rabindra Sarani
Telephone: +91 33 2269 5242
Opening hours: 10.30am-5pm Tue-Sun, last entry 4.30pm
For more information visit: www.rabindrabharatimuseum.org