There are two things that hang in the air of Kolkata perennially: cigarette smoke and the music of R.D. Burman. It is the only city in India where smoking may be barred by law in public places but – thanks to Communist culture – is not considered taboo or looked down upon. As for R.D., flip through the numerous FM channels at any point of time and one of them is bound to be playing his song, either Hindi or Bengali – ah, the beats!
It is always a pleasure to arrive in Kolkata: to light up a cigarette right at the airport after two hours of abstinence and listen to Pancham in the car while headed home to some pampering by the mother-in-law; and during the drive, to look at some of the most beautiful faces on this planet. Chennai is my wife, Calcutta the highly seductive mistress. I spent last weekend in her arms.
Since I am neither Kolkata-born nor Kolkata-bred, you can’t call me conceited when I say the soil of the city gets your creative juices flowing the moment you step on it. To begin with, the giant hoardings dotting the road on the way from the airport: the energetic punch-lines make you feel as if you are arriving for one big party. (You can’t beat a Bong copywriter. You will find ready-to-borrow punch-lines even when you overhear two lay Bengalis speak to each other. Their conversation is rarely simple and straight; it is either laced with humour or sarcasm or is outright poetry.) Kolkata is indeed a happening city now, never mind if the government is still communist. In any case, at this time of the year, the city is preparing for its biggest party, the Durga Puja. At every fifty yards you will find a skeleton of bamboos waiting to be dressed up as pandals.
Saturday began with a breakfast of hing kochuri (stuffed kachoris laced with asafoetida) and a simple potato curry, followed by mishti doi and rosogullas. A traditional Bengali lunch was waiting, but our stomachs, much to the disappointment of mother-in-law, were full. To burn the calories, wife and a friend who had accompanied me from Chennai went shopping in the Salt Lake area, where we live. Since I have decided not to care about my weight until my Chennai book is done – after which I shall whip myself into shape – I went to sleep. What’s the point being in Bongland unless you can’t afford a post-meal siesta? But barely two hours of sleep and I was woken up. They were done with their shopping and now we were going for a drive into the city.
We drove in a drizzle, going right across the Rabindra Setu, the Ganga looking gloomy under the overcast sky, and then returning to the city to its famous landmarks: Fort William, Esplanade, Chowringhee and, finally, Victoria Memorial. The drizzle had stopped when we stepped outside Kolkata’s most famous colonial building. We were taking pictures when the chanachur man, dressed in Gandhian white (including a Gandhi cap) showed up. The Chennai friend pointed to his wares and asked him what it was. The chanachur man, glad that he had finally found someone so inquisitive, proceeded to provide a background.
“Madam, woh Kranti picture dekhe hain na?” he began.
I don’t think my friend has even seen Kranti, leave alone remembering the particular scene where Shatrughan Sinha masquerades as a chanachur-seller and sings a chanachur-related song (Kishore Kumar’s voice!) only to hoodwink cruel British jailors and save a fellow patriotic Indian – the ever-patriotic Manoj Kumar – from the gallows (I am borrowing from my memories of Kranti dating back to 1981, when I was eleven, so forgive me if I am not accurate). Since I knew he was going to repeat the story, I cut the chanachur man short and told my friend, "It’s a kind of mixture." She took a picture of him, and another along with him: soon he will be immortalised on Facebook. With chanachur in hand, we went on a buggy ride around the Maidan. The next stop was Park Street, but not before we had had paani-puris in front of Victoria Memorial.
At Park Street, wife and friend found themselves a table at Flury's. I excused myself and ran off, first to Music World and then to the Oxford Book Store. I bought two precious books, one of them being an issue of Granta which reproduces the first few pages of Naipaul’s notebook that was the basis for A Wounded Civilisation. Sharp, precise thoughts in long hand. I also bought a number of Bangla books for my father: Tagore, Sirshendu, Sunil Gangopadhyaya. The trip to Park Street ended with a round of egg rolls. It was 8 pm now. The evening had just begun. We were to return to Park Street again in a couple of hours. The Saturday night of Calcutta awaited us.
At 10.30 pm, Someplace Else at Park hotel was packed. As usual, a live band was rocking the dedicated crowd that likes to listen to guitars singing. After a drink each – the most modest brand of whisky available there is Teacher’s – we moved to Roxy, yet another nightclub of the hotel. There, while wife and friend proceeded to dance, I ordered a couple of more drinks. I was too sober to start dancing. But I had barely finished one drink when the DJ announced that he was going to play the last song for the evening. What the fuck! This was Calcutta, and it was barely midnight!
The waiter who brought me the check apologised. "Sir, we are usually open till two. But today is Eid. We have been asked to shut by twelve," she explained. We trooped out. I was upset. I wondered what could be the relation between Eid and nightclubs closing earlier than usual. If the reason was religious, then the clubs should have remained shut that evening. Or was it that the government feared a law and order situation and wanted to take preventive measures by sending revellers back home early? The second reason seemed more likely.
Just when we were about to step out, we noticed groups of people being let in through the backdoor to yet another of the hotel’s nightclubs, Tantra, which specialises in trance music. I quickly lit up a cigarette and took a few drags before stubbing it out. We were let in through the kitchen. Once inside the hall that was pulsating with heart-thumping beats, I regretted having stubbed out the cigarette in a hurry. Inside, people were smoking freely. Since the place was officially shut, official rules did not apply.
The DJ, a gym-fit bald white man wearing a full-sleeved cheque shirt, was in a trance himself. We danced for a while and then I broke off for a smoke. I am not a fan of trance music. A pretty girl in white salwar-kameez came to me and asked for a cigarette. She stood next to me and smoked. It was pointless to strike a conversation, so I let her be. I returned to the dance floor, we took some pictures, and left. The next stop was Venom on Camac Street. Venom, according to me, is the most happening disco in Kolkata, for the simple reason that it plays my kind of music. The DJ was playing Apni to jaise taise when we entered. We limped out at three in the morning.
Late Sunday morning, we were at Dakshineshwar, the Kali temple where Ramakrishna Paramahansa attained nirvana. What I like most about Dakshineshwar is not the Kali temple but the row of 12 Shiva temples that overlook the serenely flowing Ganga. I was here exactly a year ago, when Chai, Chai was beginning to hit the stands in various cities, and I had silently prayed to the 12 Shivas for the success of the book. This time, though, it was just a courtesy call: I made no requests to Shiva. In any case, Sunday morning, when most of Kali-fearing Kolkata descends upon Dakshineshwar, is not the right time for a one-on-one audience with god.
It being a Sunday, much of College Street is closed. The idea was to have Mughlai paratha at the famed Coffee House opposite Presidency College. But the Coffee House had just shut, and was to open only at four. So it was back to Park Street again, to have lunch at Flavours of China. The best Chinese food I've ever had. A few more books bought from Oxford. Finally, shopping at the South City Mall – one of the country's biggest and plushest. My friend, in one stroke, made the careers of several attendants of several stores by helping them achieve their month's target in a matter of hours. If not anyone else, at least they will remember her with deep gratitude: "Mone achhe Chennai thheke ek mohila eshechhilo?"
Sunday night was dinner at home, catching up with some close friends and relatives. It’s a typical sit-down Bengali dinner; food is served in a particular order, starting with rice and daal and ending with chutney and paapad – with half-a-dozen vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes in between. More conversations, of the Bengali kind: sarcastic and humorous.
Monday evening: Rajdhani Express to Kanpur. I slept through most of the journey. At night, though, I was awake long enough to notice a couple get cosy on the berth diagonally across. They had boarded at Gaya. The woman first put a child on the top berth and then climbed herself. The man, after placing the luggage underneath the seats, followed suit. He pulled the curtain and in the darkness, they sat close to each other, chatting. Her hand rested on his thigh and his hand, occasionally, reached out to touch her breasts. At times she let him fondle her and at other times playfully shook his hand off, her bangles jingling in the process. I watched them with my eyes wide open till the man climbed down and went to his berth to sleep. In the morning, I heard the child call him chaacha, while the woman called him bhaiyya.
Tuesday morning: I reach Kanpur. For the first time, mother is not at the gate to give the hugs. But the mango pickle she made last year has been preserved and I have it during lunch.