A letter from the capital of Paschimbanga (or West Bengal, as you knew it)
“Twenty minutes to touch down,” announced the captain, and I looked down the window to find the plane hovering over the city – a maze of luminous dots. So where was I going to land – in Kolkata or in Calcutta, in the capital of West Bengal or in the capital of Paschimbanga?
To me it made no difference. When I speak in my mother tongue, I instinctively refer to the city as Kolkata – like any other Bengali. When I am talking to a non-Bengali, I find ‘Calcutta' automatically rolling off the tongue. Likewise, I am as familiar with West Bengal as with Paschimbanga, which is merely the literal translation of the English name and has already been in use for as long as one can remember. Therefore, I don't see the change from West Bengal to Paschimbanga altering the life of the Bengali in any manner. But when I land, even though the temperature is a pleasant 29 degrees, I find Kolkata sizzling with arguments over the name-change. I have arrived just in time to catch the city engaged in doing what it loves to do best: debate.
The warmth of North Calcutta or the sophistication of South Calcutta? Shiraz biryani or Arsalan biryani? Mohun Bagan or East Bengal? Sourav or Sachin? Suchitra Sen or Supriya Choudhury? Uttam Kumar or Soumitra Chatterjee? Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak? Feluda or Byomkesh? Presidency College or Jadavpur University? Darjeeling or Puri? These are perennial debates that divide Kolkata, or Calcutta, into two fiercely independent nations. Perhaps it's only appropriate that the city and the state have two names each – one official, another universal.
Food for thought
In Kolkata, food is not only an integral part of any event worth celebrating, but is a celebration by itself – for which you need no particular occasion. Food columns, supported by high-resolution (read mouth-watering) pictures of preparations, are a prominent feature of every newspaper worth its salt; food festivals are usually the talk of the town, and food alone can rival the female form when it comes to the selling of a product through advertisements. At restaurants, any meal is incomplete without a passionate discussion about the food served to you. You should be able to tell whether the fish is good or not so good, or whether the lamb is as tender as it was the last time you ate there. You are considered lowly if you don't have an opinion to offer. Kolkata, after all, is a city of opinions – everybody has one, about almost everything under the sun.
The other day, I went with a group of friends for lunch to Oh! Calcutta, an upscale restaurant that serves authentic Bengali cuisine. The conversation at the table went rather smoothly until the arrival of the hilsa, which sparked off a debate: was the fish locally procured, or had it come from the river Padma in Bangladesh? One faction said the hilsa was too good to have come from the Indian side of the river, another faction countered that they'd had hilsa that tasted just as good as the ones from Padma. Since I don't eat fish, the discussion made no sense to me and was, in fact, getting on my nerves. I called the waiter and asked him: “Is this Padma hilsa or local hilsa?” He disappeared into the kitchen and returned after a few minutes to announce that it was indeed the Padma hilsa. Suddenly, a gloomy silence descended on the table. I realised my blunder: by putting an end to the discussion, I had made their meal bland.
Did you know?
As of this moment, theatres in Chennai, where I live, are showing about half-a-dozen English movies. But in Kolkata, which was once the capital of British India and where a large number of people still preserve the English way of life, only two English films are being screened in multiplexes: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Spy Kids 4. “I so badly wanted to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a local friend, who is heavily into sci-fi, complained. “But they only show children's films. I wonder why.” Even I wonder why.
Published in The Hindu MetroPlus, 27 August 2011.